Let Me Make This Clear

The other night we were dining with friends up here at the cabin. I suddenly noticed a mouse crawling along a ledge near our table. It was the fourth sighting since escaping to the wilderness. It’s getting down into the 30’s, and they must be sorting out which of the places along the Pend Oreille they will choose to bed down for the winter. We thought about accommodating them. After all, the wilderness is their space. But we’ve chosen traps (sorry) as a better course.  After all, I have come here to write, and one of the first rules of writing is to remove all distractions.

There are lots of other rules to writing, and along the way, I have been collecting my favorites. Not everyone is a writer, but everyone communicates every day. Sometimes with precision. But let’s face it, often our language has more of the character of an unfortunate spill. And in seminary, it’s time to learn exactness.

In the back of my journal I keep a list of good writing (a.k.a. communication) skills. They come from different voices—from Anne Lamott to Stephen King. Here’s a short list you might find applicable the next time you open your mouth or sound off on Facebook—or write a serious paper for a professor:

1. Use short words, but make them the right words.

(here are some phrases I am collecting—and yes I know they are long, but they are the right words–left wing moonbats; gelatinous narcissist; fell into a narcoleptic coma; the day’s excrementous work; worse shape than a sea turtle at a triathlon—which is how I feel after a hip replacement)

2. Use the active voice when selecting verbs.

Only timid writers use the passive voice. Think of them as like timid lovers who like passive partners. “He was found to be out of sorts” (Passive). “He is about to jet into astral orbit” (active). You get the idea.

3. Be careful with jargon.

Anyone who uses phrases like “That’s so cool” should have to stand in the corner.

4. Get to the point.

And stay there.

5. All good writing starts with terrible first efforts.

This is so encouraging!

6. See everything—like mice—as material.

I am learning to read everything with a pen. The other day Peggy Noonan (WSJ) quoted Orwell: “When we want to forget, we force inconvenient stories down the memory hole.” And then she said, “It’s a feature of our age that we now force them down the hole before they’ve had a chance to become a memory.” Hmmmmm.

7. If you want to be a writer, read.

If you don’t have the time to read (which is about 85% of America), you don’t have the time to write. But be careful what you read. What you read, you write.

8. The adverb is not your friend.

Adverbs are words that generally end in “ly”—like “generally.” They are the voice of little boys wearing shoe polish mustaches. They say you are afraid to express yourself. You cannot get the point across. King likens adverbs to dandelions. If you don’t get rid of them, they will take over the lawn.

9. Good is not good enough anymore.

Anyone hoping to get an A or get published understands this.

10. If you hit the wall, keep writing

We all hit the wall.

PS-if you are looking for a good read for the winter—start with Under an Open Heaven.

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.