When you are making a first impression, the standard advice is to avoid discussing politics and religion. But what if this is precisely your subject matter and your first impression is your book?
Writing about sensitive issues invites curiosity, but it can also invite arguments and displeasure. What is a writer to do? How do these concerns impact the editing process? Well, I thought these were good questions, and who better to answer them than author and religious studies professor Kristin Swenson.
Kristin Swenson, Ph.D. is associate professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University (affiliate) and a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in Charlottesville, where she writes full-time. Swenson’s work has appeared in The Christian Century, Publishers Weekly, and The Huffington Post among other publications. An award-winning author, her books include God of Earth: Discovering a Radically Ecological Christianity, Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked about Book of All Time, and Living through Pain: Psalms and the Search for Wholeness.
Q & A with Author Kristin Swenson
Kris: Religion is a tricky subject. Are there any sensitivities you consider when you revise your finished drafts?
Kristin: I figure I’m going to piss off a whole cadre of people. This is not easy for me to accept but necessary. I’d never write anything otherwise. So then the barometer is myself, my own integrity. I stick by it fiercely. For example, I avoid gender-specific language for God (“He” ugh). We’re talking about God, after all…
Kris: So speaking of examples like God, what is your best advice for writers who are tackling complicated subject-matter but want to do so with absolute clarity?
Kristin: Write for one person, one real, live, non-specialist person… that you love. Imagine sitting down over coffee, or, shoot, a banana split (we’re imagining, right?). You want them to understand what’s been preoccupying you so much (your “complicated subject-matter”). You also want to eat your banana split before it totally melts. A real, particular person won’t put up with high-handed jargon and fluffy generalizations. You know this, so you won’t give them that. And if you love them, you’ll do your darndest to get the idea across in as few words as possible. What’s more, you’ll do it with respect, making it about them not you.
Kris: That’s such wonderful advice, because it is so easy to get tangled up in the jargon of your studies. How do you know you have found the right entry-point for a book (or a chapter or an article). In other words, how do you know if you’ve begun in the right place?
Kristin: Sometimes that opening lands like a bolt and is the very thing that gets me started down a particular writing road. In such a case, it can carry me a good long way. What joy that is! Usually, I don’t know. I jump in wherever the subject gets interesting to me, figuring I’ll provide whatever lead info I need later. Or I think I’ve got my beginning until I finish and then I start the thing all over again.
Kris: How do you know when your editing process is finished and the project is done?
Kristin: If only! I don’t. Deadlines wrest it from my sweaty little fingertips. Or I get totally preoccupied with something new and let the old slip into its next life. I don’t like to read what I’ve already published–it makes me nervous–so I tend to move on as fast as I can.
Kris: Since we are talking editing, what is your favorite grammar rule or often-confused word choice distinction?
Kristin: Further vs. farther. I can get all existential over it.
Kris: You’re speaking to my heart on that one. This pair was actually the very first entry I wrote on my weekly writing tips blog back in 2012, and that same entry is now in a new form in Get a Grip on Your Grammar. So side note, we need to discuss this further (not farther) over drinks, but I have one last question. When you want to take a break from drafting and crafting, what’s your favorite local bookstore to drop by?
Kristin: Gosh, I’m such a consignment/thrift-store gal, ever looking for ways to repurpose old stuff, so “used” is like catnip to me. Chop Suey in Richmond–love love love those guys! Daedelus in Charlottesville (you need a compass to find your way out…).
Needing a compass to find your way out is a great description for an awesome bookstore, and it’s just as apt a metaphor for the editing process, isn’t it? We can get lost in our own language, tangled in a concept or plot point, and adrift among commas that should or shouldn’t be there. But with some help, we all find our way out eventually–even when our subject matter has extra levels of complication to it.
Thanks so much, Kristin Swenson, for your time and wisdom, and happy writing, everyone!
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