The 7 W’s of Writing



I just finished teaching a seminar, Introduction to Research, to first-year doctoral students in my role as Ph.D. Director at Southeastern Seminary. You may enjoy a brief snippet from this two-day seminar in which I shared some random reflections on the seven W’s of writing. For now this is mostly a list of reflection questions; I hope to develop this further in a future publication.

1. Who?

Who are you? Are you writing self-consciously and professedly as a believer? Or are you writing covertly, in a chameleon-like fashion taking on the color of your environment? To other believers, you use fervent Christian language; to critical scholars, you hide behind scholarly jargon?

Who you are is a function of your calling from God, your unique background, your formative experiences, skills and education, expertise, and so on. Ask yourself: What is the contribution God wants you to make that no one else can make? Don’t compare yourself with others. Don’t be competitive. Make the most of the potential God has given you.

2. What?

On what subject do you want to write? What is your passion? What is the message burning in your heart? Is it heresy you want to combat? Is it a doctrine you want to expound? Do you want to educate God’s people? Set some error straight? Alert your readers to some overlooked truth? Unearth some little-known fact or figure?

3. Where?

Where should you do your research and writing? In your home office? At work? Should you go away somewhere? I know people who swap offices with a colleague or use a friend’s apartment while he is at work to get away from the office. How do you avoid distractions and interruptions? How do you make room for larger blocks of time?

4. In what way?

How should you do your research? How should you write? This is what the entire seminar was about. I led the class in a devotional from Luke 1:1–4; we went on a tour of the library; and every student was assigned to read The Craft of Research by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams and Style by Joseph Williams.

5. Why?

Why do you want to research and write? To get rich and famous (very unlikely for a theologian or biblical scholar)? To get promoted? Because you’re supposed to? To get recognition for yourself? Or do you want to minister to people and to serve and glorify God? What is it that motivates you and fuels your desire to research and write?

6. When?

When should you write? Should you wait for a sabbatical or for a sudden influx of inspiration? After my return from my first sabbatical, I decided to operate in continual sabbatical mode; I can’t afford to wait for my next sabbatical. If writing is a calling, we will want to pursue that calling. Like Paul, we will say, “Woe to me if I don’t write!”

So, when should you write? To paraphrase Paul once more, “In season and out of season.” This will mean that you will make research and writing a priority. Research and writing take time, effort, and commitment. Determine the amount, and level, of writing God has called you to do, and then commit yourself to follow through and be disciplined.

7. For whom?

Who is your primary audience? Is it your scholarly peers? Your students? You, yourself? Ultimately, your primary audience should be God. You should be writing for him, it is him you should want to please. If you’re writing for your academic peers, you will easily get caught in intramural disputes. But if you write to please God, you will keep your eyes on him.

If you have read these random thoughts up until now, is there any advice you would like to add? Did I forget any W’s? What have you found helpful as you have reflected on your calling as a writer? Or, if you are an aspiring writer, what are your struggles and hopes? Writing is one of my passions, so I’d love to hear from any of you on this topic.

11 comments so far

Great stuff! Even in thinking through and answering the questions arising from these 7 W’s, I would add one more “W” — Write! Write first. Write often. One of the best suggestions I ever read was rather than thinking in order to write, begin writing in order to think, i.e. as a productive and encouraging way into the subject.

Thanks for the great site!

Great comment, Spencer. I’ve often told my students, “Just keep writing.” That’s “The 8 W’s of Writing” now – and counting!

Thanks for the time you put into your blog. I too recommend The Craft of Research. May I also recommend a movie?
Finding Forrester. It is about a writer who teaches a youngster some tips about writing. Another book I’d recommend is The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well by Paula Larocque. She has 12 chapters that are very good for research. The first 100 pages or so. One can easily read this section of the book in an evening.

May I ask you, Dr. Köstenberger, what should one do if one is such a perfectionist and is never satisfied with one’s writing? Is the task of writing too daunting to begin? The amount of material on most topics is quite enormous. I’m currently working on one pericope in the Gospels and I have around 17+ pages of Bibliography alone for it. And yet, I still think there is work to do on the matter. Another research paper I worked on was on two verses and the bibliography was at least 11 pages. At what point is the task of scholarly research just too much to even begin? After all, more archaeological data could turn up and overturn work.

Is there a way to cut down on wordiness? How does one write efficiently for the reader(s) and their attention span? I think of Hort’s Introduction as a superb example of writing because he is so succinct.

On another note, I have seen scholar’s change their view over time in their writings. I am younger and yet I am of the opinion that maybe I should not publish anything until I am old. You know, when I know I’m not going to change my mind any more after years of thinking about a matter and its related subjects.

Any helpful thoughts or ideas would be gratefully received.

This is really good. It helps me, as one praying and considering a calling as a writer/scholar, to think about motives and approaches. Thank you Dr. Kostenberger!

Andreas. Many thanks for these 7 (now 8) W’s. It’s useful stuff. While they are not ‘W’s’ here’s a few lessons I have learnt about doctoral study on the way (most of which I’ve picked up (stolen) from others along the way).

1. Few books, but good. Learn to be a good re-reader rather than try to read absolutely everything. Who cares if you can read 1000s of mediocre books and articles? Find the best. Read them carefully.

