Writer’s Block? Consider a Template

You sit down to write your blog post or speech, and your mind goes blank.

What do you do? Panic? Make a fresh cup of coffee? Take a walk outside? Or tie yourself to your desk chair, vowing not to get up until it’s finished?

We’ve all had these moments of frustration when the words refuse to come. I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one.

Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then start on the first one.”

One way to do that is to use a template. Michael Hyatt suggests, “I create a template for any task I find myself doing repeatedly. So instead of reinventing the wheel every time, I do it once, save it as a template, and then reuse it.”

If you’ve every written a book proposal, you understand the value of a template. And you compose it in chunks, right? In fact, just typing the cover page is a helpful way to start; then, you go on to the next page.

I use templates as I compose teaching or speaking notes, as well as for some of my hard-to-write blog posts.

I start with an overall look at the topic.

  • Audience. I start by examining who I’m writing for, or who will be attending the event.
  • Felt need or problem. I examine not only what problem I’m addressing, but also what I want the audience to know and to do.
  • Main thought. For me, it’s often hard to reduce my message into one or two words. So, I attempt to summarize my message in one sentence to get my focus.
  • Scripture or reference. Since I write on nonfiction, Christian topics, I write out the main scripture or promise I want to share, or the authoritative source.

The next part of my template includes spaces for each section planned.

  • Opening statement or story. Here’s where I try to capture the attention of my audience with a quotation or an intriguing story.
  • My story. I connect with the topic, using an illustration from my own experiences.
  • Our story. I consider borrowing from other people or source that expresses how many reader will relate to the subject.
  • Resource. What does my primary resource say about this topic? This could be Bible reference or another authoritative source.
  • Your story. Now, I try to lead the reader to connect the topic with one of her own life stories.
  • Application. I encourage the audience to adopt some practical way to apply the message that might change their life.
  • Conclusion. What is the take-away? Write something the audience can remember—a clever quote, a power statement, or repeat what you just said in the post in a memorable way. I propose a premise, then reinforce it with strong, concluding words.

How do you handle those times when the words won’t come for your project?

I hope you will consider developing a template for those tasks you find yourself doing routinely, like blog posts or speaking notes.

And if all else fails, just take a walk or do anything to get your mind off your writing, and allow yourself to refocus on something pleasant or beautiful.

Then, go back to your desk, sit down, and just write!

Have templates helped you in your writing? If so, share a few examples with us.

 

You can only eat so much eggplant.

eggplantI’ve rediscovered the joy of vegetable gardening, thanks to our move to a warmer clime that allows for gardening year-round. As a result, I’ve acquired some hands-on experience with how my garden grows…or not. And, being the reflective person I am, I can’t help but apply those lessons to not only life in general, but also to life as a writer. So whether or not you’re a dig-in-the-dirt kind of person, I hope you’ll find some gems in the guidelines I’m culling from my veggies.

  1. Sow liberally and see what comes up. For my first crop of lettuce, I ignored the seed packet instructions and laid seeds thickly the whole length of the row. I wanted to be sure something came up, and my confidence didn’t match the packet’s. The result: I had all the lettuce I could eat, and then some. The next time I sowed lettuce, I followed the instructions and spaced fewer seeds farther apart. The result: nothing came up and my work was a wasted effort.

Writing take-away: when you’re new at writing, try it all. See what develops for you. It’s better to produce more than you can use than have no success at all.

  1. Thin the rows to get better results. When I noticed that the new plants were crowding each other, I pulled out the smaller ones to let the bigger ones get the full advantage of soil, sun, and water. I got healthier plants that produced more and for longer periods of time.

Writing take-away: Capitalize on what’s working for you. If your fiction isn’t doing well, focus on the self-help material that’s popular with your audience and helping your platform grow. Put your energy where you’re seeing the strongest results.

  1. Some seeds just won’t sprout. Get over it. Plant something else. For some reason, I couldn’t get snow peas to grow despite two tries. Instead of letting the soil lay unused, I planted beets, which turned into a bumper crop, forcing me to try lots of new great recipes using beets.

