New Cascade volume, The Writer, walks through Nijay K. Gupta’s approach to and best practices for becoming an effective and efficient writer in biblical studies. He handles a wide spectrum of issues from idea conception to research and note-taking to book proposals and contracts to working with publishers and more. Gupta shares his own publishing autobiography, offering the chance for aspiring writers to learn from the ups and downs of his experiences.
[The following excerpt is pulled from the introduction to The Writer.]
You can get a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and a doctorate—and still not really know how to research and write. Degrees often help you know the content and scholarship of your field, but where do you learn how to research and write? If you had actual courses on best practices in advanced note-taking and persuasive academic writing, you were one of the lucky ones. In my theological education, I had minimal direct training in any of this. What actually helped me out more than anything else was two journalism courses I had in college. I took those courses as part of a public relations major without any idea that I would end up being a professional writer.
Some people find the craft of writing more natural, others do not. Either way, colleges and seminaries do far too little to prepare “writers” to write. So, students understandably look for guidance elsewhere. There are many good books on the market. I recently enjoyed reading Andy LePeau’s succinct and insightful book, Write Better (2019), and I would also recommend Helen Sword’s books Stylish Academic Writing (2012) and Air and Light and Time and Space: How Successful Academics Write (2017). Writing in the world of biblical studies is its own special category. This field has its peculiarities and differs significantly from writing a good sermon manuscript or theology blog post.
Before we get too far into the weeds of the best techniques and tools for research and writing, it is crucial that writers spend time discerning why they write at all. Not everyone writes for the same reasons, but it helps to understand what motivates you and what will really satisfy that desire to publish an article, essay, or book. Let me say, while I affirm there are many reasons for writing, and each person has to discover their own niche and calling as a writer, I do think there are some bad reasons for writing and publishing. For example, if you think it is a pathway to making lots of money, think again. To make major income on book royalties requires a number of things falling into place at once: incredible ideas, ability to be marketed to large reading populations, a smooth and attractive writing style (harder to achieve than most readers and writers think), a publisher devoted to your work, and a major public platform (which normally involves many thousands of social media followers). The vast majority of published writers in biblical studies do not make much “return on investment” money from their books. Publishing is seen as a contribution to scholarship, a hobby, and/or a ministry.
From a Christian perspective, I think the most sustaining motivation for writing, and one that will have the best chance of leading to a satisfying experience beginning to end, is treating it as a gift and a calling. Some people, I fear, just assume that writing a book will make them famous. Or it is, perhaps, a box to tick on a bucket list (I’ve always wanted to write a book!). But writing is hard work for most people—harder than new writers often imagine, and the process is long and involves many people, parts, and stages. So, there needs to be a deeper passion that drives the work.
To see writing as a “gift” means that you feel that you have been given something to say. It might be a new idea. It may be a fresh perspective on current events in the world or in your community. It could be a pivotal correction to the field of study. Perhaps it is a popularization of an esoteric concept. Maybe it is applying a well-known idea to another context. Whatever it is, you feel that you were given insight and a writing voice to speak out.
That “gift” often develops into a conviction and a calling. For writing to be a gift and calling means that the writer has to devote time and energy to the work, specifically to doing it right and ensuring it actually does make an impact on the target audience. That means that other things in life will get less time; sometimes the writer has to lessen their “day-job” workload or release certain other commitments. A distracted writer trying to juggle work, family, and hobbies often doesn’t produce great, timely work. That should be obvious, but the reality for many academics is that writing tends to be a small part of one’s life, not the main occupation. Thus, it is all too easy for writing to be the extra thing on the pile of life commitments that gets neglected or perpetually delayed.
Of course, becoming a good writer does not mean you have to neglect your family, cut off your friends, stop playing tennis, or quit your job. But I do want to underscore from the outset the foundational importance of “counting the cost.” If you treat writing a book as an ethereal aspiration, you will either never finish the work, create an insubstantial contribution, or fail to impact your audience. As you ponder whether you really want to do the work of a writer, make sure you consider these questions.
Education: Do I already have the background and knowledge required to make an accurate and meaningful contribution to the subject that I want to write on? Do I need to take more courses or get a(nother) degree? Am I equipped to be an expert on the things that I am writing about?
Time: Do I have time over a long period, on a regular basis, to devote to research, writing, and production (manuscript revising, indexing, reading page proofs, marketing, etc.)?
Passion: Do I love the subject enough to spend hundreds of hours in research, writing, and promotion of the book?
