Category Archives: writing

Editor’s Column: 3 Books Every Writer Should Read

As someone who loves words and can bore others to death talking about the cadence of a well-crafted sentence, I enjoy reading and learning more about writing. On those days when I want to bemoan that in a world full of self-proclaimed best-sellers, self-published novels and books that could have used the careful eye of an editor, these books remind me that I’m not alone or weird for caring.

Whether you want to be a better journalist, blogger or novelist, these three books are sure to help you improve.

1. The Elements of Style

Written by William Strunk Jr., an English professor at Cornell, and E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, this brief book is a quick read with a lot to say. When I was working as an editor , I tried to read it once a year. It’s not a prescriptive style manual, per se, like the Associated Press Stylebook, but it offers plenty of style of advice. What The Elements of Style does best though, is to challenge the writer to seek a clear, concise writing style that packs the most punch. Get rid of useless words or phrases that just add fluff to the story. Use active voice. And most of all, The Elements of Style is the genesis of the phrase I often find myself repeating to the students who work for me, “You have to first know the rules in order to break them.”

2. On Writing Well

Like The Elements of Style, I used to read William Zinsser’s classic was a book I tried to read or at least skim on a regular basis. It’s an easy read and offers plenty of straightforward advice and tangible tips for becoming a better writer. If you want to write nonfiction of any kind, this is a book you need to read. Learn to sharpen your sentences and edit yourself. Writing like any other craft is a process. It’s about getting the story out, then getting rid of all the extra you added in that wasn’t actually part of the story. On Writing Well will help you to realized that writing effortless, flowing prose often isn’t an effortless, flowing process. Take the time to learn more about the craft so you can tell your stories better.

3. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Some writerly types I greatly admire first recommended this book to me at a conference several years ago. When I ran across a copy in a used bookstore a few years ago, I picked it up. I added it to my reading list and soon found myself at a time in my professional life when I had little time or energy for reading anything that was not work-related. So, On Writing sat on my shelf, languishing away until I picked it up a couple of weeks ago and dug in. First of all, Stephen King is funny. Second of all, he has a ton of good things to offer about writing. Part memoir, part handbook, On Writing is all about the experiences that shaped King as a writer, as well as the habits and practices he has found to be beneficial. He’s full of good advice (turn off the TV and avoid adverbs), but maybe my favorite piece of advice is that good writers have to read a lot and write a lot. Yep, and amen. I’m in the middle of the book now and expect to offer a full review here in a few weeks, but I can already tell it’s one I’ll be recommending for years to come.

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100 words on home

I want to go home. I say those words often. In quiet moments when I’m tired or feel forgotten or alone. When parts of life seem hard or stressful. When there’s a longing in my heart, a feeling that all the joys and beauty of this world can’t seem to fulfill. Sometimes, it’s a desire to go home to visit my family, to go to a place that feels comfortable, where I feel cared for. Sometimes, it’s a longing for my own house. But more often than not, it’s a longing for my true home, where all will be made right. Eternity is written on my heart, and the longing gives me hope.

I don’t think that means what you think it means

Today, I opened Facebook to discover this gem:
CHAdzhLUYAAc-AS

In the immortal words of The Princess Bride, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

I can picture the scene: It’s deadline. The copy editor passes the article along to another editor or whomever is supposed to write the headline (sometimes, it’s a different person from the writer), and he/she knows there’s a word for someone who can use both hands equally well. . . . but what is it? It starts with an A. Amphibious. Yes, that’s it.

But, no. It isn’t. It’s ambidextrous—and it’s used in the second paragraph of the article.

So, editors, this is why your job matters. Words mean something, convey something. Let’s use the right ones!

Some say that the “mistake” was a pun recalling Charles Shackleford making the same mistake. Even if that’s true, most journalists know you don’t make jokes that most readers won’t get in a headline.

Read more about this headline here.

On Writing

5563c0f816ca69e039d426cdI’ve always loved stories. Books line one entire wall of my parents basement, double-shelved in some places. The built-shelving in my old bedroom at their house still holds a collection of books that range from Sweet Valley High to a Little House on the Prairie. I even belonged to a book club for preteen girls for awhile, getting a selection of books every month, ranging from a melodramatic teen tear-jerker about a girl who had meningitis and lost her hearing and a gem like The Face on the Milk Carton.

The written word has always been important to me, but when I talk with today’s teens about writing and books, most just wrinkle their noses and tell me writing is boring and that they don’t like to read.

I’ve always thought that good writers were first voracious readers.

