By Eddie Pipkin
I was reading the weekly email from Christianity Today editor Mark Galli, and he linked an article at Mockingbird from Andrew Taylor-Troutman called, “Comma, Grace.” I’m a diction, punctuation, and grammar geek who loves good writing (and I’m nerdy enough that I try to proofread not only emails, but even text messages). So, any well-crafted meditation that links grammar and theology is going to grab my attention, and Taylor-Troutman does a fine job of establishing the holy connection between God and punctuation.
Good writing matters. Even in an age of technological transformation and ubiquitous imagery, good writing is at the heart of much of what we do.
Clarity, precision, and attention to detail never go out of style. They educate. They inspire. They facilitate effective ministry. And they honor God.
On the very day when iconic American poet Donald Hall died, I am reminded why good writing matters. In a 2015 interview when he was 86, he said this about the kind of newspaper writing that still held his attention:
First, it’s important to acknowledge that we as readers all have to put up with less language and shorter articles than we did before when there was more opportunity to delve into a subject and stay with it, but if it became abruptly written with poor grammar, poor language, I know I would get too disgusted and irritated reading it.
This is an axiom that is worth remembering for the writing we do which supports our ministry, whether it’s sermons, standard communications, internal dispatches, external vision casting, or teaching and training materials. Whatever we write down is worth writing well. And learning more about writing well is a journey that is never complete.
Hall’s observation is just one example of the ways people become frustrated with poor writing (and poor communication in general). This effect is not limited to English teachers and professional poets. We all have familiarity with confusing instructions that are impossible to follow, obvious spelling or grammar mistakes in newsletters and on websites, and maddening letters from insurance companies. Ministries shoot themselves in the foot all the time in the same ways.
At its most lighthearted, we’ve all shared memes like “44 Church Bulletin Bloopers,” but at a deeper level, real issues can arise from a lackadaisical approach to composition and proofreading. Articles about social media ministry mistakes identify it as the #1 preventable issue, and Thom Rainer (another self-professed grammar geek) identifies good grammar as a basic ministry competency.
Here’s why it matters:
- It means we are saying what we mean to be saying. Attention to clarity and precision in our writing serves as a bulwark against confusion. This is true for both internal and external communications. An extra five or 10 minutes devoted to editing an email or article can prevent redundant conversations down the road as we’re forced to repair self-inflicted chaos. It can even prevent hurt feelings – the kind that lead to unwanted and destructive drama.
- It shows that we are professional in our work. Rainer writes about a hiring supervisor who immediately trashed communication from job-seekers that contained typos and errors. In this hiring officer’s mind, it just denoted laziness and an unprofessional attitude. God is honored by our dedication to excellence in everything (including our written communication).
- People can’t be inspired when they are too busy being distracted. Your imprecision gives people an excuse to not pay attention to the thing you wanted them to pay attention to, not follow up with the response you intended, or to write you off as someone who must be as sloppy with all ministry aspects as you are with your communication practices.
For instance, one of my individual bugaboos is the misapplication of apostrophes. The crisis of apostrophe misuse is everywhere, from church communications to restaurant menus. (For some solid help on this and many other topics, I am a big fan of Grammar Girl, who humbly shares her own apostrophe humiliation as she gives some good strategies for sorting this punctuation conundrum out once and for all). Sure, a misplaced apostrophe probably won’t be the end of the world, but if you know you struggle to use this tool properly, shrugging your shoulders about it communicates a troublesome inattention to detail. And I’m not advocating a judgmental perfectionism (in either grammar or theology), but a dedication to at least striving toward perfection is always a worthy Wesleyan goal. Here are some useful strategies:
- Keep resources handy. With the interwebs instantly available at virtually all times, there is no excuse for not having readily accessible references for grammar, spelling, and usage questions. Utilize the built-in proofreading tools within the software you use for writing. Spend some time figuring out which dictionaries, grammar guides, and other references feel most natural and easy-to-use for you, then bookmark them! It is not lack of access that leads people to writing mistakes; it is lack of willpower.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses. You know the things you struggle with. Make a special effort to check those things carefully whenever they come up – for me, it was always the difference between “effect” and “affect.” As a backup strategy, just stay away from your problem areas. One of the best ways to get a deeper sense of your own writing habits (without the clutter of your personal perception biases) is to ask an independent reader for their impressions of your writing – what you do well and what they think you could perhaps be doing better.
- Get some extra eyeballs! Have someone (or several someones) look over your work, particularly if it is for public consumption. Every extra set of eyeballs means cleaner communication. No writer can adequately proofread his or her own work. You simply become too familiar with it, and you begin to read what you meant to write rather than what you actually wrote.
- Give yourself the gift of time and revision. If you can’t get the extra proofreading eyeballs mentioned above, at least give yourself the gift of time. If you schedule your writing so that you can put it away for a bit and then come back to it for an additional reading, you will catch previously undetected mistakes and see places where your writing is not nearly as clear as you thought it was. If you are constantly writing under an aggressive deadline, you will absolutely let mistakes slip through – which is why news sites employ copy editors. In general, the more important a piece of writing, the more intentional you should be about letting sit patiently in your desk drawer (or file folder) before you give it another look-see. If you can’t take time between reading and publication, force yourself to practice the disciple of a slow line-by-line, careful reading. This will feel like torture, but it’s worth it. Also, trying reading your work out loud. This is a great way to catch errors that evade your eyes.
Good writing pays off with meaningful dividends. Think about the writing habits practiced by you and your ministry organization. What are you most proud of? What could you definitely improve upon? What are your favorite reference resources? How could you and your team institute some new practices and routines that would make your communication stronger and less prone to errors? Share your own success stories, as well as your tales of communication gone bad.