There is one more consideration that I did not fully understand before I started my writing career: dealing with negative criticism and bad reviews. This has been the worst part of my experience as a writer. To be a writer is to be criticized. That’s a fact I didn’t understand until reading reviews of my work in journals and on blogs and websites. Will some people love your work? Probably. (My mom always says nice things!) But inevitably there will be negative words written or spoken about you and your work. It comes with the territory. Sure, some negative reviews are inaccurate and some are just plain mean. But whatever the case, no author is immune from criticism and the most decorated writers get negative reviews. So, you have to be prepared for that as well. Actually, you can’t really prepare yourself for bad reviews except to do the best research and writing you can (and get solid feedback in the process from colleagues and your editor) and just know ahead of time some people will not like your work and will share their thoughts with others. We will discuss how to handle negative reviews later (chapter 7), but for now I simply want to acknowledge that writing puts you and your work in the public sphere—some readers may want to hoist you up on their shoulders and parade you around giving glowing commendations for your ideas. But others will throw virtual rotten tomatoes and digital stinky eggs at you. Either way, if you are a person that “just wants to be left alone”—well, don’t publish.
Before we get much further in this book, I thought I would share a bit of my journey into research and writing. This might help you understand where I am coming from and how my life has shaped my body of work. (A more detailed personal bibliography narrative appears in Appendix A.)
Let’s start with college. I wasn’t a great writer in those days. I wasn’t even a good writer. I admit that I didn’t invest much time in writing quality papers. I did passable work. In seminary, I had more of a passion for the subjects I was studying, and, to be honest, I cared more about impressing my professors. So, I put more thought and energy into writing research papers, but, alas, my writing was still not very good. What was the problem? First, I didn’t have a plan for tackling the papers—I just “wrote” them. Also, looking back I can probably say that I wasn’t an invested and devoted reader, and we all know the best writers are avid readers. You tend to emulate the quality and, to some degree, style of the books you read. I definitely increased my reading in seminary, but my writing ability only improved a little bit.
One thing that really helped me in seminary was learning how to do exegesis (methodical interpretation) of biblical texts, especially analyzing the literary structure of a passage. This is beneficial for studying biblical texts, but it is also helpful for studying any text past or present.
During my doctoral studies, I continued to strengthen my research and writing skills, especially as I intentionally examined each aspect of my process, from conception to completion. One of the big “needs” I had at this time was learning how to take notes well, figuring out where to store them and how to organize them, and then how best to use them in my work.
Since the completion of my PhD (now more than a decade ago!), I have had lots of trial-and-error experiences in research, writing, and publishing. I have written twelve books (and edited a handful more), I have published about two dozen articles, and I have blogged regularly since 2007. For six years, I led the research program at Portland Seminary and taught advanced research and writing every year. Writing has become a significant part of my life. Some people write occasionally, but I consider myself a “writer.” On average, I spend about half of my work week doing research or writing.
If I could go back and say a few things to my 2006 (first-year PhD student) self, I would offer three things:
1. Take meticulous notes on everything relevant to your research, especially books you loaned (e.g., interlibrary loan) that you don’t own. Save those notes, you might use the material for a later project, even if it doesn’t seem “relevant” now.
2. Be brave! Don’t just toe the line of consensus scholarship. Push beyond the boundaries to argue new things of importance. Writing isn’t about receiving a “medal of participation” for publishing a book. It is about making a bona fide contribution to knowledge.
3. Find your writing voice. Don’t just sum up scholarship or weave together quotes from other writers. Yes, engage with academic scholarship and acknowledge when you are depending on the ideas of one person or another, but your book should be your book. Your work should have your voice.
This is just a taste of the journey I have been on for the past decade and a half. My “authoring” path was very windy with lots of bumps, a few sudden stops, and the occasional wrong turns. Thus, I thought I would attempt to pass on some of my lessons learned to others who want to avoid some of the pitfalls I experienced.
Nijay K. Gupta (PhD, Durham) is professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary. He has written or edited over twenty books including Prepare, Succeed, Advance (Cascade), Worship That Makes Sense to Paul, A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Studies, Paul and the Language of Faith, and Zondervan Critical Introduction to the New Testament: 1-2 Thessalonians. He has served on editorial boards for Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Priscilla Papers, Bulletin for Biblical Research, Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters, and Brill’s Biblical Interpretation monograph series. Currently Gupta is writing a commentary on Philemon and Philippians for the New Testament Library series and co-editing the second edition of the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. When he is not reading or writing, he likes to drink coffee and watch soccer with his family.