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?

5 Tips for Sharing Your Faith Stories

imageThe Bible encourages Christ followers to share their life lessons of faith with others.

Men. The apostle Paul gave Titus this advice as he prepared to teach men.

.  .  .  talk to them; give them a good, healthy diet of solid teaching so they will know the right way to live  .  .  .  teach the older men (to) enjoy everything in moderation, respect yourselves and others, be sensible, and dedicate yourselves to living an unbroken faith demonstrated by your love and perseverance.” (Titus 2:1 The Message).

Women. Paul also gave Titus instructions about teaching the older women, offering him some instructions concerning issues that concern all women (Titus 2:3-5).

Today. We might be able to glean some good stories with writing prompts from these passages. But how can we share our own faith if we can’t communicate our personal stories, identifying the stories that matter most to us?

As I prepared to speak to a group of Christian women, encouraging them to share their faith stores, I recalled an important challenge in 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (NIV).

Prompts. The following writing prompts helped me prepare to tell my faith story, particularly my personal “come to Jesus” experience.

  1. Before Christ. How would you characterize your life before you trusted in Jesus Christ? [Attitudes, emotions, concerns . . . ]
  2. Faith Crisis. What were the circumstances in your life that led you to trust Jesus Christ as Savior?
  3. Salvation. When and how did you respond to accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?
  4. Christ follower. How would you characterize your life today since you chose to follow Christ? How is your life different now?
  5. Scripture Promises. What Bible verses have helped through a crisis of faith?

What resource or practice has helped you communicate your faith stories?

How to write REAL dialogue? Listen up!

listenI have a secret weapon when it comes to developing authentic, convincingly real dialogue in my novels: my ear.

That’s not to say that I am an eavesdropper. I do not lurk around others at cocktail parties (Cocktail parties? Do those even exist anymore in our online-saturated world?), nor do I silently sidle up to people talking on their cell phones. The fact is, when I am involved in a conversation, I try to listen very consciously and pay attention to how ideas are expressed, how a dialogue moves from beginning to end, and what it actually sounds like.

And when I hear a particularly memorable line, I steal it.

The result?

My characters say the same things that living, breathing, people actually say.

I know this is one of the keys to my success in creating characters because I always have readers enthuse to me about how “real” my characters are.

“I swear I know your characters,” a reader tells me. “They talk just like my friends do. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that you’d been secretly recording our conversations!”

Confession: I actually considered carrying around a small recorder early in my writing career to capture great lines of conversation, but decided that was too creepy. Instead, I developed the habit of repeating a line in my head until I had it memorized to copy down later. Almost miraculously, the rest of the conversation comes back to me for use in scene development, and that’s when I apply artistic license and my own imagination to craft it into my plot.

Until recently, I thought that was the way every writer developed dialogue: relying on your own ear. But then my daughter shared with me an experience she’d just had with readers of her fan fiction.

“I had so many readers comment on how much they loved this one line from a character,” she happily told me, “and it was verbatim what a friend said to me when he tasted some brownies I made. Seriously, all the best lines come straight from someone’s mouth! Forget struggling to come up with zingers – all you have to do is listen to the people around you.”

That simply confirms what I tell my audiences when I speak about my writing. I can’t take credit for some of the best dialogue in my books, because I didn’t make it up. I just recorded what I heard someone else say. In so many cases, the real world provides much better, more authentic material than I could ever dream up. Not only that, but listening carefully to conversation helps you develop pacing and timing that mimics real people, which is a huge benefit when you’re working with fictional characters.

The next time you’re stumped for dialogue, give your keyboard a rest, and instead, go talk to someone and put your ear to work. It really is surprising what people might say, and what you can do with it.

 

 

 

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?

 

6 Questions and Ideas for Your Writing Reflections

Photo/KarenJordan

“[T]ake chances, make mistakes, get messy!” (Magic School Bus)

Do you tend to focus most on your grammar and mechanics when you self-edit? I do.

I want to offer you some questions and ideas that will help to get you out of the “grammar cop” mode and into a more reflective mood.

Writing instructor. I compiled this list of questions as a writing instructor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. I offered these questions to my students to help them in their revision process with their papers.

