Writing for Lutherans, Part 3: Don’t be Boring

Listen to this article on The Lutheran Witness podcast.

In the two previous articles in this series, we looked at my first and second rules of writing for Lutherans (drawn directly from the magazine title of The Lutheran Witness): 1. “Be Lutheran” and 2. “Tell the truth.”

In this final article, we’ll discuss the third of my rules for Lutheran writers, which comes straight from my own sinful, selfish little heart.

Please, please, please, if you love me (and the rest of your readers) …

Don’t be boring.

An oxymoron?

I realize that, to many people, the thought of putting the words “Lutheran” and “not boring” together amounts to an oxymoron of sorts. Lutherans are bland, mild-mannered people, after all — at least according to prevailing stereotypes. (Thanks so much, Garrison Keillor.) Our favorite condiment is Miracle Whip. Our favorite ice cream is vanilla. Our favorite salad is Jell-O. And on it goes. You get the idea.

Yet Lutherans are ideological descendants of one of the least boring people ever to live: Dr. Martin Luther. We count geniuses like Paul Gerhardt and J.S. Bach among our intellectual forebears.

There is no inherent reason that Lutherans have to be boring, whether in our life, in our speech or in our writing. None. If you think for one moment that Lutheran writers have to be boring simply because they’re Lutheran, please banish that thought.

Why and how

Banish that thought now, because it is vitally important for us as Lutheran writers to learn how to grab and hold the attention of our readers and their rapidly shrinking attention spans. We have the most important things in the world to tell them: God loves you. Jesus died for you. His will for your life is always best. But if we are boring, they will never be able to hear those beautiful truths over the din of modern life. All those funny memes and Netflix originals, all those vlogs and TikToks and Facebook feeds and podcasts and email notifications that daily clutter their mental spaces will drown out our words completely. With each piece of writing we put before them, we must use all our skill to grab their eyeballs and stuff them full of God’s grace. Should those eyeballs glance away for even a second, we’ll have lost them.

Yet it’s one thing for me to say, “Let’s not be boring, OK?” (and for you to smile and nod, “OK! Let’s not be”). It’s quite another to do it.

I don’t have all the answers when it comes to not being boring as a writer. I certainly don’t have all the easy answers (the ones we all want most). I have, however, spent a lot of my life so far studying the problem, and I therefore here present a small handful of practical do’s and don’ts for Lutheran writers who would like not to be boring.

1. Don’t waste your readers’ time

As soon as I finish my first draft of this article, I will take off my “writer” hat, put on my “reader” hat and go back through the article at least a dozen times (maybe 20). I will strike every word or sentence that isn’t actively helping me advance the points I want to make. I will flesh out every thought that is not yet quite fully developed. I will try to do more “striking” than “fleshing,” since my goal is always to end up with a leaner, tighter, more concentrated article when I’m done.

I will vary the length of my sentences so that they propel you forward from start to finish, never stalling out along the way. One sentence will be long and flowery, full of complex ideas and sophisticated imagery, pulling you down currents of thought and tickling your brain with towering words and labyrinthine clauses. Another will be short and punchy. I like variety, and — whether you know it or not — so do you.

I’ll add bullet points and catchy subheads. I’ll break up long paragraphs so that they’re easy to digest and process. I’ll read the entire article at least once out loud to myself so that I can tune the music of the words. I’ll double check to make sure that the ideas are carefully and logically organized so that you won’t get lost on the way. I’ll do whatever I can to keep your eyes dancing along the page (or screen) and prevent weariness.

In short: I will invest my time in careful planning and editing so that you don’t have to waste yours reading.

2. Don’t give them a reason to leave

It happens all the time. I start reading a book or article, and then I leave.

Recently, it happened while I was reading an article about the troubling legacy of racist attitudes at a well-known military institute. The article stated that Confederate Gen.Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson taught at the storied academy after the Civil War ended in 1865. Except he didn’t. He couldn’t have. Stonewall Jackson died in 1863 after the Battle of Chancellorsville from wounds sustained in a friendly fire incident. Now, Jackson did teach at the school for a decade before the war, so perhaps the patent falsehood I encountered was just a silly typographical error? Yet it’s a pretty serious mistake to make in an article about the lingering legacy of slavery, especially if we understand the Civil War as a major turning point in America’s attitudes toward that evil institution. For my part, I closed the paper in a huff and picked up my phone to find something else to read with my morning coffee. If the author couldn’t take the time to get his facts straight, why should I waste my time on his article?[1]

It happened again a few days later while I was reading an article on a book publisher’s website that turned out to be riddled with typos. Really, I thought, nose in the air. They have a cadre of professional editors on staff and can’t be bothered to proofread a blog post?

From typos to sloppy fact-checking, careless work damages your credibility and breaks the trust you have with your readers. It also breaks any spell your words may have on them. One moment, they’re sinking deeply into your rhetoric, the next, they’re scrolling on. Don’t give them a reason to go.

3. Do capture their imagination

Once upon a time, my pastor-husband used to ask me what I thought of his sermons. He doesn’t do it as much now. Perhaps he got tired of me sounding like a broken record in response:

“It was good. Really good, except … well … it needed more stories.”