Writing take-away: If you just can’t find an audience for something you’ve written, it’s time to try a different approach, treatment, or subject. The new material you produce might prove an easy winner.

  1. You can only eat so much eggplant. I didn’t think I could get tired of eggplant parmesan and mixed veggie grills, but after this summer and fall, I know there really is a limit to how much eggplant I can eat. Next year, I will plant only one plant, or make a habit of giving excess produce to my neighbors much earlier in the season.

Writing take-away: You can get tired of writing in the same genre. When you just can’t face writing another devotional, or romance, or even a blog post about writing, take a break. Write something else. Binge on reading books. Watch all the movies you missed in the last year. Then a day will come that you really want to write in your genre again. You’ll feel fresh and your writing will benefit.

By the way, if anyone wants eggplant, let me know…

To Blog or Not to Blog, That is the Question

The following is a guest post from Rachelle Gardner, a literary agent with Books and Such. It was first published on her blog at www.rachellegardner.com.

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Standard wisdom used to be that authors, both fiction and non-fiction, should build relationships with readers through blogs. As social media and online marketing have evolved, my thoughts on blogging have changed.

The proliferation of blogs in the last ten years has made it increasingly difficult to stand out in the crowd. Many authors are blogging faithfully but it doesn’t seem to be increasing readership of their books; in fact most of their readers are other writers. One good indicator blogging might not be for you is if you have a hard time figuring out what you should write about.

So, how do you decide if you should have a blog?
Have a blog if:

  1. You have something important to say and it seems people want to hear it.
  2.  You understand that blogging is about offering something of value, NOT about promoting yourself and your books.
  3.  You enjoy blogging (for the most part, anyway).
  4.  You find blogging contributes to your creativity and enthusiasm for writing your books, rather than sucking all the energy out of you.
  5.  You can find the time for blogging without it completely stressing you out.
  6.  Your books have a highly defined target audience, making it easy to target your blog.
  7. Your books are topical (especially non-fiction), so that you have a clear and obvious theme for your blog.

Don’t have a blog if:

  1. You keep asking yourself and others, “But what should I blog about?”
  2. You only want to blog to promote your books and/or because you think you “have to.”
  3. The whole idea stresses you out.
  4. You honestly don’t have the time in your schedule to blog regularly.
  5. You’ve been blogging for a year or more, and haven’t built up to a traffic level that seems worth it.

Here are some alternatives to blogging when it comes to online networking and promotion.

  • joining a group blog
  • sending email newsletters
  • using Facebook effectively
  • leveraging the various ways Goodreads offers for promoting books
  • attracting a readership through Pinterest and/or Instagram
  • having an effective LinkedIn profile page

If you don’t want to blog or be engaged in online promotion, should you self-publish instead of seeking a publisher?

I get this question from writers frequently, and my answer is: What would be the point of self-publishing a book, if you have no intention of promoting it? Who will buy it? With millions of books available for sale at any given time, what’s your plan for letting people know that yours exists?

Blogging and other means of online promotion aren’t just hoops that publishers want you to jump through. They’re real and necessary methods of letting people know about your book. So if you have no intention of letting anyone know about your book, through a sustained, long-term promotional plan of online engagement, then think carefully about whether you want to write a book for publication. If you build it: they will NOT come. You must promote it.
Do you blog? If so, how’s it going? If not, why not? 

Rachelle Gardner is a literary agent with Books and Such Literary Agency based in California. In addition, she is an experienced editor, writing/publishing coach, social media coach, and speaker. She has been working in publishing since 1995. Find her at http://www.rachellegardner.com. 

4 Tips for Writing About Sensitive Topics

I write about sex in marriage. Talk about a sensitive and potentially controversial topic. Even the idea of publicly discussing sex in Christian circles can trigger everything from raised eyebrows to scathing rebukes.

4 Tips for Writing about Sensitive Topics

Yet I’ve always believed that if God is willing to bring up sensitive issues, so should His people. How can you address sensitive topics responsibly? Here are four quick tips.

1. It’s not merely what you say, it’s how you say it. Christians can be entirely right about the content of what they teach, and entirely wrong in how they treat others in getting their point across. Presenting truth doesn’t excuse us from commands to be loving, kind, gentle, patient, and self-controlled.