I’m not sure where I got most of these reflective questions. Writing instructors tend to do a lot of “academic borrowing.” If you teach, you know exactly what I mean.

Professional writer. I also try to remember to ask myself the following questions when I’m reflecting on my own work, so I won’t be so critical of my own work. I tend to be a bit of a self-deprecating perfectionist at times.

I offer the questions and ideas to reflect on your work. I hope it will encourage you to tell the stories that matter most to you. So, let me know if they help you. [You can share your thoughts in the comment section below.]

Consider these questions/ideas as you reflect on your next project:

  1. Who do you imagine might be the audience for this story? (Self, parent, child, writing group, etc.) What details did you include for your audience?
  2. What feelings and reactions did you have as you were writing the story? What surprises? What insights? What have you done or what might you do that would capture those feelings, reactions, insights?
  3. What do you think this story means to you? Have you shown what the story means to you in the writing of it? What have you done? Where and what might you do?
  4. Pose questions you wonder about this story or that emerge from this story. What do you need to know in order to complete this story?
  5. How would you revise this story? Write a plan for your revision.
  6. What did you learn about yourself from writing this story? What did you learn about writing from writing this story? What did you learn about writing from reflecting on this story?

What reflective questions do you ask yourself when you revise your work?

2 Important Questions for Writers and Speakers

Photo/KarenJordan

Sometimes you have to shove all the surface stuff to the side in order to see what’s underneath. (Beth Moore)

What do I have to say?

Several years ago, in a workshop for Christian Leaders and Speakers (CLASS), Christian communicator and author, Florence Littauer, taught us to ask ourselves two questions before standing in front of an audience to speak:

  1. Do I have anything to say?
  2. Do people need to hear it?

So, I ask myself that question every time I prepare to stand before an audience—whether it’s a group of writers, a church group, or class of college students.

As a writer and a writing instructor, I recognize the need for people to tell their stories. And I’ve seen lives change as they listen to other people share their life lessons, especially their faith stories. Passing along our faith and family stories also help us make sense of some of the crucial issues that we face in life.

As a women’s Bible study teacher, I know the importance of sharing personal stories with other women, particularly in a mentoring or discipleship relationship.

But as a mother and grandmother, I also know the importance of sharing my stories with my children and grandchildren. My stories are my legacy to the next generation.

I believe in the power of story! And I love to encourage and instruct other people how to communicate their faith and family stories.

So, I want to ask you those same questions that Florence asked us at one of my first CLASSeminars.

  1. Do YOU have anything to say?
  2. Do people need to hear it?

“Words are powerful; take them seriously. Words can be your salvation. Words can also be your damnation” (Matt. 12:37 The Message).

What questions do you ask yourself as you prepare to speak or write?

Pantser or Planner?

All writers are created differently.

We can sit in the same classes, but each of us holds different stories in our hearts and minds. Each of us has our own voice. Each of us has our own process or lack there of when we work on our books.

Thank the Lord we are all so different or we wouldn’t have a variety of stories and books filling the shelves and internet. But no matter how different our process or our stories, there is a rhyme and reason to structuring our novels.

I just got back from the Deep Thinkers Retreat through My Book Therapy where we focused on story and structure. Both Susie and Rachel write fantastic books. Both have different processes. As I sat listening to how they process and plan, I realized that I fall in the middle of their styles. I’m a planning pantser. Like how I just created my own title there?

Planners need an outline, a very specific structure. The story is mostly written before they begin. They just have to weave it. Pantsers don’t like the structure. They have it all in their head and heart and want to sit down and write however the story leads. There is a beauty to both. There is also a danger to both when we overcompensate. It is important to focus on story structure. It makes the story cohesive, focused, and strong. There is also a beauty to allowing yourself the flexibility for letting the scene change.

Historically, I write a very brief outline, focus on some character development and personality, and then hit the page. Often the structure would overwhelm me and make me feel boxed in, so I would toss my hands in the air and just start writing because there I find the freedom to breath.

After this retreat, I have realized I need the structure, I need to plan. I know how and have the tools to accomplish this in a manner that makes my character and plot sing. Then I need to use that to allow the words to just flow.

