21st-Century Writing

I’ve been writing and publishing for a long time. Just look at me: a lonnnnng time.

During those many years of experience, I’ve learned a thing or two. Maybe three. And among the things I’ve learned about writing for publication is that writers in the twenty-first century must do things differently than writers in previous centuries.

Sure, generally speaking, the rules of fiction and nonfiction remain the same; but this twenty-first century requires twenty-first adjustments for writers—and perhaps for Christian writers in particular.

For example, I began to realize decades ago that I could no longer refer to and cite the Bible in ways that graduates of “sword drills” and “Bible baseball” like myself would understand and appreciate. I could no longer assume that a reader would understand what “1 Thess.” means. So I long ago began writing out biblical references and even, more recently, started introducing biblical material in ways that would be accessible to readers with no Bible knowledge. So, for instance, I might introduce a passage as “an ancient prophet once wrote” instead of “as Isaiah 40:1 says.” Similarly, I might mention “a first-century letter to a pastor named Timothy” instead of simply referring to “1 Timothy.” Sure, it takes more words; but it seems a small price to pay for avoiding confusion.

I’ve also disciplined myself to use (in most cases) “human” instead of the universal “man” and “humanity” for mankind. I admit that I still cling to “he/she” rather than the singular “they,” which I regard as an abomination; but we all have our little quirks, right?

Another twenty-first century adjustment for writers is the assiduous avoidance of “Christianese”—that is, Christian slang and jargon (also, it’s probably best to avoid phrases like “assiduous avoidance”). So, I use the phrase “blood of the Lamb” only when quoting Scripture or hymns. I don’t write about “being saved” but prefer to use more explanatory phrasing, such as “experiencing new life by turning from sin and following Jesus,” or something like that. Again, I know it’s wordier. But the time is long past when Christian writers can assume even the most basic knowledge of Christian terminology.  

On that note, one other twenty-first century adjustment is the enlistment of sensitivity readers into your critique circle. So, for example, if you’re unsure as to whether your writing contains “Christianese,” ask someone with no church background to read and critique your drafts. If you’re a male writing scenes that depict female characters (or vice versa), enlist beta readers who can help you determine if your characters all sound suspiciously unlike the opposite sex. And if you’re depicting people of different race, ethnicity, and nationality, a sensitivity reader can help you to make sure your depictions are fairly accurate and appropriate. (Be aware, however, that this is a bit of a minefield these days.)

These few twenty-first century adjustments I recommend merely scratch the surface, I know. (Maybe I should have mentioned avoiding clichés, too.) I’m confident the sharp readers of this blog can suggest a few others. Or protest mine. That’s why we allow comments.

24 Responses to 21st-Century Writing

  1. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 13, 2021 at 5:04 am #

    I ain’t gonna cook my books
    to chase the hipster squirrel,
    and anyhow, last time I looked,
    seemed like ‘they’, yeah, still was plural.
    And I got saved by Jesus,
    washed in Blood Of Holy Lamb,
    and if ye wanna make a fuss,
    know I’m an old-school man,
    KJV in my right hand,
    White Lightnin’ in the other,
    and Bubba, better understand,
    I’d kick-box my own mother
    and commit more heinous crimes
    before I bow to modern times.

  2. Debby Kratovil October 13, 2021 at 5:21 am #

    Excellent, Bob! I agree: it’s important to adapt without diluting. Words mean things and I shouldn’t cling to what worked 20 years ago. I have to ask myself: am I writing to entertain myself or do I wish to persuade for the Gospel? This is especially true for us oldsters (me, not you!) as we seek to make relevant – and powerful – the words of Scripture to young people (ie, grandkids).

  3. Cole Powell October 13, 2021 at 5:47 am #

    And this is precisely why I loathe 21st-century writing. When I read modern books, whether religious or secular, I see little beauty in structure, little intellect in vocabulary, and, frankly, feel like I’m being patronized and having my intelligence insulted. Mainstream writing seems to now be predominantly for the “lowest-denominator” reader, leaving the rest of us, at best, unchallenged and, at worst, dragged down to a lower level of thinking as our brains atrophy from lack of stimulation.

    What about us readers who can not only understand but actually prefer “dollar words,” jargon, semicolons, long sentences, etc.? Are there really so few of us that we do not constitute a commercially viable demographic for new material? Or has a giant assumption developed in the publishing industry that most readers require rudimentary writing to understand things these days?

    I used the word “devour” in a chapter of a fantasy MS I’m working on, and a beta reader recently told me, “Most readers won’t know what that word means.” Really? Has it gotten THAT bad? Surely not, right?