I never can seem to get enough stories.

By “stories,” I’m not necessarily referring only to cutesy anecdotes. Rather, I’m talking about those moments when you pull slices of life into your writing and use language to capture the imagination of your readers. A story doesn’t have to be long or drawn out to be powerful. I’ve told several “stories” in this article already, including the one that opened this section:

“Once upon a time, my pastor-husband used to ask me what I thought of his sermons. He doesn’t do it as much now.”

There are only two lines in that “story,” but if I’ve done my work well, you should be able to fill in the rest with your imagination. You can probably imagine an eager young pastor asking his wordsmithing wife for her opinion of his work; he wants to proclaim clearly and effectively to the sheep under his care. You can see the look on her face as she struggles to be both supportive and honest in her criticism. You can also imagine how the years change the conversation as he grows in his own ability as a preacher (and possibly also grows frustrated by his wife’s sky-high homiletical standards). Did you catch all that?

Jesus told lots of stories during His ministry on earth — stories about sheep and goats, farmers and vineyard growers, housewives and bridesmaids. Those stories poured heavenly mysteries into human hearts, and made truths that were beyond comprehension into flesh-and-blood narratives that proclaimed the greatest story ever told: The true story of His work to redeem humanity.

Stories are essential. We’ve just got to have more.

4. Do tell them something they don’t know

As I write this paragraph on the day after Thanksgiving 2020, I still have this morning’s local front-page newspaper headline fresh in my mind: “On Thanksgiving, the feast goes on.”

I didn’t read the article. Why would I? I have no reason to. It offers me nothing I couldn’t have guessed all on my own, nothing I have not read 100 times before.

In an age of hot takes, fake news and confirmation bias, in which so many people seem to be interested in reading only those pieces of writing that tell them only those things that they already know and agree with, we have almost — almost, but not quite — lost sight of this essential marker of really good writing: It sparks the intellect. It tells us something we did not know before.

Whether you do this by incorporating new research, digging deep into the vault of almost-forgotten history, adding a few well-sifted statistics or choice quotations or simply offering a fresh take on an old problem, it is vitally important: If you want to keep from being boring, then you must stimulate your readers’ brains and not simply their hearts.

Yes, this way of writing — one that imagines it as both an artistic and an intellectual work — does require more time, energy and elbow grease. Yes, it means that a stubborn article may take months to write — that a book may take years or even decades. But if we desire to do more with our words than just blather on endlessly in our readers’ general direction, this is an investment that we ought always to be prepared to make.

5. Don’t fall prey to the lie that Christianity is boring

I realize that my previous point seems to privilege the novelty of new research, fresh perspectives and the like. This is how human brains are wired, and we would be fools not to acknowledge that and take advantage of it. Yet, this also presents a problem for Confessional Lutherans (and orthodox Christians in general). We all keep telling the same old story over and over again:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Did your eyes glaze over for just a moment there? Did you quickly skim to the end of the verse to see what came next? If you did, you aren’t alone. The same innate craving for novelty that keeps us refreshing our Facebook feeds every 10 minutes can also seriously impede a firm and abiding faith. Yet it need not be — especially if there are faithful, not-at-all-boring writers to help us see the beauty of it every day.

I’m reminded here of the words of Dorothy Sayers:

Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as ‘a bad press.’ We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine — ‘dull dogma,’ as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that has ever staggered the imagination of man — and the dogma is the drama.

That drama is summarized quite clearly in the Creeds of the Church, and if we think it dull, it is because we either have never really read those amazing documents, or have recited them so often and so mechanically as to have lost all sense of their meaning. …

Now we may call that doctrine exhilarating or we may call it devastating; we may call it Revelation or we may call it rubbish; but if we call it dull, then words have no meaning at all.

Dorothy Sayers, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” in Creed or Chaos? (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1974), 3, 9.

Our challenge — our calling — as Lutheran writers is to use every tool at our disposal, from stories to statistics, from whimsical wordplay to careful research and meticulous copyediting, to awaken the hearts and minds of our readers once again to the never-ending delight of this truth: That the God who created them has also redeemed them, inviting them into an eternity of joy in His love.

There’s nothing boring about that, is there?

A final word

The last, perhaps best bit of advice I can give to all of us who write for Lutherans is this: Find a skilled Lutheran editor to help you hone your work.

I am blessed to work regularly with the Rev. Roy S. Askins, managing editor of The Lutheran Witness, and Dr. Kevin Armbrust, director of editorial for LCMS Communications. They carefully trim the fat from my (sometimes very) rough drafts, refine both my logic and my doctrine, call me out on my baloney, check my facts, fix my footnotes and generally challenge me to be a better writer than I am. Miraculously, both of them also somehow manage to do all this while respecting my voice as a writer and (usually) without breaking my heart, my spirit or my will to live. I could not be more grateful.

If you, like me, would welcome the opportunity to work with some of the LCMS’s finest editors and become even better at writing for Lutherans, I’d warmly encourage you to submit your article idea to The Lutheran Witness.

Find out more about how to contribute here.

[1] I can now find no trace of this article and its telltale error on the source’s website, so I assume that others felt the same way I did and complained.

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