About Christina M. H. Powell

Dr. Christina M. H. Powell is the author of "Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith" (InterVarsity Press, 2014). She is a medical writer trained as a biomedical research scientist at Harvard Medical School and Harvard University as well as an ordained Assemblies of God minister and public speaker.

Enjoying Variety in Writing

Mixed fruits and vegetables at organic fair

Mixed fruits and vegetables at organic fair

Just as a wide selection of fruits and vegetables makes for a nutritionally balanced diet that promotes good health, variety in writing can improve the quality of prose a person produces. While specializing in one type of writing allows a person to focus, I believe a writer can benefit from tackling different lengths and styles of writing assignments. Here are three ways that writing articles helps an author of a book:

  1. Article writing teaches clarity. The limited word count of an article trains an author to think clearly and write concisely. While an author of a book can define and develop his or her message across many chapters, a writer preparing an article must get the job done in less than a few pages. I found that article writing for journals and magazines helped me winnow my words and learn to support my key ideas with only the strongest illustrations from the most reliable sources. Article writing also honed my ability to write an outline – a skill useful for writing book proposals.
  2. Article writing permits creativity. If you want to test an idea or a style, find a suitable publication and write a query to the editor. If you succeed, you will probably have between 1000 and 2500 words to try out your concept. If you discover a great new topic that deserves further exploration, you can follow up by writing a book proposal. If you find that you can express all your thoughts on the topic within an article or two, you have broadened your horizons without the long commitment that book writing entails. Move on and try another topic until you find your niche. Working with a variety of editors will improve your writing career. You will gain insights and learn new techniques from each editor.
  3. Article writing expands an author’s audience. To be granted the privilege of publishing a book, you need a platform. To maintain book sales, you need to connect with readers. Article writing creates the platform a novice writer needs in order to obtain that first book contract. Article writing also helps a seasoned author keep in touch with readers. Choose publications most likely to interest your potential readers, but, remember, if you write for new publications, you will expand your audience. Online publications or print publications with an online presence create opportunities to share your work across social media, a bonus for an author trying to reach more people.

I have learned to enjoy variety in writing, appreciating the different approaches to communicating to the specific audience for a given publication. Article writing gives me the opportunity to address a wider variety of issues than I could cover through book writing alone. What types of writing have shaped your writing career? What have you learned from writing beyond the pages of a book?

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Fitting the Words to the Occasion

Global business strategy

Solving globe puzzle by finding the correct puzzle pieces

In elementary school, I discovered the joys and complexities of writing. Through a summer creative writing class, I learned how the right word choice can make a poem memorable, dialogue meaningful, and a setting realistic. As a graduate student at Harvard University writing scientific research papers and a doctoral thesis, I revisited the importance of precision in writing. Medical and scientific writing employs a special vocabulary of scientific terms, abbreviations known only to others within the field, and a careful, well-organized tone.

Whether you are a professional writer creating highly technical and specialized documents, a journalist, an academic researcher writing for a scholarly audience, a novelist, or an author of a non-fiction book, you need to select the correct words to create clear and effective communication. Here are some ideas that have helped me fit the words to the occasion:

  1. Choose precise words. Resist the temptation to embellish your writing with multiple adjectives and adverbs. Choose “sprinted” over “quickly ran” and “coral” over “deep orangish pink”. Concise, clear writing makes it easier for your reader to follow your message. When you do insert an adjective, make sure it enhances the thought you want to convey. Even in a novel or memoir where you must describe the setting of your story to capture your reader’s interest, edit out superfluous sentences that do not advance the plot.
  2. Listen to the rhythm and flow of your sentences. Writing poetry teaches you to pay attention not only to the meaning of words, but also to the sound of words. Some lessons from poetry can improve prose. If you are deciding between two words that both carry a similar meaning, choose the one whose syllables improve the rhythm of your sentence. To draw your reader into a scene where characters experience fast-paced action, keep your sentences short. To transport readers to a bucolic setting in an historical novel, indulge in writing an opening paragraph of long sentences with descriptive clauses.
  3. Create a consistent tone. Scholarly writing has a consistent tone with logically structured paragraphs and a detached viewpoint creating a sense of objectivity. A “How To” book reads quickly, dispensing friendly advice on a given topic. A chapter in a novel or memoir describing a difficult time in a person’s life usually carries a somber, reflective tone. Pay attention to the connotations of words to create the right tone for your article or book chapter. When writing dialogue for a character, choose words that let the personality of the character shine through. As the character develops and grows throughout the book, allow his or her word choice to reflect those changes. In a non-fiction book with an overall formal tone, you can intersperse illustrations that carry a lighter, informal tone to break up the reading difficulty and keep your reader engaged. Think about what tone is appropriate for your writing in the early stages of your project as you are developing your outline.

What techniques do you use to fit the words to the occasion?

Finding Your Voice as a Writer

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Speaking with a Microphone

At a writer’s conference or in an exchange with your literary agent, you might hear the admonition to find your voice as a writer. You will quickly recognize that locating this important item is the key to defining yourself as a professional writer, launching a successful writing career, and attracting readers.