  4. Colleen K Snyder October 13, 2021 at 6:18 am #

    One of the first “rules” of writing: know your audience. Who are you writing to? (As opposed to, to whom are you writing?!) If I’m writing to the “common reader” then I best use vocabulary they will understand. But yes, I will use “devour” and let the reader look it up. (Which is how I learned most of my vocabulary.)

    If, however, I am writing a technical piece, my vocabulary and style will change. If I’m writing to “friends,” the style changes again. We CAN be all things to all people, so that by all means we may save some. It comes to two questions: who are we writing to/for, and Why?

    • Cole Powell October 13, 2021 at 7:15 am #

      Colleen, you are absolutely right. So, let’s boil me down as an audience member: Clean speculative fiction reader who wants to be intellectually engaged while also being entertained.

      However, I don’t see any books for my type of reader being published, and when I tried to fill the gap myself by writing for people like me, a repeated response I’ve received from beta readers (and the one publisher who kindly took the time to offer more than a form rejection) is, “The story’s great, but the writing is too advanced for the average reader.” Even when I expressly identify the target audience beforehand as “NOT the average reader,” it rarely makes a difference in the response.

      So, it appears to me that, as a reader, I am either utterly alone or else in a demographic that is being ignored. Either way, the publishing industry seems to have little interest in publishing books for readers like me.

      If it’s because there are truly too few of us to constitute a viable market, I get it. It saddens me, but I get it. However, if there actually is such a market waiting to be tapped, what, if anything, can convince publishers? I would just like to pick up a clean high fantasy book that requires a knowledge of the English language beyond junior high vocabulary words.

      • Wendy October 13, 2021 at 6:01 pm #

        Have you considered self-publishing? If you market your book to intellectuals, it might take off in those communities, if well-received.

  5. Frank October 13, 2021 at 6:34 am #

    You are on point with your thoughts. Maybe you should comply a book of the old sayings verses the 21st century terms

  6. Linda Riggs Mayfield October 13, 2021 at 6:45 am #

    Oh, Andrew, LOL!

  7. Kristen Joy Wilks October 13, 2021 at 7:32 am #

    A good reminder to consider our audience! Our writing should change depending on who we seek to write for. This reminds me of speaking to teens and children since I live and work at a Bible camp. People falsely assume that one must “talk down” to children and even teens, but that is simply not true. One must connect with children knowing they are children. One must connect with teens, knowing that they are different than an adult with a degree from a Bible college but not less intelligent, simply younger with different life skills. In fact, in our experience, teens are far more willing to dive deep into scripture, wrestle with difficult topics, and boldly consider how God’s Word applies to their lives than adults are. Hone your skills for communication with your chosen audience. If you value them, don’t scoff at what they don’t know, choose to honor them as they learn and grow and you will be on the right path to giving the gift of your writing in a way that they can delight in.

  8. Jim Lacy October 13, 2021 at 8:27 am #

    With all the criticism of the article voiced I would add that Christian intellectuals are few. Not everyone, like yourself, is educated and familiar with Christian terms and language. Use the Bible, but try to understand that a vast number of people who read your stuff may not understand what you’re talking about. Maybe they are the ones you want to reach and help?

  9. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 13, 2021 at 8:31 am #

    If you’d be willing to suffer another comment from me…

    I can’t agree that we can dispense with ‘saved’, and ‘blood of the Lamb’; these are at the heart of Christianity, a beating, wounded Heart that transcended treason, torture, and murder to save us from hell’s flame. Following Christ is great, but our rescue is not of our own making, and if we do not accept that we are bathed in the hot, salty blood of an Innocent, every hour of every day, I think we rather miss the point.

    I’m mostly turned away from sin
    and vaguely follow Christ,
    but on this path I won’t begin
    to ignore the sacrifice
    brought in blood on my behalf
    through torture and through treason,
    picked from threshing-parlour chaff
    for Heaven-shining reason.
    I could not do this on my own
    (like lifting self by my own hair!);
    to turn and follow won’t atone,
    and will not take me where
    salvation comes from love divine:
    “I died for you, and you are Mine.”

  10. Wendy October 13, 2021 at 8:41 am #

    I’ve used a singular “they” for decades, when referring to someone who is unknown, or whose identity I want to protect–but not as a social statement. I remember, as a child, every academic book used “he” to refer to people in general. As a girl, I felt excluded and treated as “less than.” (Imagine if writers used “she” exclusively.)

    It’s awkward to use “he/she,” or to alternate between “he” and “she,” so I use “they” generically. Perhaps an editor (or agent) would disagree, but I think it’s the best option.

  11. Susan Brehmer October 13, 2021 at 8:52 am #

    I appreciate all these insights about the Bible and ways to seamlessly invite others into the conversation.

