On Writing Well


C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952):

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.

John Henry Newman, personal letter (March 2, 1868; ht: Justin Taylor):

First, a man should be in earnest, by which I mean, he should write, not for the sake of writing, but to bring out his thoughts. He should never aim at being eloquent. He should keep his idea in view, and write sentences over and over again till he has expressed his meaning accurately, forcibly, and in few words. He should aim at being understood by his hearers or readers. He should use words which are most likely to be understood — ornament and amplification will come to him spontaneously in due time, but he should never seek them. He must creep before he can fly, by which I mean that humility, which is a great Christian virtue, has a place in literary composition. He who is ambitious will never write well. But he who tries to say simply and exactly what he feels or thinks, what religion demands, what faith teaches, that the gospel promises, will be eloquent without intending it, and will write better English than if he made a study of English literature.

Books on Building Great Sentences (Advice for Writers)


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, our language has more than 100 synonyms for verb forms of “to be wordy,” a detail I find beautifully enigmatic. English is rich, and writing sentences is an art with few concrete boundaries. But crafting great sentences means choosing the right type of sentence structure.

I love to read (and re-read) great books on beautiful sentences of all shapes and sizes: sound sentences, long sentences, short sentences, pop sentences, classic sentences, and literary sentences. I find it helpful to take apart a great sentence, break it down into its individual parts, and see how it works (like a typewriter).

Recently, I posted a picture of some of these books on Instagram, and got enough questions to warrant a quick explanation for why I chose these certain titles as my five favorites. And from the start I should mention that none of these books are written by Christian authors, at least not to my knowledge. In each case, the unbelieving worldviews of these non-Christian writers are not always shrouded.

Now, to the list.

On writing fundamentally sound sentences:

Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams

This is a book for all writers. It’s a brief, to-the-point, and refreshingly visual guide to putting good sentences together. I read this book back in my early days of writing (way back in ought-nine), and it’s been with me ever since. At $30, it’s a wallet-gouging, over-priced little guide, used in a lot of academic training. For less expensive options for general writing help, see Roy Peter Clark and Steven Pinker below.

On writing long sentences:

Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read by Brooks Landon

This book is for more experienced writers who want to master the art of the long, right-branching sentence that seems to expand with no necessary end in site, that sends waves of compounding details washing over the reader and descriptions flowing to the mind. The content in this book was first a video lecture series, but the published version is a now more affordable way to get the same details. No surprise, Landon often is guilty of feather-tongued multiloquence.

On writing short sentences:

How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark

Great journalists know how to write compact sentences, and Roy Peter Clark is one of the best. He also trains the best. Roy Peter Clark is to the writing life what Paul David Tripp is to the Christian life: You just read everything he writes, and enjoy the overlap. This book is a goldmine of writing advice. Beginning writers, especially, should consider everything by RPK. See also his books Writing Tools (2008), The Glamour of Grammar (2011), and Help! For Writers (2013).

On writing pop sentences:

Word Hero: A Fiendishly Clever Guide to Crafting the Lines that Get Laughs, Go Viral, and Live Forever by Jay Heinrichs

Pop sentences may or may not be useful for you as a writer, but every writer (and reader) can benefit from learning the lessons of the most thoughtful pop stylists. So much thought goes into witticisms and snappy pop-culture writing that understanding these trendy tips will help you frame your own message for today’s reading culture. Heinrichs is a genius when it comes to arguments and rhetoric (see his bestselling book, Thank You for Arguing), and his book Word Hero is equally valuable. Perhaps most impressive to me was the way he formulates the subtle skills of using syllable sounds to make the sense and setting especially strong.

On writing classic sentences:

Clear and Simple As the Truth: Writing Classic Prose by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner

Thomas and Turner’s book is definitely for advanced writers. I feel like I’m cheating a bit here because the whole point of classic style is to not focus too much time on the mechanics of sentence structure, but to build up the engine of logic. Classic style is more about how sentences get put together and how to an audience gets persuaded. Classic style paces the focus on the flow of logic. Such a writing style requires a lot of research, and it requires a lot of preparation (a lot of clear logic, really). Classic style is a subtle art mastered by French writers, but once you get a handle on it, you will learn why the readers of C. S. Lewis’s essays sometimes feel like they arrive at the conclusions before Lewis does. There’s a method behind classic style’s persuasive powers, and Thomas and Turner explain the deeper philosophical substructures well.

Recently in the comments of this blog, Benjamin Vrbicek reminded me of a good summary of the classic style in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker. Pinker devotes his entire second chapter to a synopsis of Thomas and Turner, and loads the remainder of the book with practical tips for pulling it off. Pinker’s attempt is less philosophical, less advanced, and more practical.

In Pinker’s words, “Classic style is not a contemplative or romantic style, in which a writer tries to share his idiosyncratic, emotional, and mostly ineffable reactions to something. Nor is it a prophetic, oracular, or oratorical style, where the writer has the gift of being able to see things that no one else can, and uses the music of language to unite an audience. . . . The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself” (28–29).

