The Christian Writer: The Invisible Writer

Sometimes the best writers are ones that aren’t seen.

Have you ever had that feeling? You know the one. While reading a book you feel the writer trying to show off? That frustration you feel when you know that big word really didn’t need to be there, especially when a simpler, more common term could be used to the exact same effect. Thankfully I’ve rarely encountered this, but there has been times where I’ve been pushed out of the story because of the writer’s intrusion. If this is a bit confusing, let me explain.

Some newer writers (I myself was once a victim as well) tend to show off their vocabulary skills by using words the casual reader wouldn’t grasp unless they reached for a dictionary. Trust me, that’s about as frustrating as it gets. They also tend to write something called “purple prose.” This is prose that’s so full of description and pretty words that it draws attention to itself rather than the story. It’s simply prose that’s so over the top it’s obvious the writer was showing off. Then we have the idea that using only the word said to describe a person speaking is the sign of an amateur writer. The truth is, it’s actually the other way around. Why? Because the word said is invisible. It doesn’t draw any attention to itself. It’s only purpose is to let the reader know who’s speaking (ask is another word like this). Words like queried, grumbled, gasped (and one I tend to use), sighed, aren’t invisible, so they draw attention to themselves and break the flow of the story. Most times the reader can tell the way a character is speaking just by the context of the sentence and the words alone, so adjectives other than said are really unnecessary.

This concept has got me thinking (you knew it was coming), do we take the idea of purple prose and attention breaking sentence structure into our own lives as well? If God’s the writer of our lives, are we letting His story shine through us, or are we getting in the way? Are we drawing the reader’s attention to ourselves other than the story God’s written in us?

I see those new Christians and new writers. They want to be super heroes, be the best, and save the day; and that’s brilliant. I reveled in that same place and learnt from my mistakes, as we all do. But as we grow and mature I’ve found myself realizing that we’re not the heroes, Christ is. Instead of saying, “Look how great God is,” we say, “Look how good I am!” Living righteously comes from a relationship with Christ, not our own works. Our holiness is a gift that was purchased with Christ’s blood, not our own.

So maybe it’s time we stopped drawing attention to ourselves. Maybe it’s time we stepped back to allow the story to really shine and capture the reader. Maybe it’s time to admit that we’re broken on our own. and that our stories are a mess. Maybe it’s when we stop worrying about the quality of our writing that the story really begins to come alive. All the quality will be added later on. But hey, I’m only working on the rough draft myself, and rough drafts are always dirt. But then again, isn’t it God who makes amazing things out of the dirt?

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9 thoughts on “The Christian Writer: The Invisible Writer

  1. Excellent post, Lucas! I really appreciate how you were able to give a teaching that applies to both writing and the Christian walk. Well done!

  2. I do agree with what you are saying Luc; I think it is very important not to lose our readers in redundant vocabulary. But I think that a ***fluent use of vocabulary is needed if we ever want to become a better writer. No, we shouldn’t be grabbing the dictionary from the shelf ever 5 minutes, but I believe the more descriptive a scene without the use of numerous basic words the better. I must admit that like a book with difficult words, I see it as a challenge. If I learn them now, I’ll enjoy the next book that has them, because I’ll know what the book is saying. 😀
    BUT, as you mentioned before, if you are trying to show off (like I did at the beginning of my blog), well there’s no need in repeating what’s already been said in Luc’s post.
    What do you think?
    CJR Odyssey

    1. Interesting post CJ. If I could point out a few things. “An affluent (if that’s the word you’re trying to say there) use of vocabulary is needed if we ever want to become a better writer.” An affluent use of vocabulary isn’t the words you say, but how you say them. You could use big words (if big words convey what you’re trying to say the best way possible), but if how you say them doesn’t flow and it doesn’t properly convey what you’re trying to tell the reader, it’s only going to be a mess.

      On your point about description, description should be used in creative and fresh ways, not complex ways with foreign words. If your words paint a clear picture, then that’s enough. A good example would be Frank Peretti’s books. He uses simple everyday words to describe a scene, yet he paints the clearest picture in new and creative ways, but at the same time he doesn’t give me too much information so I can add my own spin to the description in my own imagination, and this is one of the many joys of being a reader. I believe it was Stephen King who said, “In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.”