And we’re raising up fewer and fewer readers—and even fewer writers. So, my question is: Who will be the great writers of tomorrow?

We live in a society that says everyone can write. Google the word fanfiction or check out the number of  self-published ebooks on Amazon if you don’t believe me. And while it’s true that anyone can write, we’ve lost focus of the craft of writing. Gone are the days of a well-crafted, beautifully constructed prose that leads us into the story and introduces us to characters we’ll never forget. We’ll accept hastily written stories, rife with plot holes, bad grammar, and stilted conversations and call it good literature—even when it’s not.

So what does this mean for the future of literature? I don’t know. But I hope that somewhere out there—whether its a self-published ebook or a big publishing house best seller—that someone is writing the defining piece of literature of the early 2000s, the “classic” that will be on the must-read list of our grandchildren’s children.

I hope that young writers continue to write, even when their friends think it’s uncool because they know they have a story to tell.

Because no matter the format, the written word and the innate human love of story will never fade—and we shouldn’t have to accept sub-par storylines and flat characters.

So, prove me wrong, writers. Go out and write the next great classic.

Welcome Back

A year and a half.

It’s been that long since I last posted on this blog. It was December 2013. There’s a rambling post rattling around in the drafts folder from  February 2014, but I never finished it and now it just seems pointless to try.

A lot has happened in that span of time. And I can’t really put my finger on why I stopped blogging.

I was tired. I wondered if my writing had anything to offer in a world full of voices. I was busy. And part of me was convinced that I had nothing else to write about.

I’m still tired and busy. I’m still wondering if I have any wisdom or anything worth saying. But after almost two years of silence, I’m trying to edge my way back into blogging.  I don’t know how frequently or how this blog will change, but I know it will.

And I hope you’ll come along for the journey.

Words of Blessing

Your words matter.

It’s a phrase I’ve spoken a thousand times, probably written a thousand more.

Your words matter. I’ve written before about how words can be a blessing or a curse—and we’re the ones who get to decide which one.

I think there’s a reason so much in Scripture involves the spoken word. God speaks the world into being. Fathers speak blessings over their children that can’t be negated even when they discover they’ve blessed the younger son instead of the older. And I don’t think it’s a mistake that in the Gospel of John, the disciple Jesus loved calls Jesus the Word. What God had spoken and promised had become flesh. The Word was alive.

Words matter. They’re important. And over the last few months, when I’ve had few to write and even less time to think about what I’d write if I could think of something, I’d forgotten that. The joy that this blog had once brought me had faded. I didn’t feel like I was writing for the joy of it anymore. . . .just the expectation of having something new on the page.

So, I let it sit silent for weeks that stretched into months.

But last night, someone said something to me that reminded me of who I am. He didn’t mean it as a blessing, but it felt like one. I needed to hear those words and didn’t even know it. They felt like a gentle rain falling on a parched soul.

“I can’t wait to hear what God does with your life. You are so talented, so creative—you know how much I think of you,” a friend who is leaving our church for an exciting new teaching position said.

And I didn’t know until that moment that the reason I hadn’t been able to write or think of anything to write lately wasn’t that I’d run out of words. It was that I’d stopped believing I had any to offer. That I’d begun to feel talentless and uncreative and tired.

And that wasn’t who I was created to be.

Your words matter.

They may be the thing that ignites a forgotten dream, comforts a suffering soul, or reminds someone of the person they were created to be.

Your words matter. Use them wisely today.

Tips for Writers

274793_typewriter_2Earlier this week, I read this article about Ernest Hemingway’s writing tips. While my relationship with Papa is long, storied, and not exactly positive (I’ve never really been a fan and reading The Paris Wife made me hate him as a person, but I want to read A Moveable Feast. . . See, if I were trying to talk about mine and Hem’s relationship on Facebook, I’d be forced to pick “it’s complicated”),  I actually really enjoyed this article. Except for the part that nailed me right between the eyes, because while I call myself a writer, not much actual writing has been accomplished this year.

So, let’s take a look at Hemingway’s tips—with a little discussion from me (as an editor).

1. Write and speak with authority.
OK, Hemingway was dead-on with this one. As an editor and a reader, I don’t want to read articles that are passive and full of mealy-mouthed phrases and words like “maybe” or “it might be possible.” If you’re writing on a topic, you need to consider yourself the expert and write like it. People are reading your article to know what to do about that subject matter in their lives, whether it’s buying shampoo, picking out eye shadow, or working through grief. If you can’t write with authority on the topic, you probably shouldn’t be writing about it.

