Some time ago, while traveling by air, I picked up a magazine that contained an excellent article entitled, "How to Write." It was written by an author whose books are best-sellers all over Western Europe. Could it be that a popular writer whose product we do not approve, could give us some helpful tips on the mechanics of writing?
Will the Reader Turn the Page?
This author's first point is so self-evident that it seems almost too simple. Yet it suggests a basic quality that we must strive to realize in our writing. He says:
"We must aim at certain standards in our writing. These standards will include a simple and unmannered prose style, unexceptional grammar, and what I can best call integrity in our narrative.
"But these qualities will not make a bestseller. There is only one recipe for a bestseller and it is a very simple one. You have to get the reader to turn the page."
"You have to get the reader to turn the page." Should we not keep this in mind as we write? For if we do not interest the reader sufficiently that he will turn the page, our effort is wasted.
This famous author continues, "There must be no wads of space-filling prose. . . . Each word must tell and interest or titillate the reader."
I discovered that the dictionary defines a "wad" as a "compact mass of soft material used in packing." And one definition of "titillate" is "to stimulate to pleasing curiosity."
Simply said, the product of our pen must contain no packing. And it must capture the interest of the reader. Is this counsel essentially different from that which is given us as Seventh-day Adventists?
On page 83 of Counsels to Writers and Editors we read: "In their writings, some need to be constantly guarded, that they do not make points blind that are plain, by covering them up with many arguments which will not be of lively interest to the reader." (Italics supplied.)
Popular authors know that they must captivate the interest of the reader. We must do the same. It is that simple.
Is It Stuffy?
Many years ago I heard Arthur S. Maxwell tell of a personal contact with the religious editor of Life magazine. I wrote to Pastor Maxwell recently and asked that he recount the experience. I quote from his letter:
"It is some years now since I met the religious editor of Life magazine, but I still recall his counsel. When I handed him a copy of the Signs and asked him what he would do with it if he were its editor, he replied, 'Personalize it.' When I asked him what he meant by that, he answered, 'Urge your contributors to introduce personal experiences, to tell what the gospel has done for them. The paper, as it is, is too preachy, too stuffy."
Here was a clear answer. "Too preachy, too stuffy." And it needed personalizing. True, the goals of Life magazine are not the goals of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. But again I ask, Is this counsel too different from that which is given us by the servant of the Lord?
On page 25 of Counsels to Writers and Editors we read, "I think if there is more put into the paper of living religious practice, it would certainly be of great value; for this is what the people need. To keep out the living experiences, and yet present the controversial, is not according to the light which God has given." And on page 18 she says: "We are living in a most solemn time. Let our editors call for articles giving living experience. Let the ministers regard it as a part of their duty to send short articles of experience to our papers." (Italics supplied.)
Again we see that Ellen White and today's popular authors are in perfect agreement on the basic principles of good writing.
Fortunate or Unfortunate?
A fellow worker told me the other day that he was in a very fortunate position because the Adventist paper for which he wrote accepted and printed everything he submitted. I did not argue with him. But was he fortunate—or unfortunate?
Are we not in truth unfortunate in a situation where an editor without criticism accepts everything that we write—because of our name, our position, or our friends? Is such an editor treating us right?
The author whose article I read on the plane that day says, "They are a sharp-eyed bunch at [his publisher], and apart from commenting on my manuscript as a whole, they make detailed suggestions."
Here is a man probably a millionaire by reason of his writing. Yet his manuscripts are not accepted just as they come from his hands. The publishers make detailed suggestions for change.
If you and I find that our publishers print everything we write, we may not be learning very much. And there is one quick and certain way to learn the truth about our writing ability. That is to submit an occasional article to a non-Adventist publication where our name, position, and influence mean nothing. It would doubtless not take long to accumulate quite a collection of rejection slips.
Some time ago, in one of the cultural magazines of NorWay, this question caught my attention: "Why do Christian writers write in the religious journals only? Why don't they also write for business people and worldly people if their message is to all mankind?"
I accepted this as a personal challenge, and wrote up the story of one of our missionaries in Africa. Since this was a he-story of a big man's job, I submitted it to the largest magazine for men in the country, a publication with approximately a half million readers. It appeared as a two-page spread, which the editor had entitled "Norwegian Livingstone in Africa." The editor told me later that many readers had expressed their interest in the story. And one reader sent us a mission gift of approximately seven hundred dollars.
Keeping in mind that the talent of Adventist writers belongs primarily to the finishing of our assigned task, it might be both profitable and enlightening to submit an occasional article to a non-Adventist publication and get a glimpse of our writing ability as others see it.
Keep It Simple
I have just been invited to take two worships on the Norwegian state-controlled radio. Each worship is to last twenty minutes. Preparing for this assignment, I have obtained a speakers' manual containing practical tips for radio speakers. In it I find this suggestion: "Sentences should be short, preferably not longer than twenty words."
This is for radio speech, which demands its own technique. But could not the same counsel be applied to our writing? Ellen White says, "Please make your sentences short, for then your articles will be much more interesting."—Counsels to Writers and Editors, p. 128.
Is it not impressive to see how fresh and up to date is this counsel given us by inspiration so long ago?
The Fragrance of Truth
On the flyleaf of a religious book some youthful reader has written his evaluation of the book:
If there should come another flood
For refuge hither fly;
Though all the world should be submerged,
This book would still be dry.
If our writing, yours and mine, should be frankly evaluated, what would be revealed? Is it preachy? Is it stuffy? Is it impersonal? Is it dry? Will the reader turn the page? Some writers are like the crew of a submarine. They go deep—and dry.
The counsel given us is clear:
"Put not the crib too high for the minds of the common people."—Ibid., p. 19.
"Long, wordy articles are an injury to the truth which the writer aims to present." —Ibid., p. 84.
"Let it be spicy with the fragrance of pure truth."—Ibid., p. 129.
As we consider this counsel, we should take a good look at the articles in our papers. Not so much those written by others, for any fool can criticize what others have done. But let us take a good look at the products of our own pen, remembering that our task is not to write better than others, but to write today better than we wrote yesterday.