Category Archives: On Reading as a Writer

10 Things Writers Can Learn From G.K. Chesterton (Part 2)

According to Chesterton, "The supreme adventure is being born."

According to Chesterton, “The supreme adventure is being born.”

G.K. Chesterton is the prince of paradox and one of the most quotable writers I ever read. He has fantastic quips that range from “The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese” to “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of readiness to die.”

Yesterday I gave you five reasons to give him a try. Here are five more things we authors can learn from Chesterton.

  1. THE VALUE OF WRITING MORE THAN ONE GENRE. Chesterton wrote essays. He was a journalist. He wrote theology, poetry, and mystery stories. There was almost nothing he DIDN’T write. And the fact is, writing new genres and new forms can stretch us, teach us, and make our writing develop in ways that we can’t if we stick only to one genre. We don’t have to publish every poem or short story that we write. (In fact, short stories work great as a way to experiment in a new genre because they’re not a huge time commitment.)
  2. CHESTERTON’S PERSONA IN HIS WRITING IS FEARLESS. He is utterly unapologetic. I, personally, tend to shy from digging my heels in, even when I should, so Chesterton’s assertiveness and confidence have taught me a lot. It’s interesting that as assertive as he was, he was also jovial and respectful of those who disagreed with him and had amicable relationships with some of his greatest philosophical opponents, such as George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells.
  3. HOW TO TREAT CHARACTERS YOU DISLIKE/DISAGREE WITH WITH RESPECT. While my previous point is more about Chesterton’s nonfiction, “The Ball and the Cross” exemplifies this point about his fiction. Of the two protagonists in this very philosophical work, one is a staunch Catholic (like Chesterton) and the other a staunch atheist. What I loved about this book is that Chesterton does not at all use the character he disagrees with as a straw man. Turnbull, the atheist, is a respectable, good-hearted, intelligent man, and is never presented otherwise. That’s what makes his adventures readable.
  4. CHESTERTON’S ARGUMENT STYLE IS UNIQUE, AND HE CAN TEACH YOU HOW TO DEVELOP AN ARGUMENT. Whether you’re reading his philosophy or reading his characters arguing a philosophical point, Chesterton can develop an argument like few fiction writers I know. At least in his nonfiction, he’ll pronounce a point, usually a paradoxical one that doesn’t quite make sense on its own, and then unpack it piece by piece, each piece building on the piece before until you end up with a great witty flourish at the end that reinforces the original point. There are lots of ways to argue a view effectively, but I have never read anyone else who argues the way that Chesterton does.
  5. READING CHESTERTON WILL DEVELOP YOUR CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS. This is true whether you read his fiction or his nonfiction, whether you end up agreeing with him or not. The way he frames his arguments and the assertiveness he displays in what he says will grip you and leave you picking apart his claims. You’ll end up asking, Why does he choose that odd starting point? That premise? How does he connect THOSE two things? Do I agree with where his argument takes me? Why do I? Or why don’t I?

Chesterton is simply an amazing thinker, and reading him will make you smarter, as well as more sensitive to the adventure and the joy of the world around you. In terms of his apologetics, the number of prominent 20th century figures who borrowed from his arguments is striking. It’s fascinating to read C.S. Lewis, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and Bishop-elect Robert Barron after reading Chesterton. They are all theologians (lay theologian in Lewis’s case), and they all use Chesterton in same way in their own writing.