2. Avoid adverbs.
I get where Papa was coming from here, but I don’t think I hate adverbs as much as he did. I think sometimes a well-placed adverb adds to the description and feel of the story. But I do whole-heartedly agree with this section of that writing rule: Don’t describe the verb, use a more descriptive one.

Too often in writing, we spend all our time adding in words to describe what’s happening. We say people talked softly or walked slowly or ate quickly. Think about how much more descriptive (and how much more fulfilling the mental picture you paint for your reader is) when you write whispered, meandered, or gobbled instead.

3. Don’t write for “the reader.”
I think the idea here was that when you sit down to write, don’t think about who’s going to read it, what would be most palatable to them, what they like, or how you can make them like you and your writing more. And I agree with that. But I also think that after that really bad first draft (see Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird), you do need to sit down and read through your honest, no-holds-barred piece and read it like an editor. You need to think about “the reader” then and you need to think about the parts of the article that might be problematic for your editor. If it’s important and a hill you’re willing to die on, by all means, keep every bit of it in there. But if it’s not important and you’ve pulled in something controversial just to be controversial, you should probably think again. You should never avoid a controversial subject because you think people are going to disagree with you—especially if it’s a controversial topic that the world needs to hear the capital-T truth about—but you shouldn’t sit down to write with the intent to be controversial or anger people either.

4. Have a set writing schedule.
This one I agree with whole-heartedly. If you want to be good at anything, you have to spend time practicing it. If God has given you talent in writing, you still have to hone that craft and be a good steward of that talent. And, as a writer, this is an area in which I consistently fail. Life gets busy. I read words all day long and write my own stuff and rewrite others’ as part of my job. It’s easy for me to tell myself it’s OK to take a break and skip that time I’ve set I’d spend writing. And I have about four barely started writing projects to show for it. So, if you’re a writer, take this piece of advice to heart. Set a specific time each day and spend it writing. Don’t answer calls, watch TV, look at Twitter or Facebook. Just write. It doesn’t even matter if it’s good; it just matters that at the end of that time, you put some words onto paper.

5. Leave stuff out.
If you’ve read Hemingway, you know he was a big fan of this one. You don’t have to tell your reader everything. You don’t have to explain every minute detail or answer every question. The best stories are those that invite questions or cause us to want to know more. I’m currently re-reading Daphne DuMarier’s novel Jamaica Inn. At the end of that novel, the heroine, Mary Yellan, hops on a wagon beside horse thief Jem Meryln and rides off to the future. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what happened after that. Did they get married? Was it a happy life or a hard one? Did Jem stay reformed from his dishonest ways? That’s a good story. Sometimes, writers, it’s OK to not explain away every detail. Just make sure you cover the big ones and don’t leave a big plot hole or important information out.

Trust Me.

I don’t really write that much poetry—at least not since eighth grade.

But this morning, after reading a prayer written by Scotty smith in his book, Everyday Prayers, one kind of poured out onto the page. So, I thought I’d share it. (The prayer by Scotty that inspired this will follow the poem.) I’m not saying this poem is good or life-changing, but it’s a way of expressing myself in prayer to God.

Trust Me

Trust Me, He whispers softly,
though I kick and scream, push and pull against His will.
I call for an easy way out,
But He bids the storm inside me to be still.

Could these circumstances be Your tools?
Are You at work and my heart is in the crucible?
I want to be obedient, I say
—but I also want my way.

Trust. Trust. Trust Me,
You quietly repeat in the face of my loud defiance.
I am at work, You insist. I know what I’m doing.
It may feel like a mess, like chaos swirling out of control,
but always remember: I don’t let go.
I won’t let go of you.

Behold I am doing a new thing. Trust Me.

Trust Me.

Scotty Smith’s prayer is below.  You can find it here: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/scottysmith/2010/10/05/a-prayer-about-hoping-in-god%E2%80%99s-unfailing-love/

Prayer About Hoping in God’s Unfailing Love

No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. But the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love. Psalm 33:16-18

Dear Jesus, though it is not fun, it is a good thing to come to the end of ourselves—to be in situations where all of our resources… all of our strength… all of wisdom are simply not enough.  Indeed, it is a gospel thing to feel the pain of whatever worked in the past, not working in the present moment… to feel the confusion of not knowing what to do next… to feel the helplessness of being out of contorl.

