Most book authors do not work their way up through the ranks beginning with a college degree in journalism. Because of this, many have no exposure to the best practices of career writers and journalists.
Sure, book authors might be very creative, insightful and able to recite large sections of Strunk & White or the Chicago Manual of Style, but they are not as familiar with what makes for a good writing process behind the creativity, insight, and grammar.
Christian authors of non-fiction would be well served to spend some time learning about the code of conduct for journalists. It is actually an excellent way to challenge your thinking and be a better writer.
Most who study journalism start out with a set of professional standards, which should characterize their work. The Society of Professional Journalists publishes an ethics code for all members, which is a good summary of those standards. (Click here to view their Ethics Code)
Today, I’d like to focus on a few for Christian authors: truth, verification and objectivity.
When writing a work of non-fiction, every statement of fact should be treated with care, maybe more than you are accustomed. A little bell should ring in your head when you quote someone or name a source or state a fact, indicating you need to check one more time to see if the Scripture reference is correct or the date mentioned is accurate, or the statistic is verified to be true, checking multiple sources.
Your memory alone should never be your guide.
When I receive a proposal from an author who is a trained journalist or educator, it is filled with footnotes, attributed quotes, specific references, and detailed arguments. These writers are accustomed to defending what they write, almost in a manner similar to court testimony. No hearsay statements allowed, everything checked and double-checked.
When I receive a proposal to the agency from an author without training, there are often a lot of, “Our pastor once said…” and “I read somewhere…”
None of these would pass the verification test.
We need to be reminded often that what is contained in another book or on the Internet is not necessarily true.
Fake news is a growing scourge in the world right now, brought on by easy access to the Internet and social media. Without taking great care, authors may write bits of information from memory, rumor or from a prominent website without independently confirming whether the facts are actually true.
Is the divorce rate for Christians the same as non-Christians?
Are all churches shrinking?
Are all millennials leaving the church?
Might be worth your time to check the facts.
Next point, objectivity.
One of my favorite books about business and life is Freakonomics, by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner. (In their Freakonomics website they explore the “hidden side of everything.”)
One technique they employ which unlocks new information and perspective is to simply ask one more question.
For instance, when you see a poll indicating a trend in society, ask the question, “Who did the poll?” or “How was it conducted?”
Sometimes a research study can be self-serving to the organization behind it and not reliable as an indicator to anything.
A number of years ago, I was greatly disappointed when a Christian writer stated their approach began with a certain premise and then they proceeded to look for facts to support the premise.
Isn’t this a problem? Aren’t too many people in the world doing this?
The Christian writer should be different than everyone else and not for some altruistic integrity or honesty reason alone.
Anyone who has studied the Bible knows if you work your way through any of the 66 books, you will be confronted with issues, statements, people, events or clear proclamations from God which are unsettling at best. You might not even agree personally with what is found there.
Some passages may even wreck the premise you are trying to prove, which is exactly what God’s Word does on a regular basis.
If you hop around to statements you agree with and characters you like, you will not get an accurate picture of who God is and how he deals with humans.
Throughout the ages, many have used the pick-and-choose approach to the Bible to support all sort of evil and sinful behavior.
Using some simple techniques put forth by good journalists would be a good check and balance for anyone writing in the Christian market.
Don’t worry, the Bible defends itself well and will stand firm on it’s own merits.
If you are simply more concerned about portraying God’s heart and truth accurately than proving your own opinion, what you write will carry more power than you could possibly imagine.