Your Writing Needs Grace

Finding Cadence and Humility

People seem to respond to my newsletters that focus on writing, so I’m going to offer up another one here. Last time I wrote about outlines. This time I want to write about something a bit more ethereal but no less important.  

Our writing needs . . . grace. I mean this in two ways. It first requires some grace in the way we build phrases and the way they flow and hit the ear. Consider this by one of my favorite writers in the modern era, Peggy Noonan. Noonan, once a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and a reassuring voice in our national crises for the last several decades, writes this on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. A New Yorker, Noonan takes us into her world on that fateful day: 

And then the buildings fell. That was the thing, they heaved up and groaned to the ground and brought a world with them. We could have taken it if the buildings didn’t fall. That’s why the day was so uniquely a New York trauma, for all that happened in Washington and Pennsylvania: The buildings went down, and we saw it. My friends saw the jumpers, who fled the flames. To this day they don’t talk about it. My friend saw the faces of the passengers on the first plane, so low did they fly by his building. He saw their faces in the passenger windows. He never told anyone about that, including his wife, until two years ago. 

Do you feel the cadence, the rhythm of what she’s writing? There is a delicate grace to it. Noonan could have just said: and then the buildings fell. But she didn’t. She wrote that they “heaved up and groaned and brought a world with them.”  

I know what she’s talking about. I watched this happen. She brings us into that world again, “The buildings went down, and we saw it.”  

The best writing is not just relaying cold facts on a page. It’s crafting words and phrases in a cadence that helps us form images in the reader’s mind. If you must, read your words out loud. Say them in your head. Ask yourself how you’d like to hear them. Another wordsmith, Mark Buchanan, a pastor and writer from Canada, in his book, The Rest of God: 

In a culture where busyness is a fetish and stillness is laziness, rest is sloth. But without rest, we miss the rest of God: the rest he invites us to enter more fully so that we might know him more deeply. “Be still, and know that I am God.” Some knowing is never pursued, only received. And for that, you need to be still. Sabbath is both a day and an attitude to nurture such stillness. It is both time on a calendar and a disposition of the heart. It is a day we enter, but just as much a way we see. Sabbath imparts the rest of God—actual physical, mental, spiritual rest, but also the rest of God— the things of God’s nature and presence we miss in our busyness. 

The timing here is beautiful. Mark is not clunky. There is a grace to it. “Sabbath is both a day and an attitude.” I love that. I know what he means.  

One more. I love great political speeches, especially Churchill’s address to the House of Commons in 1940:  

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.” 

The building up, the ratcheting up toward courage, and then the perfect release of the last phrase. Who could listen to this and not want to give their everything to fight tyranny? 

Your writing needs grace. What I mean by that is writing needs beauty and cadence and rhythm. More than words on the page and quotes and footnotes and information, people respond and absorb and listen to beauty.  

I said there was one more way your writing needs grace. We need to communicate in a way that lets people know we are humans, not content-spouting bots from an ivory tower. When I was younger, my writing was mostly declarative. I wrote with such certainty of opinion. This is right. You are wrong. You need to get in line. Thankfully I was not writing under my own name and was writing stuff nobody was really reading. Oh, and I had good editors. 

Today, I hope I’m more human with my words. There are things about which I’m certain. I’m certain about the resurrection of Jesus Christ as historical fact. I’m certain about the important doctrines of the Christian faith. I’m not certain about the best way to deliver health care or the finer points of the tax code. I’m not certain about the best approaches to parenting.  

Grace means we condition our writing with softening words. Words like “perhaps” or “seems” or “might.” I know that today, social media has conditioned us to all think we are Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, with everything we write. You are so certain. We need moral urgency, but not with every blog post and article and book chapter. We could actually use more humility, more introspection, a bit more reasonableness on the page. So instead of saying, “Christians should . . . “ you might say “It seems Christians might consider...” You won’t lose anything from the force of your argument. And you might persuade some people. 

Writing with grace allows others in. It’s an open hand instead of a clenched fist. It acknowledges, on the page, that you might not be right about everything.  

You might try it.  

P.S. Peggy Noonan’s book on writing a good speech still holds up. Go get it.

This Week on The Way Home Podcast

This week on The Way Home podcast I am joined by Susie Larson, Christian radio host and prolific author. Susie’s latest book, Prevail: 365 Days of Enduring Strength from God’s Word was released in September and is full of theologically rich words of encouragement and strength. On this episode, we talk about her walk with the Lord, enduring suffering, her career as a writer and radio host, and what she’s learning during this season.

Listen now

Interesting Links

  • There has been a lot of criticism about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, some deserved, some hyperbolic. But we have forgotten how miraculous it is that we actually have a COVID-19 vaccine. Last March nobody thought we’d have one by the end of the year. So that’s why you should read this great piece by Sam Baker in Axios. We’ve forgotten how to be grateful.

  • So, Tom Brady won another Super Bowl. Whether you love him or hate him (I admire his accomplishments and have never understood the Brady hate), you have to acknowledge what he’s done in his career. 10 Super Bowls! Seven Championships! Four Super Bowls and three titles after the age of 37! It’s unreal. So you must go and watch this clip of a commentator making the case that Brady has had three Hall of Fame careers.

  • Sam James has a really great piece about the lack of grace on social media. Seriously, go read it.  

What I’m Reading

  • I’ve just finished Rod Dreher’s book, Live Not By LiesI liked it. At times, Rod can be accused of being a tad hyperbolic, but his writing is always arresting and good. I particularly liked the focus he made on both the horrors of communism and the courage of Christian martyrs behind the Iron Curtain. We need a fresh retelling of that for a new generation.

  • I’m now reading A Decadent Society by Ross Douthat. I love Douthat’s work.  

  • I’m also nearly finished with President Obama’s memoir.

  • I really love this rendition of “Softly and Tenderly” by Kristyn Getty and Vince Gill.

Personal Projects

  • The Characters of Easter released last week. I’ve been doing some interviews on radio and other places about this and will be in coming weeks.

  • I was also interviewed by Bonnie Kristian at Christianity Today about the rise of conspiracy theories and how churches can disciple people through them.

  • A book I had the opportunity to edit, with a variety of contributors, Ministers of Reconciliation with Lexham is coming out in May.

  • I’ve also got a children’s book. The Biggest Best Light co-authored with my friend Briana Stensrud, will be out in August. Excited about this one.  

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