While the constant comparison of notes can help us to detect differences, no technique can help us to see what is missing. But we can make it a habit to always ask what is not in the picture, but could be relevant. This…does not come naturally to us.
One of the most famous figures to illustrate this skill is the mathematician Abraham Wald (Mangel and Samaniego 1984). During World War II, he was asked to help the Royal Air Force find the areas on their planes that were most often hit by bullets so they could cover them with more armour. But instead of counting the bullet holes on the returned planes, he recommended armouring the spots where none of the planes had taken any hits. The RAF forgot to take into account what was not there to see: All the planes didn’t make it back.
Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes, p. 126
Sometimes the key to insight and innovation isn’t what you see but what you don’t see.
Everybody writes. Especially in academia. Students write and professors write. And nonfiction writers, who are the third group of people this book is aiming to help, obviously write as well. And writing doesn’t necessarily mean papers, articles, or books, but everyday, basic writing. We write when we need to remember something, be it an idea, a quote or the outcome of a study. We write when we want to organize our thoughts and when we want to exchange ideas with others. Students write when they take an exam, but the the first thing they do to prepare even for an oral examination is to grab pen and paper. We write down not only those things we fear we won’t remember otherwise, but also the very things we try to memorise [sic]. Every intellectual endeavor starts with a note.
I’m working to improve my methods for capturing, accessing, and utilizing information, and as a result I’m trying to get better at taking notes.
For years I’ve kept a quotation or commonplace book, where I sit down and copy out pithy sayings, phrases, proverbs, poems, and the like. When I’m looking for ideas, or I’m searching for insight, I’ll flip through and see what I’ve copied there. I also use Evernote and Google Drive in addition to pen and paper. I carry a small notebook with me. Lately, a Sharpie and Post-it notes have been my way of capturing ideas, putting them in front of me, and processing them one by one. I’ve also taken to Trello as a board to capture big ideas, and then pin accompanying images, links, etc. for later consideration and treatment. I use my blog as an archive for my thoughts, a place to put ideas I gravitate toward, write about them briefly, and then tag, categorize, and file for later exploration.
But I don’t have a great system. So I’m reading Ahrens’s book, cited above in order to learn how to do it better. As someone who writes about religion, spirituality, and faith, having a system that works is necessary. One of my seminary professors encouraged us to have a system, a way to capture, file, access, and utilize information. He shared his system. But he told us to glean what we could from the way he did it, and make it our own.
How do you take notes? How do you file and organize those notes, and then access them for later use? What works well, and what do you have trouble with?
Writing crystalizes and captures thought. Filing and organizing those thoughts makes them accessible, and when your thoughts are accessible you can put them to use. Some of us are great at writing things down, but terrible at filing and organizing and creating smooth channels for retrieval of information.
It’s one thing to make a note, and it is another to make a note that you can later use. Every intellectual endeavor may start with a note, but deep intellectual work requires systematization, organization, accessibility, and retrieval.
I’ve started creating project specific notebooks, or notebooks designated for particular areas of my life, such as a personal journal and a work journal. That’s one way I’ve tried to capture information in one place in order to keep it contained and accessible.
Writers who do not make themselves totally available to everyone, all the time, are frequently tagged with the “recluse” label. While I do not consider myself a recluse, I have found it necessary to place some limits on my direct interactions with individual readers. These limits most often come into play when people send me letters or e-mail, and also when I am invited to speak publicly.
I like correspondence. I enjoy answering emails. I like writing letters.
But I also like doing the things that matter most. And correspondence can take a lot of time. For writers, the best way to continue connecting with readers might not be email. It might be more books, articles, and essays.
There is little to nothing that I can offer readers above and beyond what appears in my published writings. It follows that I should devote all my efforts to writing more material for publication, rather than spending a few minutes here, a day there, answering e-mails or going to conferences.
Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless.
I’m thinking about ideas like this one a lot, because I’m thinking about the things I want to do in the next few years and how most of those things require blocks of uninterrupted time. That means there are other things I will need to say no to. Maybe not emails. Maybe not letters. Maybe other little things, even good things, that subtract from what would be otherwise.
I do not think that it is the essence and duty of the writer to join “with great fanfare” the main direction the culture is taking at the moment. I do not think and cannot from my very nature think that it is natural and necessary for the writer to support a development in a completely positive way by direct, credulous-enthusiastic advocacy — as a solid knight of the times, without scruple and doubt, with straightforward intentions and an unbroken determination and spirit for it, his god. On the contrary, authorship itself has always seemed to me to be a witness to and an expression of ambivalence, of here and there, of yes and no, of two souls in one breast, of an annoying richness in inner conflicts, antitheses, and contradictions.
As a writer, this strikes me as absolutely correct.
As a churchman, with firm convictions on particular questions, this is a personal challenge.
Writers can be ideologues, and many certainly are. But in my experience weighing and evaluating arguments, there has been that pull of “yes and no, of two souls in one breast,” etc.
Those who “support a development in a completely positive way by direct, credulous-enthusiastic advocacy” may not be thinking at all, or at least not thinking very clearly. They may be caught up in the spirit of an age, possessed, and in need of exorcism.
