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How I Write: The Crucial Phase

I have a very distinctive way of writing books, even though every time I write one, I think it’s the only sensible way to do it.  For years I’ve encouraged my students to do it this way when they write their dissertations, and I’ve talked to friends and colleagues about it, subtly (well, sometimes not so subtly) suggesting they do it.  And so far, after writing books for over thirty years, I’ve not convinced a single person to do it this way!

I’m sure that’s because everyone has to do it their own way.  You really have to be in your own comfort zone when writing a book, you have to feel it’s the best way for you.  And that’s because no matter how you do it, it’s really hard.  My wife is now working fervently on her next book, a study of Shakespeare’s late tragedies in light of a philosophical tradition (which comes out of a certain reading of Wittgenstein) called Ordinary Language Philosophy, and just about every day she exclaims, “It’s HARD to write a book!!”

So everyone has to do it their own way.   It’s true, virtually everyone starts the same way.  They figure out basically what the book is going to be about and then they start reading massively, everything of relevance (and usually a lot of things that turn out not to be relevant).

My next step, once the reading is done, is what I’ve tried to convince others of trying, but their minds just don’t …

To see what I have to say next, you’ll need to belong to the blog. Why not join?  Your membership fee will go to charity, and you will do yourself and the rest of the world a huge favor that will be entered forever in the annals of history.

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Are Contradictions the Real Point?
Why I Am Obsessed with Jesus: A Blast from the Past



  1. Avatar
    stokerslodge  June 19, 2018

    Bart, can you tell us a little bit more about your wife’s writings, please. Are they strictly for the academic or would a mere layman enjoy reading them also? Can you give some titles please! Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2018

      They are strictly academic, and at a very high level. If you want to give one a go, try Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness. (Her name: Sarah Beckwith)

  2. Avatar
    Judith  June 19, 2018

    Completely fascinating to me.

  3. Avatar
    royerd  June 19, 2018

    Really interesting. I suspect that people often want to postpone the hard thinking that creating such an outline requires. It’s a kind of procrastination. I’ve written very long pieces but never a book other than my dissertation–which I simply viewed as five or six related long papers. There’s also a kind of cultural prejudice in the writing world against that sort of strategic, structured planning, a prejudice that is fueled by notions of “creativity” and “organic development.” Such notions are clearly not justified for someone like you. I would think that actually building the sentences is the fun part!


  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 19, 2018

    Wow! I can say it has worked very well for you.

  5. Avatar
    rburos  June 19, 2018

    You and J. K. Rowling are kindred spirits. And I must say the mapping out process worked out pretty well for her as well–she only earned A BILLION DOLLARS. (I know that’s not your main concern, but it is your publishers’).

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2018

      It may not be my main concern, but I’d be happy to embrace it as a secondary one. 🙂

  6. Avatar
    mannix  June 19, 2018

    How may reams of paper did your outlines take up when you wrote Forgery and Counterforgery? Just recently finished it… slower reading than your trade books, but, as usual, great!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2018

      Ah, great question. Now THAT was a lot of work. By far the most work I’ve ever done on a book.

  7. Avatar
    flshrP  June 19, 2018

    Your method is pretty much the way I wrote my one and only book (an ebook) on the history of U.S. manned spaceflight in the 20th century. It grew from a single volume 350 page book to a two volume opus (57 chapters, 1438 pages) with more than 500 photos and illustrations and about 600 cited references. Enjoyed every minute of that nearly 4 year project.

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  June 19, 2018

    Actually, this is exactly how I write (and how I think in general, to be honest). The only problem is that I tend to fall down the rabbit hole, so I spend the vast majority of my time re-working my outlines in order to fit in all the knew information I’m digging up. That’s why it takes me years to write anything. It’s the major problem with being a completist.

  9. Telling
    Telling  June 19, 2018

    Sounds smart, but I have my own good solid method for writing non-fiction (articles): I write the article through in one sitting and it’s perfect as is. Then I ask my wife to review it and she starts reorganizing the flow of everything. After about ten bouts back and forth I end up with a good final article.

    For fiction, I know where my characters are at beginning and where I want them to be at end. Then I let them go and they go their own way, ignoring my lead. But having the known end result, they eventually come back to where I wanted them and I have a great book. My wife doesn’t review my fiction books, fortunately, or I’d still be on my first one.

    • Avatar
      rburos  June 21, 2018

      Isn’t that the way Stephen King writes?

  10. Avatar
    John Murphy  June 19, 2018


    If I ever write a book, I promise I’ll use your method. 🙂 In the meantime, do you have any hot tips on how to learn German quickly?! How long did it take you to reach a decent standard?

    Ich brauche help!!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2018

      If you’re teaching yourself, and you want simply to be able to *read* it (not speak it) ABSOLUTELY the best way is to work through the book German for Reading edited by Carl Sandburg and one other person. Fantastic.

      • Avatar
        Kirktrumb59  June 21, 2018

        John R Wendel is the other author. Karl C. Sandburg (not THE Carl Sandburg). Hefty book, > 500 pages.

