By Denise Loock
Suppose you had a choice between listening to a lecture from a stodgy, arrogant professor and chatting with an amiable, supportive friend at a coffee shop. Easy decision, right?
Readers make that choice when they choose Christian nonfiction. No one likes to be lectured. Therefore, authors who adopt a conversational, sympathetic tone when they write generally have more impact than those who choose a didactic tone. Effective nonfiction writers step down from the pulpit and sit in the pew with their readers.
As Merriam-Webster notes, gracious words are “marked by kindness and courtesy” and “markedly considerate of another’s feelings.” That doesn’t mean gracious words are flattering or wishy-washy. In fact, the Bible condemns such speech (Psalm 12:2–3; James 1:8). Grace-laced language conveys the “truth in love” in a respectful, honest manner (Ephesians 4:15).
Here are six principles to keep in mind as you write:
1. The goal of Christian nonfiction is to edify, to build up. The best way for authors to do that is to adopt a gentle, encouraging tone. Avoid second-person commands: you should, you ought to, you need to. Use first-person plural inclusive phrases: we often neglect, we sometimes think, we assume. Use first person singular for negative statements: I sometimes treat God like a vending machine, making demands and expecting him to respond immediately. Using first person puts the author, not the reader, in the squirm seat. Use questions to pull the reader into the conversation: Do you ever have trouble believing God cares about your problems?
2. Use simple language. You’re probably not a biblical scholar or a seminary professor, so don’t pretend to be one. Avoid religious jargon (Christianese) that presumes every reader’s spiritual background is similar to yours.
3. Check for statements that suggest a know-it-all or been-there-done-that attitude: “I know exactly how you feel.” No, you don’t. “I’ve learned to always pray before I leave the house.” Every time? “I don’t doubt God’s goodness anymore.” Never?
4. Convey that you’re still learning, still growing. After all, none of us will ever achieve a perfect relationship with God or with other people this side of heaven. God doesn’t airbrush the vileness of sin or the failures of his followers. The Bible contains the high and low points in people’s lives. Moses was not only a valiant leader but also a cold-blooded murderer. David was not only the sweet psalmist of Israel but also an adulterer. These examples remind us that we need to admit our shortcomings and failures so readers don’t get the idea that authors have achieved some level of holiness unavailable to the rest of us.
5. Add personal experiences to help readers apply scriptural truth to their lives, but keep the spotlight on the Word of God. Personal experience can’t be used as the test of truth. Focus instead on promises that God guarantees.
6. Be inventive and insightful. Have you attended church most of your life? Did you go to Sunday school when you were a child? If so, you may have heard dozens of sermons on trusting God and loving your neighbor. But even if you aren’t a lifelong churchgoer, Scripture passages such as Psalm 23 and John 3:16 may be familiar to you. When you think of forgiveness, Joseph comes to mind. When you think of faith, you see Peter walking on water. If that happens to you, it will happen to readers too. So present fresh insights about familiar stories and introduce practical applications for unfamiliar passages.
Sit in the pew with your reader. You’ll both learn more that way, and if you’re not standing in the pulpit, the reader will be more likely to get a clear view of God.
 “Gracious,” Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, online version. Accessed 19 April 9019, http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/unabridged/gracious.
(Photos courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net, Stuart Miles, and Phil_Bird.)
Effective nonfiction writers step down from the pulpit and sit in the pew with their readers. via @DLoock (Click to tweet.)
Denise Loock is a writer, editor, and speaker. She is the editor for The Journey Christian Newspaper, which reaches over 60,000 online and print readers. As an assistant editor, she helps Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas produce high quality, engaging inspirational books. She accepts freelance editing projects too. Contact her at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.