Write Better, Andrew 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….
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.