Andrée Seu Peterson: On writing

NICK EICHER, HOST: Good morning! Today is Tuesday, October 29th and we’re so glad you’ve joined us for The WORLD and Everything in It.  I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. If you want to improve your writing, WORLD commentator Andrée Seu Peterson has some advice. This is from her book titled Normal Kingdom Business.

ANDREE SEU PETERSON, COMMENTATOR: The biggest help to my writing is the discipline of having to fit everything into 800 words. That’s on the craft side. On the inspiration side it’s the daily reading of Scripture. We do not, of course, read Scripture so that we can become a writer, but God may bless us any way he wants to, right?

I read a whole book on potty training in 1981. A yellow highlighter boiled the essentials down to an ounce of meat between bread fillers. What follows is my ounce of meat.

You’re drifting off and a thought pops in, and it sounds like a lead sentence so you jot it on the pad you keep under your bed. You need to sleep but ideas are no respecter of your needs, so you give in, flick on the light, and take dictation while it wants to come. Let it flow like rivers, junk and gems alike; you can always throw it out tomorrow.

One day you are sitting in front of a white page, and finally you get up and call your mother: “This is ridiculous! I can’t write! This has all been a big misunderstanding. I’m a fraud!” Then you go back to your paper again, having had a good fuss, and your mature self gives you this good advice: “Don’t make art, just make sense.”

Good writing is confident and lean. Here is an example of an undesirable opening sentence: “There are perhaps many helpful tips for writing, but in my opinion, one of the most helpful practices may be to discipline yourself to try to fit everything you have to say into approximately 800 words.” Your reader has already gone to the kitchen to make s’mores.

Replace generalities with concreteness. “Gone to the kitchen to make s’mores is better than “gone to the kitchen for a snack”—which in turn is better than talking about “waning interest.” 

“Brief fame” is forgettable. “Fifteen minutes of fame” is a keeper. 

And if Abe Lincoln had said “Many years ago” instead of “Four score and seven years ago,” he’d have been right about his prediction that the world would  “little note nor long remember.”

Conversational writing doesn’t mean indifference to grammar and structure. Learn the difference between a comma and a semi-colon. Make short and fairly uniform-sized paragraphs with logical transitions, and your editor will not be in a bad mood. You do not want your editor in a bad mood.

Jesus told stories. Think about it.

Make every word carry freight. And it doesn’t have to be informational freight, but it has to perform some important function. “Kill the little darlings” — the ideas off point, the favorite insights or ostentations that you will hate yourself for later. If possible, put the essay away for a few weeks till you’ve forgotten what you wrote, pick it up again, and see if you still like it.

Mind the rhythm of your words and even so-so essays will sound good: Daa da-Daa da-Daa da-Daa da-Daa da-Daa da-Daa da-Daa da-Daa.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Andrée Seu Peterson.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

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