As you seek to differentiate yourself from other writers and find your own style, your voice might feel elusive. Unsure of how to proceed, you may be tempted to echo the style of your favorite author, or try on a variety of writing styles in an attempt to find the best fit for you. However, your voice is an extension of who you are as a person. To a certain extent, your voice finds you as much as you find your voice. Consider how your voice as a writer arises naturally from your unique perspective, your particular audience, and your principal message.

1. Your unique perspective: Every writer brings a special blend of skills, life experience and creative ideas to each writing task. If a group of five writers sat around a table working on an article for a magazine using the same requirements and editorial guidance, I would expect five very different finished articles to emerge. For example, a writer with a science background might take a logical, structured approach to a subject, where a writer with a theatrical background might add more emotion. A writer who spent many years teaching history at the college level would probably include background material to give a historical context to the subject matter.

2. Your particular audience: A novice writer might dream of his or her words reaching a wide general audience, such as anyone passing by the best-selling books display in a Barnes & Noble store. However, most writers appeal to a certain segment of the book-reading population, often to people who are similar to the writer. A naturalist will likely attract readers who love spending time outdoors. Beyond simply thinking about the marketing of your books, think about who you are most likely to influence with your work. Will your writing reach young parents, new retirees, or college students? Is your writing complex or easily accessible? As a Christian writer, are you writing for someone new to the faith or a lifelong believer? Once you understand your particular audience, you can choose words and illustrations most effective for your readers, thus defining an aspect of your writing voice.

3. Your principal message: At the intersection of your passion and your experience, your principal message develops. You will feel most fulfilled as a writer when you write about topics that matter the most to you. Your readers, in turn, will sense your interest and excitement. You will produce your highest quality work when you write in your area of expertise. When writing articles for publications to augment your work as an author, try to choose topics that complement the messages that readers take away from your books. This focus will help you build a loyal base of readers and maintain a consistent writing voice.

What has helped you find your voice as a writer?

 

Becoming Social Media Savvy

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The World of Social Media

If you want to become a published author in today’s world, you need to embrace social media. Some aspiring authors may be very comfortable with social media and already have a large and successful online platform. However, many people preparing to write their first book may have a platform established in another way, such as through teaching, speaking, or published articles, and the world of social media may be foreign to them.

Here are a few tips for new authors looking to expand their social media presence:

  1. Consider your overall social media needs. Most new authors have careers in addition to their writing. While in many cases your writing may be an outgrowth of your career, sometimes the social media needs of your career may conflict with the social media needs of your writing platform. Consider how you can achieve a workable compromise between the two. Perhaps you work in a career where a limited social media presence based solely on professional accomplishments would be ideal. However, your writing platform may thrive if you develop a more personable social media presence that lets your readers share in some details from your daily life. Maybe you can connect with work colleagues on a platform such as LinkedIn, while using Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, and Google+ to connect with readers. Find what works for you, and modify your social media presence as necessary.
  2. Create layers of social media connection. Before deciding to become an author, you may have used social media as a means of connecting with friends and family. Now you find that your literary agent and your publishing house want you to connect with readers through social media. Connecting with readers requires a public social media presence. However, privacy controls on social media sites such as Facebook allow you to keep your posts to friends and family private while creating new posts for the general public. Using privacy controls, you can create layers of social media connection, sharing photos of your children with close friends and family members while sharing photos of book-signing events with the whole world. You might want to create a Facebook page with all posts public to connect with readers, while using your Facebook profile to connect with friends. However, consider leaving some posts from your Facebook profile public for readers who find you through a Facebook search.
  3. Adapt your social media strategy to stay current. All social media sites are constantly changing, especially platforms such as Facebook, where signs around the company’s campus remind employees that “this journey is only 1% finished”. After a major update on one of your social media sites, check privacy settings, and revisit your approach to social media. Is there a great new feature that you should start using? Should you publish more videos, or schedule posts for a different time of day? As an author, your journey in the world of social media is only 1% finished. Learn from your past experiences on social media and the wisdom of other writers, and create fresh content using new tools and the latest technology.

What tips do you have to share with other writers on becoming social media savvy?

Starting Your Writing Project 

It’s a new year, so it is time to set some new goals. For many of us, one of those goals may be writing our next book. As with most goals, the hardest part is getting started. So, let’s consider some ways to overcome writing inertia.

Find your topic: Whether you are writing your first book, or your hundredth book, the first step is determining the focus of the book.

For your first book, your possibilities are the greatest. Of course, you are confined by your areas of knowledge and interest, but you have considerable freedom in choosing a genre, subject and style.

For your second and subsequent books, you are limited by your previous writing decisions. Of course, some authors successfully jump from nonfiction to fiction or children’s books to historical novels, but usually your literary agent will encourage you to write your next book in a category similar to your previous work. Your readers will be looking forward to a new book that builds on what they have read in your previous books.

