There is a phrase that religious publishers and editors dread: ‘The Lord told me to write this.’ Can you feel yourself preparing to tiptoe out of the room?
Even worse is the statement, ‘God told me you would publish this’.
Why would anyone say such a thing? It implies that to reject the writer would be to reject some higher authority as well. It feels like arrogance, even if that’s not what’s intended.
However, for a believer writing for the Christian market (especially what is called the devotional market), making the mistake of claiming divine inspiration can be easier than you might think, especially for a beginner.
You’re not just writing about a topic you have an interest in, you are writing about something that shapes the entire landscape of your life.
As a writer (and now editor) in this market myself, I confess I have felt it too – that sinking feeling. I’ve talked to those who describe their current project with the words ‘God told me to write this.’ Often these are new writers in a flush of tender enthusiasm, so I listen, nod and try not to wince.
Because sometimes that project can end up being a poorly written, badly edited manuscript, full of what I call ‘Christianese’ (a kind of religious jargon mixed with well-known phrases that have become clichés in Christian writing). A publisher would take one look and go no further.
It’s a bit of conundrum when it comes to expectations. For a publisher of Bible reading notes*, for example, the Christian readers would want the writers to prepare by praying. They would expect the writers to seek guidance from the God they follow. So here’s the thing – ‘divinely inspired’ writing is good in the eyes of a Christian reader, but is not a good claim to make when approaching an editor.
I suppose you could compare it to saying ‘I’m the next John Grisham’. You don’t want to say that in a proposal, even if you are the next John Grisham or [insert name of author you admire here].
Let the writing speak for itself, and make that writing good. If you believe you have something important to say, work at saying it the best way you can. That advice can be taken whatever you are writing about, but that’s the point. If you’re writing for publication in the religious market, you need to take the same degree of care, of professionalism, as you would for any writing.
Hone it, slash it, add to it, amend it. Make the words sparkle; steer away from the same old ways of saying things. This is particularly appropriate in religious writing. You’re writing about something with a long pedigree. There are a lot of overused phrases trying to explain something profound. How can you tell the same story using new words? How can you shed a different light on something your readers will be over-familiar with?
Research the publisher, understand the things they publish – again, all the normal rules and guidelines apply!
My first published book did reflect my journey of faith. This ‘journeying’ included what I felt I was learning about – and even from – God. So how to put this across? Should I even try? I remember laughing as I wrote my proposal letter. I had suddenly realised how easy it was to make this mistake, or at least a watered down version of it. A personal faith account and a burning desire to tell it can be hard to encapsulate.
From a believer’s point of view, I would say – we often get it wrong. Our hearing isn’t always great. Sometimes we only catch half the sentence and misconstrue it. A Christian may feel called to share his or her story – but there are many ways of doing that. Writing a book may not be the way for you. If you do feel that is the best way to do it, then you need to be doing it the best you can. A badly written book won’t help what you are trying to say.
In summary? Don’t inform a potential publisher that God told you to write something. Instead aim to write something worthy of the belief you hold.
* Bible reading notes: sets of daily readings which include a bible passage, a reflection and sometimes a prayer or action point. They are usually published quarterly and feature a number of different writers.
Lucy Mills is the author of Forgetful Heart: Remembering God in a Distracted World (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2014). She writes for various Christian magazines including Premier Christianity, Woman Alive, The Sign (national parish magazine supplement), Christian Writer and magnet, where she is now also part of the editorial team. As well as articles, she also receives commissions to write prayer and worship resources. She’s a member of the Association of Christian Writers and has previously served as their Competitions’ Manager. Her favourite writing spot is the corner of a coffee shop, but she can also write at her desk if necessary.
Good advice Lucy.
Lucy – hi. Very interesting. Would you say there's a difference between claiming divine inspiration to an editor who you've sent your work to, and claiming it in the text or work itself? Is the latter more justifiable if true?
Hi Gemma. Hmmm, good question. If within the work you are describing your personal experience or testimony, I think you can make a statement of belief…although I would probably soften it, e.g. "At this point in my life I felt that God was saying to me." There are ways of putting things which give them a bit more…humility, for want of a better word. I think it depends on the style and sub-genre of what you're writing. A first person account of a faith experience will naturally make this kind of claim, but you are doing this as an explanation of your belief and experience, to readers who are sympathetic to that…so yes, there is a difference between the two, in my opinion, and the latter can be more justified. Others may disagree, of course!
Indeed I do 😉