Sifting and Winnowing

Photo/KatenJordanMy heart pounded as I braved my re-entry into my writing space. I simply did not want to work on another uninspired blog post. Why, I didn’t know. But I knew I needed to identify the source of my resistance to what I’m passionate about—writing.

From my office chair, I scribbled a few forced phrases—those anticipated first and necessary words. The ones I demanded myself to write. It was a painful hour.

Even though they were interesting, they weren’t satisfying. And I grieved once again for inspiration that would give me life—meaningful thoughts flowing from a grateful heart. But the words I produced were stale and stodgy. Would anyone be blessed by reading them? I thought not.

The next morning, I awoke to another day of blank pages. So I confessed to my husband, Dan, “I’m really struggling with the blog posts I should have already written.”

“Why? What’s the problem?”

“I routinely commit to writing about things others have requested, and I never get to work on things that really matter to me.”

“Like what? Give me an example,” he asked.

Dan listened carefully as I voiced a litany of excuses. Then, he responded, “Maybe you need to do some ‘winnowing.’”

“Tell me what you mean.” I knew what the word “winnowing” meant, but I wanted to hear his thoughts.

“Have you ever seen an illustration of someone threshing wheat?” He shared several photos after searching the Internet.

“You mean, like sifting?” I knew Dan was right, but I hadn’t figured out how to climb out of my writing rut.

He said, “All words are not equal. And like grain, where the husks have to be separated and discarded. To produce the best dialogue and story, the worthless ideas must be winnowed out.”

Sifting. I listened to the Daily Audio Bible during my morning walk. From the book of Judges, I listened how God gave Gideon instructions for choosing warriors to fight with him.

You have too many warriors for Me to allow you to defeat the Midianites. As it is now, the people of Israel would just deny Me the credit and claim they had won the victory on their own. So go out and tell your army, “Any of you who are afraid and trembling are free to leave Mount Gilead.” (Judges 7:2-3 VOICE)

The scripture reminded me of my earlier conversation with Dan.

After Gideon reduced his army, the Lord told him. “You still have too many warriors. Take them down to the water, and I will sift them for you. When I say, ‘This one will fight for you,’ he will go with you; but when I say, ‘This one will not fight for you,’ then he will not go’” (Judges 7:4 VOICE).

As I listened to the passage being read, the word “sift” took on new meaning for me. I knew the Lord was teaching me about “winnowing” and “sifting.” I also recognized I could take my notebook “down to the water” and ask the Lord to help me “sift” through all of my writing and speaking commitments. The neighborhood lake was the perfect place for solitude.

Winnowing. After lunch, I took a brisk walk to Lake Cortez with my pen and paper, with my heart prepared for “winnowing” my writing options, sifting and discarding those that didn’t seem right for me.

One-by-one, I reviewed my current writing commitments, praying what was most important would emerge as my next writing effort.

Recently, I read this encouraging word from the book of James:

If you don’t have all the wisdom needed for this journey, then all you have to do is ask God for it; and God will grant all that you need. He gives lavishly and never scolds you for asking.

The key is that your request be anchored by your single-minded commitment to God. Those who depend only on their own judgment are like those lost on the seas, carried away by any wave or picked up by any wind. (James 1:5-6 VOICE)

I’m so grateful when God gives me his guidance and help. Some days I make decisions and commitments without even considering Him. But as I listed all of my plans that day, it became clear which projects and events I needed to abandon and pursue.

I instinctively knew which stories mattered most. And I also understood what genre of writing I wanted to pursue. So, I had the courage to resign from writing about things and issues that undermine my creativity and leave out elements of my faith.

I’m not sure what I will write next. But for now, I will continue to ask the Lord to help me sift through all of my projects and plans and allow him to impress my soul about what choices to make.

How do you “winnow” through your life and work? What sifters do you use when choosing what matters most to you and is worthy of your time and energy?

Scripture taken from The Voice™. Copyright © 2008 by Ecclesia Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Using a Writing Roadmap

Pushpin on map

Steven Covey once offered the advice to begin with the end in mind. Knowing where you are going is the key to success not only in business and in life, but also in writing. The first step for a student to learn in writing is thinking through the main idea he or she wants to convey and then determining the key points that develop that idea. This approach not only works for a simple essay or speech, but also for a manuscript for a new book.

Know your starting point: Just as a student should be able to state the main idea of an essay in one sentence, an author benefits from communicating the purpose for a new book in an overview. You often see a polished version of an overview taken from a book proposal on the back cover of a book. This overview is usually about seven sentences, arranged in one or two paragraphs. Think of the overview as much more than an abstract. The overview should go beyond summarizing the key message of the book to piquing reader interest.

Plan the rest stops along the way: At the beginning of manuscript preparation, you probably will have have a clear idea of what you want to say in the first few chapters, but only a vague understanding of the direction of the rest of the book. For your book proposal, you will need a chapter outline, which can provide direction for your writing, but consider what rest stops you will visit on your journey from the introduction to conclusion of your book. For a fiction book, these rest stops are the important events in your overall plot. For a nonfiction book, these rest stops are key ideas that develop your theme. Planning these rest stops in your writing roadmap will help you drive your writing forward.   Knowing you need to reach the next point in the development of your ideas will keep you from becoming sidetracked and adding good, but extraneous, information to your manuscript. If you link a certain expected word count to each rest stop, you also have a tool for planning your writing progress in order to meet a publisher’s manuscript deadline.

Arrive at your destination: You probably will come up with some great ideas while writing your manuscript that go beyond the material outlined in your book proposal. Wonderful! You might be able to incorporate some of these ideas along the way, but others may need to be saved for an additional book. Honor Steven Covey by keeping the intended conclusion of your book in mind as you finish each chapter. Make sure your readers arrive at your desired destination when they finish the last page of your book. Did your book fulfill the mission you envisioned? Did you support your ideas sufficiently? Did your words fly like an arrow and hit the bullseye? While you do not not need to tie up every loose end, do your final paragraphs provide a satisfying conclusion? Let your writing roadmap guide you to where you want to go.

How do you map out your writing project?