Floyd McNeill* farmed near the banks of the Moose Jaw River, one of those prairie rivers consisting of a deep, wide valley with a little creek meandering its way along a narrow channel on the bottom. Being near the river bank, there were stones scattered through the fields, some small enough that a man could have gathered them up with a few days of manual labour. Some were larger and would have required a tractor with a front end loader. Floyd did not have a front end loader, nor did he have much inclination for physical labour, so the stones remained.
Year after year Floyd seeded wheat in his fields without making any attempt to deal with the stones, or with the weeds that grew. At harvest time, some wheat was too short to cut and more was missed as he dodged around the stones. He was a bachelor, living alone along a back road in a house with no modern conveniences. He didn’t appear to need a lot of money, yet I occasionally wondered if he had some other source of income, perhaps the manufacture of a stimulating beverage.
One year he announced that he was going to farm scientifically. He bought certified seed and fertilizer for his fields, but did nothing about the weeds and the stones. As I drove by his farm that summer I saw that the weeds, particularly the wild mustard, were doing better than ever. The harvest could not have been much different than preceding years.
Too many Christian writers are like Floyd. They start with an inspiration from God, that is the good seed, and believe that is enough. The writing that results is full of weeds that choke out the message and littered with stones that break the teeth of the cutting bar when a reader attempts to glean the meaning hidden in the field of this writing.
Adjectives and adverbs are occasionally needed to make the meaning clear. When a writer adds more than are needed they become weeds choking out the life of the writing. Stones are awkward sentence structure, misuse of the passive voice, or words used inappropriately.
Writers are also readers. Sometimes we come upon a new word, think we understand it and decide to use it in our writing. Often this leaves the reader to guess what it was that we thought we were saying. I recently read an article that referred to “nascent believers.” I think the writer meant new believers, but that wasn’t what he said. Nascent means “in the process of being born.” Close maybe, but not the appropriate word. The writing had a good message, but was marred by a few clunkers like this and a few sentences that took a long time to find a stopping point.
Reading books by good authors will develop an ear for good English. It won’t work to copy their style, but noting passages that are particularly effective will help us in our own writing. Every writer should have a good dictionary and learn to use it, not a pocket edition but one that gives all shades of meaning, word origins and examples of usage. Every once in a while we should read a book about writing to see if we have fallen into bad habits.
We should not be like Floyd and think that having good seed is all that we need. Floyd would have resented any hint that he was lazy. So would most writers, yet the work required to provide a meaningful harvest for the reader may seem formidable. One well-known Canadian writer had this advice for his son: “Revise and revise, and revise again until you think there is nothing left that you can improve. Then revise one more time.”
*Not his real name. I have forgotten his real name, which is just as well.