On Disciplined Writing, Part 3: Writing Praxis 101

By: John Burkett

Editor’s Note: Dr. John Burkett is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition and Director of the Writing Center at SEBTS.  This is the final installment of three. This is an edited version of a post which originally ran in 2009.

Writing Praxis 101: Audience-Message-Author.

Given our Christian confession (or “foundation,” for those who prefer a modernist term), what can we say about communication and more particularly about the symbolic action we call writing? When we gain a Christian perspective-attitude for writing, we “necessarily” transform our view of the three elements in any rhetorical situation, consisting of audience, message, and author.

First, as writers we become more concerned with audience, like the Apostle Paul was concerned with audience and shaped his message to his audience. Second, we become more concerned with the truth of our message, like the Apostle John loved the truth and took care to present words well (clearly, validly, winsomely) so that he would encourage God’s “children walking in truth.” Third, “you” as an author embark on a never-ending adventure that transforms who you are as you consider audience and message, like Luke’s adventure in the book of Acts. For, as Garrison Keillor has observed, “Writing is a means of discovery, always.” Discovery (classical “rhetorical invention”) means that writing is a thinking tool for generating ideas, ideas that shape not only our message and perhaps an audience but also the author. Since writing is a thinking tool that affects an author’s sanctity, many consider writing to be a “spiritual” discipline.

Audience First.

I would like to emphasize that writing can be a fun activity because it’s a social experience–communication in community. Writing can be a “fun discipline” if we keep in mind that we have an audience who cares about us and our thought life. This audience is our “dialogic self” (we are our own first reader), our God (the ever-present “super-addressee”), our direct audience if any (whom we directly address), and an indirect audience (someone we imagine who may read our work, such as a respected parent, brother, sister, mentor, or friend). For this reason, I suggest to my writing students that they should not write for the professor (because that is a recipe for mediocrity) but write instead for “someone whom you respect,” someone with whom you would not mind sharing your work. Awareness of audience transforms writing from a mere “assignment” or “recording data” into “expression” and even “communication” because we are participating in a meaningful social dialogue.

Questions Concerning Audience.

Are you (un)concerned about grammatical correctness? Then be more concerned with audience, and you will find the “strange” motivation to learn the conventions of written communication. Are you (un)concerned with clarity, concision, and style? Then be more concerned with audience and how your words will affect your audience, and you will find a clear and appropriate form for your sentences and message. Are you (un)concerned about your audience? Then be more concerned about your ever-present “super-addressee” or your respected “indirect audience.” “Above all, write unto others as you would have others write unto you.”

While not writing a handbook (for they are plentiful), I have sought to outline some helpful strategies for the “discipline of writing,” which I hope helps you become a more confident and competent writer who enjoys clear, precise, and correct prose.

A follow-up article may arrive later (discussing Christian perspectives of message and author). As always, I invite you to contact me in the Writing Center at Southeastern with your specific questions about writing.

In Case You Missed It

In a guest post at Art Rainer’s blog, Robby Scholes shared three important questions to consider before taking a job in a new city.

A career opportunity arises in a new city.

Met with a mix of excitement and anxiety, the first natural reaction is to imagine living in this new place. The new compensation package is larger than your current role, immediately driving assumptions about the lifestyle possibilities, opportunities for increased generosity, and new savings goals you will finally be able to meet by taking this new role.

 

You begin to think that taking the job is a no-brainer. Is it?

 

A new city means a new cost of living. Sometimes this works to your benefit and other times to your detriment. An increased cost of living could swallow the higher salary.

 

So before accepting the role, consider these 3 questions.

 

Sam Rainer shared a helpful post earlier this week discussing why every young pastor needs an old mentor.

“Sometimes the being is more important than the doing.” My mentor shared this wisdom at our last meeting. He’s in his mid-80s, about 50 years ahead of me. He retired from a church in Indiana and moved to Bradenton several years ago. I inherited him with my church when I was called as pastor two years ago. God gave me a spiritual heavyweight of encouragement with him. He sits a few rows from the back—prayerfully listening every week. Most in our church do not realize the wealth of maturity he brings to our congregation. He holds no formal leadership position in our church. He doesn’t need it because his prayers move mountains.

 

Every young pastor needs an old mentor. I know that’s not a new thought. I press the point because it’s hard to overstate the value of wisdom from someone 50 years older than you. Unfortunately, young pastors tend to dismiss the oldest generation of leaders. Not overtly, of course. Few would explicitly state they don’t want to hear from someone older. The dismissal comes more in the form of time. Our ears can only listen to so much before words start melting together. Podcasts, meetings, texts, phone calls, blogs, sermons—how many of them come from the oldest generation? If you’re like me, you tend to listen to people your age, maybe 10 years older. Listening to the oldest generation takes effort. It’s not efficient. My mentor talks slowly, with careful nostalgia. If I pay attention, what I hear is the greatest hits album of his ministry. It should be played over and over again.

 

At his blog Millennial Evangelical, Chris Martin shared about the strange burden of participating in social media.

Over the last year or so, I have become more discouraged about social media and what it is doing to us than I have ever been.

 

Often I think to myself, “The only reason I use social media any more is because it’s such an important part of my job.” Really, it’s central to my job.

 

Then, some weeks, what I see on social media encourages me and gives me hope for the medium as a useful tool for the Church.

 

One of my friends recently left social media entirely. He deleted all of his accounts and isn’t going to engage on Twitter, Facebook, etc. any more. I kinda wish I could bring myself to do that, but every time I consider it, I can’t.

 

It’s not that I can’t bring myself to leave social media because I have some sort of unhealthy addiction to it or because I need to be informed about what all of my friends are doing with their lives. (At least I don’t think that’s why.)

 

I think I can’t bring myself to leave social media because I have a sort of strange burden for it as a medium.

 

Earlier this week, Russell Moore shared about his writing process.

Because you are probably going to be called upon to write something at some point in your life. It may not be that you’re a writer, but you may have to write a loved one’s obituary. Or you may have to write a letter to a child or a family member. All of us are going to have to put down on paper or on the screen our thoughts at some point. Some people just do it much more extensively than other people do it.

 

So here’s kind of the process I go through. And again, I don’t commend it to anybody at all. This is just the way that I work. What I wish I could say to you is that I sit down and make out an elaborate outline, and then have note cards in front of me, and I go through each of note cards. That’s not how I work. What I have to do is spend a lot of time, first of all, reading in whatever area I’m going to be writing in, and then a lot of time just processing that. So just thinking. A lot of the most important writing time for me actually is not in front of the screen, it’s walking in the woods. Because that’s when I’m thinking through “Okay but what about this, and what about that, what about this idea, and what about that idea,” and sort of churning as I’m thinking through this. And for me, exercising – especially sort of meandering free exercising – is what helps to put all of that together for me.

 

At his personal blog, Chuck Lawless recently shared ten reasons (beyond fear) that believers don’t evangelize.

If you look at many studies about evangelism, you’ll discover that fear is a primary factor that keeps Christians from telling the Good News. Those fears might involve a fear of rejection, a fear of not knowing answers, a fear of others watching our lives more closely if we speak of Christ, or other possibilities. In addition to fear, here are some other reasons – perhaps surprising ones – that believers don’t evangelize.