2. It may not look it, but thinking is hard work. Thinking takes time to be good. So you will need rest, and holidays, and fun, and diversions. And these will actually help the work progress! Even TV is good.

3. Footnotes should be fun. Slathering everything in footnotes is a bad habit that helps nothing. References are sometimes necessary, but if a footnote is merely a sign of indecision – ‘I couldn’t work out whether to put it in or not, so I put in a footnote’ – cut it out or add it in.

4. Don’t wait for inspiration, start writing from day one! Getting words down on paper is really important, because you actually do much of your thinking while you are writing. This business of leaving writing till the third year is weird to me.

5. Read outside you topic. Attend seminars and lectures. It is amazing how much benefit I have gained from this. It is amazing how unforeseen connections will spring up from completely unrelated contexts. Also, if you are aspiring to be a teacher in a certain area, use the free time to fill in the holes in your knowledge.

6. Find readers for your work/read others’ work. Your supervisor will read your work twice a term, perhaps. You will need more than that! The price you might have to pay is that you will have to read someone else’s work: but the pay-off there is that it is comforting to see how they are struggling too!

7. Overcome the evangelical tendency to polemicise. We tend to see life as a series of battles between the forces of good and the forces of evil. But good scholarship is not about polemics first and foremost. Simple either/ors are a bad habit, because the truth is rarely that simple. Your work will gain in sophistication and ultimately in its polemical usefulness if you can avoid a ‘goodies’ /’badies’ mentality.

8. Find surprising friends. Look for surprising agreements or harmonies with your work in other writers/thinkers. Show how someone completely different to you comes to the same conclusion. This is a very powerful strategy for apologetics, too.

9. Find the toughest opponent. Fall under their sway, if only for a week or two: be convinced by their case for a time. Then your reply will carry authority. Your work is only as strong as the opponents you defeat! My tendency when I started was to find any nutter to have a debate with, because debating nutters is always easier than debating reasonable people whose assumptions on the whole I share but who come to different conclusions…

10. Discuss your big picture often. Why does what you do matter?

11. Don’t talk about your work when you don’t feel up to it. One of the shattering experiences for a graduate student is when a family member or friend asks you, ’so, what are actually doing then’? and NOTHING COHERENT comes out of your mouth. This happens to me ALL THE TIME. And you walk away feeling very discouraged about it. Have a prepared speech perhaps! However: I have found writing and talking about my project in other contexts extremely helpful – I find blogging like this. It is a way of accessing other areas of your brain because it is writing/talking in a different mode, somehow.

12. Trust your methodological instincts; go with what you know; follow what you’re passionate about. You got this far because you have some idea of what theological work is about. You have read quite a bit already. So, use what you already have to your advantage! I often feel intimidated by those theologians who know more philosophy than me (that’s most of ‘em): I forget that my training was far more in the area of biblical studies and biblical theology. I need to lean more on this, and see it as an advantage, while at the same time not neglecting to deepen my philosophical understanding.

13. Keep doing ministry. Keep serving the people of God, because the tendency of the doctoral student is to wallow in the solitary self-indulgence of it all. Keep preaching/teaching/ministering. After all, what are we doing it all for? If you aren’t already doing some ministry in the church, my question is: what are doing entering into graduate theological study? Are you sure you are called to this?

14. Write early and often.

15. When writing, keep the focus on the topic! Make sure every section (including every footnote) serves the argument of the thesis. Don’t cover everything!

16. Take advantage of your supervisors experience and connections.

17. Don’t always agree with your supervisor.

18. Don’t get stuck working on someone else’s project.

19. Publish journal articles and book reviews.20. ‘Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public’. (Winston Churchill)

21. Good ideas are more important than good quotes. Quotes are there to serve ideas.

22. Keep the big picture before you. Keep the goal in front of you.

23. Stay out of departmental politics.

24. Don’t get frustrated with negative results.

25. Set yourself a schedule and tick to it.

26. Go to post grad conferences.

27. Choose a topic that has got leverage.

Andreas. I thank you for this article and the influence you have on students. You have inspired me, against the background of the current crisis in the South-African Nederduitse Gereformeerde academic context. I recently discovered your 2004 commentary on John, which I highly recommend.

Dr. Kostenberger,
Great post. As always…very practical, insightful, and helpful. You may want to make a note, however, that these are not 7 “W’s.” Rather they are 6 “W’s” and 1 “H” (note number 4: “How”). Good luck in finding a “W” word that works!!!!

Thanks-a-million for your calling and work!

Although I’m not a writer (other than preparing messages/lessons that I teach in rest homes, assisted living homes, recreational units, SS, & the like) I find your W’s very useful & thought provoking. I believe that they shouldn’t be referred to only from a writing perspective, but from whatever ministry our Lord has called one to. The questions you present should be asked by every Christian, particularly the one on pride (catalogued as a “W” under “Why”). I find this hated sin (Prov 6) particularly heinous & prolific in Christian circles. Thank you for this insightful rendering. I look forward to the follow-up.

Thanks to all of you for your stimulating comments. And thanks to those of you who pointed out that “How” starts with an “H.” I changed it to: “In what way?” OK? And don’t forget to “keep writing”!

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