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Writing For Your Life Today

A Grammatical PSA

by Tony Jones

Are you in seminary? Starting grad school this fall? If so, here are some hints to make your professors more happier as they grade your papers:

  • Avoid the subjunctive mood.
  • Avoid the passive voice.
  • Don’t use “scare quotes.”
  • Punctuation goes inside of quote marks. See above.
  • Book titles are italicized, not underlined or in quote marks.
  • Always use a serif font.
  • Always use the Oxford Comma.
  • Only a single space between sentences. Unless you’re using a typewriter. Which you aren’t.
  • Don’t capitalize words that are not proper nouns.

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.


Sarah Arthur’s Top 10 Tips for Revising/Editing

A while ago a friend asked for tips on revising/editing. Here’s what I said, based on things I’ve done as a writer and editor over the past sixteen years:

(1) Pretend you’re an editor in Manhattan with no time to waste. Be ruthless, as if you just arrived at your desk after hideous traffic snarls and have exactly one hour to sip Starbucks before the next meeting in which you will crush some writer’s hopes. Dress the part if you have to.

(2) Read the article out loud to yourself in a British accent: you will immediately notice the bad grammar, not to mention all the places where it sounds dumber than necessary.

(3) Don’t let yourself listen to your favorite music except while revising.

(4) Reward yourself with chocolate after each finished paragraph or section.

(5) Print the darn thing (double-spaced) and mark it up with a colored pen–yes, even red pen, if it makes you sit up straight and start behaving like you can handle criticism (because nothing you do to yourself will be as unkind as what readers will do to you). For a book-length manuscript, save it as a pdf (double-spaced, two-sided) and email it to the printing center at your local office supply store for pickup later. This is a grownup business expense, people.

(6) For a book-length manuscript: format and save it as an e-pub file in Dropbox or Google Drive (or email it to yourself), then download and open it on your e-reader as if it’s a novel that someone actually published. Then sit in your comfiest chair, like you’ve just bought something by Bret Lott, and start reading. Would you like it? Would you keep reading? In this exquisitely short life, for which there are far fewer days than books to read, would you bother swiping to the next page?

(7) Cry.

(8) Throw things.

(9) Walk away. Count to ten–even ten days. It’s like parenting small children, actually. You could hurt this thing and yourself if you press on. Come back later, after your heart-rate goes back down and your breathing returns to normal.

(10) Recognize that you will never be done editing. At some point you have to say “Good enough,” wipe your hands, and treat yourself to a 1500-calorie dessert somewhere. Adult beverage not optional.

For the Love of Writing

– By Vicky Meawasige Reed

It’s a privilege as well as a curse to be a writer. Over time, I realized that the saying, “The pen is mightier than sword” was literal truth. As a writer, it is vitally important to be clear and concise in your writing, to ensure that people are not confused by the intended meaning of your prose.

Writing should be a part of you – an extension of your mind to paper. Since you are unique in personality, experiences and aspirations, so is your writing. A part of your very essence is transferred and embedded into your work.

A gifted writer uses all five senses to engage the readers, taking them into their world, submerging them within the lines of print, allowing them to experience the read through words on the page.

Elements of intrigue inserted along the way entice readers to explore. The message should be subtle, piquing the interest of the explorer to experience the story through your choice of words. The experience should stimulate all the senses – taste should be mulled over on their tongues, making them remember a time when they experienced that taste; smell-evoking phrases that make the reader wrinkle their noses with the stench or drool with desire; descriptions so vivid that the brilliance of words blinds them; a blast of noise, or tactile imageries which causes goosebumps; passion-filled to make the reader gasp, cry out, or sigh.

There are times that writers will conjure up a certain sense in their writing, sitting back, examining and digesting the experience minutely to relay verbal messages across the very sensory synapses, to universally feel the words, assessing the words to convey the exact feeling which the author intended.

Yes, writing is a privilege as well as a curse. The more you write, the more you want to write. Making sacrifices to spend time with your writing, much like an addiction.