    • Avatar
      rburos  June 21, 2018

      I picked up the French for Reading and it is a completely different methodology for learning a language–incredibly fast but pays no homage to pronunciation or rhythm, and in fact seems to focus more on understanding the entire sentence.

      If you want to learn conversational German go to Amazon and get a used copy of a high school level textbook teachers edition (Komm Mit! is a good one). Then subscribe to a German TV service that has Nickelodeon. The shows are horrible, but there is more dialogue in a 20-minute iCarly episode than in an entire Hollywood production.

      Meiner Meinung du hast ja schon Fahigkeiten. . .you’ll be able to progress quickly.

    • Altosackbuteer
      Altosackbuteer  June 23, 2018

      “Ich brauche HILFE!”

      The logic of German verbs is quite similar to the English verbs.

  11. Avatar
    Lilly  June 19, 2018

    I think what also helps you succeed in writing trade books so effectively is that you are an agnostic. It frees your mind intellectually to pursue the research objectively , without first funneling it through the restricting filter of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist scholars tend to bring their theology first and then use their research selectively to support only those facts that do not contradict their theology .

    I can’t imagine writing a book while my husband is also writing a book. I’m sure i would be on one side of the house with him on the other 🙂 And maybe meet for dinner at the end of day.

    Good luck to your wife and her upcoming book . I’m already looking forward to reading the one you just finished.

    p.s. you should both take a nice long vacation together , after your books are competed, to get to know one another again. (just kidding, smile )

    Oh, and love your approach to writing, if you don’t mind, I’ll borrow a few of those ideas.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2018

      Yup, we write on opposite sides of teh house. Then take a walk, have drinks, cook, have dinner, read novels — and get up and do it again. Lovely.

      • Avatar
        Lilly  June 21, 2018

        Lovely indeed. Taking a walk, having a few drinks, and all the other cute things you do together. ( Gee, that didn’t sound very scholarly ) My husband and I will start writing tonight . 🙂

  12. Avatar
    ask21771  June 19, 2018

    How do we know that the whore of babylon is ancient rome

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2018

      Because we are told that it is the city that is ruling the world and it is situated on “seven hills.” It’s the famous “seven hills of Rome.”

  13. Altosackbuteer
    Altosackbuteer  June 19, 2018

    My late mother was a successful author of about a dozen Harlequin Regency romance novels.

    She told me her technique for writing. She would sit herself in a closed room and STAY there for as long as it took her to crank out four pages of double-spaced prose on her typewriter. She would not leave the room, regardless of time, until she had done that.

    SHEESH! That sounds like REAL TORTURE to me!

    CS Forester was the author of the Horatio Hornblower novels. I once read remarks he made about his technique. Basically, he did what my late mother did, and additionally in his case, he did it in a windowless room. to eliminate outside distractions.

  14. Avatar
    prestonp  June 19, 2018

    if Jesus claimed he was divine, it seemed very strange indeed that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all failed to say anything about it.” Reinterpreted p.141

    Jesus Himself told Satan that no one should be worshipped and served except God (Matthew 4:10 and Luke 4:8). Yet…

    The disciples of Jesus, after Jesus walked on water, worshipped Him in Mt 14:33. None of the disciples ever heard Jesus say this was wrong.

    God sent the wise men to worship Jesus in Matthew 2:2, and we should worship too.

    From a leper Jesus accepted worship in Mt 8:2.

    Against this, Luke wrote that Paul and Barnabas refused worship of themselves in Acts 14:11-16.

    Jesus would send His angels in Mt 13:41, which are the angels of God (Luke 12:8-9; 15:10). If good angels only follow God, and Jesus would send His angels, this implies that Jesus is God.

    The women at the tomb worshipped Jesus, clasping his feet, in Matthew 28:9. Nobody should accept worship except God.

    Jesus said he would judge the world (Mt 24:31-46, 25:31-3; Jn 5:21-22, 27). Yet it is God will judge the world (Ps 50:1-6; Joel 3:12; Dt 32:35). This indicates that Jesus is God.

    In Luke 7:48-50, Jesus also told the woman who anointed His feet “Your sins are forgiven.” Those who sat with Him said, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

    Only God can forgive sins, and Jesus forgave sins against God, showing that He was God in Matthew 9:2-6; Mark 2:5-12, and Luke 5:20-23. Jesus first said to the paralytic “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” The scribes said Jesus was speaking blasphemy, because no on can forgive sins but God alone. Jesus did not contradict their statement. He merely asked a question: “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins’ – He said to the paralytic, ‘I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.’ And immediately the paralytic rose up and did that!”

    Now someone might reason that perhaps Jesus was merely pronouncing God’s forgiveness, rather than forgiving sins against God on His own authority. However, note that Jesus said “But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”. So Jesus said it was He who had the power, and he was not just announcing that the Father forgave. Now,

    a) Only God had the authority to forgive sins.

    b) Jesus had the authority to forgive sins.

    So, what conclusion are we supposed to draw?

    After Jesus rose from the dead, the disciples worshipped Him in Lk 24:52; Mt 28:17.

