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Writing For Your Life Today

A Contribution to the Literary World – by Robert Benson

At the beginning of a new book, I find it easier to write if I do not think about the fact that I am attempting to write a book.

Who in the world needs another book anyway? There are thousands of good ones already, and some of the best ones have not been read by very many people at all.

A day spent reading Annie Dillard or Graham Greene or John LeCarre or Thomas Merton of Doris Grumbach or Frederick Buechner can convince anyone who wants to write that the good stuff has already been written and, in fact, so marvelously written that anything else by anyone else, including me, borders on being audacious at best and pretentious the rest of the time. Last week while reading Buechner, I realized that if I wanted to make a contribution to the literary world, I should do his laundry and mow his grass so that he would have more time to write.

– from “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”

Creative Work is Soul Work

Creative work is soul work; it happens in that interior place where spiritual life forms the rest of life. Your spiritual beliefs and your creative drive reside in the same place-deep within you where everything important is stored. Doesn’t matter if you call this your spirit or something else. I call it the soul, because that’s nice and general and people can attach whatever meaning they want. It’s that interior location where the real you lives. The real you involves your drives, your beliefs, your desires, even your reactions to the physical world. This is where your stories happen, if you’re a writer. It’s where your visions appear, if you’re a painter. It’s where your curiosity and tenacity live, if you are a scientist or inventor. The work that evolves from you begins in that very honest, private place that I call the soul. So it cannot be separated easily from those other residents of the soul, which include your collection of beliefs, religious and otherwise.

 

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

We Don’t Have the Option of Doing Nothing – by Natasha Sistrunk Robinson

 
When we are angry about the things that make God angry, that is a righteous, not a self-centered, anger. Moses was angry about all of the right things: slavery, injustice, abuse of power, mistreatment of women, and his own people’s disobedience toward God. Once we are awakened to injustices, it’s time to put this righteous anger to good use.
 
The question the faithful servant of God must face is: What do we do with the anger that so deeply plagues us? For years I have been wrestling with God about the right actions to take in the face of so much injustice. Do I write? Do I protest? Do I leave or stick with a ministry, relationship, or community? Do I withhold funds? Do I speak up? Do I lobby or advocate? Do I vote or educate? Do I use social media? Do I lead or submit to local grassroots efforts?
 
Our responses to injustice and anger may vary from day to day, but one thing is for sure: we don’t have the option of doing nothing. The first righteous step is repenting for our part in injustice, and then we work toward righteous action. At a conference I once had the privilege of sitting at the feet of civil rights activist Rev. Dr. C. T. Vivian. When discussing action and advocacy he said, “It is in the action we find out who we are.” If we don’t take action in the face of injustice, we prove ourselves to be cowards. We must act!
 
*Taken from A Sojourner’s Truth by Natasha Sistrunk Robinson. Copyright (c) 2018 by Natasha Sistrunk Robinson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.
 

Rule #2: Answering and Insights

Here is Mark Schaefer’s second of the three rules for creating effective social media content, from his book “Known”:

 

Rule #2: Answering and Insights

 

A great way to begin your content journey is to start with an­swers and end with insights. Let’s unpack that idea.

If you’re in a niche without much competition, an easy way to begin creating content is to brainstorm every question you can dream of related to your sustainable interest, and then an­swer them through a blog, video, or podcast. This is an effec­tive way to dominate an uncontested niche and possibly attract search engine attention through “hygiene” content, which I ex­plain in the previous chapter.

Here’s a trick to get you going: Go to a website called An­swerThePublic.com. On this site, you enter keywords and it delivers questions people are typing into Google about that topic. Essentially, it’s a content idea generator!

Answering customer questions is a solid strategy for begin­ners, but it’s not ideal in every situation, especially in a more crowded content niche. In that situation, you need to focus on insights instead of just answers.

For example, I often write on the topic of marketing strat­egy. I consulted with AnswerThePublic.com and found that a popular topic for me would be “Why Social Media is Impor­tant.” I Googled this phrase and got 255 million results. That’s an incredibly saturated topic. If I were to write a blog post to answer that question, I would only be contributing to the noise!

For me to become known in that information-dense envi­ronment, I’d have to do something bold, like offer “hub” con­tent – case studies, opinion pieces, research insights, and strat­egies you won’t find anywhere else.

An advantage of hub content is that it’s more likely to keep readers (or viewers) on your site. With hygiene content, after people get an answer to their question, they leave your site and go back to their lives. Hub content is more likely to attract readers who will stay and look around to learn more. Here are three individuals becoming known by pushing be­yond the ordinary question/answer format:

  • Mimi Thorisson became a celebrity in the highly com­petitive world of food blogging by combining astonish­ing photography, art, and recipes in a blog called Man­ger (French for “to eat”). Her consistent and beautiful work has led to a television show, book, and speaking appearances.
  • On the site IQuantNY, statistician Ben Wellington tells stories of what public data means to citizens of New York. His blog provides fascinating revelations about the city’s budget, sewage, parks, and nightlife, among other topics. The popular blog has helped propel his career as an edu­cator and analyst.
  • Momastery is a mommy blog about “unleashing the sis­ter warrior.” Blogger Glennon Doyle Melton brings her extraordinary heart, humor, and bravery to her storytell­ing, which she has leveraged into best-selling books and a successful speaking career.

Answering questions is a great place to start, but consider adding bolder and more insightful types of content over time to grow your actionable audience.