Good writing makes plain the tensions and trade-offs in any given debate. That doesn’t negate the necessity of plainly stating one’s conclusion, strongly and solidly. But after tracing out the contours of any given divide, stating your position can be offered with greater understanding, and more humility. Maybe that doesn’t get as many readers. Maybe the take won’t be as hot. But who cares about that, anyway? What matters is whether or not what one writes is true.
In my last post I argued that pastors should write. Pastors and ministry leaders should learn to write a good theological sentence, and, after assembling one good theological sentence, should go on to write successive sentences to accompany the first. Ministry leaders should also master various conveyances of the written word (memos, sermons, letters, notes, etc.). Why? Because good writing reflects good thinking, and the church is in need of a sharpened mind.
There are a handful of books that have helped me to write a little more clearly, compellingly, and concisely. These books are:
The first four selections include technical aspects of writing and inspiration to write.
The last selection may strike some as an odd choice. “The Bible?” you say, “I thought you were listing books that helped you learn how to write. The Bible is not a book about writing.”
But the Bible is a book that is written and that has had lasting power. It contains language that has resonated across multiple cultures and in various translations, now in multiple eras and ages. It has shaped language, culture, and the human imagination. It is a piece of writing that, in the reading of it, offers a masterclass in communication both human and divine. It contains parables and pericopes, aphorisms and anthology, narrative and history, law codes and ethical treatises, letters and memos, prophetic utterances and sorrowful lamentations, prayers and petitions, agreements and dissents; it conveys the full range of human emotion and contains powerful arguments about human nature, a holy God, and the purpose of human life. If you can set aside your biases and prejudices against this book, if you have them, you cannot help but marvel at the Bible’s power as a work of writing.
Maya Angelou, the American author and poet, said this about the Bible: “The language of all the interpretations, the translations, of the Judaic Bible and the Christian Bible, is musical, just wonderful. I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is.”
Pastors and other ministry leaders would be wise to read Zinsser or Lamott or King, and to learn a thing or two about craft. But they should be readers of the Bible, and not only for sermon or lesson preparation. The Bible’s cadences, rhythms, images, and turns of phrase, its variety and its diversity, are incredibly instructive for the writing task. And often, what comes out in writing is the result of what has been put in through reading, experience, and conversation. You cannot pass on that which you do not possess.
The words of the Bible should be hidden in hearts so that by God’s grace they might take on flesh and find fresh utterance through the witnesses and servants God appoints for a new telling of an old story in the present age.
Writing is a skill that comes in handy in every discipline, every trade, every endeavor of life. Why? Because writing crystallizes thought. Most of us avoid writing, not because writing is hard (though it can be), but because writing requires us to order our thoughts. As William Zinsser observed, “The hard part isn’t the writing; the hard part is the thinking.”
I wasn’t very good at writing when I began, which means I wasn’t very good at thinking. I had not yet begun to work out the ideas that were swirling in my mind. In middle school and high school my parents had to help me complete more than one research paper. I was overwhelmed by large assignments. I struggled to develop a thesis. I had a hard time establishing structure. My attention flagged. I was easily discouraged. I was plagued by self doubt.
Things changed when I discovered that writing was a way I could share ideas. I could write to connect with friends. Chat rooms and email and bulletin board forums were settings for exchange. I shared a thought and others responded. Some of those thoughts were dumb or rude or ill considered. Many were underdeveloped, immature. Maybe something I wrote was occasionally bright or touching or radiant. My early writings could be juvenile. Of course! I was a teenager. I like to think I’ve grown since then, but old habits die hard.
I eventually discovered blogging. I had a friend who worked for a media company that was starting a magazine. I asked to contribute. I learned that a denominational publisher accepted devotional pieces. I submitted, was accepted, and I was given a small check for my efforts. I wrote devotional guides for larger curriculum bundles. I like seeing my stuff in print.
I found other reasons to write. As a church leader, I wrote pastoral letters and developed curriculum. I wrote discussion questions. I put together leadership training guides and wrote job descriptions. I wrote proposals for committees. I wrote memos. I wrote sermons. I wrote more emails. I wrote hand written, short notes. I used writing to reach out, to communicate, to build a bridge between minds, to coordinate, to lead.
As time has gone on I have become more and more convinced that writing is a skill that is useful in every field, for every person. But I have also become more and more convinced that it is a vital skill for ministry leaders, for pastors.
Why? Because a well written sentence reflects a well ordered mind. Ideas, when they are clearly expressed, are more easily grasped. Christian people claim their convictions are true. If they are true, they are true regardless of how well they are articulated. But if they are articulated poorly or opaquely, they will not be accepted. If arguments are made poorly, they will fail. If reasons are not compelling, they will not persuade. If invitations are not clear, they will not be heeded. If warnings do not pierce, they will not be considered. If good news does not penetrate the heart, hearts will not yield.
The best way to learn how to write is to write. The best way to learn to construct arguments is to put pencil to paper. The best way to compose a sermon is sentence by sentence, line by line, bathed in prayer. By God’s grace, there will be clarity on the page, and clarity in the mind of the reader.