So where do you fall on the wide spectrum of writers? If you are a planner, plot that thing out. Know the ins and outs of your character. My boss always says to “plan to be flexible,” and I would echo that with your writing. No person, place, or thing is without the ability to change, even if only a little. No matter what you plan, the story will probably change as you write. Enjoy the process!

And for all my pantser friends out there, own it and enjoy! I would encourage taking a little time to make sure it all connects and then rock that flexibility.

I am discovering that I don’t need to follow the process of other writers. They are succeeding with their writing not because they all write the same, but because they have owned their voice, story, and process. Perfection isn’t the end goal. I would argue that connection with reader and excellence in the story is more important. However it works best for you, get that story on the page, write from the voice that God gave you, and do it to the best of your ability as unto the Lord and not unto man.

Are you a pantser or a planner? What works best for you?

The Importance of Dreaming

Ever feel like your writing time has slipped into a series of tasks you are struggling to check off?

1500 hundred words and counting? Check.
Edits? Check.
Social media graphics for the week? Check.
Blog posts written and turned in? Check.
Responded to readers and answered emails? Check.
Laundry, grocery shopping, life things? Maybe check. Kinda.
Maintain sanity? In process.

If we aren’t careful our writing routine turns into a list that can drain our creativity and make us forget why we are writing. I am the queen of time management and boundaries. I have to be in order to prioritize and get things done. But sometimes in the midst of trying to be disciplined and organized, I miss out on the creativity that comes with dreaming. I actually plan time to dream. It’s vitally important to the rest of my list.

Dream a little bigger

Dreaming rejuvenates me.
One of my favorite questions to ask when it comes to writing is “what if.” What if my characters decided to do something totally unexpected? What if my villain surprises everyone? What if I create a setting that puts a unique spin on a scene? What if I created a character that absolutely fascinated my reader? Then how do I do all this?

“What if” is a powerful question, one I don’t ask nearly enough. But when I do, my writing sings more than normal and my creative juices flow.

I also like to story board. I may love words, but I am attracted to powerful visuals. It’s fun to create the scene and cast my characters by scouring the internet for photos that jog my creativity in a greater way. I pin them on a corkboard so that I can see and move them to help craft the story. This helps dream about possibilities. Possibilities are endless in our writing. We just have to seize them.

Dreaming rejuvenates the story.
I like to set a timer and see how many words I can spill on the page before time runs out, but occasionally this depletes my creativity instead of inspiring it. However, when I take time to dream before I start writing, even if I just spend fifteen minutes on a writing prompt, my writing carries a different kind of power and creativity. When I race the timer, my story has quality and quantity. My characters are also deeper and my settings more vivid.

Dreaming rejuvenates the reader.
Letting readers into my brainstorming and dreaming is fun to share with readers. This makes great social media content to excite them and help them invest in the story before they ever hold it in their hands. Inviting them into the dreaming helps them feel like part of the team and part of the journey. If you do this, be prepared to write faster to satisfy their growing curiosity.

Tasks and deadlines are part of writing, but dreaming and enjoying the writing…that’s the most vital part of the journey, for it informs everything else. If you are feeling overwhelmed or stuck, grab a pen and fun notepad, and don’t be afraid to dream a little, darling. I have a feeling you will like the results.

Writing about Thanksgiving and Food

Photo/Jordan

If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes … (Matthew 6:25 MSG).

Food, food, food! Why does everyone make such a big fuss about food during the holidays? I’m always focused on food! Either I’m overeating, dieting, or trying to feed someone else. I can’t remember one day of my life that I didn’t focus on food at some point.

So, how can my worries about food help my spiritual focus? Over the years, I’ve discovered that my hyperfocus on food is often a warning sign for a much deeper problem than just trying to meet my physical needs.

Needs. While we were seminary students, I first learned how my own worry about food could actually motivate me to seek deeper spiritual insights.

At seminary, we lived on a much lower income than most of our family and friends. Often we didn’t have enough money for the food we needed for our family.