Prepare a schedule: You are more likely to complete your writing project if you plan the time for the task in your schedule. If you have written a book already, you will have a good idea of how many hours it takes you to write a certain number of words. If you are writing your first book, you can estimate the time by using how long it takes you to write an article with a given word count.

Realistically determine how many times per week you can devote time to writing. Next, figure how long each writing session should last–one hour or half the day? How many words do you expect to write during a typical writing session? Given these calculations, you should have a good idea of how long you need to complete your writing project.

Factor in time for disruptions and delays so you do not become discouraged by an overly optimistic plan. You want to reach your goal, but writing is not a race.

Gather resources: Prepare for success by thinking ahead. What research materials will you need for your project? Will you need to spend time in a library or travel to a certain destination? Do you need to schedule interviews with people?

Add time for these tasks to your writing schedule. Contact people you need to interview well in advance of your writing deadline. Consider if you will want photos or illustrations in your book. If so, plan on acquiring the necessary permissions. As you gather your resources, your goal of completing your writing project will become real to you, increasing your likelihood of finishing the project.

Of course, each writer has a unique way of preparing to write a book. How do you get ready for your next writing project?

The Writer as Historian

As a college student interested in science, I was drawn to the pursuit of new discoveries, the promises of technological progress, and a fascination with the possibilities of the future. History interested me, but I did not fully recognize the value of this academic field until I acquired two more decades of life experience.

When I started writing my book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, in order to include accurate stories from seasons in my life alongside explanations of concepts and advice, I briefly stepped into the role of writer as historian.

Now, a year after the release of the book, I treasure this role as one of the special privileges of being an author. Here are a few ways in which authors can fulfill this role:

Preserve Places – Change is one reliable constant in life. Buildings undergo renovation, new businesses open up and others close on familiar hometown streets, and development transforms the landscape. Such changes usually fuel progress and keep institutions relevant for new generations. However, no matter how positive the changes may be, change brings loss, too.

When an author describes a place within the pages of a book, he or she takes a snapshot of a place to preserve for the future. Within the pages of a book, time travel is possible, as a reader opens a door into a building now demolished, treads on carpet from a different era, and takes in the chandeliers, paintings, and furniture in a scene that no longer exists.

Such passages do more than stir nostalgia – they help a reader gain insight into a past way of life.

Uphold Values – Somewhere in the rooms of the past described in scenes of a book, a reader can rediscover traditions worth repeating and values worth teaching to new students. Gracious hospitality comes alive in descriptions of exquisite pastries on silver trays shared along with polite conversation.

A reader who dines along with characters in the book may not be physically nourished, but may find encouragement to engage in pleasant conversation and linger longer at the family dinner table.

Record Lessons – Not everything about a previous era is rosy. A writer that captures the truth of a moment in time in a passage records lessons that can inspire change for the future.

Dialogue that exposes attitudes and prejudices that are honest representations of a time and place help readers discern the need for present day improvements. In preserving history, authors encourage progress.

All authors serve as historians at some point in their books, no matter what section of the bookstore will display their works. You can find history in a physics book as surely as you can in a book on architecture.

In what ways have you captured history in your writing?

Writing: Dreamers, Please Apply

Writers are dreamers. The two activities – dreaming and writing – work together. Of course, writers can be incredibly practical, churning out how-to manuals or crafting detailed textbooks. Writers can plan, strategize and develop logical plots within their stories. At their best, dreamers are innovators and so are writers. They are grounded in reality, even as they reach for what could be. Consider the following three characteristics of writers, and you’ll understand why dreamers need to apply for this job.


1. Idealistic – Even the cynical writer spewing a critique of society on the page is an idealist at heart. If you desire to express your ideas to change the world in some way, if you hope to educate or inspire your readers, if you think you have an insight to share, then you possess at least a touch of idealism.

When you hope to capture the attention of people with the force of your ideas without the benefit of the sound of your voice or the expression on your face, you must be a little idealistic or else you would not bother to try.

2. Futuristic – Writers look to the future even when they write about the past. Of course, science fiction writers take us to the future we have yet to create, often inspiring inventions once technology catches up with their imagination.

However, all writers reach into the future, crafting words to entertain and exhort readers years after the ink is dry on the page. Words can live on as text on the screens of tomorrow and as quotes on social media platforms not yet developed.

If you dream of a better tomorrow and believe you have a positive contribution to make, you just might be a writer.

3. Optimistic – You need faith to be a writer. You must believe that your manuscript will find a publisher, and your book will find an audience. You need to believe you are making a difference when you are spending quality time typing words in solitude.

Writers stay motivated with little feedback, persevering against the odds for the privilege of spreading their thoughts, beliefs and knowledge with others. Writers concern themselves less with making a living than with sharing their life with others.

Writers find the ray of sunshine on the cloudiest of days. They keep a spring in their step even when they feel at a loss for words. They believe in their dreams and the best of writers help others believe in their own dreams, too.

Are you ready to become a writer?