by Brian Fargher
I use “semi-literate” to mean anyone who can’t write in the language he can read and speak. Often that’s his second language. These people have fabulous treasures of stories, but they can’t write marketable manuscripts.
I use "semi-literate" to mean anyone who can’t write in the language he can read and speak. Often that’s his second language. These people have fabulous treasures of stories, but they can’t write marketable manuscripts. There are thousands of potential authors among them and it doesn’t take much missionary time or expertise to develop them. Their stories may look like tinfoil today, but in one hundred years they will be valued like silver.
What I have in mind are not mass market bestsellers, but what might be called primary source material. Writing of this kind is desperately needed on the market, in the archives, and in seminary libraries.
How do we mine this treasure? First, stay out of two cul de sacs: the "do your own thing" approach and unsalvageable manuscripts. Second, find someone to rewrite the copy and work with this person and the writer. Many missionaries have gotten stuck in one or both cul de sacs and quit in despair. Let me define them before we go on to a better way.
Some people simply tell would-be writers to set down and to to it. I got a manuscript from a man who did just that. He is a great preacher and he proudly handed me his 300-page effort. Doubtless it contained many valuable insights, but where were they? He had done his own thing and it was useless. His insights were lost because he lacked elementary writing skills.
You can grit your teeth and push ahead anyway, if you like. I have done that. I told a budding author to go for it. I tidied up his manuscript a little and duplicated it for him. When he saw the result he was embarrassed, because he thought I was going to fix it up. "Why didn’t you correct it?" he demanded angrily. That leads to a second cul de sac.
This is the uneditable manuscript. The syntax, grammar, word choice, and sentence structure all need repair. I have given manuscripts like that to capable editors. Once I got one back with four or five spelling errors on each page corrected in red ink. That was all. I got the message.
Another editor just never seemed to get around to editing that manuscript. Tomorrow never came. He was telling me the same thing: we don’t know what to do with this monstrosity. Frankly, I didn’t either. But I found a third and better way.
No short-cuts here, but this approach works: you find a rewriter and coordinate his or her efforts with the writer’s. This approach requires a lot of time for experimenting. It’s not easy to find just the right person to do the rewriting.
Watch out for two dangers. The rewriter must not be just a copier or a ghost writer. In your quest for a capable rewriter, you probably will frequently encounter one or the other. The copier changes a word here and there and switches clauses around. The ghost writer uses the author’s ideas and writes his own story. Neither one is acceptable for developing authors among semi-literates.
Be sure you know what you want your rewriter to do. You want him or her to take the manuscript and rewrite it like the author would like to have been able to write it. The author’s personality, his idiosyncrasies, his emphases and, yes, even some of his inconsistencies must be retained. It is the author’s manuscript. He must be happy with the rewriter’s work. If you don’t make clear what you wand from your rewriter, you’ll be frustrated and so will the writer and the rewriter.
Be prepared for the confident writer who doesn’t take kindly to your proposal that his manuscript needs rewriting. He worries about changes that will displease him. Do a patient selling job on the value of your idea. Help him to see that he has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
You as the catalyst must know what you want to accomplish from this process, let me outline your goals briefly.
1. A readable manuscript. Pass it around to some other readers for their comments, to be sure you have succeeded.
2. Production guidance for the author. Writers need to know limitations on length because of financial considerations.
3. Find and supervise the rewriter. The first may take months. Once you find the right person, be sure the rewriter does not skip over the really tough places that need serious revision. On the other hand, guard against changing the author’s ideas.
4. Check the manuscript with the author. He may not be entirely satisfied and want some parts done over. He may want to add some new ideas.
5. Get the stencils typed, proofread the copy, and get the manuscript published. Never print it in quantity until you have run off a duplicated or photocopied version. Get further review from a group of people and your final product will be much better.
Any missionary can start to develop writers with this modest approach. You’ll need to pay the rewriters and buy paper and stencils, but a huge budget is not necessary. No one needs to devote fulltime to it. Anyone interested can learn the scheme.
If you want to be a catalyst and help semi-literates learn to write, you can simplify matters by sticking to three main subjects: biographies, testimonies, and church history. Biographies answer questions about how the author grew up, what he did, how he felt about his life, and what his family did. This makes for useful cultural anthropology.
Testimonies tell a person’s spiritual pilgrimage, how the writer came to faith in Christ and steps in spiritual growth. Significant devotional material can be found among semi-literate believers.
Church history is being made and lost every decade. People making it are not recording it. Unless some missionary helps the semi-literate author to write it down, it will be lost forever.
The comparatively little time, effort, and money invested in projects like this will produce tremendous satisfaction for you and the semi-literate writer. Follow these simple steps and you can get the writing of semi-literates published and distributed.
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