      On reading fiction to gain a larger vocabulary, well, that really isn’t a good reason to read fiction. If you want to read to gain vocabulary, non-fiction would be a better source to serve that purpose; but if you want to read a novel that’s challenging vocabulary wise, you aren’t going to be able to find a lot of novels written like that. Unless you look to novels written in old English or novels that are purposely challenging to read, and even these are challenging, not because of difficult vocabulary, but because of the way they’re written.
      See, most readers don’t want a book that’s filled with difficult words on every page, they want a challenging story that’s well written and flows. Difficult words mostly serve to break the flow of the narrative.

      I think the best thing any writer has said are these words from Elmore Leonard, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.”

      1. When I said fluent, I was more meaning both affluent as you said but also consistent. …. meaning if you are going to write with fancy words, you should write with fancy words through the entire book…. not just chapter 1. That was the problem I had when I began my blog. If you speak fluent English, you not only know the meanings of lots of English words and how to say it, but you don’t insert French words throughout the sentence at random… that’s the point I was getting at.

      2. Exactly. Consistency is vital if the story is to flow. Most fancy words, because they’re often not used throughout the book, seem to always be inserted at random so it breaks any flow or momentum the writing has and causes the reader to think on the word, and not the story.

        I apologize if I’m missing it, but I’m a little confused. None of your above post pointed at using consistent language, but on using difficult words and not using “numerous basic words.” Now you’re saying we shouldn’t use big words unless they’re throughout the entire book?

  3. BUT I WILL MENTION, a more complex and colour picture painted means less imagination will take place. It is just a different style of writing used. I think if one prefers to imagine more and write less, or write more and imagine less, they should stick to the author that best suits their personal preference. When you say most people would rather reading difficult words more often, I think that is because they don’t know them. If all readers had an extensive knowledge of vocabulary, then authors of present times would use extensive knowledge. English is slowly disintegrating into more algorithms and basic wording… it used to be that only rich people who could afford an education could actually read, so they took pride in it. These days people who in a more proper and with extensive vocabulary are looked down upon, or thought as “weird.” But that is only because the general population doesn’t speak that way.
    I respect both sides of the coin… and both styles of writing
    CJR Odyssey

    1. You say English has been deteriorating, but the question is, why? Is it because of slack education, or is it because books written with an extensive and complex choice of words just aren’t enjoyable, and people are seeing it, so literature has turned to a more common style. You have a timeless classic like Moby Dick, but it is written with such complex vocabulary, detail, and description that it’s over 500 pages long, yet I’ve heard critics say the actual story could have been told in 200 pages or less. I can say from personal experience that they’re just not very enjoyable because they’re not being invisible. They’re like a director jumping out of a TV and shouting in your ear, “Look at this scene, how brilliant is this!” Maybe that’s why English is changing, readers are recognizing that the richly educated show TOO much pride in their writing, as you pointed out. Maybe English isn’t disintegrating, but improving. Yeah, some people may enjoy it, but the majority of readers (including myself) like something simple that they can escape to as a pass time. I read an old English novel for school and it was one of the worst things I’ve ever had to endure. I constantly got detached from the story because it went through entire pages of unnecessary detail that did nothing to move the plot forward and only seemed to serve to show the writer’s skill and knowledge. I’ve heard similar complaints from other old novels too. I’m not sure how many old English novels you’ve read, but that’s what I see when I compare those novels to novels written today. And if I may, It’s a little disrespectful and mean spirited to present day writers to come to the conclusion that English is disintegrating. We write because we love to, and as Christian writers we’re trying to reach the Gospel to the lost through the means of fiction. We try our best, but in the end we want to be invisible so that the Lord may be glorified.

      Something else that I found interesting was when you said, “These days people who in a more proper and with extensive vocabulary are looked down upon, or thought as “weird.” I’ve actually seen the opposite, where richly educated people with an extended vocabulary look down on those who aren’t educated. And I’ll be honest and say that I side with those uneducated writers. They may not have a large vocabulary, but do they write such great stories! They’re almost magical. They don’t aim to show their readers their skill, they write what comes from their heart; and people see, not how good of a writer they are, but how good the story is and how much they connect with it. That’s the kind of character I want to have in my own writing. I don’t want to take any of the compliments, I want my readers to connect with the stories and the characters in a way that compliments them!

      In the end, this seems to have spiraled into the very same place it began. Be Invisible. Don’t show off, and though it’s great to be proud of your work (it’s one of the great rewards of writing), don’t make yourself believe you are above everyone else, and don’t TRY to be above everyone else. A competitive writer (or a competitive anything) is never an enjoyable person to be around.

      “May I decrease, so that He may increase.”

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