Classic writing isn’t punchy or sexy, it’s often long, works best in books, rarely goes viral, and it’s certainly not the best style for every situation. But it is a style you must master if you want to understand the psychology of persuasion and if you want to use sentences to move readers toward ah-ha moments of self-discovery. And the important philosophy behind the style is why I say don’t pass over Thomas and Turner too quickly.

On writing literary sentences:

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style by Virginia Tufte

Tufte’s book is for advanced writers, and I recommend this book all the time because it’s worthy of repeated commendation. Tufte dives into what makes sentences work well, and highlights hundreds of the best sentences she can find. Every serious writer should have a copy of this book on hand to read and enjoy, as Tufts splendidly reveals the secrets behind the slight of hand by the masters of literature.

So there it is, my favorite books on writing sentences. Like a well-balanced workout, writers will need exercise in all these fields: a technical kettlebell routine (classic), some jogging (long), and walks (literary), sit-ups (short), and a little PX90 (pop).

Also in this series:

• What Kind of Writer Am I? (Advice for Writers)

What Kind of Writer Am I? (Advice for Writers)


No writer can write about everything, but just about any writer can write about anything. So at some point, you’ll need to have an honest conversation with yourself about what subjects you’ll tackle (and which ones you won’t).

Recently, I set aside one hour of time to reflect on this dilemma, and to write out — at a more conceptual level — what types of writing most interest me. I wanted to see if I could detect certain themes already at work in what I already publish.

This was not my first attempt at this categorization, and the theories I present here are still very much in process, but that hour of reflecting and meditating brought several key conclusions.

As a writer, I am at my best when I observe and express three things:

  1. the essence of a thing (as defined by the Creator)
  2. how beings relate to God and other beings, and
  3. what pressures change these relationships.

That was a summary of three specific conclusions:

(1) I like to write about ontological marvels. I am very interested in quiddity, in getting to the essence of a thing. I enjoy articulating its haecceity, its this-ness, what makes anything unique and describable. I love to press in past the surface appearance of things, to study the property, quality, and distinctions of all things based on God’s revealed intentions. What does God declare to be true? What he says is true, is true, about creation, about beings (both in union/disunion with Christ), and about the nature of God as he reveals himself. Helping convince souls of what is true, certainly does not ignore the affections. “There is a dignity and poignancy in the bare fact that a thing exists” (C.S. Lewis). Or, “Christians enjoy their worldview, aesthetically, once they have accepted it as true” (C.S. Lewis). In fact conviction of what is true, in the details, is necessary for stirring all of the religious affections. And it is often where Christians stumble today.

(2) I like to write on spiritual socio-ecology. I am attracted to the study of how we understand our selves and then how we related to others in various environments. Additionally, I enjoy studying the phenomenons of identity and longing and belonging, and describing the nature of all things and beings in their primary relationship (to God).

(3) I like to write on the essential spiritual dynamics at play in the push and pull of enticement and coercion. I am interested in understanding the forces in play in the physics of our relationships with one another, of our relationships to creation, and especially of our relationships with God. My interests focus on the compressive influence of human culture to coerce, persuade, or dissuade the soul. And of course I am most interested in the enticements of God, and in his work in Christ to allure and woo us toward himself.

Finally, after contemplating what I like to write about, I took some time to define how I like to write.

The content of my writing is driven and refined by a writing style I adopted early in my career. Known simply as the “classic style,” a conversational style with an emphasis on shrewd observation (which is overt), and builds upon strict flow of logic (which is mostly concealed). The classic style not only reads conversationally, it should read spontaneously and even passionately. Any hints that a piece of writing is premeditated is strictly removed. Given other forms of style, and given the simplicity of prose it aims to produce, the classic style is quite complex and takes some time to understand. Even more, it takes years of work to employ (I’m still in process). Classic style is also old and proven by years of successful examples written most consistently, it seems, by the French, who first embraced the genre on a massive scale, and gave it prominence in the seventeenth-century (Blaise Pascal, in our circles, being the most famous example). The style is beautiful for the way it naturally draws out the writer’s personality, but also for its clear air of simplicity, and all the while being driven by an internal engine of logic. The style is attractive and rich, but it’s not without limitations. By design, the classic style aims to help readers make their own conclusions and therefore stresses the value of observable truth over blunt attempts at persuasion.

To more fully understand how the classic style works, I commend Clear and Simple As the Truth: Writing Classic Prose by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner. More on that book (and others) here.

Hopefully what I actually write, on a published level, sounds less geeky than all of these meditations. But sketching out my writing interests at a conceptual level, and putting them on paper, is illuminating to me.

But now it’s your turn. Invest a little time for this type of self-reflection to understand yourself as a writer, and you will reap the life-giving reward of focus.