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On Writing Daily, Devotionally

The key to writing is writing. Reading about writing isn’t writing. Thinking about writing isn’t writing. If you want to be a writer, write.

I’m not the first to make this argument. From William Zinsser to Steven Pressfield to Stephen King, you will hear that the act of doing is how you become a professional writer. No one can write for you, only you can do that.

After editing Faithlife Study Bible and Lexham Bible Dictionary, it was hard for me to even look at a screen. I had no desire to write. Every article was pain, perhaps even post-traumatic stress. When you have spent the last two years of your life working 70 to 80 hours per week writing and editing, it’s difficult to convince yourself to pick up a pen. There is no pleasure or fun left in the task. For the first time in my life, I experienced authentic “writer’s block.” (more…)

Being My Dog’s Writing Voice

What is it like to be someone else’s writing voice? Fiction authors deal with this question. Editors contemplate this problem. Ghost writers live this dilemma.

Although I’m against the idea of ghost writing, and thus have never ghost written, I imagine that it teaches you a great deal about writing. When you have to be someone else’s voice, you learn to be more authentic to your own voice. You also learn about the art of rewriting.

I recently made one exception to my ghost writing rule—but it’s because the person I made the exception for can’t write (literally). I made the exception for my dog Milton.

Milton the dog recently started a birthday for a cause. If you like his writing voice, donate—he will appreciate you helping people living in extreme poverty.

Have you ever written in the voice of your pet? What did it teach you?

Robert Frost Only Published 10 Pages a Year

My complete works … adds up to maybe 700 pages in 70 years–10 pages a year. … I don’t calculate on it, but it comes out to be about that much a year–probably twice that and half thrown away.

–Robert Frost

If you didn’t know Robert Frost, and he said to you, “I’m a writer who publishes 10 pages a year,” you would consider him a failure. Yet, those 10 pages were eloquent and perfectly crafted. They are enduring contributions that we will cherish for as long as English poetry is valued.


The Writer’s Warm Up

When I workout, I’m not very good about warming up. I have a tendency to go hard and fast. (If you knew me, you would likely say that my workout method is characteristic of my personality.) But when I don’t warm up, the next day is more difficult. I have learned this lesson as a musician, but I have not learned it as an athlete. I have also not learned it as a writer or leader.

When I go hard and fast, I’m ultimately slowed down. My creativity level eventually drops. This makes it difficult to finish a long article in the amount of time I would like to spend on it. It also makes it hard to keep up the energy levels required to lead everyday. It’s hard to be positive when you’re exhausted.

When I drum, I spend time to tune the drum kit and warm up my hands. I stretch. I start slow, before I go for speed. I start with simple rhythms, before playing something complex. I’m contemplative and intentional. It took me years to learn this. It sounds simple now, but it’s not. Warming up is also a discipline.

When I spend time to write a blog post, or a memo-style email, before starting a large project, I’m actually more efficient. The same (likely) holds true for all projects. It goes against our nature to be “off task” before being “on task.” In all actuality, though, a warm up writing exercise is intentional and “on task.” (We’re not talking about checking Facebook or Twitter after all.) It helps us mentally prepare for being more efficient than we would be otherwise. It engages the part of our brain that we’re about to use.

Now what if your warm up also had a purpose? This warm up blog post does. (I wrote it before beginning work on the Bible study I write for Bible Study Magazine every two months.)

So here’s to warming up, like an athlete or a musician. Be contemplative and intentional. You will actually get more done that way. How do you warm up?

One Easy Way to Identify Your Audience

When I start writing a new article, I ask: What’s the word count? It’s not because I’m a minimalist; word counts tell me about my audience. And my audience indicates the breadth of coverage of the article. Why give someone 1,000 words when they want 150?

The audience of a lexicon or dictionary is very different from the audience of an academic journal. The audience of a magazine desires less coverage than the readers of a manifesto. Likewise, someone reading a textbook or grammar desires something different from someone reading a handbook, or book of tips.

