When I talk to writers or talk about writing, I’m inevitably asked questions like these: What books have most influenced your writing? What books do you recommend to become a better writer? My answers have varied through the years, though William Zinnser’s On Writing Well is generally near the top of the list, and I’m always sure to hold up Malcolm Gladwell as the kind of writer I’d someday like to become. Yet I’ve always known I haven’t read enough of any single author to mimic his style and that while Zinnser has been helpful to me, he hasn’t actually shaped me. So who has shaped my writing? Who or what has been most influential? I think I’ve finally figured it out.
The other day I was reading the Bible aloud to myself—Psalm 1, Revelation 4 and 5, James 1—and suddenly thought to myself, “This writing sounds like mine!” It took me just a moment to amend that: “My writing sounds like this!” It struck me in that moment that the book that has most shaped my writing is the Bible—the ESV. Not only is this the book I’ve read most over the years, but it’s also the book I’ve studied the closest, and memorized most substantially. And then, of all the books I’ve read, it’s one of the finest in its literary quality. As I’ve committed myself to reading it through the years, it has quietly and inevitably shaped my writing.
One thing I’ve always loved about the ESV is its superior use of the English language. Any translation involves a trade-off between precision and readability so that the most-literal translations also tend to be the least-readable. Though the ESV is a precise Bible, its translators chose to place a premium on literary excellence. They wanted it to be a translation that would be “equally suited for public reading and preaching, for private reading and reflection, for both academic and devotional study, and for Scripture memorization.” They succeeded well, and the Bible they translated is beautiful to read—far more than any of its contemporaries. And when I read my own writing—at least the best of my own writing—I hear distant echoes of the ESV. I hear its style, its flow, and especially its cadence. I hear writing that is meant to appeal to the mind, but also writing meant to appeal to the ear as it is read aloud.
Consider, for a moment, Psalm 1 in the NIV and the ESV. Read them aloud so you can both say and hear them. Here’s the NIV:
Blessed is the one / who does not walk in step with the wicked / or stand in the way that sinners take / or sit in the company of mockers, / but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, / and who meditates on his law day and night. / That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, / which yields its fruit in season / and whose leaf does not wither— / whatever they do prospers. Not so the wicked! / They are like chaff / that the wind blows away.
For our purposes, we can set aside the number disagreement here (“Blessed is the one” vs “whatever they do prospers”) and even the gender neutralizing (“Blessed is the one” vs “Blessed is the man”), since there are legitimate arguments to make for both. What troubles me is the clunky use of English. This text has its moments, but it pales in comparison to the ESV (which you should also read aloud).
Blessed is the man / who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, / nor stands in the way of sinners, / nor sits in the seat of scoffers; / but his delight is in the law of the LORD, / and on his law he meditates day and night. / He is like a tree / planted by streams of water / that yields its fruit in its season, / and its leaf does not wither. / In all that he does, he prospers. / The wicked are not so, / but are like chaff that the wind drives away.”
The ESV may sound slightly more dated with its “walks not,” its two uses of “nor,” and its “not so.” But it reads so beautifully! It reads poetically. The progression of walk-stand-sit is wonderfully held together with the two “nors.” Read it aloud and you’ll find a cadence that is conspicuously absent in the NIV. Read it and you’ll see that its superior use of the English language actually aids the twin tasks of understanding and interpreting.
We do not need to look hard to find other examples. Read and compare Romans 12:1-2 (and, again, do so aloud). Here’s the NIV:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Here’s the NLT:
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
And now the ESV:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
To my mind, to my ear, the ESV is much superior in its use of English. The beauty and power of Scripture is powerfully complemented by the beauty and power of language. In comparison, the NIV is functional and the NLT is almost unbearable. I want my writing to be as good as the ESV, and, when I listen closely, I’m pleased to hear at least some distant echoes.
I began to read the ESV to become a better man, but now realize that reading the ESV has also made me a better writer. It’s not just the content of this book that has changed me, but its style. I don’t only obey its words, but I also mimic its language. How delightful to know that the book that has most shaped my life has also shaped the major task and calling of my life.
(I expect someone will ask about the CSB. I am not yet very familiar with it, but based on my limited readings I’d say it, like the ESV, places a premium on literary quality.)