Writing Tip: The Wisdom in Waiting to Write

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By Doug Ponder

At various points over the last decade I have worked as a researcher, an editor and an author in both online and published media. Over that same span of time I have also served as a teaching pastor in the church I co-planted in 2009. I thank God for these opportunities, which have proven to be a wonderful complement to many of my pastoral responsibilities. Christians are people of the Book, after all, and that produces in us an affinity for words, especially among those who labor in teaching and preaching.

Indeed, it is no overstatement to say that sermons, public prayers, the celebration of the sacraments, weddings, funerals and general admonition and encouragement would all be impossible if not for words. This may explain why many Christians sense a strong urge to write. At our best, we long for others to encounter the good news that has so richly blessed us. This is a glorious desire, and the moment that it dies the church will die with it. So I say three cheers for writers who highlight the truth, goodness and beauty of God’s world. May their tribe increase.

At the same time, there is a (growing) tribe that probably needs to decrease. Surveys show that 81% of Americans feel they “have a book in them” that needs to be written.[1] In fact, ours is a time when a million books are published each year in America,[2] to say nothing of blogs and online articles.[3] All this dwarfs the output of both the church and the world in ages past.

The world today is not in need of more words but of better ones.

Wait Until You Have Something to Say

In view all this, I think the world today is not in need of more words but of better ones. The world needs more true words (Zech. 8:16; Acts 26:25), clarifying words (Neh. 8:8; Col. 4:4), and timely words (1 Chron. 12:32; Prov. 25:11). And all these are words that, in most cases, are only born of deep understanding and lengthy experience (Job 12:12; Prov. 7:7; Eccl. 12:1; Matt. 7:24; Jas. 1:22).

This is why I tell would-be authors that their urgent sense of “I have to say something” needs to be balanced by actually having something to say. If I had any advice for budding authors, therefore, it would be this: put your hand to the plow first; get out in the world; live a little; learn a lot. And then—if the drive to write is still there—take up writing with all the accuracy, clarity and profundity that can only come with time.

A General Rule for Writing

On the other hand, there is an asymmetry to the media available for writing today, and we must account for this. So here is a general rule: the more public and permanent someone’s writing will be, the older he should be before writing it. There are exceptions, of course. But not many. (This is where the phrase “the exception proves the rule” comes from, since for every exception it seems there are thousands upon thousands of non-exceptions.)

In this regard, authors like John Piper and Tim Keller are worthy of emulation. These pastors did not write their first major books until they were nearly 40 and 47 respectively, waiting until they were well established in their lives and ministries to produce more public and permanent writing. It is doubtful that these men (and many others like them) stumbled upon the same path accidently. Instead, I suspect they were aware of several good reasons to wait before they wrote.

Reasons Worth Waiting For

Most authors have a family to raise, which outranks any other calling we will ever have, save one (2 Tim. 1:9). Not only this, but in a sense our spouses and our children are the best “books” we will leave for the world (Psalm 127:3-5). Indeed, a house full of well-raised children is worth more than a string of articles or stack of books with your name on them.

Another reason it’s wise to venture slowly into writing is that it often takes many years to lay a theological foundation that is resistant to the spirit of the age. It was the Lord’s grace to me that I began as a researcher, working with others who wrote and taught before trying my hand at the same. A few years later I began writing for my church—three articles a week for two years—before consenting to write anything in more public spaces. Even so, I sometimes look back on my earlier writing and think of how differently I would state some matters now.

Finally, the last reason to temper the urge say something with first having something to say is that there is simply no substitute for the insights that come from “a long obedience in the same direction.”[4] The crucible of real-life ministry is where our thoughts are tested, weighed and refined. With apologies to the apostle James, I think we should aspire to be doers of the Word before we become writers about it.

[1] Joseph Epstein, “Think You Have a Book in You? Think Again” in The New York Times, Sept. 28, 2002. https://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/28/opinion/think-you-have-a-book-in-you-think-again.html.

[2] Industry expert R. R. Bowker reported that in 2009 a total of 1,052,803 books were published in the United States. Of those 764,448 of them were published through non-traditional channels (pay-to-publish services, self-publishers, and reprints of public domain titles). See Jana Bradley, Bruce Fulton, and Marlene Helm, “Self-Published Books: An Empirical Snapshot” in The Library Quarterly, Vol. 82, No. 2, April 2012: 107–140.

[3] Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, “Physician, heal thyself!”

[4] This phrase has been borrowed from Eugene Peterson’s book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. Fittingly, Peterson himself is an example of the phenomenon we have been discussing, having waited until he was 48 to publish his first book.

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Doug Ponder

Doug Ponder (M.Div., Th.M. Southeastern Seminary) is the Teaching Pastor at Remnant Church in Richmond, VA. He also serves as Dean of Faculty and Professor of Biblical Studies at Grimke Seminary. He and his wife, Jessica, have four sons.

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