    (However, to give you all the facts, Mt 28:17 and Lk 24:52 have textual variants that say “worshipped” instead of “worshipped him”.)

    Luke writes that as Stephen was dying he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (Acts 7:59-60). Why pray to Jesus, if Jesus is not God?

    A few suggestions to consider when claiming that the synoptics fail to mention Jesus was God.

  15. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  June 19, 2018

    Great post! I love to write about history, I have a blog through WordPress where I write about European Royalty so I enjoy reading about your creative process and particularly about outlining. I’m working on my own book (I have a publisher willing to read my manuscript) I will try some of your methods.

    2 questions.

    1. After you’ve done all your reading, how do you find a way to make a similar point in your writing that another author made in their writing without plagiarizing and saying it the exact same way they did?

    2. Off topic. As you teach your students the material, how do you handle those students with an evangelical or fundamentalist background that refuse to accept your findings?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2018

      1. Two authors *never* state teh same point in the same words. It never happens. 2. I think I’ll add that to my mailbag list! I don’t insist on students agreeing with me, only that they use historical methods to reach historical conclusions, and in my class do history, not theology.

  16. Avatar
    ask21771  June 19, 2018

    What was the roman empire’s relationship with other countries like? did it have alliances?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2018

      It had kinds of peace treaties, often broken. The frontiers were often a problem, especially in the 3rd century CE and following.

  17. Avatar
    Tricia  June 19, 2018

    I can’t imagine your mastering a subject like “the afterlife” at all. And though I’ve followed your writing process (although not as onoerously) I have written a few books also with a clear sense of organization and outcome before I start. My question: why do you feel driven to keep writing books? Readers know your point of view–they know your bias. They know what they’re going to get when they buy your books. Have you ever wondered what drives you to continue writing? Do you see “one more book” as the ultimate clincher?? Irrefutable evidence? Of what?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2018

      I’m a little confused by your question. I *think* the assumption underlying it (tell me if I’m wrong) is that you’re thinking that the reason I write books is in order to tell people my biases? That’s not at all why I write. I write in order to convey scholarship on important topics. Every topic I deal with is different, so the point is never simply to repeat my biases. It’s to give information on that topic. My book Misquoting Jesus has nothing to do with my book God’s Problem; and neither has anything to do with The Triumph of Christianity; which has almost nothing to do with my current book on the Afterlife.

      • Avatar
        Tricia  June 21, 2018

        I’ve read some of your books because of their “scholarship on important topics.” As I told someone recently, I’d rather read Christian research done by someone who doesn’t believe than by a besotted “believer” who is only concluding what they want to believe or what they have been taught. What I found in “Misquoting Jesus” was a former Christian who had just discovered he had been snookered by Bible literalists. And that anger does creep in around the edges of your excellent research. And of course the snarkiness in my comment is a challenge …. why not investigate the Christian believing that is separate from, while hidden within, the denominational scaffolding?? Or do you see the scaffolding as all that it is?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 22, 2018

          I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean! I almost never think of Christians in connection with what denominations they happen to belong to. I’m more interested in what people actually say and whether it can be evaluated or not. (Make sense?)

          • Avatar
            Tricia  June 22, 2018

            Research always has a point where determinations have to be made–the focus and direction of the written work. Like history, by its very nature, the collating and writing and emphasis can’t be divorced from point of view.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 24, 2018

            I’m still not sure what you mean. If you mean that someone who is Lutheran will necessarily have a different interpretation from someone who is Presbyterian, or Methododist, or Greek Orthodox, or whatever, I”m not sure I agree.

  18. Avatar
    Epaminondas  June 20, 2018

    The system of points, subpoints, sub-subpoints, etc. you use is very familiar to me. I had the unique experience of taking all my grammar and composition courses from the same professor as my father did. We both graduated from the same small college, as you might imagine, but 20 years apart. The professor was tough and highly respected. We were required to develop an outline for everything we wrote, starting with Roman numerals as your points do. He expected our outlines to be very logically constructed.

    It’s a good system. I always felt it gave me a unique advantage over freeform writers. However, I did not follow that system when writing my memoirs, so to speak (the closest I ever came to writing a book). [https://didit.live] I wanted to just tell my story without suppressing the flow. Question: Do you start blog posts with an outline?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2018

      Nah, no time for that. I just start writing on the blog posts, and hope it doesn’t take more than 20-25 minutes….

  19. Avatar
    mp4tton  June 20, 2018

    Brilliant and Logical outlining – one thing that I find helpful in your approach is the ability to map out interdependencies and interrelationship of ideas throughout the book. I bring this up b/c many times when reading, let’s say right now “Stamped from the beginning” – I take paragraph by paragraph and find it helpful to outline the book capturing the writers’ thoughts and ideas.

  20. Avatar
    fishician  June 20, 2018

    Off topic: The Bible has been thrown around lately in regard to the immigration situation. Based on your study of the New Testament and early Christianity, what do you think the early Christians would say about the illegal immigration situation? Or is it one of those, depends on who you ask type questions?

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