 

 

Your Unique Stamp

Creativity can give to your spirituality the unique stamp that is your personality. This is the story that only you could write; it waited for you to be born and grow up and learn how to make sentences. Creativity is what makes one day different from the next. It lies in the concrete specifics of a situation or person; this is why we remember this film rather that that one. Creativity makes it possible for now two paintings or poems to be alike.

 

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

Rule #1: Add Your Own Story

– from “Known” by Mark Schaefer

 

There are three fundamental rules of creating effective social media content that I feel are “can’t miss” prin­ciples. No matter what type of rich content you choose, keep these three rules in mind. Here is rule $1:

Rule #1: Add your own story

The world doesn’t need another post entitled “Common Twit­ter mistakes.” However, I would read posts with headlines that offer something original, like:

  • “Five things I want to destroy on Twitter”
  • “The five strangest tweets I’ve ever seen”
  • “How Twitter saved my marriage”
  • “The 20 stupidest things you can do on Twitter”

That last one? I actually wrote that post. It was my first “vi­ral” blog post because it was retweeted by Pee-wee Herman, who has 3 million Twitter followers. When he shared it with his audience, it drove so much traffic to my website that it shut down my server. My business temporarily melted from the Pee-wee Heat.

To stand out, you need to be original, and to be original, you must possess the courage to add your own narrative to the mix. There’s only one you. You have no competition. Never publish content that can be created by someone else.

The ultimate goal of your content is to build an emotion­al connection between you and your audience. Truly human content leads to awareness, awareness leads to trust, and trust leads to loyalty.

What are some characteristics of human content?

  • Vulnerable
  • Personal
  • Bold
  • Unguarded
  • Generous
  • Confident

 

A common issue is deciding how much “humanity” is best for your personal brand. Demonstrating honesty and openness doesn’t mean spilling your guts. To me, human content builds em­pathy and connection by offering a glimpse of your personality.

Here’s an example: A blogger from Sweden posted a photo of his office setup. He said, “Today, I thought I would show you where I work.” This unpretentious piece of content was simple, but it created intimacy by revealing something personal.

On the other end of the scale, there are many who have be­come known by sharing their lives in the open, like Jenni Pro­kopy. While working in the construction industry, Jenni start­ed a passion project on the side, a blog called “ChronicBabe” to help other women who live with chronic illness.

At the age of 25, Jenni was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Soon after came diagnoses of asthma, anxiety, GERD, thyroid disease, and more. She struggled for years, taking test after test and trying an assortment of medications, diets and health pro­grams in an effort to control her symptoms.

Through ChronicBabe, Jenni reveals the travails of her daily life to teach other young women how to live with confidence, have a successful career, and nurture lifelong relationships.

Her personal brand has now become her full-time business. She’s known for her transparency and acceptance of imperfec­tion but has struggled at times to find a personal/public bal­ance, especially when she was going through a divorce. Was she revealing too much, or would she become irrelevant if she portrayed a picture of herself that was too curated? Ultimately, she discovered that when she had the courage to be vulnerable, her audience respected her and trusted her even more.

There is undeniable power in being present through your content. Your personal lessons can instruct and inspire. But you don’t need to feel guilty or phony because you don’t share everything. We all edit our public images to some extent, and that’s OK. You have a personal brand, but you’re not a brand like a Snickers bar ready to be plucked from a shelf. They aren’t the same thing.

I’m a private person, and I have to push myself to disclose aspects of my life in public. And yet, each time I open up a little, I’m greatly rewarded by reader feedback. I’ve become more open because my audience wants me to be. Rock star Pete Townshend once said, “I would have enjoyed keeping my private pain out of my work. But I was changed by my audi­ence who said your private pain, which you have unwittingly shown us in your songs, is also ours.”

You see, we create content. But content also creates us.

I use transparency in my writing to reinforce that we’re all equal in our human condition. We all suffer and stumble through life at times. I also reveal details of my life as indica­tors of my values. I think it’s fair for my audience to know what I stand for. Setting a boundary allows me to create human con­tent in a way that feels honest and comfortable.

Whatever decision you make, maintaining your personal brand shouldn’t feel like identity labor or like you’re putting on an act. Choose what to share, but don’t be a fake. In the process of becoming known, you get to decide what is part of your professional persona and what isn’t. You don’t have to follow someone else’s path or the expectations social media tends to set for us. And your audience – the right one, anyway – won’t judge you for your choices. They’ll cheer you all the way.

Finding Your “Place” as a Writer

Many people talk about finding your “voice” as a writer, and this is very important.  But what about finding your “place”? Think of this as your identity.

Marketing guru Mark Schaefer, in his book “Known: The Handbook for Building and Unleashing Your Personal Brand in the Digital Age”, describes your place as “a sustainable interest and something you want to be known for”.  He recommends that it:

    • Be aligned with your strengths
    • Provide purpose by benefitting others
    • Offer a distinctive topic
    • Is inexhaustibly fascinating to you

Here are 3 tools Mark recommends for you to help find your “place”:

  1. Finish the statement “Only I…” – what is it that only you can uniquely offer?
  2. Take the Gallup company’s Strength Finder Test
  3. Write your first 35 blog article headlines – kind of a test to see how broad and deep your expertise in the area is, and how much you are able to “stick with it”

Another approach comes from Jonathan Merritt*. He suggests picking 3 adjectives that describe who you are.  Jonathan writes at the intersection of faith and culture, and his 3 adjectives for himself are proactive, thoughtful, and brave.

How would you describe yourself? What is your “place”?

 

 

* From “How to Become a Power Blogger” – Princeton Seminary presentation, June 2016

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.

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