A doctor’s prescription for good writing
SOME ASPIRING writers look a bit confused when, having asked me what I think they should read to help them develop their skills, I suggest the first two sentences of Luke’s Gospel.
But the opening words of the good doctor’s account of the life and ministry of Jesus offer five solid basics for anyone wanting to get into the writing game. Verses 1-2 (NIV) read:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
1. Best is better than first. So much of today’s media is based on novelty: be the first to market, even if it’s not very good. Sadly, the news business is going that way, too: scooping others matters more than accuracy. But only the best will still stand the test of time. Many others had written about Jesus before Luke decided he should write something, but his account is the one that endures.
2. Be thorough. Doing good work requires due diligence. Understanding cannot be rushed. It may take some time to really know something deeply enough to be able to tell it accurately. Do your research. Luke carefully investigated everything from the beginning.
3. Don’t wait for inspiration. Some people look for their “muse.” Some Christians wait for inspiration from the Holy Spirit. Luke’s version of events turned out to be inspired by God, but he didn’t claim divine revelation (unlike the apostle John). He just decided he should write. Perspiration often trumps inspiration.
4. Be clear, not clever. A good writer is like a good driver; they get you where you need to go without drawing attention to themselves. They don’t make a big show of how they push the pedals and turn the wheel. Rule of thumb: if you want to stand back and admire the sentence you just wrote, you may want to redo it. Luke simply offered an orderly account of all that had happened.
5. Have a goal in mind. There is a difference between saying something and having something to say. Anyone who has watched celebrity interviews knows that’s true. Luke had a clear goal for his account. Knowing what you want to communicate and why provides a vital route map for your writing. It guides you in what matters and what can be left out. Good writing is like the sculptor working on his latest piece, who was asked by a passer-by, “How do you sculpt a lion?” “It’s easy,” the sculptor replied. “You just chip away all the bits that are not a lion.”
Once people have read those first two sentences, I then suggest they go on and read the rest of Luke’s Gospel. Look for his trademark, clarity, focus, and sense of purpose. Then write like that. My prescription for good writing: Follow the doctor’s orders.
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[…] that Luke had a clear goal in mind when he wrote, as did each of the Gospel authors. And, concluding his account, John noted, “If every one of […]