For only in those times do we fully abandon ourselves to the God who alone can part Red Seas… overthrown a whole Midianite army with 300 gun-less soldiers… take down Goliaths with a pebble… feed multitudes with a few fish and pieces of bread… raise a dead Man for the salvation of his people and the transformation of the cosmos.

Jesus, we come and abandon ourselves to you today, for you are that dead Man who now lives. You are the One who is redeeming his Bride and making all things new.  It is your unfailing love that we can and must hope in. There is no other supply sufficient to the need. There is no other strength sufficient for the task. There is no other balm sufficient for the pain. There is no other rest sufficient for the exhaustion. There is no hope sufficient for the crisis.

We bring our broken hearts to you. We bring our struggling marriages to you. We bring our divided churches to you. We bring our conflicted relationships to you. We bring our wayward children to you. We bring our unbelieving friends to you. We bring the needs of our community to you. We bring it all to you, Jesus. We will trust in you and your unfailing love. Astonish us by bringing much glory to yourself. So very Amen, we pray, in your merciful and mighty name.

I made an appointment with Writing. And I kept it.

Ask a long distance runner how he approaches training and somewhere in there, you’ll hear the phrase, “I run when I feel like it and when I don’t.”

The singer, the musician, the artist. They’ll all tell you that they have a sort of love-hate relationship with their craft. And sometimes, they don’t want to do it, but to grow, learn, and change, they devote time to the song, the music, and the art when inspiration comes quick and easy and when it doesn’t.

It’s the same with writing. It’s kind of the cardinal rule. Anne Lamott tells us to write every day, even if it’s just 10 minutes of terrible writing. The point is the discipline, the act of sitting down at that computer or in front of that piece of paper and writing something—anything—for a few minutes. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or if anyone ever reads it. It just matters that you write. That you invest in the craft and the talent. That you don’t silence the voice inside you that calls you to write, to create.

One of my goals of sorts this year is to write more, and not just for this blog. Earlier in the year, I was doing great at sitting down almost every evening and writing for an hour or 45 minutes. But with a lot of upheaval at work, stress, anxiety, and other pressures, that’s been much more difficult lately. So this weekend, I made a writing appointment with myself. At 3 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, I’d get up from my nap, wander into the guest room/office, sit at my meager little desk and write for an hour or so.

When 3 p.m. came, I didn’t want to write. Sure, I’d been excited about it, but sometimes I’m excited about long runs, too, until it’s actually time to do the work. And writing is romantic until you have to actually do it. Then, it’s a lot of work and discipline with short bursts of creativity. At least that’s the way it’s been for me lately.

But on Sunday afternoon, I made myself keep that appointment. At first, the writing was hard. I didn’t know what to write about, so I started typing up a journal entry I’d written a week or so earlier. Then, I started writing another story from my memory and another. Before too long it was 5 p.m., a friend was texting about our plans for the evening, and I had to stop, but I didn’t want to.

I may not have written anything worth publishing in those two hours. Someday soon when I start going through the nearly 10,000 words I’ve written in an attempt to write a cookbook featuring recipes and stories about my family, I may completely rewrite or trash Sunday’s meager word count. But right now that doesn’t matter.

I made an appointment with Writing. And I kept it.

Today, my heart is heavy.

My heart is heavy today. Over the weekend, a friend of a friend was involved in a awful car accident in Mississippi with her six kids in the car.

Four of the children are OK and not in the hospital. Two were very badly injured, including the 2-year-old. The mom, Laurie, is in the hospital with severe injuries of her own. It was heartbreaking news.

Laurie is the best friend of a dear friend of mine. So, through the years, I’ve hung out with her and grown to think of her as a friend. It hurts my heart that this is happening to her and her sweet family.

I sat down to write about it this morning and couldn’t. The only thing that kept coming into my mind was a short poem I wrote months ago in a moment of disappointment and grief. So, I just thought I’d repost it today. I don’t know that it’s good, but it expressed the way I felt then, and the way I feel now. I’m not a parent, so I can only imagine what Laurie and her husband are feeling. I know they’re trusting in the Good Shepherd.

Sometimes I Need a Shepherd

Sometimes, I need a Shepherd
showing me the way.
The path is dark; the end unclear.
Sometimes, I need a Shepherd who simply draws me near.

I need to hear His heartbeat
thump against my ear.
I need to feel His comfort;
I need to know He cares.

Sometimes, I need a Shepherd
to tell me when I’m wrong.
To guide me and correct me;
To pull me from despair.

Today I need a Shepherd;
I’m a lamb confused and scared.
Today I need a Shepherd
showing me the way.