Review: Write Better

Write Better

Write BetterAndrew T. LePeau. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: An experienced writer and editor describes the craft, art, and spirituality of writing well, or at least better.

“Writing is hard work. Writing well is even harder. But there are ways not only to make it easier but better. Having spent my whole career as a writer and editor, I offer a book on craft and character for nonfiction writer” (p. 231).

Andrew T. LePeau uses these words as a model of distilling to an “elevator pitch” what his book is about. This summary characterizes what one will find throughout this work, a skilled writer and editor who shows rather than just tells us how to write better. As a blogger who is also in the midst of a book project, this book was both humbling and a goldmine.

The goldmine is the wealth of practical advice on writing well. LePeau focuses on three aspects: craft, art, and spirituality. Craft focuses on titles, openings, closings, and everything that comes in between. He proposes when we open that we start writing, and then go back and throw out the first three paragraphs, by which time we’ve figured out what to say! He talks about structure while proposing that we scrap outlines because we often don’t know what we want to say until we start saying it. He discusses persuasion, and how to do this with integrity. He emphasizes the importance of story in writing dramatic non-fiction. He offers advice for overcoming writers block. He would affirm that “[t]here’s no such thing as good writing. “There’s only good rewriting.” Then he shows us how to do it.

LePeau begins his discussion of the art of writing with a chapter on creativity that offers the hope that all of us can grow in our creativity. Other chapters argue that all the rules of good writing are made to be broken–especially when breaking them results in clearer and more gripping writing, that tone, the key to powerful prose, is the writer’s attitude toward what they are writing–what the writer thinks and feels, and that we are wired for metaphor. Most of all, he contends that less is more. This last offers the 700 words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, perhaps among the greatest, as an example of this principle.

The final part of the book treats something you might not expect in a book on writing well. LePeau talks about the spirituality of writing, beginning with one’s sense of calling. He recounts his answer to his daughter’s question, “Dad, what’s your calling?” He responded, “I think it is to glorify God with words, whether written or spoken.” He offers five rubrics for discerning calling, illustrating from his own life how these worked out. The quest for “voice” is de-mystified. All writing is biography in the sense that it expresses what we’ve learned, and experienced and we do well to be self-aware, if not self-conscious about that. He writes about our struggle to let our work go into the world, and how we deal with the responses of others to that work.

The book concludes with practical appendices on platforms, editors and agents, co-authoring, self-publishing, and copyright, including how ownership and proceeds of our work is to be handled should we die (it might be time to get that will revised!).

I mentioned that the book is humbling. I found myself holding my own writing up to LePeau’s descriptions and realized how much work I have to do to “write better.” That didn’t discourage me. He offers alternatives and options I (and probably many other writers) haven’t thought of. He showed me how much better rewriting can be and the benefits of editors, agents, and external readers who help us see the flaws we are blind to in our own writing. He suggests both that it is not crazy to sense one is called to write, and yet not to take oneself too seriously. He gives this down to earth advice:

“Second, some people ask themselves, ‘Am I a writer?’ I don’t think this is a very helpful question because it implies we must have some degree of innate talent to earn the title–and if we don’t have that inborn ability, we should just do something else. My feeling is that if you write, you’re a writer. If you work hard to improve your craft and to communicate clearly to others, you’re a writer. And if others read what you write, let them decide what they think about it and you” (pp. 177-178).

Writing for others not only is hard but uncovers all the insecurities within us. LePeau’s advice here, and throughout the book, is characterized by the unpretentious common sense that calms fears, and offers the coaching that helps the writer lean into the hard work that turns ideas into books. Now, to get back to that book project….

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Disclosure of Material Connection: Thanks, InterVarsity Press, for the chance to read a galley copy of this forthcoming book. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Mark Through Old Testament Eyes

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Mark Through Old Testament EyesAndrew T. LePeau. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017

Summary: The first in a series of commentaries looking at the Old Testament background of the New Testament text, with attention to the meaning of structural elements in the text, and the practical implications of the text for Christians and churches.

There are a myriad of commentary series on the market today. Of course there are scholarly exegetical commentaries that work up from the original languages and extant texts to give the best reading of a passage, popular commentaries that distill this information with more emphasis on contemporary relevance, and more recently, commentaries that collect the commentary of the church fathers or writers in a particular church tradition. This commentary, the first of a series focused on the New Testament corpus, explores how the Old Testament, which was the Bible of the New Testament writers, deeply informs their thought, not only where Old Testament material is quoted but also as background to much of its content.

The commentary is organized around four repeating features:

  • Running commentary, that offers Old Testament background and other key information for each paragraph, if not each verse. Working through LePeau’s commentary made the case for the idea of this series. Nearly every verse, and certainly every pericope in Mark is informed by Old Testament backgrounds. In the opening verses of Mark 1, for example, the commentary explores terms like “beginning,” “good news,” “Jesus,” “Messiah,” “Son of God,” “wilderness,” and “baptism of repentance.” And that is just the first four verses!
  • Through Old Testament Eyes, which are summaries at the end of chapters or sections looking at how Old Testament themes are used by the author. At the end of the commentary on Mark 1, the commentary notes how the first chapter draws on the themes of exodus, and sets up how the ministry of Jesus will parallel this in a new exodus narrative.
  • What the Structure Means looks at how the material in the text is organized by the author through things like chiasmus and parallel structures, and how this points to textual meaning. Throughout the book, LePeau looks at the ways Mark structures the narrative, using many tables to do so. One of the most informative sections is the “What the Structure Means: Outline of Mark 13” taking this difficult to understand apocalyptic passage, and proposing an A-B-A-B structure to the passage that makes sense of the whole, alternating passages focused on the temple with passages focused on the coming of the Son of Man.
  • Going Deeper sections unpack the implications of key themes in passages. For example, “Going Deeper into Choosing Life: Mark 3:1-6” explores how this involves both what we refrain from (the prohibitions of the ten commandments, which LePeau calls “ten paths to freedom and life”) and what we proactively embrace that brings life to others, just as Jesus brings healing that liberates on the Sabbath.

The commentary is accessible and organized to be helpful for all who preach or teach the gospel of Mark. No background in original languages is assumed. One of the features I found most helpful, in addition to the extensive Old Testament background are the various tables included throughout the text that offer ideas as to the structure of larger portions of Mark. So often, Bible study is simply one verse after another without attention to the larger framework of a passage or book. At the end of the commentary, lists of “tables,” “through Old Testament Eyes,” and “Going Deeper” discussions are provided. For teachers of this material, it might be a great resource to provide web-based versions of the tables with appropriate permission granted for their use for educational purposes.

It was fascinating to note another “background” for much of the material in this book, one I share. The author, formerly an associate editor at InterVarsity Press, part of the collegiate ministry with which I work, acknowledges his debt to the work of Paul Byer and the tradition of “Mark manuscript Bible study” used in our discipleship efforts for many of the insights (and even some of the tables) in the book. LePeau has made a signal contribution to that tradition in this volume, which I hope many of my colleagues, as well as many others, will use in preparing studies in Mark. And as series editor, LePeau has set the bar high for future volumes in this series, which I hope will bring a deeper appreciation to many throughout the church of the Old Testament background of the New Testament scriptures.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.