Ask how you’re presenting your points. Are you solely concerned about the issue, or do you consider the people affected? Do you invite conversation or lambaste anyone who doesn’t agree?

If your readers see you as caring about them, they’re far more likely to listen to what you have to say. Keep them in mind as you write.

2. Some react negatively because you poked a personal wound. Sometimes a reader’s hostile reaction isn’t personal. Rather, you unintentionally touched a raw wound.

For example, if I address how most husbands need the emotional connection of sex, I’ll get angry reactions from higher-drive wives whose husbands don’t seem to want sex, from wives whose husbands have been demanding or abusive, from husbands who’ve been refused for years and rant about how I’m too soft on wives, etc. Rather than feeling attacked, I try to show compassion for their difficult situation.

We should present our topic as fairly and lovingly as possible. But if someone freaks out about something you said, remember it may not be about you at all.

3. You don’t owe anything to false teachers. We bloggers know these commenters as “trolls”—meaning people who troll the Internet for articles on a particular topic and leave comments that promote lies and hate. At first, I tried to engage these readers, but nowadays I can spot a troll, or false teacher, pretty quickly. And I don’t put up with it.

It’s not that a writer’s skin isn’t tough. Challenges, debates, and discussion are fine, but if someone promotes false teaching or personally attacks other readers, it’s time to draw a line. Our readership relies on us to present truth and encouragement.

Adopt a comments policy explaining you’ll delete remarks with egregiously wrong or dangerous teaching. Don’t allow false teachers to soil your ministry by giving them a platform.

4. Find a supportive community. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to find a community who’ll support you when difficulties arise. My marriage author friends provide everything from encouragement to prayer to wisdom. And they laugh with me, which is healing in the face of trouble.

When it comes to writing, people who do what you do are not opponents; they are allies. Befriend them and gain strength from one another.

We can’t dismiss our obligation to share God’s Word boldly (Acts 4:31) and to help struggling people (Psalm 34:18) simply because it makes some in our midst uncomfortable. Your readers, many who’d never leave a comment or contact you, will appreciate your courage to address sensitive topics.

All Blogged Out: A Rant (Fair Warning)

Scream--Annemarie BusschersThe other day a fellow writer from way in my past—semi-famous, author of many highly regarded books—friended me.

It was so exciting. To be remembered by someone I had admired long ago but hardly knew, someone whose books I have on my shelf.

As soon as I accepted her friendship I was invited to like her author page. Then read her blog. Which explained everything.

I don’t want to be a partypooper here about the self-promotion mandate. Really I don’t. I know that publishers these days demand that writers have author pages and blogs and followers and all that. I try to be, in fact, dutiful, in my way. But it must be said. Something about all this facebooking and author-paging and blogging just stinks.

It reminds me of how, at my university, some colleagues and I used to convene every year to plan women’s events. Multiple times, meeting upon meeting, to schedule and scheme and come up with funding and talk about decorations and cookies and such. Then, when the day came for whatever it was to happen—the reading group, the tea, the birdwatching we had so arduously planned—there we’d be again, the five of us, the only attendees.

How does one find time to write books when there’s forever a blog post due? Not to mention reading all the other writers’ blogs that I say I’m following—and that, if I were  truly friend-worthy, I would be commenting upon. Confession: the only blogs I willingly visit are the ones I land on after a Google Images search for a very specific recipe, one that looks like a dish I remember from my childhood, or some stew of lentils I’ve been fantasizing about, or some bizarrely complicated goodie I said I’d cook up for one of my ever ravenous daughters.

All this to say—am I the only one who feels this way?—that blogging, which appears to be de rigueur in the world of publishing these days, slurps up my writing time like an old dishrag, and sometimes I fear that the only ones who read what I write are fellow writers (more generous ones than I am) obliged, as I am, to squeeze it out when I should be working on my current writing project and between all the other things I do to actually support myself. (That sentence doesn’t work, I fear…) Those who follow me—I’m sure of this—do so for the same reason I follow that writer acquaintance of mine: because I was asked. I’m not going to buy any more books of hers than I’ve already bought. Having heard an interesting writer interviewed on Fresh Air, I’ve never gone to his author page or read her blog. If I’m interested enough, I ask for the book in Barnes & Noble. And when they don’t have it—they never do!—I order it for cheaper anyway on Amazon.

