Thursday, April 14, 2011

Why Writing Matters in Theological Study

First, an admission: I am almost entirely self-taught as a writer. I feel comfortable and competent in only four genres of writing: correspondence, blog posts, sermons, and academic essays. Outside of these, I am a babe in the woods, and my abilities are unevenly developed even among these four. All of this is to suggest that when I admonish theological students to work on their writing, (1) I have and continue to do so myself, and (2) I know that progress is possible.

Why is writing ability important in theological study? As in any humane discipline, theology is text-heavy. We are concerned with analyzing and producing texts. I reflected on the analyzing bit on Tuesday. As a theological student, good writing is important because writing essays or exams is how you demonstrate competency, and demonstrating competency is important because achieving that competency is ultimately in service of the proclamation of the gospel. In other words, you need to be able to preach.

I personally think that sermons are a much more difficult genre than writing academic essays, because you have whole rhetorical realms in play there that are not when someone like me asks you to write about Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, for instance. If you cannot make yourself clear in the more basic genre, you may have trouble with the more complicated genre.

The point of this post is to provide, from the viewpoint of a theological educator (admittedly, early in his career), two aphorisms about the importance of good writing in theological study.

Aphorism #1: Good writing covers a multitude of sins.

Think about it: do you think it could possibly be a good thing if your instructor is reading along in your paper, and must stop every few words to think about a missing period, an awkward construction, a missing preposition, or to wonder where a quote began because you forgot the opening quotation mark, etc.? If there is any doubt, let me clear it up for you – this is not a good thing. On the other hand, it is a very good thing if your instructor can read peacefully through your paper and understand how your phrases, sentences and paragraphs fit together, and - consequently - what you are saying.

Aphorism #2: Bad writing suggests bad thinking.

It is impossible to write well (clearly) without having first thought well (clearly). The upshot of this is that when you write badly (unclearly), it strongly suggests that you have first thought badly (unclearly). You might very well have a remarkable intuitive grasp of the material in question, but everything comes down to communication (just like in preaching). If you cannot tell your instructor in a structured and reasonable manner about the material of which you purport to have an intuitive grasp, chances are that there is no such intuitive grasp. In any case, there is no way for your instructor to know about it (this goes for your congregation, too). Coincidently, and as an added bonus, working at writing well (clearly) will help you to think well (clearly).
What’s the bottom line? Work on your writing!

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5 comments:

Aaron Darrisaw said...

Well said; or, more appropriately, well written.

Bobby Grow said...

Travis,

Good points! You forgot an "r" in the "you" in this sentence: On the other hand, it is a very good thing if your instructor can read peacefully through you paper and understand how your phrases, sentences and paragraphs fit together, and - consequently - what you are saying. ;-) :-)

W. Travis McMaken said...

Bobby,

I don't know what you're talking about. It looks like there "r" is there to me. ;-)

' said...

Its just that our flow of concentration was throw off a bi;; . . . . but no worries, I was able to carr on (I used to be a grader too ;-). Lol

Bobby Grow said...

'said was me, I have no idea how that happened. That's what I get for trying to be a smart alek.