In school you learned correct grammar—unless you went to certain schools during certain time periods. But you probably learned very little about style. Writing can be grammatically correct, but boring or inappropriate in other ways for publication.
Writing style is constantly changing. Pick up a book by Charles Dickens and compare it to a book that recently began publication. It won’t take you long to notice that today’s reader demands a different writing style than what was popular one hundred fifty years ago. While some of Dickens’ works are endearing classics, he would write them differently if he were writing today. Yesterday’s readers didn’t travel much and had plenty of time to read. They loved long descriptive passages. Today’s readers, however, want a faster pace. Time changes many things.
The English language also changes over time. Once grammarians insisted that infinitives never be split, and sentences never begin with conjunctions or end with prepositions. Winston Churchill’s eyes must have twinkled when he said, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”
If you are reading this you are probably interested in writing for publication. You may have mastered spelling and grammar, or at least know how to look things up. But how do you learn what publishers want so that you can work toward publication? Many books, courses, and conferences today teach writing for publication. I personally have had little formal training, but I have read books, attended conferences, and worked at publication for thirty years. I want to pass along some tips that can get you started down your path to publication.
The things I say in these articles are not unique. I am trying to gather writing principles that are commonly taught in Christian publication circles.
The things I say in these articles are not authoritative. Writing style is largely subjective. It is affected by personality, trends, and what sells. What one editor prefers may be different from what the next prefers. I am still learning and plan to keep on learning until I die.
In these articles I will share with you what I believe to be the current best advice on writing for publication. You may find books, even award-winners, that violate a few of these principles. You may not agree with me on some issues. But don’t dismiss these ideas without giving them a fair hearing. Most of them stem from more than my opinion. Most of the ideas reflect a consensus of opinion commonly taught at professional writers’ conferences. I hope you will find these articles helpful.
Publishers today want writing that grabs the reader’s attention, moves his emotions, even causes him to change. How do you learn to write like that? Here are a few principles to start with:
Write events in the order they happened when possible. Make sure your reasoning is in logical order and makes sense.
Many times you may want to start with the end result and then write the article about what happened to produce that result. Flashbacks have their place, especially in fiction, but make it very clear what is happening when. If you jerk the reader back and forth too much, he’ll get confused and set the story aside.
If you are writing an article, make sure your thought progresses smoothly from one point to the next. You may want to start with a simple outline, or outline the article after it is written to see if the order is logical. When in doubt ask someone else to read it to check the flow of thought.
Readers and editors like white space. Try it yourself. Thumb quickly through various kinds of books. When you pick up a book that has lots of words on a page with long sentences and paragraphs, what do you think? It looks boring, scholarly, and hard to read. But when you see a book that has lots of white space on every page, lots of dialog, short sentences, and short paragraphs, it looks easy to read.
After you’ve written something, go back and check your sentence length. Could you divide a long sentence into two shorter ones? Do it. That may occasionally mean that you have to start a sentence with a conjunction (like “but” or “and”). My brother Dave is horrified at this and considers it incorrect English but today this is commonly considered acceptable and may be the only way to break up long sentences. Sometimes you don’t need the conjunction at all.
Many editors prefer sentences that are not over twenty words long. I try to keep my sentences no longer than twenty words unless absolutely necessary. That doesn’t mean you want so many short sentences that it sounds choppy. Vary your sentence length for interest, but avoid really long ones. An occasional one-word sentence or paragraph can be a great way to emphasize something.
After I’ve written a section, I scan the computer screen for any sentences that are much longer than a line and a half. Those sentences usually need changed.
Write about people, not topics.
Rudolf Flesch says, “Only stories are really readable. (The Art of Readable Writing, Collier Books) If that’s true, how do you write about issues?
If it’s a problem, write about someone who overcame that problem or improved the problem. If you have the solution to a problem, show a real or fictional character who struggles with the problem. Illustrate principles with stories.
Christ was the Master Storyteller. He often used parables to teach spiritual principles. People could remember His stories when they might have forgotten points to a sermon. Stories personalized Christ’s principles and made them easy to understand. His stories changed lives.
Look for stories when you watch the news or read the paper. How do they talk about issues by using people? Can you do the same thing?
If you don’t know of real people who struggle with an issue, or if you don’t want to embarrass someone by using his name, you can make up names.
1. Gas prices continue to soar. Let’s say you drive a car with a 20-gallon tank. Last year it cost $__ to fill your tank, but today you’ll have to fork over $__.
2. I know a lady with Spina Bifida. We’ll call her Sue. When Sue…
3. Copycat Callie writes great essays in record time. What is her secret? The internet.
I once wrote an article that contrasted different mission fields and the variety of results missionaries see on them. I wrote an extended illustration about Max Missionary who went to Lower Slobovia (like in Li’l Abner), learned Slobovese, worked hard, and saw few results. Using a fictional character made this sensitive topic less sensitive. Though I exaggerated the situation, the reader could tell that the situation was not real. However this situation illustrated exactly what I wanted to say.
When you write in logical order, leave plenty of white space, and personalize your articles by using people, you are beginning to write like a published author. For more about what editors look for, read my next article on strong words.
What three sentences in this article are, by my definition, too long?