Words, words, words… as a working Christian apologist, and as a teacher of apologists, I do a lot of thinking about how we communicate.
The etymology of ‘communication’ is instructive: “from Latin communicationem (nominative communicatio), noun of action from past participle stem of communicare “to share, divide out; communicate, impart, inform; join, unite, participate in,” literally “to make common” (from the Online Etymology Dictionary)
Communication can’t be one-sided: it means a connecting, a joining of speaker and listener, of two people in dialogue with each other. Anybody can write a paper or a blog post, tweet something or leave a Facebook comment, but to communicate effectively is much harder than it looks – and much more important than it may seem. That’s one of the main reasons why, in the MA in Apologetics program that I direct at Houston Baptist University, one of the core courses (which I teach) is Apologetics Research and Writing.
As I write this post, I’m looking forward to meeting my new apologetics students and spending a semester intensively working with them to help them reach a higher standard of excellence as writers, so that their work for Christ and his Church may be more effective. (I’m also in the final stages of polishing a manuscript to send off to my publisher, so I’m reflecting on my own experiences as a working writer.)
So, without further ado, here are seven tips for improving your writing:
1. Read, read, read.
No one can be a good writer who does not read constantly and extensively. Read both fiction and non-fiction, on a variety of subjects. Don’t just read apologetics, theology, or philosophy. Read widely, and see how different authors in different fields (and genres) present their ideas. Pay attention to how the writer constructs sentences, paragraphs, and larger units of meaning.
If you want a steady stream of interesting things to read (both shorter essays and recommendations for books) I highly recommend that you subscribe to my colleague Micah Mattix’s email newsletter Prufrock (@prufrocknews).
2. Gain a solid understanding of basic English grammar.
Be able to identify parts of speech (nouns, verbs, etc) and sentence functions (subject, predicate, object, etc.) as well as more complex structures (clauses, etc.). This is important for two reasons. First, it allows you to grasp the logic and the balance of good English sentences, and see how it is that a long sentence from author A works well, while a long sentence from author B is confusing. Second, it is essential that you have the right terms in order to understand what grammar books are telling you.
I recommend the Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) as the hands-down best online resource for learning about grammar.
3. Study and learn Latin and Greek prefixes, suffixes, and roots.
This will improve your reading comprehension and allow you to better discern when to use one word and not another.
4. Get Strunk and White’s book The Elements of Style.
It will only benefit you after you have done point 2, or while you are doing point 2, but once you are ready for it, it is a fantastic and compact guide to good, concise, effective writing.
5. Rid yourself of the idea that grammar is just about rules, and that you can disregard the rules if you want to.
Yes, and no. To a certain extent, grammar rules are conventions – the world will not end if you split an infinitive – but those conventions have taken shape over time, and usually for good reason. In particular, rules about sentence construction may seem like not a big deal, but they contribute to the overall clarity and flow of writing in ways that are subtle but significant.
6. Read The Grammar Girl – she’s fun, funny, and really good at helping people improve their grammar.
She has a podcast, too. One of the things I like about The Grammar Girl is that she helps people see that you can enjoy the English language even while you’re learning how to use it more effectively.
7. Revise your own writing.
Do not just write-and-post or write-and-submit. The best way to retain what you learn is to put it into practice, so start by doing a revision pass-through on everything you write, whether it’s a quick glance at your Facebook post before you hit return, or 20 revisions on a book review to make sure it’s absolutely polished. (I’m not exaggerating; anything I write gets many, many revisions.)
As I tell my students – writing is hard work, but very worthwhile. Have fun, and happy writing!
Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type (2010; 2nd ed. forthcoming, 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.