Here’s how it goes with buying books and me. In the ideal world that used to be, I heard about a book or picked it up from a bookstore table or shelf, I read a few pages, I bought it and brought it home, eventually it made its way to my bedside table and into the stack to wait its turn, and then, one happy day, I turned over and reached for it and started to read. In that perfect world, it is a perfect book, and I can’t stop reading till it’s finished. Then I tell my sister, off in Colorado, about the book on the phone. And in a few more days I lend my copy—though it has a swollen edge from my having accidentally let part of it sag into the bathwater—to one of my colleagues. Then I assign it in one of my classes. No blogs or author-pages or anything like that. Just hear about it, buy it, read it, lend it.

I’m not feeling very encouraging today, I’m afraid. Maybe this post will generate some useful discussion among us writer-blogger-authorpagers, though.

(Feel MUCH invited to chime in if you’re not a writer. It would cheer me immensely.)

Writing Effective Blog Posts

freeelance-bloggingI consider myself a Missionary Writer.

I began writing in 2004 with a blog titled, “The Southern Scribe.” Even though I was an early adopter in the Christian blogging world, as time went on, I doubted that blogging was here to stay. Due to my time constraints, I gave up blogging. On occasion I would blog about something that interested me or blog about an issue that excited me or annoyed me. I can stand before you today and say I was wrong, in a big way. Blogs in many circles are just as pertinent as print and network and cable news outlets when it comes to breaking news or editorials.

Anyone can get an account on Blogger or setup a WordPress blog, but how do we write posts that are effective in delivering a message?

1. MAKE YOUR WRITING NEED BASED.
When preparing to write, always start with the key need. Then move to the key thought or concept that has to do with that need. Be sure to research and then exegete your sources and prepare notes on your findings. Examine supplemental writings and books where necessary. A Missionary Writer does not write to be cool or famous; we write to lead people to changed lives. As I research, study, and prepare, I ask God for wisdom and direction.

2. EMPHASIZE SHOWING VERSUS TELLING.
We should use current events and stories to illustrate the point we are trying to make. Remember, showing versus telling can get marred if we are not careful, as we want to tell people “how to” instead of showing them. The only way people really learn and are motivated to change is being shown how to go from point A to point B. People can only get to the next level by having someone who has accomplished what they seek to accomplish show them how.

Make sure you address the WHY behind the WHAT – why do people need to know this? How does it matter to their lives?

3. PROVIDE CLEAR ACTION STEPS.
Effective writing lead to specific applications. In preparation of my writing, I always ask, “What do I want people to DO as a result of reading this?” In many cases, (calling for people to give their shoes off their feet), the action step may be bold. But in other cases, it could be simple (begin reading the Bible this week or go on a date with your spouse).

Just like meetings that do not include action steps tend to waste people’s time, so does writing that does not call people to action. It’s like running back a kickoff and stopping at the 10-yard line.

4. WRITE WITH PASSION AND AUTHENTICITY.
Passionate and authentic writing begins from understanding one’s personality and style. Writers that attempt to write like someone else will never connect as well.

In the 21st century, humor is a common language that conveys authenticity. People appreciate writers who do not look down on them, but engage them. Humor lowers people’s defenses. Funny stories and statements can pepper your writing with spice and make it memorable.

5. BE SIMPLE.
We often write about difficult subjects in an effort to answer people’s questions, but do we use too many words without saying anything? Simple answers are often shorter answers. The attention span of our society is getting collectively shorter. This means that I must develop the skill to match the will.

Great writing should have one memorable point or statement that is repeated several times throughout the piece. There should be one driving idea, a “twitterable” big idea.

