The best writers, writing teachers often say, are avid readers, and high on their reading lists are great writers, those who stand as exemplars of what good writing is. So it stands to reason, if one wants to become a good writer, one should read the works of great writers and follow their examples.
I realized while reading the other day that one such great writer is typically overlooked as a writing exemplar because his name is generally associated not with writing instruction but with religious instruction. That’s too bad because writers can learn a lot of important principles about not only spirituality but also writing from the psalmist David.
Consider, for example, only one of his psalms, perhaps the most famous one, one known among even non-religious people: Psalm 23, which is often called “The Shepherd’s Psalm.”
If you type that entire psalm as a Word document and then run that software’s spelling/grammar check feature, a box pops up showing the “readability statistics” for the piece. I did that, and what I discovered was an eye opener.
The entire psalm (in the King James Version) consists of only 118 words in 6 paragraphs. (For you Twitter aficionados who must worry about such things, it contains 478 characters.) David averages one sentence per paragraph (or verse) and 19.6 words per paragraph. The words he chose to use average 3.9 characters per word. In readability, the psalm scores 85.2 on the Flesch Reading Ease scale; is, according to the Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level chart, on the 4.6-grade level; and he used no passive constructions, only active voice.
So to what principles of good writing do all these statistics point? Well, I identified at least three, but you might discover even more upon careful study.
David shows that you can say a lot without using a lot of words. Only 118 words, but how much deep content they contain! They have been comforting millions of people down through the ages, and they continue to do so today.
We writers should never try to fool people into thinking we’re profound by piling on the verbiage. The older I get, the more I’m coming to conclude that those who are the most verbose aren’t really the smartest people on the block. If a writer’s central message is well thought-out, he or she should be able to communicate it concisely and succinctly. The root of the word concise is cis, which means “to cut out.” So “make every word count.” “When in doubt, cut it out!”
David wrote this psalm so simply that the average fourth-grade student can understand what he intended to communicate. The sentence structure is simple; the words are short (typically one syllable and less than four letters) and simple. But the message they communicate is deep, profound, emotional, and effective.
Too often, I’m afraid, writers try to impress readers with their alleged superior knowledge by using big words and complex sentence structure when simple terms and simple structuring can communicate just as (or perhaps even more) effectively. Never try to convince readers of the profundity of your thoughts by the obscurity of your vocabulary or the complexity of your sentence structure.
Producing writing that is brief and simple is not easy. It takes a great deal of thought and often many drafts before one gets it just right. I learned this lesson the hard way when I was tasked with revising the text of an eighth-grade history book. I quickly discovered that the reading level of the original text was twelfth grade! Reducing it to the eighth-grade level required shortening paragraphs, restructuring sentences, and using shorter words. It was hard work! But it can be done. We should do the same with our writing. Put your writing “on the bottom shelf,” where everyone who reads it can understand it.
And this leads to the third principle of good writing that we can learn from David’s psalm: humility. David was not only a talented writer but also a mighty king, a great warrior, and an able administrator and logistician. Yet, he was, more importantly, a humble writer. He knew that his writing talent came as a gift from God. He always remembered that he was just a simple shepherd who had been called by God to lead a great nation. He acknowledged that everything he accomplished, including his voluminous writing of most of the psalms, was a direct result of his being blessed and used by his God. He never took upon himself the praise that rightly belonged only to God. In himself, he was nothing. But God chose to use him to be a blessing, through his writings, to generations of people.
Do you have a gift for writing? Recognize that it is not due to anything within yourself; it is a gift from God. Also, acknowledge that, having that gift, you are accountable to its Giver for what you do with it, the uses to which you put it. So use it aright. “Use it, or lose it.”
These are just three principles of good writing we can learn from Psalm 23. You can probably come up with others. If so, share them with us in the comments section. But look beyond even those writing principles to discover the even more important life lessons it holds for the spiritual side of your life. If it’s been a while since you’ve read that psalm, why not read it again with a “fresh set of eyes.” (An excellent help in such an endeavor is Phillip Keller’s book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.) I look forward to hearing from some of you about what you glean from your own examination of David’s writing.