This column is taken from the April 1871 Edition of The Sword and The Trowel
Use the Pen
An Exhortation Charles Spurgeon
YOUNG ministers would do well to remember that for purposes of teaching there are two fields of usefulness open to them, and that both deserve to be cultivated. The utterance of truth with the living voice is their main business, and for many reasons this deserves their chief attention; but the publishing of the same truth by means of the press is barely second in importance, and should be used to the full measure of each man’s ability. It is a surprising thought that what is written to-day in our study may in a few weeks be read beyond the Alleghanies, and before long may lift up its voice at the Antipodes. And as space is thus overleaped, so also is time; for if the world should last another five hundred years, the author of an immortal sentence will continue still to speak from the glowing page. The press performs marvels. So noble an agency, so far reaching, so potent, so available, ought not to lie idle. Every man who addresses his fellow creatures with the voice should try his hand at pen and paper, if only for his own sake; it will correct his style, give it more accuracy, more condensation; probably, therefore, more weight. The possibility of doing good to the souls of men is a grand incentive which needs no other to supplement it, and such a possibility beyond all question exists when warmhearted thought is expressed in telling language, and scattered broadcast in type among the masses. Young men, look to your goosequills, your Gillets, or your Waverleys, and see if you cannot write for Jesus.
“What, in the name of reason, can move an Editor to perpetrate such a paragraph as the above, when we are already bored and pestered with the immeasurable effusions of hundreds of scribblers, who are only spoilers of good foolscap?” We admit the naturalness of the question, and we feel its force: feel it all the more because we have just now been for some hours up to our neck in a stagnant pool of printed dulness, and have almost caught a literary cramp. Look at that volume of poetry. We cannot review it; we have tried till we do not mean to try again; we fear it would worry us into a fresh attack of our ever-ready enemy—the gout. “Our brain is tired, our heart is sick.” The poems are just an everlasting ding-dong, ding-dong of commonplaces and pretty phrases, all meaning nothing at all. Do you see that volume of sermons? The good man who issues them declares that he did it in deference to the wish of his hearers (a very common excuse, by the way). He might well have prayed, “Save me from my friends.” The discourses are no doubt pious, and well intended, but to print them was a blunder of the first magnitude. There is a book on Romanism, and another on Matrimony. We have read them both, and expect some day or other to be rewarded for our patient perseverance, but as yet it is numbered among those good deeds which bring no present profit to him who performs them. But indeed the list of volumes over which we have done penance is too long for rehearsal. We shudder at the recollection. We frequently wonder how we survive our sufferings in the review department; sifting a waggon load of chaff to find one solitary grain of wheat is nothing to the labour in vain which is allotted us by many authors. We pride ourselves upon our extreme gentleness in criticism, but we should soon lose all repute among our readers for this amiable virtue if we did criticise in print all the books sent to us; a considerable number of them it would be cruelty to notice, and in mercy to the authors we pass by their offspring, and say nothing where nothing good could be said. [N.B. Those gentlemen whose books are not yet noticed in our magazine will please not to write and scold us next post. Let them hope that their productions are so good that we are too fascinated to begin as yet to criticise; at any rate, let no author wear a cap unless he finds it to be a correct fit.]
All this is a digression, to show that we are not forgetful of the fact that this press-ridden nation already groans beneath tons of nonsense and platitude, and needs no addition to the enormous burden. We frankly own that if another great historical fire should do for modern literature a similar work to that which was so providentially wrought at Alexandria, we should not fret. If we saw the commencement of the blaze we should be in no hurry to arouse Captain Shaw and his men with the brass helmets, but should like to see it burn merrily on, especially if it would consume for ever all the small-beer poetry, the interpretations of prophecy, and—well—well, nineteen books out of twenty, at the least: ninety-nine out of every hundred would be a still more desirable purification.