  12. Bob Hostetler October 13, 2021 at 8:54 am #

    There’s much in the above comments (and thank you, all, for commenting) that I agree with. Speaking only for myself, I’d be AOK if all of today’s writers wrote in Elizabethan English, as I consider the KJV and works of Shakespeare beautiful and challenging in many good ways. But times change. As a writer-for-publication, I write to be understood. I also know that my friends who are tasked with acquiring and publishing books for publishing houses (an expensive process before the first book is sold) must know and deal with the realities of the marketplace. Faced with a choice between a book that is accessible to and can be enjoyed by 80% of the book-buying population and another that is accessible to the more intellectual and sophisticated 10% of the population, their choice is usually quite clear (particularly since they have employees who don’t wish to be laid off). So, while I love me some Shakespeare, I must often put aside my own linguistic and intellectual preferences for the readers’ sake.

    • Cole Powell October 13, 2021 at 3:05 pm #

      Bob, I’m with you. I’ll take the Bard and KJV all day every day! I must wonder though: Which came first? A large majority readership who can’t follow educated writing, or basic writing that has yielded a less educated majority readership? 🤔 Maybe I should research and write a book about it! 😉

  13. red October 13, 2021 at 10:34 am #

    are we singing to the choir? Yes, then go with Christian lingo. I love to write, to teach, to honor the Lord. The best way to reach the most people is not get preachy. Honor the Lord with your work. Tell a good tale and the church made it’s fastest growth by showing, not telling non-believers Christ is first good, then cool, then loved them to pieces. Lt your readers understand that the protagonist is a believer. Make him respectable, upright, fun-loving but tough, and when he gets wounded, the reader will ‘bleed’ with him. Walk in His beauty

  14. OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU October 13, 2021 at 11:07 am #

    Thanks Bob! God bless you. This post was very beneficial to me. It helps to be reminded now and again about being cautious when writing about other nationalities in our writing.

  15. Tiffany Price October 13, 2021 at 2:49 pm #

    Hi Bob,
    Great content and insight in this post! I find that these are things I need to be more mindful of while crafting my blog posts. I tend to write for the Christian, using biblical phrases that are commonly spoken in church or read out in a Bible study, but I know that I have many followers who are not Christian. As a result, I need to consider my audience and adjust my writing! Thanks for presenting this helpful challenge!

  16. Cathy Mayfield October 14, 2021 at 3:57 am #

    Oh, Bob, this came at a time I’ve been considering giving up on my attempt to write fiction. But I also recalled recent critiques of part of some homeschool curriculum in which the person said I cannot refer to differences between male and female. The point I’d been writing about had to do with bullying stereotypes. I’m confused. Family members this week said I can’t write a scene/article/etc. with any of the following: a pink blanket covering a baby girl, a little boy playing with cars, a white (black/Hispanic/etc.) married couple. I’m afraid to write anything because of the possibility I may be seen as offensive, prejudiced, uncaring, and even abusive (their words!). Anyone who knows me knows I simply love everyone and struggle to never make waves. I’m not called to do so. I’m a mercy who cares for the bullies, the outcasts, yet, though I love a person I recently discovered became transgender, I can’t … won’t “support” the decision. But I’m told I’m to write with that thought in mind??? I’d love to discuss these things with you, Bob. (I’d actually like to chat with you about Ed V’s book. There is much urgency to get it written now. I’m sure you know what I mean. If you’d be willing to chat sometime, send me a PM, please. I know you’re a crazy busy man, but I also know you have the heart. Not intended as a bribe! LOL!)

    • Patti Townley-Covert October 14, 2021 at 9:22 am #

      Cathy, I’d suggest you make a bit of a game of it–write it with the pink blanket, then go back and edit–make it green or purple or plaid. Toy cars–let a little girl play with them or turn the toy cars into a play stove pots and pans –men cook. Creativity can be fun and fresh instead of the same old, same old. More words but more inclined to be read and considered current. I’m reading a wonderful old book by J. Sidlow Baxter where he uses roman numerals for Scripture verses. It is bulky and tiresome but his material is so good I take the time to decipher them. Thankfully I’m familiar with roman numerals, but I think of how that limits his audience. The main question as others have alluded to is “who are you writing for?” If yourself, do it however you want. If you want to broaden your audience to receive an important message, do all you can to make it readable without compromising core biblical values.

    • Bob Hostetler October 14, 2021 at 2:42 pm #

      Cathy, as you’ve discovered, the 21st century writing path is fraught with danger. 🙂 However, you’ve already experienced a heightened sensitivity, and I think that’s the primary requisite. We’re all going to stumble here and there along the way, but your “mercy” bent will serve you well, as God-glorifying and life-changing writing must be “always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone,” as a first-century church planter once wrote.

  17. Jeannie Waters October 15, 2021 at 8:49 am #

    I will keep this post for reference. I especially appreciate the advice to identify Bible characters for the sake of reader comprehension. Thank you.

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