The flow of a writer’s pen is very much to their personalities, as well. I’ve found that there are many books I’ll put down and not finish reading based on the flow or feel of the book. Books have vibes, just as people do, vibes that are conveyed through the words on the page. Some writers will write about happiness and hope, others will write about sadness and grief, and some a combination of both. A gifted writer will make you feel the rollercoaster of life and have it resonate with you.

I’ve noticed that some meaning can be lost in translation. For example, if I would write about Shuri Ryu martial arts, which I am very familiar with, I think I would confuse the reader. Confusion would come from being too close to the subject of martial arts and its terminology. Information would be given at the level I’m used to talking at, but on the other hand, too much information would be too overwhelming, and this would be a bad thing for the reader’s engagement in the story. Finding the correct balance is key.

In the past, I had a revelation of sorts, likening writing a book to having a child. In the embryotic stages of the “baby” (book), a healthy foundation is needed. In my debut book, Path of the Turquoise Warrior, I shared this revelation in the preface.

“A great book takes time to write. The saying, “It’s my baby,” has new meaning for me. In the budding stages of this project, I developed a structure, the skeletal framework, the basis of the story. I knew what I wanted, so thought of that in mind, making sure to re-address the backbone throughout the writing process, making sure I didn’t stray from the very foundation of what I wanted to accomplish.

After that came the organs and muscle – character development within it to keep the readers engaged. Shortly thereafter I created the skin, the outer layers of what the story was about and what I was trying to convey to them. Of course, a strong story needs a good heart, a thought-provoking mind, and a deep, resonating soul to captivate the audience. My goal? To help readers become one with the story, gasping with anticipation.

Of course, in order to breathe life into it, you must have the readers, you, to breathe the life into it, making it truly come to life. And for the story to grow, to have lessons speckled throughout to ensure it is not only a story, but one that people can relate to, and to gain wisdom from someone else’s words.

Now to me, that’s a great read. It is my story, but to keep it to myself would be selfish. If others can find some solace, then my work was not done for nothing.”

Looking back at this quote from my own book, I realize I now have editor eyes. I see vast improvements in my own writing. But if there is one lesson I have learned, it is this: To be a great writer, you must keep writing, not only to improve the foundation that was established in the first “child,” but becoming more effective, efficient and skilled in the craft, to create more children for others to enjoy.

Good parenting, like good writing, is a skill which takes time to develop.

How Important Is Your Platform?

– by Jana Burson

We are often asked: how important is my platform as an author?

The quick answer is that your platform is just as important as the quality of your content and concept, especially in the crowded world of book publishing today.

Most publishing houses take a three-pronged approach when reviewing proposals:

  1. strong and fresh concept
  2. stellar content and writing
  3. platform

If one of these three are weak or missing, it’s not likely that the proposal is going to make it through the process.

There was a time, even a decade ago, when an author’s platform didn’t carry as much weight as the quality of their concept and writing. This was before the power of social media, the change in the way people get news, and the rise of online shopping. Now publishing houses need to know there’s a proven way to reach the core buyer for an author’s message.


Platform refers to your level of visibility or influence, expertise or authority on the subject matter, proof of engagement and your target audience. Editors and agents alike are looking for answers to these questions when reviewing the platform section of your proposal.

So often I hear writers say they are overwhelmed when it comes to their platform because they aren’t marketers by nature. The truth is, you don’t have to have a degree in marketing to put in the time and consistent effort to build and enhance your platform. You simply have to be true to your message and consistent in providing quality content for your followers/readers.


Platform building is not the same for everyone and it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that involves long-term strategic work and planning … much like writing!

The question is: are you willing to engage the process?


Create a Transcendent Story

Spirituality can offer depth and direction to creative work. A well-written short story can be a real kick to read, but a well-written short story that dips into matters of the soul can be life changing. When you make a song or film whose foundation is some incredible theme such as liberation or dignity or the sacrifices made by love, that song or film offers something to the world that goes far beyond the words and images. When the characters in your novel or play are working through emotional issues, you can create a moving story; when they are working through spiritual issues, you can create a transcendent story.


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

Can You Overwhelm Them with Content?