“Yet you began by stirring up young men to write. Where is your consistency?” Our answer is that we did not exhort anybody to write such stuff as commonly is written. On our bended knees we would say to many a man who threatens to commit authorship, “we pray you do no such evil.” But we return to our first paragraph, and say again that the pen is a great means of usefulness, and it ought not to lie idle. Let a man wait till he has something to write, and let him practise himself in composition till he can express his meaning plainly and forcibly, and then let him not bury his talent. Let him revise, and revise again. Let him aim at being interesting, endeavouring to write not for the butter-shop, but for readers; and above all, let him write under the impulse of a holy zeal, burning to accomplish a real and worthy end. The columns of religious magazines and newspapers are always open to such contributions, and if the author has no other broadsheet in which to publish his thoughts, he may be well content with the pages of periodical literature. Whatever may be the faults of our reviews and other periodicals, they are undoubtedly a great institution, and might be made far more influential for the highest ends, if men of greater grace were found among their writers. It is a worthy ambition to endeavour to seize these moulders of the public mind, and make them subservient to true religion. The words of Dr. Porter, in his “Homiletics,” may be most appropriately quoted here:—
“Young men destined to act for God and the church, in this wonderful day, think on this subject. Recollect that religious magazines, and quarterly journals, and tracts of various form, will control the public sentiment of the millions who shall be your contemporaries and your successors on this stage of action for eternity. To whose management shall the vast moral machinery be intrusted, if the educated sons of the church, the rising ministry of the age, will shrink from the labour and responsibility of the mighty enterprise? Learn to use your pen, and love to use it. And in the great contest that is to usher in the triumph of the church, let it not be said that you were too timid or indolent to bear your part.”
Good men there have been and are who could do far more service for God and his church by their pens if they would write less and write better. They flood our second-rate magazines with torrents of very watery matter; their style is slipshod to a slovenly degree; their thoughts are superficial; their illustrations hackneyed; they weary where they mean to win. Let such brethren take time to mend their pens, the world will continue to rotate upon its own axis if we do not see their names next month at the head of an article. Work must be put into papers if they are to last. Easy writing is usually hard reading. The common reader may not observe the absence of honest work in a poem, sermon, or magazine article, but he manifestly feels the influence of it, for he finds the page uninteresting, and either goes to sleep over it or lays it down. Young man, earnest in spirit, if you have any power with the pen, make up your mind to cultivate it. Do your best every time you compose. Never offer to God that which has cost you nothing. Do not believe that good writing is natural to you, and that you need not revise; articles will not leap out of your brain in perfect condition as the fabled Minerva sprang from the head of Jove. Read the great authors, that you may know what English is; you will find it to be a language very rarely written nowadays, and yet the grandest of all human tongues. Write in transparent words, such as bear your meaning upon their forefront, and let them be well chosen, correctly arranged, and attractively ordered. Make up your mind to excel. Aim high, and evermore push on, believing that your best efforts should only be stepping stones to something better. The very best style you can attain will be none too good for the glorious themes upon which you write.
But, remember, there is a more material business than mere excellence of composition. Your manner is important, but your matter is far more so. Tell us something well worth knowing when you write. It is folly to open your mouth merely to show your teeth; have something to say, or speak not at all: ink is better in the bottle than on the paper if you have nothing to communicate. Instruct us, impress us, interest and improve us, or at least try to do so. It is a poor achievement to have concocted a book in which there is neither good nor hurt, a chip in the porridge, a correctly composed nothing; but to have pleaded with men affectionately, or to have taught them efficiently, is a result worthy of a life of effort. Try, brother, not because it is easy, but because it is worth doing. Write until you can write; burn half a ton of paper in the attempt, it will be far better in the flames than at the printer’s; but labour on till you succeed. To be a soul-winner by your books when your bones have mouldered is an ambition worthy of the noblest genius, and even to have brought hearts to Jesus by an ephemeral paper in a halfpenny periodical is an honour which a cherub might envy. Think of the usefulness of such books as “James’ Anxious Enquirer,” and “The Sinner’s Friend.” These are neither of them works of great ability, but they are simple and full of the gospel, and therefore God blesses them. Is it not possible for others of us to produce the like? Let us try, and God helping us, who can tell what we may do.
One concluding word to our young brother. We would not recommend you to try poetry. Write reason before you write rhyme. The usual way is to sacrifice the sense to the jingle: do you adopt the other plan. Do not expect public men to spare time to read your manuscripts: apply to some judicious friend nearer home. Do not be thin-skinned, but accept severe criticism as a genuine kindness. Write legibly if you expect your article to be accepted by an editor: he cannot waste time in deciphering your hieroglyphics. Condense as much as possible, for space is precious, and verbiage is wearisome. Put as much fact as you can into every essay, it is always more interesting than opinion; narratives will be read when sentiments are slighted. Keep the main end in view, but aim at it prudently; do not worry readers with illtimed moralisings and forced reflections. Ask a blessing on what you compose, and never pen a sentence you will on your dying-bed desire to blot. If you attend to these things, we shall not repent of having said to you, “Use the pen.”