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How to be a TRUE writer

I recently tried to explain to a writer the work of writing true.

It's an important distinction. So much writing is not. Writing true is about more than writing what's factually true. Being faithful to the facts is fine and good, but true writers must have a higher truth as their priority. True writing is something greater, something more real than mere facts. To write this deeper kind of truth, a writer has to dig deeper.

I've got 4 necessary steps to writing true. I like steps. They're very definite and clear. There may be more. But I think these are the essentials.

1. Respect your reader. Basically this means earning your readers' trust. To do this, you must be open, honest, vulnerable, and authentic. Each of these things shows you're trustworthy. You could add some other qualities to this list, but then it wouldn't be so simple and clear. And just this is tricky enough.

That's the how to write true. Now for the what.

2. Share only your experiential knowledge. Nothing else is as convincing or realistic as what you've experienced yourself. Fiction writers are told to write what they know. The reason? In order to make it authentic and real and true, it has to be drawn from your first hand experience. There are no shortcuts. This is significantly difficult as well for those who haven't experienced much yet, say students in writing programs, for instance.

Okay, so what's your method?

3. Employ as many contrasts as possible. All art is built of contrast. Alternate light and dark. Tangible and intangible. Long and short. Balance each element and aspect and your work will have weight and sophistication.

Think well about this. It's not easy to look long at your subject and train your observation to see and intuit what's really going on from several angles. But once you've discovered, you must be decisive with your descriptions and bold with your choice of what to focus on. Don't do one thing; do many things all at once. Give active, grounding details in the physical present, and intersperse it with reflection, meaning, and internal monologue where necessary. Give your scenes their necessary emotional significance, even if it's nonfiction, but don't tax your reader with any unnecessary didactic information. Learning what's necessary and what's not takes practice, so that's the last step.

4. Develop your skill. The skill you need to understand this and do it only comes with much practice. You develop it by writing. You discover it for yourself. You find your balance. And that defines your voice.

Do this and you will begin to see a spiritual truth in true writing. And once you've seen it, it becomes hard to miss. Eugene Petersen says the church should be ordaining writers and artists, and I agree. It's for good reason Jesus shared stories that weren't necessarily factually true. Spiritually, they were the truest stories ever told.

It's no different for any other writer, fiction or non. Let your loyalty be to these 4 things and you will be a TRUE writer of substance and inestimable value.

6 Responses to “How to be a TRUE writer”

  1. Meg Moseley says:

    A short post but a big challenge. Thanks, Mick. I’ll be thinking about this one a lot.

  2. I’ve long despaired that God designed me to experience my emotions and those of others with such depth and angst but at some point realized I also had the gift to give voice to that which others struggle to express.
    It doesn’t feel like a gift until a reader says to me “That’s IT! That’s what I’ve been trying to say!” I’ve wondered why God wouldn’t also give them the same words because expression seems like such a relief but I think when they see it written by another’s hand and know that other person had to experience what they have experienced or at least understands their experience they also think “Aahh, I am not alone in the universe.”
    So in reading, sometimes one line, they feel both the relief of expression and the comfort of being in community with the writer.
    When you write about employing contrasts and the importance of doing more than one thing, I think about the writing of John. It is good to be immersed in his writing and in his perspective. I often feel that as a writer, I must allow myself to stand with the crowd that studied Alexander the Great’s Gordian Knot, pondering it’s complexities, following its tangled path and working out it’s mystery but I must also be Alexander the Great, cutting through the puzzle with a single bold stroke leaving others to gasp and nod and to say “Yes, yes, that was obviously the answer. Now we see.”
    Thank you for the depth and challenge of this post. It goads me on to greater work.

  3. Nicole says:

    Good, Mick.

  4. Tina says:

    Good advice.

  5. Susan Hill says:

    Excellent post Mick! I especially like the idea of contrasts on many different levels. This is a good approach and has given me much to think about. Of course, if I’m not writing authentically, it just feels flat. Transparency puts “juice” on a piece too though it feels risky and you have to be careful to not expose others in your life. So enjoyed this! Thank you.

  6. Great writing advice, Mick. I really liked point number three (I know, I’m just repeating what Susan said, but hey, she’s right!). I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone say that using contrasts would make your writing stronger, but it’s really true. I think the best metaphors and the deepest insight comes from examining how two disparate items are actually alike.

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