In his best-selling book “The Content Code” marketing guru Mark Schaefer points out:

Without the Content Code, the only sustainable content strategy has been to find an unsaturated niche and overwhelm the web with so much quality content that search engines discover only you. Effectively, you’re creating Content Shock by crowding out your competitors. The strategy is this simple:

  1. Find an unsaturated niche.
  2. Consistently produce a volume of quality, helpful material aimed at a relevant audience (or persona).
  3. Never stop producing content.

However, Mark continues by describing that in our age of information overload, finding an unsaturated niche has become harder, and will continue to get tougher.


When Your Calling and the Market Collide – by John Backman

I am writing a book on self-denial.

Go ahead, laugh it up. I do. In Brian’s recent interview, Susan Salley of Abingdon Press asked us to consider why someone would pick up our book. Can you imagine someone picking up a book with self-denial in the title? Me neither.

And yet, in the depths of my deepest self, there’s a decided push to see the project through. The push has all the earmarks of—to use an unfashionable word—a calling.

This dilemma, I suspect, comes with the territory of spiritual writing. There’s what the market wants: what will sell, what readers will read, what will grow our platforms and our careers. And then there’s what God (the Universe, the One, Ultimate Reality, etc.) is asking us to do. Unless we meet the market, our writing goes nowhere; unless we follow the divine nudge, we go nowhere.

Can you do both? What happens when you can’t?

The obvious solution is to find the place where your calling and your market meet. That’s good advice on many fronts, and there are usually several ways to connect the two. Maybe, for instance, you recast your language for broader appeal without sacrificing the integrity of your message. Maybe you hone your definition of market.

With the self-denial book, I’ve had to do both. Since the title couldn’t include self-denial, I’m using the term giving your life away, which is actually more precise and maybe a shade more palatable. As to market, most readers will turn off at any whiff of self-denial, but you know who may not? Catholics. Self-denial, especially in service to others, is part of the Catholic tradition.

But this isn’t just about one book. The tension between calling and market can extend to every corner of our spiritual writing. Consider:

  • What if your calling lands you in a tiny market segment, writing books that a few people find life-changing but many others ignore?
  • What if your spiritual practice calls you to model a slower, more reflective way of life even as the blogosphere demands you post weekly? (It’s why contemplatives make lousy bloggers—well, this contemplative anyway.)
  • If your writing touches on current events, how do you fill your blog with deep spiritual insight into the news of the day when that insight can take weeks to develop?
  • What happens when your heart prompts you to write about wildly divergent topics, yet a clearer focus to your writing would strengthen your brand?
  • What if you must speak some hard truths into the world even though half your readership won’t appreciate it?

Here too there are workarounds. In terms of social media frequency, for instance, Brian has mentioned building an inventory of tweets and blog posts to maintain a regular publishing schedule. But sometimes the workarounds don’t quite work, and we are left with the tension.

The bright spot, perhaps, is that we spiritual folks are good at living in tension. We know that sometimes tension spawns insights we never would have expected. Those insights can eventually make our writing—and our lives—richer.

So maybe we use the workarounds, but don’t default to them too fast. Maybe we live with the tension until the tension yields something. What about you? Have you experienced the tension? How do you live with it, or into it?



About the Author

A spiritual director, contributor to Huffington Post Religion, and associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman writes and speaks about contemplative spirituality and its surprising relevance for today’s deepest issues. He authored Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths) and his articles have appeared in numerous faith-based publications. He has presented at a range of conferences, including the Parliament of the World’s Religions.


Writing in Life’s Storms – by Patricia Raybon

My husband is probably sick, but I’m writing a book proposal. Not despite him being probably sick. But because he is probably sick. It doesn’t make total sense. But I keep on writing. I’m supposed to be at a writing conference in Michigan—supposed to be teaching there now.

Instead, we’re going to doctors. We’ve scheduled an MRI. It got unscheduled. We scheduled it a second time. It got unscheduled again. We scheduled it a third time–because my husband is probably sick. So while we wait for tests to tell us, either way, I sit down and write. Just like I’m writing now.

And that’s the point. Writers write not because the moment is perfect. We write because it isn’t. Learning that changes everything.

I wasn’t thinking of such when I sat down to write this week. I’d spent months thinking about a book proposal idea. I never could find time to work on it. Or so I told myself.

