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Writing For Your Life Today

5 Ethical Ways to Increase Your Social Proof

We use social proof as a shortcut in our real-world decision making every day. Things seem easier to buy when others validate that it’s a smart option. Social proof is powerful in situations where people don’t have the facts they need to make an informed decision. To help resolve uncertainty, people look for clues in their environment to help them determine their best guess at “truth.” They assume the actions of others reflect the correct behavior for them, too.


Here are 5 ethical ways to “prime the pump” on social proof and improve the perceived credibility of your content:


  1. Promote your content “As seen on …”: Have you been quoted or featured on a well-known blog, newspaper, or television show? Don’t keep it a secret.


  1. Request endorsements


  1. As your friends and family to Like or Follow you


  1. Collect and highlight testimonials and reviews


  1. Collect kudos tweets: When people tweet nice things about you, start saving them as a “favorite” tweet. Then you can link to the list of nice recommendations as an entire stream of public, published social validation, as in “Don’t take my word for it, click here to see what others are saying about my (book, blog, podcast …).”


– from “The Content Code” by Mark Schaefer

Top-Shelf Books

The writers of these top-shelf books are my teachers, the ones I turn to in order to learn how to write. They are the people whose work has shaped not only my writing but my thinking and my spirit. They have no idea they have done such a thing to me, save the one I met twenty years ago and with whom I exchange letters on occasion.


Some of those top-shelf books are on writing, though only a few of them. Others are autobiographies whose pages describe the joy and the cost of living the life of a writer. A handful are collections of essays or volumes of poetry. There are a few novels there too, one or two of them perfectly written, at least by my lights.


Any writer should have a shelf of such books. He need not read the writers I read. But he should never forget that we are all going to write under the influence of someone. Better for him if those writers are better than most. At the very least they should be the ones who make him want to lie down and take deep breaths before taking up his pen. Those are the books that will make him live, and write, more intensely. Reading anything less will not help him grow as a writer.


A direct relationship exists between the caliber of the writing you read and the caliber of the writing you make.

 – by Robert Benson, “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”


Social media – don’t expect your publisher to do it for you!

Not long ago, the norm in the publishing industry was that publishers would find great writers, publish their books, and take care of publicity in order to help the author become known.  This is no longer the case! More and more, publishers expect an author to have already developed their online platform (social media, website, email, etc.) before they get a book deal. (This is even more the case for large publishers; smaller publishers are a bit hungrier.)


Why is this? Generally speaking:

  • Publishers are under increased financial pressure
  • So they are forced to do less, and count on the author more
  • They focus on few authors; generally authors who they already work with
  • Publishing has become more of a “hits” business – similar to music or venture capital – where they are looking for the “big hit” that will make up for all of the books that don’t become bit hits


So what WILL a publisher do for you? Generally they will help you promote your book during a few months before it is released. And they will give you advice on how to do the rest yourself.

An Interview with Acquiring Editors – Part 1

– by Angela Scheff


Editors do a lot more than simply decide to publish a book and then edit the manuscript, so we decided to interview a few of the best in the industry so you can hear directly from them.


First, here are their quick bios.

Stephanie Smith is committed to partnering with authors to bring fresh, forward-thinking ideas to life to serve the church today through her role as acquisitions editor at Zondervan. She lives with her husband in Michigan, where she is pursuing her masters in theology at Western Theological Seminary in addition to editorial work. Find her on Twitter at @heystephsmith and join her monthly email newsletter for writers aiming to find their angle, write like they mean it, and do it in style at

Stephanie Smith is committed to partnering with authors to bring fresh, forward-thinking ideas to life to serve the church today through her role as acquisitions editor at Zondervan. She lives with her husband in Michigan, where she is pursuing her masters in theology at Western Theological Seminary in addition to editorial work. Find her on Twitter at @heystephsmith and join her monthly email newsletter for writers aiming to find their angle, write like they mean it, and do it in style at

Chad Allen is editorial director for Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, where he has worked for over a decade. Chad is the author of Do Your Art and the creator of the Book Proposal Academy. Chad holds a B.A. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame. He and his wife, Alyssa, live with their two children in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hear more from Chad on his blog or by following him on Facebook and Twitter at @chadrallen.

