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How I Write
Some thoughts on the craft.
From time to time I get asked about my routine or method of writing. I don’t really love this question because I’m insecure about the truth. Whereas I’ve heard other writers give wonderfully detailed and inspirational breakdowns of their approach—annotations in a small notebook, outlines before the rough draft, etc.—I really don’t have that kind of strategy. If you were to watch me write throughout a given week, you wouldn’t see much that could be considered forethought.
I suppose part of this that I try to keep the gap between my mental work and my actual writing really small. I enjoy the feeling of discovering my writing as I’m doing it. I’ve had essays that I’ve planned ahead, and truth be told some of these probably count as my best work. But in terms of what’s rewarding on a regular basis, I love the feeling of cultivating a stray thought on the page, as the words come and the idea crystallizes at the same time.
If you want see an example of what my notes for a planned essay can look like, here are two examples:
I doubt very seriously that this is an intellectually defensible example of writing notes. But one thing that does tend to be helpful is breaking an essay up into separate parts, and physically illustrating both the individuality of the parts and their connection to the whole. And this leads me to perhaps the most helpful thing I can say about my writing method:
The one thing I try to do in everything I write, whether short or long, for Substack or for a magazine, is to look for connections.
As a writer, what I want to help myself and others do above all is to see. And seeing reality in many cases means seeing how things we might assume are just incidental and random are actually deeply connected, how certain ideas explain others, how what comes through on our social media timeline, TV, cinema, and newspaper is actually much nearer to us than we thought. Of course, you must be judicious here. It’s possible to see connections that don’t really exist, especially if a connection flatters your prior beliefs or fundamental worldview. But this is where the ritual of a notebook and a pen can really uncover genuine insight; writing reflections down, then looking up and realizing the similarity with what you’ve written before, then seeing the link and noticing the pattern and finding a reality emerging that you hadn’t noticed—this is the golden moment for everything I’ve written that I’m glad I wrote.
At this point I half expect myself to say something like, “The way to do this as a writer is to read widely.” And that’s really true. But everyone knows that. What a lot of people don’t know—what I wish I had learned much, much earlier—is that many of the best things that a writer writes come not from maximal generalist curiosity but from a commitment to doggedly follow a particular topic or line of reasoning as far as you can, even if your web traffic indicates nobody wants to come with you.
For a long time I wanted to be a writer, so I let social media and newspapers tell me what to write about. “Engaging culture” meant listening in on what media culture was talking about and putting a Christian spin on it. That meant, to be proficient, I needed to be able to write about gay marriage on Wednesday and tax policy on Friday. The latest blockbuster film was news, so I needed a review, but only after I addressed that dreadful op-ed in The Washington Post about religion in schools. If you can’t imagine already, this is an absolutely exhausting way to write.
It also results in some pretty bad writing.
Nowadays I am far more content to live at the intersection of two, maybe three topics, to plant myself here and look for how the Bible and Christian tradition illumine our digital, polarized lives. I realize that a lot of people would love to click another link about critical race theory or Joe Biden, and for those who are skilled enough to weave those intricate themes into a unified whole, more power to you. I am not one of those. I have only a handful of things to say, and it takes most of my attention and affection to learn how to say these things effectively. It’s worked out so far.
I’m surprised at how many Christian writers will admit, almost in a bragging way, that they don’t have any hobbies or interests other than theology or politics. One of my biggest pieces of writing advice is, "Do something other than write.” If you’re a bookworm above all, then take this very seriously: Push yourself to invest your attention in something that will take you out of that comfort zone. Sports, gardening, Christmas kitsch, cooking, tuba, deep sea fishing, ballet, card magic. Stop thinking of these as “unproductive.” I promise you that the best writers you’ve ever read had moments of transformational insight break upon them while they were doing something that looked pointless. Recreation isn’t a swear word. If you live like it is, your writing will look as tired and burnt out as you.
I’ll end by offering some of my “tools of the trade.”
-Pentel EnerGel pens are my #1 go-to. If you want something truly high quality at an eminently reasonable price point, get these. They write especially well on Moleskine paper.
-Moleskine soft cover XL is my notebook of choice. Nice paper, big margins, and the cover is actually “soft” and pliable (a lot of knockoff brands have very stiff “soft” covers).
-Microsoft Word. I don’t understand the hate for this at all. It beats the socks off of Pages and you don’t have to subscribe to anything to buy it. And it’s still one of the cleanest interfaces around.
-Freedom app is the best distraction blocking software I’ve ever had. I didn’t realize how badly I needed this app until I had. YouTube has probably spiked more essays than The New York Times.
-A good magazine of journal subscription. The New Atlantis and First Things are great examples of publications that rise above the noise. Take a print product to a coffee shop, bring a notebook, and the results will benefit you.