Then a writing friend mentioned she’d come back from four days at her family cabin, “just writing. No phone. No TV. Just me and the dog and the computer.”

Hearing that, I actually got despondent, feeling writer envy of someone who has time to write and a getaway to write it in. Then something switched.

Reading a book by one of the ancients—in this case, Brother Lawrence of France—I decided, on a whim, to see when his book was written. During a writing retreat? At a writing conference? At a family cabin without cell phone service or interruptions? No.

His book was written while France burned. Or at least while France seethed. Assassination. Treachery. War. During the 1600s, when the absolutist, power-hungry and young King Louis XIII seized control, grieving the French soul and soil, Brother Lawrence wrote. He wrote anyway.

So did the Apostle Paul. He wrote despite persecution, chains, evil emperors—all targeting Christians as “superstitious” heretics. Yet he wrote. Dictating. Composing. Inspiring. And his epistles today are still treasured by believers.

Thus, writers write. We write anyway. Therefore, Shakespeare wrote—anyway. Mozart composed—anyway. Emily Dickinson scribed—anyway. Phillis Wheatley , the first African American poet to be published, rhymed—anyway. Despite being stolen into slavery from West Africa at age 7, and taken to Boston in 1761—an era when black slaves were forbidden by violence to learn to read or write—she was taught the craft. Anyway. So she wrote.

The purpose of art, and the making of it, said Pablo Picasso, “is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”

At the same time, said Doris Lessing, “I think a writer’s job is to provoke questions. I like to think that if someone’s read a book of mine, they’ve had—I don’t know what—the literary equivalent of a shower. Something that would start them thinking in a slightly different way, perhaps. That’s what I think writers are for.”

We’re probably weakest, in fact, when we’re writing about perfect moments—always so rare for most of humanity. But let the thunder roll, the clouds gather, the rains drown out hopes and hearts, and then, our writing matters.

Today, as political fear mongers dump on news journalists—even beating them up in public—political writing hasn’t stopped. Some argue it’s stronger and better.

George Orwell, author of the classic novel 1984, explained: “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”

The lightning is flashing, in other words, and people are explaining the reasons why. In those times, then we writers write. Then we teachers teach. Then we artists paint. Then we dancers dance. Then we composers make music. Then we sculptors sculpt. Indeed, then we doctors heal.

Words are medicine, for sure. And my husband? Doctors are still at it. Still eliminating possible problems. Still searching for solutions. Still poking and prodding, looking for their medical answers. But he’s not waiting on them. He bought himself a cane and he’s out walking. Anyway.

I walk with him. Then I come back and write. One book proposal? Actually, I wrote two. My agent likes both of them. I’m believing one or both will get published.

Meantime, I go to my desk to write. Just as you. Then let storm clouds roil and downpours fall. Our writing is seed. May God bless it to grow. Anyway. And always. Even now.

Patricia Raybon is an award-winning author of books and essays on bridge-building grace and faith.

©2017 by Patricia Raybon


Understanding Why People Share Content

Understanding why people choose to share content sheds light on how you can adjust your strategy and carve out a competitive edge by embedding shareability into everything you create. Think about content you recently shared. Why did you do it? Do any of these reasons ring true?

  • It made you look cooler, smarter, funnier, or more relevant—providing you with a personal psychological benefit.
  • The content struck some strong emotional chord. It made you laugh, cry, or otherwise feel something so profound it deserved to be shared with others.
  • It’s practical or timely. Sharing the content will help and inform your friends.
  • You found a new idea and can’t wait to be the first to share it.
  • You feel deeply connected to the author and you want to support them.
  • It represents an achievement. Maybe you or your company were mentioned in the content and it makes you feel good to show this representation of your status.

– from “The Content Code” by Mark Schaefer

Exercises for a Writer’s Formation

Name Your Gifts

For the next five minutes, write about what gave you joy as a child. Write quickly without analyzing or editing.

Take another five minutes and describe the most glorious or satisfying event of your high school life.

Try to remember the last time you were involved with a project that so captivated your attention that you lost track of time. What were you doing?

If five people closest to you-whether friends or family-were to tell you honestly what good things you have brought to their lives, what qualities or gifts would they list?


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

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