That, finally, may be the key to good Christian writing. The technical aspects by necessity should be mastered; one must use the language well. But there is a divine dimension, an illuminating presence, the in-breaking of the holy, the gift of grace, going between writer and reader, allowing for transmission, communication, and transformation, new ways of seeing, perceiving, and being.
We make our offerings. God does with them what he wills.
My website has had several iterations. My first blog was on Xanga, then I migrated to WordPress, then moved to Squarespace, and finally returned to WordPress. I may have tried to post some stuff on MySpace, too.
A few of my early readers signed up with FeedBurner to keep up with my writing. There are 51 people who are listed among my FeedBurner subscribers. When you signed up to receive my latest posts with FeedBurner, you were added to an RSS service. Every time I published a new blog entry, my content would deliver to your inbox.
Looking down that list, there are friends from the FirstLight era, my time at University Baptist Church, folks I met at Institute, and people I got to know while living in Kansas. There are a few Waco friends, too, and some family, and one or two friends from Tyler.
FeedBurner is undergoing some changes, and to better manage my subscriptions and to centralize my contacts in one place, I want to do two things:
First, I want everyone to know I’m closing down my FeedBurner account on September 15, 2021. If you are an RSS subscriber through FeedBurner, after that date you will no longer receive my content via email.
Second, I want to invite everyone to subscribe to my blog via email through WordPress. If you’ve been on FeedBurner and want to stay in the loop, please visit my website (pictured above) and enter your email in the box underneath “Updates to Your Inbox.” You’ll find the form in the right hand column.
To everyone who continues to read anything I write: thanks. My website is a place to think in public, to note things I want to remember, to argue for things I think are important, and maybe to share a laugh or two. I’m grateful for your readership.
If you need help or have questions about making the switch, contact me. I can scroll my list, find names, and offer directions on where to sign up. It might be a chance to reconnect, too. You can reach me through my Contact page.
Writing is a tool that enables people in every discipline to wrestle with facts and ideas. It’s a physical activity, unlike reading. Writing requires us to operate some kind of mechanism–pencil, pen, typewriter, word processor–for getting our thoughts on paper. It compels us by the repeated effort of language to go after those thoughts and organize them and present them clearly. It forces us to keep asking, “Am I saying what I want to say?” Very often the answer is “No.” It’s a useful piece of information.
William Zinsser, Writing to Learn: How to Write–and Think–Clearly About Any Subject at All, p. 49
This is why I have come to prefer writing sermons, and many other things I want to communicate. So much of what I say, at least at first, is not what I want to say. I would not be able to discover what I want to say apart from writing. Those first thoughts can prove to be fluff, inconsequential, inexact, unclear, distracting, misleading, or false. Unclear writing stems from unclear thinking, and unclear thinking manifesting itself in speech or on paper can not only misinform, but do harm.
Zinsser later says, “If you force yourself to think clearly you will write clearly. The hard part isn’t the writing; the hard part is the thinking.” That’s why so many of us shy away from it. Thinking clearly can be hard work.
At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
Unfashionable opinions can be wrong; prevailing orthodoxies can be right. I don’t know what Orwell expects here, but I do know that he is correct regarding the power of ideology to silence, the need to cultivate environments that allow for the free and open exchange of ideas, and the establishment of a public discourse that encourages speech, civil disagreement, and the possibility of reasoned argument and exchange.
I also have an affinity with artists who treat their craft as a job and are not dependent on the vagaries of inspiration — because I am one of them. Like most people with a job, we just go to work. It never occurs to us not to work, there is never a moment when we don’t work because ‘we are not feeling it’ or ‘the vibes aren’t right’. We just do our hours, as I am doing mine now, writing to you, Jake, and to you, Freya.
The most important undertaking of my day is to simply sit down at my desk and pick up my pen. Without this elementary act I could not call myself a songwriter, because songs come to me in intimations too slight to be perceived, unless I am primed and ready to receive them. They come not with a fanfare, but in whispers, and they come only when I am at work.
Pen poised, I sit to attention, in my suit, on the edge of my imagination, prepared for the beautiful line to arrive. Sometimes it does, sometimes it does not — either way I am powerless to influence the outcome. So often we stand bereft before our ingenuity, with nothing to show for our efforts. Yet at other times we are ushered in.
Once inside the imagination all manner of inexplicable things occur. Time gets loopy, the past presses itself against the present, and the future pours out its secrets. Suddenly words behave in ways they shouldn’t, but wonderfully do, our pulse quickens, yummy butterflies explode in our tummies and songwriting becomes a collision between the pragmatic and the completely gaga — transcendental, outrageously religious, bananas — and then God appears, there He is, with all His cross-dressing angels and demons and other things, I don’t even know what, spirits muttering unspeakable things, and chubby, pink muses tumbling about, and child-small shapes with outstretched arms, calling, instructing, and the beautiful line begins to take shape, gently emerging — there it is! — falling lovely from the end of your pen.
And then your working day is done and you step away. It’s Saturday night and time for dinner and your rider’s name is Irfan. Goodnight, Jake. Goodnight, Freya.