Finding Diamonds Means Digging Through Tons of Coal

I’ve been reading through a book titled God Tells the Man Who Cares by A.W. Tozer, which is a series of very brief essays on hearing and being led by the spirit of God. Tozer’s writing style is witty; his analytical style piercing and judicious. To date, I’ve read one other book by Tozer, The Size of the Soul, which is written in much the same style. Each piece is 3–6 pages. The sentences are terse, and Tozer wastes no time getting to the point.

For example, consider his opening sentences for the book:

The Bible was written in tears and to tears it will yield its best treasures. God has nothing to say to the frivolous man.1A. W. Tozer, God Tells the Man Who Cares, ed. Anita M. Bailey, 1st Moody Publishers ed (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Publishers, 2018), 1.

Tozer comes out swinging with a grand total of 24 words and insists that the reader engage in some self-reflection before proceeding. Am I willing to read the Bible in tears—to be be broken as the authors were broken? Am I frivolous? What does Tozer consider frivolous? Is this book for me?

Together, the title of the book and the opening lines provide a good indication of what’s to come. Tozer doesn’t really build up to the point. He just says it straight and then spends a few hundred words expounding upon his intent. He is decidedly non-pedantic because he is absolutely sure of what he means and how to say it. It’s like watching a carpenter sink a three-inch nail on the first hammer strike—a perfect combination of velocity and technique.

It’s delightful to read stuff like that, and doubly so when the subject matter (hearing God) is so vitally important. When it comes to spiritural growth, theoretical knowledge does no good—actually living the Christian life is what matters, and that is precisely what Tozer has in view throughout his writings. He doesn’t waste time getting to the point because there is no time to waste in living as we are made to live.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to my good friend Craig about my desire to get to the point in my own writing much faster.2Craig is also a writer with a focus on fiction. We’ve been friends since college, and our love for good stories has always been a major part of our friendship. We like to talk shop whenever we get a chance. I described Tozer’s style—the economy of word, the pace, the tight sentences, the depth of insight and asked, “How can Tozer go straight for the jugular like that?”

“My guess is that he probably wrote 6,000 words to get to 600,” Craig replied. “He wrote a lot and then got down to the essence.“

Tozer’s style has made an impression on me, especially since so much writing is a snoozefest that doesn’t respect the subject at hand or the reader’s time. And beyond that, my own process has usually been to grope around in the dark until I discover “the point,” and then I’ll edit.

In many cases, I discover that I’m trying to do too much—what started out as a single piece really needs to be 2–3 other essays. Sometimes I discover that I haven’t considered my ideas from all angles and that I need to dig deeper before writing half-baked ideas. And sometimes, I need to take a cue from Tozer and just say it straight and without engineering an on ramp to the point.

As I get older, the demands on my time continue to increase—I am a husband, a father of three small children, I work full time and freelance on the side, I fix things around the house and on our vehicles, plus there are friendships and family relationships to invest in and care for. I love writing, but with all of the other things in view, I really wish that I could write a clean(ish) piece on the first pass and have something publishable in about 30–45 minutes. This desire is, of course, contrary to everything that I’ve learned and read about writing since I began studying the craft in college.

As much as I’d like to write something that requires minimal editing, there is no way around the need for volume in order to produce a great piece. Even if I’m able to keep 70–80% of what I put down in a draft, there are still lots of tweaks and refinements that have to be made. Considerations like word choice, tone, pacing, and the like have to be deliberated and obsessed over to ensure that the point is clear and well received.

Writing is like digging through coal for diamonds. The editing process is like cutting and refining those diamonds so they shine in all their brilliance.

My conversation with Craig was a helpful reminder about the fundamentals of writing and why it’s important to keep writing and to write consistently. I write to figure things out and to learn what I think about things and why. That means the process will always be quasi-nebulous and never cut-and-dry. Tozer could get to the jugular because he wrote profusely, and he had trained his mind to think and his heart to speak directly and with deep passion.

I believe that consistent practice paves the way for cleaner and sharper first drafts, but I think there’s a limit. You can perfect your mining technique, but you’re still going to have to dig through coal to get to the diamonds. There’s no way to get to the cutting and polishing stage without actually mining.

  • 1
    A. W. Tozer, God Tells the Man Who Cares, ed. Anita M. Bailey, 1st Moody Publishers ed (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Publishers, 2018), 1.
  • 2
    Craig is also a writer with a focus on fiction. We’ve been friends since college, and our love for good stories has always been a major part of our friendship. We like to talk shop whenever we get a chance.
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