Rarely does an aspiring writer get invited to sit with an ink-dyed editor to hash over the finer points of storytelling. Twenty-five years ago, fresh out of college, I landed a journalism gig at Maine’s smallest daily newspaper, which happened to have a writing coach. Every Friday after our morning deadline, five other staff reporters and I would gather at a local sandwich shop for lunch with Willis, a former Vietnam War correspondent, who would open a manila file filled with clippings of everything we’d written that week and spread them across the table. Then, over burgers and fries, he’d analyze each article, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph, showing us how to make our writing stronger. His feedback showed. Despite the paper’s diminutive size, we regularly won top awards from the Maine Press Association.
For those who don’t have access to such a coach, longtime editor Andrew T. Le Peau serves the same wise writing instruction in his new book Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art, and Spirituality. This is the book for anyone who has said, “I’d like to write, but I don’t know where to begin”—whether you’d like to write a shorter piece for a newspaper or magazine or to write a full-length book. It’s also for those with more experience who’d like to make their writing even better. Le Peau, who worked for more than 40 years as an editor at InterVarsity Press, has also written several Bible studies and books. In the preface to his writing guide he says his desire throughout his career has been “to help people express their ideas as clearly and powerfully as possible.” The same motivation, he says, inspired this book.
Le Peau, who focuses on writing nonfiction, divides his book into three sections: the craft of writing, the art of writing, and the spirituality of writing. He also includes a handful of handy appendices, such as how to gain recognition as a writer, how to work with an editor or agent, and whether or not to self-publish. While there are plenty of popular writing guides (some of which the author references), Le Peau’s stands out because of his extensive experience behind the editor’s desk and because of his Christian faith.
Tips on Craft
Le Peau’s tips on craft—how to write clearly and effectively—are as applicable to fiction writers as they are to those who write nonfiction because many techniques are the same. Seasoning his advice with humor and personal stories, Le Peau provides examples from writers of both genres to address topics such as how to find a good opening, recognizing who you are writing for, and finding a suitable structure for your work.
Think you have to outline before you start writing? For those who hate constructing an outline, Le Peau has a solution: “Step one may be to just start writing.” After all, he notes, it is impossible “to outline something when we don’t even know what we want to say.” For many writers, myself included, tapping out letters on a keyboard or scratching them with a pen on paper is how we discover what want to say. The best writing is a process of discovery. Or, as the poet Robert Frost supposedly once said, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
Le Peau also covers the topic of “principled persuasion,” which he defines as “the honest attempt to influence others for a good purpose” (as opposed to trying to manipulate or coerce them). This distinction is essential in an increasingly virulent culture where anyone with an opinion and a computer can broadcast their words before millions, and it is equally important for pastors and other Christian leaders who want to influence that culture.
Almost every piece of nonfiction, Le Peau says, includes persuasive writing. The key is to stick to the facts, be honest about contrary viewpoints, credit sources, use logic, and show humility by not overstating opinions. Rather than merely convincing others, he argues, a writer’s goal should be to work toward the common good and help others flourish by “learning to live out the image of God” in our lives and our words. Such spiritually attuned thoughts, which permeate Le Peau’s advice, elevate this book from a mere writing guide into a reflection on why we write to begin with.
The Rules—and When to Break Them
For those who struggled with grammar in school (as I did), Le Peau’s section on artistry offers relief. “Forget everything you learned about English in grade school,” Le Peau advises in his chapter, “Breaking the Rules.” “None of it is true.” Fixed in my memory is the bespectacled teacher who leaned over my desk in fourth grade to inspect my work and said, “You never begin a sentence with ‘and.’”
“And why is that?” I wish I’d asked.
“Grammar has one—and only one—purpose,” Le Peau says: “to facilitate clear, effective, powerful, artful communication.” While certain rules are helpful, they are the servant of the writer—not the other way around. When a sentence fragment best expresses the author’s intent, Le Peau says, use it. In fact, some deviation from conventional usage may be necessary. “Breaking rules can be a step on the path toward art,” Le Peau writes, as long as it helps communicate information in a new way that enlivens the reader.
Christian writers seeking to share a particular message may want to abandon their three-point sermon in favor of a more nuanced approach. As one Christian filmmaker told Le Peau, he didn’t like faith-based movies because they often fail to trust their audience. “I like movies that give enough without giving too much,” he said. “They show respect for their audience by letting them figure things out for themselves without spoon-feeding them.”
Christian writing—like Christian filmmaking—has come a long way in the past couple of decades, earning respect from both religious and secular audiences. Critically acclaimed, best-selling memoirs such as Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God, Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, and Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts come to mind. All tell a story in a refreshingly artistic way without telling readers that they must obey a particular message. It is hard to balance the fervency of the gospel with the artistry of a poet without losing the intended meaning. This balance is the art for which the Christian writer aims. Le Peau offers suggestions on how to achieve it, such as embracing ambiguity (but not too much); resisting the urge to “overtell, overexplain, or overwrite;” and describing what we see and experience rather than always feeling the need to explain.
“The art of writing with less certainty in ourselves leaves more room for faith, hope, and love,” Le Peau writes. The result? Deeper spirituality.
The Worth of Our Work
“What effect does the act of writing have on my life in God?” That is the question Le Peau encourages readers to consider in the third section of his book, titled, “The Spirituality of Writing.” Christians are often concerned about using their gifts to serve others in a way that exemplifies their faith, Le Peau says. But how do we know how God wants to use us? Le Peau offers five guiding principles: Keep your eyes open to what God is already doing; pay attention to what gives you joy and energy; listen to others; don’t ignore dreams; and follow Jesus.
As valuable as I found the previous sections of Le Peau’s book, I consider this the most important. For the Christian writer, the worth of our work does not lie in the marketability of our words or in what honors we may win; it lies in how our work furthers the kingdom of God. If our goal is to write a bestseller, we may achieve it. But if our goal is to write in response to the impulse of God, we may forgo temporal approval to achieve something far greater—or we may attain both. The result of our work is beyond our control. As Christians, we are simply called to be faithful.
“How do you find out if writing is your call?” Le Peau asks. “Write. Then write some more. Then write a lot more. Try fiction. Try nonfiction. Experiment with different styles. Get suggestions for improvement from qualified people. Revise. See how you like it. See how others like it. And if those things check out, keep going. That might be a call. And if not, no problem. Just keep listening, and maybe keep writing anyway.”
Perhaps the hardest parts of the writer’s journey are the isolation, the rejection, and the question of whether our work is worth anything. In Write Better, Le Peau offers good company for the ride, along with a wealth of firsthand experience to make it smoother. But most importantly he offers a reason to keep writing—not only the hope of improving our craft but the hope of improving our world by responding to the call of Christ.
Meadow Rue Merrill is a writer living in mid-coast Maine. She is the author of a memoir, Redeeming Ruth, a children’s picture book, The Christmas Cradle, and four other books in the Lantern Hill Farm series. Her website is www.meadowrue.com.
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