There is an inherent need in Christian life and ministry to write. From seminary essays submitted for class to the sermons and devotionals written in the pastorate, the written word is an expression of what we think and believe about the Christian life. As a professor teaching practical theology and Wesley studies, it isn’t unusual for a student to ask how they can write better—and, praise be, not always following a grade they weren’t thrilled with!
Writing is a craft. It takes practice to develop and hone the skills indicative of any genre of writing. I tell my students there are several easy things to address. Pay attention to format and style conventions. Use the active voice. Keep things simple, but not simplistic. Proof-read. Even better, find a trusted friend, family member, or colleagues who will be a helpful proof-reader.
Ultimately, though, improving our writing means engaging an idea with clarity. Writing is not just putting ideas on paper. The writing process demands we think about what we know in order to communicate it to others. A thoughtful piece of writing does three things. It expresses what our thesis is, demonstrates how the idea informs and shapes our thinking, and communicates why the idea is important.
Writing on an idea and sharing its relevance are likely internal, inherent motivators for persons pursuing formal theological studies. The fields of theology, biblical studies, and church history are ripe with ideas. These ideas are the fodder for those of us who seek to preach, provide pastoral care, and help mature persons in faith. But it can be that second aspect of writing, demonstrating how we understand the idea as a result of engagement and critical reflection, that can be the most challenging aspect of the writing task.
I observe three common traps that ensnare students. The first two traps are opposite sides of the same coin. In the first case, the essay does not engage any text or author at all, while the second relies on a wide, maybe even vast, variety of sources. The result is, even if written well, the essay does not offer the kind of disciplined, engaged reflection with a text required at the graduate level. The third trap is the use of an excessive number of quotes or long passages. It may even include some biblical passages used to augment the thesis as presented. This trap, unfortunately, leaves the writer of the essay voiceless, with no real opportunity to share what they understand.
Maybe the highest learning curve for seminarians to scale in their academic writing is constructing a conversation with the texts and authors that inform the thesis of an essay, sermon, or devotional. Asking the “how” question in a variety of ways can help open up this essential conversation. How does this scholar of the required reading ground my work and understanding of this concept? How does this quotation help me see further than I did previously? How does this idea help me uncover truths that were hidden or partially in view until now? How does this text resonate with my experience? How does it cause dissonance? How do I respond to this concept in light of what the author has had to say and the ministry God has called me to?
Choosing relevant quotes helps create a dialogue with a given text. Interacting with the chosen quote creates a conversation that allows you, the writer, to share what you think. Include a quote or its most essential aspect that addresses the point you are trying to make. Unpack the quote. Explain it, discussing it in your own words. It might be that your dialogue with the source means discussing the strengths or weaknesses of the idea. Give an example that supports the claim being made or contradicts it.
A text and its author might be your primary conversation partner, but interacting with them doesn’t mean you necessarily agree. It’s possible to point to another author or source for a contrasting point of view. Or it could even mean amending the idea for a particular circumstance. In these cases, it is a good rule of thumb to see if the parameters of the assignment allow for this kind of further discussion. It might be that, in a shorter piece focusing on a particular concept, there just isn’t room to entertain the conversation further.
As an act of faithful Christian discipleship, writing provides the opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of an idea by engaging in dialogue with relevant texts from across the centuries. Seminary and graduate theological studies require that you demonstrate your thinking about course materials through writing. It is appropriate preparation for when your parishioners ask you about an issue because they believe you to be a reliable and worthy example for their own formation and discipleship.