Jessica Wong is the senior acquisitions editor at Nelson Books. She has worked closely with a number of bestselling authors to sharpen and develop their content. She holds a B.A. in English linguistics and is also an alumnus of the Yale Publishing Course. Her passion is providing a guiding hand to authors with eternal and truly impactful messages in order to help them reach and touch as many lives as possible.

Second, here is how they found themselves in publishing. Whether always knowing you were made for it, falling into and deciding to never leave, or being attracted to it from the other side, the journey into this magnetic business is telling.


SMITH: I started out on the opposite side of the printer in book publicity. While I had always aspired to join editorial, I am so glad to have had the opportunity in PR to gain the skills needed to identify what media wants in a story and headline. I use these skills every day in a retroactive way, as I review proposals and mine book concepts for just the right hook to get people talking. The trick is to work in a strong angle from the very beginning of the book’s development, and a PR eye is helpful in this.


Transitioning from publicity, I joined the team at RELEVANT magazine as an editor and led efforts to revamp the web editorial strategy. The beauty of digital publishing is that it affords you the opportunity to tap into whatever conversation is trending right now (this doesn’t work so well in book publishing, which is a much longer process!). Success starts with listening—in real-time—to what readers are hungry for: what articles they’re responding to, what they’re sharing, what conversations they’re having, what questions they’re wrestling with. It’s a live experiment every day, and it’s rewarding to go out and create the content that they most need.


The beauty of book publishing, in a different way, is that you have the luxury of time to go long and deep with a concept. The journey is a long and rewarding one, and I am drawn to it because I have been so shaped and sustained by books in my own life. Most of all, I get to be in the journey with such great company! The best part about my job is working with authors and partnering with them to bring their ideas to life at the brightest they can be. It’s a privilege to pour so much into books that in turn pour so much life into readers.


ALLEN: I was exposed to the publishing process when back in the late nineties I worked with Douglas Gresham, general consultant to C. S. Pte Ltd, the company that owns the rights to C.S. Lewis’s work. All the new editions, compilations, and abridgments of Lewis’s work went by Gresham’s desk. So suddenly I was plunged into the world of galleys and proofs and all the guts of making a book. I remember Gresham asking for my input, and I was immediately hooked.


What I saw among other things is that publishers carry this enormous burden and honor of influencing the final shape and content of a book. It’s astonishing, isn’t it, that we get to have a hand in the making of a book—an idea bomb (general nonfiction), a life-changing story (memoir), a potential miracle in someone’s life (self-help)—that will go out to thousands, sometimes millions of readers? That mesmerized me. Still does.


WONG: I was the child simultaneously enrolled in multiple library summer reading programs who mastered the art of reading while walking during recess. I decided in fourth grade that I wanted to be an editor when I grew up and asked all my teachers along the way how to get there. After graduating from college, I attended the University of Denver Publishing Institute and, shortly thereafter, got my first job in publishing at Thomas Nelson. Since then, I’ve spent time at Howard Books, the Christian imprint of Simon & Schuster, graduated from the Yale Publishing Course, and returned to join the team at Nelson Books.

Simple, relevant messages

The essence of branding is to create simple, relevant messages we can repeat over and over so that we “brand” ourselves into the public consciousness.

from “Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen” by Donald Miller

There’s no law against saving everything

One practical matter to remember: even as you hack away all the extra material, even as you edit ruthlessly, there’s no law against saving everything.  Most of the time I have an “extra” file in which I dump everything that I edit out. In some cases I just love the way I wrote a certain paragraph, and I’m not ready to give it up completely yet. In other cases I see a phrase or bit of dialogue that may come in handy somewhere else in the story-or in another story altogether. The challenge is figuring out how to file all of it so that I can locate that phrase when, months later, I find the perfect new home for it. 

– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press

The Truth of our Stories – by Frederick Buechner

IN THE LONG RUN the stories all overlap and mingle like searchlights in the dark. The stories Jesus tells are part of the story Jesus is, and the other way round. And the story Jesus is is part of the story you and I are because Jesus has become so much a part of the world’s story that it is impossible to imagine how any of our stories would have turned out without him, even the stories of people who don’t believe in him or even know who he is or care about knowing. And my story and your story are all part of each other too if only because we have sung together and prayed together and seen each other’s faces so that we are at least a footnote at the bottom of each other’s stories. 

In other words all our stories are in the end one story, one vast story about being human, being together, being here. Does the story point beyond itself? Does it mean something? What is the truth of this interminable, sprawling story we all of us are? Or is it as absurd to ask about the truth of it as it is to ask about the truth of the wind howling through a crack under the door?  

– Originally published in The Clown in the Belfry

A Place to Belong



I met Julie Witmer at Hutchmoot several years ago. She’s from Pennsylvania. She has an English gardener’s certificate, and called one day to ask if she could give our family a gift.

She and her family came down to stay with us one weekend, and she and her husband James spent hours walking the property, taking measurements, scribbling notes in a little journal. About three months later we received a tubular package in the mail. We opened it and were awestruck as we spread out on our kitchen table a hand-drawn schematic of the Warren. Julie called it a thirty-year garden plan. All around the drawing of our house were colorful splotches representing alchemilla, coneflowers, clematis, yarrow, lavender, foxgloves, and all manner of trees and shrubs, all divided by walkways and places for firepits and benches. On the right of the drawing was a list of the plants and how many of each we would need. One of the difficulties of landscaping a few acres is that it’s too much space to know what to do with. On the other hand, while designing a small front garden isn’t easy, at least you know the boundaries. We had a big pasture that took me four hours to mow. So Julie hemmed things in by telling us where to build fences and stone walls immediately around the house, with paths that led to the broader sections. She gave us a picture frame so we would know where to paint.

What a gift.

I framed the drawing and hung it on the wall by the front door, in a place where I’d see it every time I left the house. I spent hours staring at it, looking up from the drawing to the yard, then back at the drawing again, dreaming of the day when I could walk around in what she had imagined. After a year or so of putting it off, I decided it was time to start with the front garden. Julie had drawn a stone wall enclosing a rectangular space right out front. The space was divided into quadrants by a T-shaped pea gravel walkway with a stone feature at the intersection. But how do you build a wall? I had seen enough of them in England (and New England) to know that a stone wall is a beautiful thing (whatever Robert Frost might have thought), and I wanted one. But I didn’t have a clue how to go about it. So I dug around on the Internet and learned that if you hire a professional a dry stack stone wall costs about $100 per foot. This wall was at least 100 feet long, and while I’m no math genius I knew that would be about $10,000. No way on earth I could afford that. The garden plan, however, only worked if it was enclosed. It had to be done, and if this plan was going to take thirty years I needed to get started, stat. I could have cheated and just built a fence, true, but my inner perfectionist wasn’t having it.

One day I passed a pile of throw-away rocks on the side of the road, so I pulled over and loaded them into my pickup. The next day I saw another pile, then another, and loaded them both. You wouldn’t believe how much unwanted stone is just lying around in Tennessee. The next time I walked around our woods I noticed a ton (literally) of rocks scattered about the property, so I loaded them into a wheelbarrow and heaved them up to the front yard. The kids had a list of daily chores anyway, so I added the assignment of walking the woods each morning and bringing two rocks each day to the pile. Then, satisfied that I had enough to get started, I watched hours of YouTube videos about dry stack walls.

During a warm snap in January I walked outside with a shovel and dug the first footer for the foundation. I figured we had enough rocks piled up to make some real progress, but after fussing with it for a few chilly hours I had gone through all our rocks and had completed about six feet of two-foot-high wall. Just 94 feet to go. I thought about Roy Scheider in Jaws and said to myself, “We’re gonna need more rocks.” My obsessive nature kicked in, and I spent weeks scouring the Nashville area for more stones. I pilfered construction sites, walked the woods around our house for hours, searched the shoulders of highways—and discovered treasure troves of discarded stones, which I surreptitiously hauled away in my old truck. Years later, I still can’t help but notice orphaned stones beside the road, and my kids still make fun of me.

