A few years back, a fellow missionary handed me an unusual piece she had written about living near a massive trash dump in a large, African city. The writing was exquisite, but I was puzzled and asked her, “What are you trying to say? What is your message?” She stared at me dumbfounded for a few seconds, and then said, “I don’t know.”
Few writers can be totally sure of an article’s message until it’s written. Articles, poems, books, take on a surprising life of their own as you write. And yet, before you write, think about your message. Write it out in one encapsulating sentence—even for something as long as a book. This will serve as a guiding star as you write and later self-edit, delete, or expand. Make every word, sentence, paragraph support that one-sentence message. A working title can help, too. Many times the final title will leap out of the text, once written.
Before you write, also determine who will be your audience. “Sell” the piece before you write it. Who will want to read it? Who will be champing at the bit to publish it? In my learning years, I was guilty of writing for anyone and no one. This leaves editors in a quandary, not sure what to do with the piece, how to edit it. Is your audience female? Mixed? Young? Christian? It will make a difference in how you write and in the success of the piece.
Few of us are authorities on messages we want to convey. Reading what well-known people say about topics helps us understand better how to express our own points. Sprinkling their opinions and thoughts into your writing can lend weight to the piece. Working appropriate quotes, Bible verses, and vignettes into your message deepens and multi-layers it. Like yummy, rich chocolate layer cake!
Why do you need to say something? Many excellent writers I know have lived a hard life, passing through painful experiences. For some reason this kind of life produces creative artists of all kinds. Writing can indeed provide a healing exercise. We, as missionaries, also experience many difficult situations on the field. Will we use our writing to whine? I hope not. A deeper treatment of our experience can come through sketching the background but then showing the answer, the faithfulness of God. A balance produces powerful pieces.
Where are you going with your writing? Are you writing only occasionally or do you have hopes of producing many articles, a blog, a book? If so, it doesn’t hurt to think big. Can you choose a theme early on in your career in which to specialize? Maybe over time you can write enough pieces to create a unit. Having edited a few books and scores of articles, and written many diverse articles and a number of poems, I feel my best gifts are editing, writing inspirational essays, and teaching others. What is your gift? Your niche? What do you want to say?