The Art of Spiritual Writing

Whenever a writer taps her or his true creative ability and well-of-the-soul material, something inherently powerful will happen. It might happen, I should say.

The work of writing includes two major tasks. One is tapping that well of experience, passion, wisdom, humor, desire, and so forth. When a writer taps the source, rich material erupts from years of living and reflecting. The second major task is to do something with this rich, raw material—to work with it until its wisdom, clarity, and passion translate to the reader.

A writer might not tap the well. He might fear what will bubble up if he really allows the process to begin. She might have a rigid idea of what material should come. Fear, the need to control, and other defenses can prevent the free flow of a person’s creative material.

A writer might tap the well but then fail to work with what flows out of it. She is so passionate about the writing and so moved by it that she doesn’t want to mess with it further. He has never developed the skills for writing that would enable him to work with all the words he has generated.

The art of spiritual writing combines spiritual and psychological freedom with practiced skill with written language. You cannot pass on inspired prose unless you face the daily yet long-term struggles and self-reflection that form your soul. You cannot give to others what you have avoided or diluted for the sake of your own comfort.

Your amazing inspirations and purposes will not reach readers unless you can work with the raw material: giving it enough structure to make sense; constructing sentences that are clear and accurate; paying attention to vocabulary and tone; keeping in mind the readers’ needs and motivations for reading this material.

I have worked in book publishing for 27 years, and I can identify without hesitation the two primary reasons spirituality pieces are rejected for publication:

1. The writing simply is not good enough. The craft has not been developed, and so the prose hiccups with grammatical errors, awkward constructions, worn-out phrases, confusing (or absent) structure, and repetition.

2. The writer has not yet translated his or her experiences into prose that will speak to anyone outside the immediate circle of friends, colleagues, and family members.

To anyone who considers writing part of ministry, I appeal to your ministry mindedness. Can you approach your prose in the same way you approach any other ministry activity?

  • Whom are you trying to reach? For a given demographic, you will adjust language and tone and choose carefully which illustrations you use.
  • What is the reader seeking when he picks up this book or article? There must be a burning question that you will answer, a theological truth that you will convey—and the reader must have this question or feel the need for truth. It’s not enough that you, the writer, believe that the reader needs something or should understand the truth.
  • How will you engage the person reading this? You know that it takes more than mental understanding for a life to change. The person’s emotions, desires, and will must engage with what you have written; otherwise, the reading is just a psychological (or theological) exercise.
  • Do you truly respect and care about the person for whom you are writing? Do you offer this gift of prose/experience/wisdom out of compassion or out of your own strong ideas about right and wrong, faithful and unfaithful, believer or unbeliever? Does the tone of your writing convey warmth toward the reader and deep respect for whatever situation she faces? Or will the reader feel that she has been talked down to, pushed toward a specific outcome, or dismissed because of her fears and doubts?

Perhaps the most important question is this: Has this writing done its work on you? Have you processed personally what you are trying to offer others? I believe that God gives every person gifts and that God’s first intended beneficiary is the person who has been given the gift. I am the first witness of the gift imparted to me, and I am the first to receive its graces.

Sometimes we hurry to share with the world the grace that does not yet dwell comfortably within us. This is not surprising, because writers learn and process through the act of writing. It’s quite possible that you will write about a topic or experience for years before you are ready to begin translating it for others. Jesus said many times, “Don’t be afraid.” I think he might be telling us—maybe every day?—“Don’t be in such a hurry.”

Write what you need to write. But write for yourself until that work is done. Then, when you are ready to write for other people, you will handle this fiery-hot, astounding raw material with much more agility and grace.

Contributor: Vinita Hampton Wright

Vinita Hampton Wright has been a book editor in the religion market for 26 years, serving as editor for Loyola Press for 19 years. She's an author of fiction (Dwelling Places, HarperOne) and nonfiction (The Soul Tells a Story, IVP; The Art of Spiritual Writing, Loyola Press). Wright presents workshops and retreats on writing, creativity, prayer, and Ignatian spirituality. She lives in Chicago with her husband.