Slowly but surely, the wall took shape. My arms did, too, to Jamie’s delight. At some point I got it into my head that the wall needed an archway—as in, a bona fide Roman Arch, suspended by nothing but a keystone and this thing called gravity. Once again, YouTube provided all I really needed to know. I built up the sides of an opening, then measured and built a wooden frame with a round top. By now my older brother decided he needed to come over and inform me in classic older brother fashion that it would never work—which of course was all the motivation I needed to carry through. I stacked the stones on top of the frame, set the keystone, and used a hammer to tighten it all with little shims of flinder. When all was ready, with the whole family watching, I nervously removed the legs from the frame. The round wooden support fell away, and—lo, and behold!—the thing held. My brother grunted something congratulatory and went home as I high fived Jamie and the kids.

It took another few weeks to complete the other arm of the wall, and before long the footpaths were dug, some plants were in the ground, and we had an actual enclosed cottage garden, complete with a stone archway, right here at the Warren.

It’s no exaggeration to say that it was a spiritual experience. I couldn’t stop thinking about songwriting, about creativity, and especially about the new creation. Julie dreamed up a better world for us; we had been commissioned, so to speak, to look at the world we occupied in a new way, and to incarnate that vision; whenever I looked out my window I saw the same old field, but one quick glance at the framed plan on the wall reminded me where we were going and whispered encouragement to get busy; I had been invited into a better story, and the only way to tell it was to get my hands dirty (and to appropriate some rocks); and even though Julie designed the thing without a stone arch, she encouraged me to bring my own imagination to bear on the project, to make the changes I saw fit, and to let the garden become what it wanted to become.

I finished the wall that spring around Easter, and one morning I woke at dawn, just as the sun broke over the hill and shot a ray of new light across the property. Because the earth had been slowly tilting its way toward summer, that light landed in a new place, illuminating the stone arch. I peeked through the blinds and gasped, because the arch, suspended by gravity (a delightfully poetic thought) looked like the mouth of the empty tomb. Those rocks, repurposed and reborn, were crying out praise.

from “Adorning the Dark” by Andrew Peterson



Surrendering to Time


Perhaps the kindest—and most helpful—review I ever received came from Mary Rose O’Reilly, author of The Barn at the End of the World: “I can imagine that [Elizabeth] has spent many hours staring out the window until she arrives at a lived-synthesis of what the great religions and irreligions have to tell us about the nature of the sacred.” I don’t know about the synthesis, but I can attest to staring out the window. And hours writing and then deleting what I’d written. And hours journaling for no eyes other than my own. And years revising.

“Art is long,” writes Henry James. “If we work for ourselves of course we must hurry. If we work for her we must often pause.” Immersed in our culture of instant gratification, I’m as easily seduced as the next blogger by the possibility that my words might rattle around in a reader’s brain within an hour of their composing. But I also know the profound, evolutionary movement of a longer project, where readership is hypothetical, a decade isn’t an unreasonable timeframe, and the exploratory possibilities are endless. Henry James makes this sound noble—we’re serving Art!—but for most of us, uncertainty about the artistic nature of our work packs those years and all those pauses with angst. Better to be done with it, receive a flash of social media feedback, and feel our efforts validated.

Significant creation asks us to surrender to time—to release our needs for completion and affirmation and inhabit a process that rarely unfolds the way we’d like. As uncomfortable as this makes me, I’m also certain that little else is as worthwhile. Given the escalating speed of our culture, any work that forces us to pause, gaze out the window, and trust the secret recesses of our subconscious to arrive at lived syntheses is increasingly valuable. Art is long, as is growing asparagus, learning to bake a soufflé, establishing a meditation practice, raising a child, participating in democracy, and most activities that comprise a well-lived life. When writers despair of ever finishing their books, I sympathize—it’s hard not to be done!—and I rejoice in projects so worthy and rich that they demand whole chapters of our lives. 44 


from “Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice” by @Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew @Skinner House



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