Word counts matter for more reasons than we probably acknowledge. This seems basic, and perhaps even trivial, but we often forget this. Know your audience. Give them the amount of content they want to read.

I know the audience of this blog. And that’s why I’m going to stop writing now, at 150 words.


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The Best and Worst Writing

“The best and worst of reading can be found in academic journals. A subscription to an academic journal that touches on your business, product, or service is guaranteed to provide something exciting enough to keep you up all night as well as hundreds of pages of text that can help you get back to sleep.” —Bob Pritchett, Fire Someone Today, pg. 131.

Academic writing can teach us two things: give us great ideas, and help us realize how bad writing can be.

Most academic writing is bad. Why is it that some of the most educated people in the world are the worst writers? Academics often speak jargon. As a consequence, the quality of their writing is diminished. Less jargon equals better writing. Simplicity is preferred. But if you get past the jargon, as Bob Pritchett (who I work for), says: you will find “something exciting enough to keep you up all night.”


Learn to Fail Faster

“Everything he writes is great the first time. It’s amazing: he writes it down and it’s beautiful. He doesn’t need to rewrite his work at all.”

When I heard someone lift up one of their leaders this way, I thought, “No way. It can’t be true. He just doesn’t see the process—he only sees the final product.” I still believe that. Writing is rewriting.

Good writers don’t publish their first draft. Good writers fail faster than other writers. They rewrite their work quicker. They find the best parts of what they wrote, condense their writing down to that alone, and then publish it.

Editing can be grueling. But that’s why it’s a science and an art. Like engineering, it requires both sides of your brain and thus isn’t for everyone. Nonetheless, I think anyone can learn to edit. You just have to be very hard on yourself. Like any art form, there aren’t shortcuts, but there are tricks. (More on that in a later post.)

No one is exempt from this rule. Everyone needs to edit their own work, and everyone needs an editor. My last “Letter from the Editor” in Bible Study Magazine went through five complete rewrites. But I didn’t spend more time on it than usual, because editing has become part of my process. The rewriting process actually takes me less time than the writing process used to.


Something Delicious about a Story

“There’s something delicious about writing those first few words of a story, you can never quite know where they’ll take you.”

Beatrix Potter, author of Peter Rabbit, in Miss Potter.

Reading a story can take you places you never imagined, but writing a story can take you even farther. When I tell people that I write using a narrative arc, they usually assume that I write fictional narratives. But anything can have a narrative arc—including your life.

When I look back on the events of my life, I see the narrative evolving. And it still is. All of our lives are.

There is a steady progression of events that have lead to climaxes, disappointments and triumphs. There are characters who come and go along the way. The beauty of the story of our lives is that the narrative doesn’t end. As long as we keep moving forward, the story does as well.

So both non-fiction and fiction are story. You just have to look for the monumental events to see it. You just have to reflect a bit. And beginning a new part of a story, or a new story in general, can be delicious.

What part of the story are you in? Drop me a line and let me know.

For further resources, check out Donald Miller’s video series Into the Elements and my personal favorite, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.

(Note: Several of the links in this post are affiliate links.)

White Board Man, a Writer and a Cruel Editor

Some people write because it helps them think. I write because it helps me stop thinking.

I regularly find myself on idea overload. Before I know it, I’m at a white board, Good Will Hunting style: writing like a mad man and drawing like a bad impressionist. It works, but the method must be combined with a product of some kind: prose.

Prose is like a pause button. It forces you to think about the big picture in one freeze frame. Unlike ideas, prose stays in place, on paper, until you press play again. The pause/play function of writing helps me to see everything in sequence and understand how it all fits together.

Writing eventually runs into the big, bad editor. When you’re both the white board guy, and the pedantic editor, you have trouble being satisfied. So what do you do? In Seth Godin’s words, you ship it: You improve it, you get over the notion of making it perfect, and then you let the world see it.

This blog is about the process: the how.

For now, I’ll say this (I’ll explain later):

– Writing is rewriting

– Editing is a process

– Life happens before, during and after a thought hits paper.

Deciding what motivates you is paramount. My motivation is Bible study. What’s yours? Decide now.