7 Writing Revelations (and a Couple of Prophecies): What Blogging Daily throughout Lent Is Teaching Me about Writing

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Having published five books and taught writing for more years than I want to tot up at this moment, I had no idea I had so much to learn about writing until I undertook, for Lent, to post daily to my blog about following God’s command in Deuteronomy 6:7, which is about talking about scripture all the time: when you lie down and get up, when you walk down the road and when you sit in front of the computer.

It’s been tough going some days. One night, nigh on midnight, my brother—who has correspondingly committed to responding to my daily posts—sent me an email reminding me that I still hadn’t posted that day. Mostly, though, blogging about the Bible daily has proved a blessed Lenten entertainment—much more fun than giving something up—and taught me much about writing discipline.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

  1. It is possible to write daily.

Or, so far it is, anyway. Previously I had doubted this.

I had the same revelation once about dieting and lost thirty pounds. The sad news is that, as with most of my spiritual revelations, I forgot what I had learned and gained a lot of it back.

(Note to self: After Lent, instead of blogging daily, you need to track what you eat.)

  1. One key to discipline in writing is writing on a set schedule.

I’ve found I have the best chance of getting my blogwork done if I do it first thing in the morning, before the day has the chance to talk me out of it. It’s the same way with my running: I either do it in the morning or I don’t do it at all. Similarly as with my twenty-one miles per week running commitment, the once-a-day blogging mandate has a sort of built-in incentive: incremental progress toward success. When I get done with my day’s post or run, accomplishment surges through my veins and arteries. Yes! I tell myself.

  1. Daily writing is easier if you follow a chronology of some sort.

This is by no means the first time I have tried to force myself to blog regularly, though in the past my goal has been to blog not daily but only (blush) weekly. I have never gotten very far with it. Even with a clear topical focus (which helps), eventually I just lose a sense of forward movement and stop.

This time around, though, I have not only a topic but a predetermined chronology: Jesus’ biographical development as presented in the four accounts of it in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I started—following a more occasional trajectory—back at Christmastime. Something about there being a passage of time in the material I’m reading and responding to flings me forward, I think, by providing me with an unknown element to look forward to. I wake up in the morning curious about what’s going to happen next in Jesus’ life—and how thinking about it might play out in mine.

  1. Blogging is work.

As pleasurable as it has been to read and think about and respond to scripture every morning, not very long after I committed to daily blogging I started to think of it as work. As, that is, something I was supposed to accomplish by the end of the day. A duty. At times a burden. And always, potentially, an additional stressor I don’t need in my life. This is a reality that I can’t afford to ignore.

  1. Time devoted to blogwork takes away from time devoted to other writing.

As with all work, every minute I spend blogging is a minute I’m not working on my other writing projects. This is another reality I can’t afford to ignore.

One of these days publishers will discover how blogging saps writing—or, that is, they will admit it to be true, having tried regular blogging themselves—and they will, I’m certain, start discouraging their authors from regular blogwork. (I am prophesying here.)

Before that happens, however, publishers may cease to exist. (Another prophecy.)

  1. Habitual blogwork on something different from your main writing project can help your creativity.

While blogging has cost me time I need for the novel I’m working on, allowing myself to concentrate on something else for a portion of my designated writing days has also unstopped the writer’s block I tend to have when writing fiction. This is partly so, I think, because I am, in essence, transferring some of the duty and burden of regular writing onto the blog and off of my novel, making the latter more of a place to just have fun.

It is important to note, too, that creativity studies consistently show that turning one’s attention to something else—something unrelated—invariably nurtures creativity.

  1. Having a dependable and responsive reader—or better yet, readers!—is a wonderful incentive to keep the words coming.

As I said at the start, when I committed to read scripture and blog about it daily, my brother committed to read and respond to what I wrote. Not only have these responses proved a lovely opportunity to interact daily with a faraway loved one, but my brother’s insights have grown me. Often, in fact, his responses have triggered the next day’s post. Best of all, we talk to each other daily about scripture, which was the goal of my blog in the first place: to be in conversation with others about scripture all the time.

I’m certain there are more things I will learn from my daily blogging commitment—and probably more things that I have learned already—but seven’s a good number, so I’ll let this be enough for now. I need to get on to daily blogging—and, after that, the novel!

So for now, happy Lent!