Miracles. God used that problem to capture my attention, and I saw Him provide in miraculous ways for some of my friends. Groceries would be left on their doorsteps. Money for food would arrive in the mail. Or they would discover some random source of free food, like day-old bread or vegetables discarded from the grocery’s produce department.

Tips. Intrigued by my friends’ stories, I began to ask to God to help me find ways to deal with our food needs. And I discovered many tips for stretching my food budget with recipe ideas and coupons. My friends and I found that we could all stretch our food budgets by sharing our resources. When we gathered together for a meal, each family would bring their menu contributions.

Manna and quail. In Exodus 16:4, “God said to Moses, ‘I’m going to rain bread down from the skies for you. The people will go out and gather each day’s ration. I’m going to test them to see if they’ll live according to my Teaching or not’” (MSG).

I joked about identifying with the Israelites in the wilderness as God provided manna and quail for them to eat. But as I experienced God providing for my own family, like He did for His children in the Old Testament, I searched for more answers to my everyday problems in the Bible.

Traditions. Before my seminary days, I never thought about asking God to provide for my family’s needs, especially our food. Yes, we taught our children to express their thanks before our meals. But my prayer of thanks usually came after I had purchased groceries and prepared our meals.

So, I examined our mealtime prayers and Thanksgiving blessings. Could they simply be a family or religious tradition? Had I ever offered my mealtime prayers with a heartfelt gratitude for God’s blessings?

Diets. I still struggle with worry and my spiritual focus on food from time to time. Even now, as I try to eat a healthier diet, I realize that I must stop and ask God for direction every day–sometimes moment-by-moment–as I seek answers to my problems and needs.

As I prepare to enter into this season of Thanksgiving once again, I pray that I will remember this promise from God’s Word.

… The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:5-7 NIV)

What stories about food come to mind as you prepare for this Thanksgiving season? Have you recorded them?

Do You Want to Change The World?

signing declarationWriters can be agents of social change.

I was reminded of that truth after hearing a keynote address at a conference for animal humane workers. The speaker, Amy Mills, CEO of Emancipet, discussed the importance of social change to transform communities in order to improve our treatment of animals. But her words could also be applied to what traits writers need to cultivate to do their job well; in fact, I felt that Amy’s characteristics of social change makers accurately described many of the writers I know. Here are Amy’s six key traits; do you see yourself in any of them?

Social change makers:

  1. Collaborate across sectors. In my own writing, be it the fiction of the Birder Murder Mysteries or my best-selling memoir Saved by Gracie, I draw from many fields of expertise. My sources are birders, dog owners, psychologists, trainers, sociologists, scientific researchers, conservationists, biologists and historians, to name just a few. To be effective, writing has to draw from the world of knowledge.
  2. Are inclusive. Writers want their message to reach wide audiences. To do that, we keep an open mind about who might benefit from our work, and we rejoice when a new market presents itself as one that we might engage productively.
  3. Build empathy. For any piece of writing to succeed, it has to appeal to the heart of the reader. Having something meaningful to share is the first step of the writing process.
  4. Choose curiosity over judgment. The best writers try to see the world with fresh eyes to uncover what is true. Judgment can shut down avenues of investigation that might just lead to new revelations that will transform myself and my readers.
  5. Check assumptions. Writers make careers out of questioning assumptions. Sometimes, we even turn them upside down in the course of our creative process and/or production. The result is new perspectives and new ideas that can often improve readers’ personal or public lives.
  6. Learn from those they serve. Whether it’s hearing about new conservation efforts to protect bird habitat, or effective approaches to increasing animal adoption, or the need for more transparency about mental illness, every bit of research I’ve done for my books has not only taught me more about the world and the people and creatures in it, but how I myself can better connect with and serve my readers by passing along what I have learned. On a regular basis, I hear from readers about the ways my writing has affected them, and it guides me as I plan my next project. Without that feedback, my writing lacks focus, not to mention effectiveness.

Given these shared characteristics of writers and social change makers, I find myself considering my own work as a potential agent for change in the world; I won’t be the first author to do so, nor the last. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” may have come from the pen of English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839, but it expresses a timeless truth.

What will your pen accomplish today?  

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