Nicholas Henshall: How I Write

Added about 4 months ago by Nicholas Henshall

GUEST BLOG: What is Nicholas Henshall’s secret to writing effectively?

Most of my writing comes from a passionate concern to get a message across. I hope that is obvious in the three chapters I have added a the end of Dear Nicholas…. Preaching has had a central role in my ministry over the last three decades, and I’ve given serious time and attention to both the preparation for that (i.e. the writing) and the performance (yes, it is that, but also much more than performance!). I also spent five years as the Sunday morning presenter on BBC Radio Derby and a decade writing in the Parish Practice column of the Roman Catholic weekly The Tablet.

The process of writing for me is maverick but disciplined. The passionate concern to get a message across needs to be framed so that people can actually access what you are trying to say! With articles, sermons and sections of books, I think the process is broadly the same. It starts with a problem, a question, a difficult text maybe or musing over a challenging conversation. I’m normally not even aware that I am asking the question, but slowly it rises up. That’s where walking comes in. I walk for pleasure and leisure but I also walk as a discipline. The old tag solvitur ambulando (“it is sorted out by walking”) has been key to my experience since my early teens. Everywhere we’ve lived, alongside walks for days off, I’ve had a whole series of “writing preparation walks” where I set out for about 90 minutes with a whole jumble of stuff in my head and gradually let it settle. I don’t normally even take notes, just pay attention to what emerges.

Sometimes very quickly (but that’s not predictable!) something falls into place; I start pulling on a thread; pursuing an idea. I’ll look up a text that seems to be important; remember a thread of conversation; an incident from years ago. I’ll even try to check my facts and acknowledge my sources. But I do tend to write fast at the end, often in one go. That works best late at night or very early in the morning—if I try it in the Cathedral Office or when people are around at home, it just makes me aware of how annoying and noisy I am when writing. And how much I still walk up and down.

So I write fast, and often it’s in the process of writing that I discover what I really think, what I am really trying to say. That is of course a classic trait of preachers where you are seeking to respond to your audience all the time. I always tell curates and students to go and watch great stand-up comedy if they want to be great preachers. OK, it’s only part of the training and it’s not because we are meant to be entertainers. But if you don’t know how to engage and hold an audience, you’ll never be a preacher.

I think that’s why I also love conversation—and I’ve been hugely fortunate in always having colleagues to work with, to talk with, to work things out with. As with preaching, so in conversation, it is partly how I discover what I actually think.

All that is a bit more difficult when you are writing. I do have an audience in mind, but of course cannot read their response. But I think it is the work that has gone in already—the themes that have been lying around in the corners of my head (and heart) for years which suddenly bubble up while I’m walking the Pennine Way, and then somehow becomes 1,000 words in The Tablet, or the theme of a sermon a few years later, and a theme that has remerged in conversation round the dinner table or with a bunch of students.

In a sense it is when the work has already been done that the writing actually begins. A really good example is a chapter called Focusses of Prophecy? in a book about cathedrals called Holy Ground. The first draft of nearly 6,000 words was written almost in one go. OK, it showed it, and there was work to do editing and refining. But the substance was all there. And of course the work had already been done—thinking, walking, talking, having both random and planned conversations, or simply finding myself sitting spellbound by dragonflies on the river Colne on a summer day of unusual heat.

The perfect gift for anyone in or training for ministry, Dear Nicholas… was originally a private letter from Bishop Michael Henshall to his newly ordained son, Nicholas. Later published for a wider audience it provided encouragement and challenge to many approaching ordination. It is once again available to all who are about to be ordained, and indeed all who wish to pause and consider their life as a priest in the Church today. This new edition features an epilogue by the original recipient of the letter, Nicholas Henshall, who is now Dean of Chelmsford. Get your copy today.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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