Last week with Written on Their Hearts: Writing, Worship, and Spiritual Formation in the Life of the Mind, Dr. Royce Francis began a new series on writing with a new format for the ESN blog, i.e., Masterclass. Like a Masterclass in music or performance, it provides the opportunity to learn skills from an expert, as well as exercises designed by that expert to help you deepen those skills in your own academic life. In this series, which will run for the length of the spring semester, he will weave together theological reflection and practical suggestions on becoming a skilled writer in general and within your field. He will also provide exercises each week to give readers a way to put the ideas in the series into practice. Join ESN for a Masterclass in writing. Questions and conversation are welcome—feel free to use the Comments section to express them, or email them to http://www.intervarsity.org/contact/emerging-scholars-network.
He said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things that are new and fresh and things that are old and familiar.” – Matthew 13:52 AMP
To some, it may seem counter-intuitive to start a discussion on writing with an imperative to read. However, in learning how to teach writing to engineers, I have had the opportunity to reflect on what good writing requires. Most writing that I read, even in research article submissions, is poor because the authors simply do not read enough. One of the requirements of good writing is good reading.
To see why this is the case, it is good to consider a form of writing that all of us have had the opportunity to consume at one time or another: poetry. Poetry has several modes: psalm, song, sonnet, haiku, rap, spoken word performance … Most of us, even without literary inclination, interact with poetry on a daily basis. Poetry is fundamental to human experience. The reason poetry is so powerful is that it enters our minds and souls in a form that we ruminate on and easily recollect. How often do we have a song that just plays over and over in our minds? How often do smells and sounds bring to the forefront of our minds old memories and old songs? In worship, how often do the most profound truths capture our souls as we sing spiritual songs and hymns? The power of the word in song is that it does, in fact, consume us in ways that are unpredictable and sometimes uncontrollable. Our goal as readers or reciters of poetry is not to avoid poetry, but to fill our minds and hearts with poetry that is inspired by the spiritual ideas and realities that we want to fill us.
Although poetry is often shorter and uses literary devices that makes memory and meditation easier than written word in prose, this does not change the written word’s effect on us. When we read, we are filling our hearts and minds with the ideas of the writers we are reading. We are intentionally filling our souls with the words and thoughts of others. We make the authors our teachers. Our goal is to immerse ourselves in the thoughts of those who have gone before us with the intention of forming our souls according to the patterns of these teachers. And more to the point, even if we do not intend this spiritual formation, spiritual formation is nonetheless the end result. Even if it is more difficult to memorize or meditate, if we are intentional about our reading the end result of our reading in prose is the same as the end result of our hearing of poetry: our reading reforms our souls.
This is absolutely crucial to remember. If we rightly understand our writing as a spiritual discipline in walking with Jesus, then our reading is one way that Jesus teaches and forms us. In Matthew 13, Jesus is teaching. Although not everyone is privileged to understand what Jesus is saying, to those who do understand, he “will explain things hidden since the creation of the world.” (v.35, NLT) As we come to understand what Jesus teaches us, as we walk with him as his disciples, we will become “like the head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things that are new and fresh and things that are old and familiar.” (v.52, AMP). As you submit to Jesus’ leadership–including in your academic career–he will fill you with his thoughts. As you become full of his thoughts, you will understand the classical ideas of your discipline–things that are old and familiar. In addition to the classical ideas, you will be able to make new contributions because Jesus will explain things hidden since the creation of the world–things that are, to us, new and fresh.
To put this into action, I want you to do two things:
- Make a plan for your reading this week. My most successful weeks are those weeks when I have a plan for what I am going to read. My reading is typically aligned with my current writing projects, although I of course have some things that I am reading just to learn or enjoy (more on this tomorrow). Your plan should reserve time for writing and reading. To start, block out from each day this week 15-30 minutes for your writing, and 15-30 minutes for the specific reading you will be doing this week. You will probably end up spending more time than this on these tasks, but if you are just starting this discipline, it is good to keep these goals manageable at first. Write out your plan, and check off the days that you accomplish these goals so that you can hold yourself accountable.
- Read books, not papers. Sometimes my colleagues laugh at me when I go to walk in the library stacks and return with stacks of books. In my discipline, at least, reading books is going out of style. Very obviously I won’t read every one, but I prefer to base my ideas on things I read in books and not papers. The reason for this is that most papers written today are the product of minimal reflection. We all have heard of authors in engineering and the sciences writing the “least publishable unit.” If you are basing the formation of your souls on the least publishable unit, your formation will not be very deep because the author–your teacher–did not submit to deep formation. Books often are the result of years of research and study. In addition, they are the products of extended reflection on, and curation of, an idea. This is what you want forming your soul. If you are in engineering or science as I am, I challenge you to read a book (don’t laugh my humanities readers). Before you write that next proposal or outline that next paper, go to the library and find a book or biography from one of the seminal researchers in your field and read it first. Read a fiction book that addresses a topic on your heart. Trust me, this single piece of advice is going to change your academic life
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments. Share your approach to reading. And of course, share the ways that reading has informed your writing.
Peace and Blessing,
Royce is an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at the George Washington University. He conducts and teaches under the broad theme “SEED”: Strategic [urban] Ecologies, Engineering, and Decision making. His research and teaching interests include infrastructure sustainability and resilience measurement, risk analysis, and drinking water systems analysis. Royce is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA).