Blogging and Writing 302 – Parting Thoughts

On this blog, I write about intersections, those places where roads meet, choices are made, collisions happen and directions change. I write about pain, nature, ideas, culture, choices, emotions, creativity, relationships, the scriptures, significant conversations. These are the places where

Go! Spend time in your happy place and write, write, write!!!

ordinary intersects supernatural. It can be a bit of a challenge, addressing issues with layers and levels of complexity – and trying to do it well and winsomely in packages under 500 words. (Ok, more like 800 most days.) But I keep at it. And I keep at it knowing that not every reader who wanders by here will get what I’m trying to do or want to come along for the journey. I realize that this is not a blog for the masses. There are some however, who understand. The topics I address here resonate and ring their hearts like a bell. I know because sometimes they write and tell me. Knowing I’m not alone… and knowing my thoughts here have stirred divine interactions in the hearts of others – both have been some of the greatest blessings I’ve gained from blogging.

So, as I bring this series on blogging and writing to a close, I wanted to write a few words from my heart. My parting thoughts, those things I would say to you if we were face to face over coffee and winding down our delightfully stimulating conversation on the topic of blogging and writing.

Write from who you are, where you are – Please, don’t go into this business (using that word loosely…) to try and please anyone but yourself. There are too many of us out here (who don’t know and love you) for you to put the definition of success for yourself in our hands. And the point of writing is that we hear from the writer. Give your heart some attention and figure out what it is you want to say for where you are in life. It doesn’t have to be overly serious. I love cooking blogs. I love photo blogs. I love review blogs. I follow many family story blogs. They are average people who are writing from who they are, where they are. And they write well. Stories are powerful. You know this. Some of you however, have big thoughts to share with us.  Truly significant topics to write about – you know things we need to know. You want to create a body of work so that others may be able to learn from it, that you may be able to use one day in a professional/personal/powerful context. We are waiting.

Be willing to learn and change and grow – a blog isn’t a lifetime commitment. They have life spans. And when they are over, let them go. Take a hiatus if needed. Be willing to change your topics, your writing style, your writing schedule… or walk away from the computer and spend sometimes outdoors – whatever it takes to evolve and grow as a person and communicator. I would hope, unless you are the rare freak of literary nature who manages excellence right out of the gate, that who you are as a writer today is vastly different from who you will be in five years. We can all get better. This is as it should be.

Find a group of friends to bounce ideas off of. One of the greatest things you can do for yourself as a writer is to find a few trusted folks and invite them to give feedback. Engage them in conversation about what you are doing with your blog or manuscript or ideas and listen to how your words sound and how they receive them. If you can say it clearly and get understood, you can write it. Writing and speaking are strongly related methods of communication. Having another set of eyes, another opinion of what works and doesn’t… that is not only incredibly valuable, but it can be a tremendous springboard for improvement. And be sure to toughen up your skin and lower the defenses when they speak honestly. Make it easy for them to speak truth to you and really listen to what they are saying. Yes, I know your writing is your baby and no one likes to hear their baby doesn’t smell fresh. But if the truth leads to progress…then get yourself to the place where you actively seek and welcome truth. (Um, that was a very big statement right there, about life, not just about writing…Jn. 8:32)

Thanks for following along these last few weeks as I’ve explored some of the why’s and how’s of my writing/creativity process. I hope it has stirred some constructive thoughts for you about your own. I believe that times of introspection, of slowing down long enough to really give some attention to why and how we do things, can be not only inwardly refreshing, but outwardly practical. I hope this has been helpful. I would love to hear from you if you’ve been following along and enjoyed or gotten something out of this series.

Blogging 302 – What Makes One A Writer?

As  I continue to interact with people who are ‘writers’ I am finding that this term isn’t exclusively a profession. In fact, I would wager that the staggering majority of writers out there don’t get paid for what they write. Instead, the term writer is a descriptive one. Like how people can be educators, artists or leaders without that also being their day job.

So what makes one a writer then? Here are some of my thoughts on it:

Compulsion – Some people just HAVE to write. They have to communicate. They have to get out what is inside of them in a form others can understand and receive. They have to connect. (More on this below.) They are compelled to write. How else to explain the blogosphere and the proliferation of folks who spend so much time and energy creating? Some people just ARE writers. I suspect if they were transplanted to an illiterate culture where writing did not exist, the thing inside of them that compels them to write in our culture would make them storytellers, artists, actors or some other form of creative. Creatives are those people who must create something. Writing is just the medium some people use. I couldn’t not write at this point in my life. I am compelled. I am sure I am not alone either.

Consistency – Lots of folks start things, maybe go strong for a while, and then…eh…not so much. The blogosphere is filled with blogs whose last entries were months, even years ago. Then, there are those people who have proven over the years, through consistent production, that they are writers. I would suggest that writers show themselves over time by following the same path. It may take different forms over the years and may produce different levels of work in different seasons of life, but writers…consistently write.

Connectivity – Writers, like other creatives, long to connect with others. Even though I have said repeatedly on the blog that even if no one ever read what I write, I would still write and it would still be a worthwhile endeavor, (and this is completely true) – I am pretty sure that every writer longs for someone to read their work. Why? Because writers are striving to connect with others. To find that common ground that unites us. The stereotype of a serious writer is that of an introvert, hermit, hunched over their typewriter/macbook in their pajamas and unkempt hair because they don’t have anywhere to go or friends in the outside world. They may also own cats with whom they talk to way too much. While there may be a ring of truth to this (I have been known to write in my pi’s, but I promise, I am currently fully dressed with makeup on even! And I’ve got friends! And I go outside. Often!) I suspect that many writers defy this mold. Instead, they long deeply to be where people are, even if the connecting point is the written word. Even if their meeting place is online.

Blogging and Writing 301 – The Great Crimes Of Blogging

The greatest crime in blogging isn’t bad writing. If it were, yikes! Many of us (me included!) would be locked up with the key thrown away. No, the greatest crimes in blogging are much more annoying and sometimes dangerous. Here are some offenses I’ve chronically seen (and unfortunately participated in)

1. TMI – too much information! There is a peculiar tension at play here. The best writers are those who are honest. As a spiritual writer, this is my bread and butter, channeling my inner angst in the hopes of connecting with those who can’t quite put words to their similar circumstances. Yet there is a line out there, crossing from honest expression to sharing publicly what belongs in private. And unfortunately, we usually only find it by stepping over it. Please remember, the blogosphere isn’t Vegas. What you write here doesn’t stay here. It goes out there forever! So if you are tempted to share how much you drank, details of your last sexual dalliance, your divorce, job loss, bodily functions, details of someone else’s issue or the depths of your anger or pain, please remember, we are all sitting right here. So is your future employer. Since you can’t take it back once you put it out there, be sure you will be ok with it when you come to your senses next week or next year.

2. Going On and On And On – This one is related to tmi. There are some bloggers who have no restraint and no discipline when writing. When they go to tell a story, my goodness…the agonizing detail…the endless play by play…the mind-numbing, endurance-testing numbers of words…I recognize that as many writers as there are, there are twice as many writing styles out there. Some folks may need lots of words speak their hearts and truth. If your writing forms are longer, by all means, knock yourself out. I’m not telling anyone how to write. However, I heard a public speaking teacher say once, “If you can’t say it in 20 minutes, go away and write a book.” I would suggest that blogging follows similar rules. Ours is a brief medium. And the reality of modern reading is that it is done with lots of skimming. (This is why I write in series – to allow enough space to cover my thoughts, but to package it in accessible bites.) I would suggest that as you write, ask yourself, “Is there a way to edit this down?” The longer your writing, the less people are willing to invest time in following you.

3. Destroying without building – One of the chief criticisms of the blogosphere is that it is a bunch of crybabies who criticize just about everything out there, without taking the chance of doing anything potentially criticize-worthy themselves. Unfortunately, this is a well-earned reputation. There are indeed writers whose primary mission is to tear down others work. I recognize that many blogs offer reviews of something. Others specialize in critical analysis and constructive criticism. There is most definitely a place for people to offer their personal opinions – this is the blogosphere. It all goes. But I think you know this line I am talking about and most of us recognize it when it is crossed. When someone’s rants are nothing more than the literary equivalent of someone putting on a striped shirt and blowing a whistle like a referee, when no one asked them to take on the role. Sure, we need referees to keep things in line, but the athletes who actually play should get the glory.  These types of blogs might get a visit from me once. And rarely again. It is why I have chosen with my blog to be a builder – a creator of ideas, content, words – and not a destroyer.

4. Writing Like You Talk – I know in a previous entry in this series I said that I think some great writers manage to write exactly like they talk. Let me clarify… Writing with a recognizable style that mimics spoken rhythms is great – and very fun to read. (See The Very Worst Missionary, link on the right, for a classic example.) Writing with ,”Um…yeah…so…you know what I mean?…Dude…” or lazy grammar, haphazard sentence construction or thought progression…please…You can cover many mistakes when speaking with someone face to face through enthusiasm, emotion, facial expressions, hand motions, eye contact, tonal intent and emphasis, body contact, trying again and again in different ways to make your point, etc. None of those are available through the written medium. You get one shot to state or to mis-state what you mean. Writers should learn to be precise and tighten up the edges. Dude, well, it may seem sort of cool and all, to, you know, write kind of sort of like you were sitting in the same room with me and all… know what I mean? But really, the rest of us sort of, you know, have a hard time taking you seriously when you do that.

5. Not Blogging At All – Pr. 22:13 states, “The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside!” or, “I will be murdered in the streets!” 

This describes what I think is the greatest crime in blogging. The verse says that lazy people give excuses for why they don’t get out and do something. “I can’t start a blog! What if no one reads? What if it isn’t very good? I don’t really know how to do this. A lion might eat me!” I feel most sorry for those people who think they might want to blog, who might want to create a body of work… and instead listen to voices of fear, or get too busy piddling away their time – consuming rather than creating something. I know I am repeating myself here, but the greatest crime in blogging isn’t tmi, going on and on, writing poorly or begin too critical. (People can learn to correct all of these things.) The greatest crime is in not attempting at all something you are capable of.

So if you are thinking about blogging – get out there and do it! The rest of us await your contribution!!!

Blogging and Writing 202 – Idea Generation

I guess one of the most basic questions for bloggers is, “How do you decide what to write about?”  While it may be one of the first questions asked, I think it is one of the later questions to be answered. I wrote for years before I truly found what it was I wanted to consistently write about.

Let me explain.

I am not saying that bloggers don’t start out with an idea of what they want to say. Of course they do, or they wouldn’t blog. What I am saying is that for some of us, it takes time and just writing for a while to find the themes that really resonate with others, that seem to flow out of us most effortlessly – or are at least the effort!

I began blogging 7 years ago about stories of what was happening in my life. Along the way, I found that incorporating the spiritual themes I was learning was what really popped out of my writing. Then, as I began to focus more specifically on the actual places in my heart and life where Jesus showed up consistently and powerfully, my writing jumped a level. So did my readership. So did my passion for writing.

I didn’t start out writing like I do now. It took the practice of consistently writing for years, of consciously evaluating what worked and didn’t, of examining what rang my writer’s bell. It has taken time. I also ask for feedback from those whose opinions matter to me.

So, back to the question of how to decide what to write about…my advice is to begin with what is on your heart, whatever that is. I think the greatest sin in writing isn’t in writing badly, but in not writing at all. Then, write consistently, whatever that looks like for you. For me it is at least once a week, and usually at least twice, centered around whatever series’ I am working through at the time. (Again, this rhythm has emerged over the years. I didn’t start out at this pace. It is just what works for me now and is subject to change.) Then, evaluate where your writing seems to come to life, where it seems to move or connect with other people. And then, be willing to be open – to change, adjust and grow.

Now that I know what I really, really want to write about, idea generation isn’t the problem. Idea retention is. (See previous post in this series.) As I go through my life, blog entries along my heart themes seem to emerge naturally in the everyday. My job isn’t really to generate ideas, but to capture the ones that show themselves throughout my normal activities. Then to hone them into a useable form. 

And I generally try to live an idea generating life anyway. I read stimulating books and other blogs. I engage others in honest, deep conversation. This allows me to hear another’s heart and practice articulating mine. I move my body to sensory-stimulating environments – beautiful places, people-watching venues, etc. I walk, run or swim often – these are perhaps some of the greatest idea generators in my life’s rhythms – and I think almost everyone ought to walk or exercise more:) I regularly practice solitude and quiet, giving myself time and space to hear the ideas percolating from within.

Here’s the bullet point summary:

1. Practice writing about whatever – and see what happens. What you love to write about and what you write well about will eventually rise to the surface. 

2. Live an idea generating life – one that is outwardly oriented and inwardly nourishing. This will look different for each person. Then, keep post-it notes handy.

3. Pay attention – to what works, what resonates, what stinks and what you enjoy. Regular self-evaluation is a strong tool of improvement. 

Blogging and Writing 103 – What Are You Trying To Say?

(Part 3 of a series on blogging and writing how-to’s, numbered from the beginning of the series. Click to read 101 and 102)

6. Know what it is you are trying to do with your blog.

It seems to me that blogs often fall into one of many, many categories – you may recognize some of the following:

The mommy blog – with photos, babypalooza stories, recipes and tons of mommy and domestic know-how. The review blog – with thoughts on media. The rant blog – angry writer lets us all know what he thinks about something. The photo blog – self-explanatory. The spiritual direction blog – with believers of whatever faith sharing their thoughts, theology, life, etc. The education blog – the writer knows something about something, so they write informationally – cooking, DIY, shoes, cars, etc. The story blog – someone embarks on some sort of adventure : travel, adoption, getting married, new job, battle with cancer, loss of a loved one, etc and tells the story over time. A writer’s blog – an outlet for someone’s creative juices, where they post their created work. You get the picture.

Of course, few blogs fall cleanly into such categories. They are written by people and people tend to defy orderly categorization. And yet…having some sort of idea about what it is you are doing with your blog is important. For your reader as they decide whether to give you some of their online reading time, and for you as you try to sharpen your writing style.

What is your goal with blogging?

How would you categorize or describe your blog? 

What topics do you write to?

Who do you hope will be reading?

How would you describe your style?

Having brief concise answers to these and similar questions can help you focus your efforts, find your target audience and sharpen your writing style. Everyone should have the freedom to deviate when they choose, but identifying your core writing objectives can be very helpful and clarifying.

Presently, I would categorize Intersections as a spiritual autobiographical memoir/writer’s blog. At times it is my personal website with contact information, references and audio – with a few reviews occasionally thrown in for good measure. One of the things I knew I didn’t want this to become was a rant blog that critiqued others or their work. I want to be a creator, not just a critic or consumer with my online presence. I knew starting out that I wanted this blog to be about idea generation and creativity and the exploration of truth and where it hits real life. I guess my title and tagline say it all : INTERSECTIONS: where roads meet, choices are made, collisions happen and directions change.

It has taken me a few years to figure out where to land – but I feel like I have a good handle on what I’m trying to do here and how I want to go about it. I know what I am trying to say. Being able to articulate my objectives has made me a better writer.

What are some practical applications from having this knowledge?

7. Titles are important – In the modern age, people don’t read less, as is commonly thought. Instead they read differently. They skim. They read broadly till they find what it is they are really interested in, then they slow down. And even then, the skills that have been fine tuned through Facebook, twitter, texting and the internet are not just turned off. People read and leave pages quickly if they do not immediately seem relevant or worthwhile. That means how you title your work is incredibly important. It allows people a chance to  gauge whether they need what you have to offer. A good title can act like a reading speed bump, slowing someone down just long enough to engage. I’ve experimented with this and have found that my creatively or more specifically descriptive titled entries get higher traffic than my straightforwardly titled ones. Use adjectives, ask questions, pick words that grab attention or defy normal conversational use. Brevity can be powerful, as we all know, not all words are created equal. Give thought to the big words that go on the top of the page because they determine whether someone will stay and read – or not. And, make sure the overall title of your blog is interesting/creative/descriptive/intriguing or attention-getting. It, after all, is the most read thing on your blog. It lets your readers know something of your personality, style and objectives right out of the gate.

(If you would like another post with more details about titles and examples, just leave a comment below and I’ll try to get back to this at a later date.)

8. Introductory and concluding ideas are important – When listening to a sermon, most church goers can only recall the first and last things the pastor said. I’ve found the same is true of reading. Beginnings and endings are the front and back door of your ‘writing house’. Think of when you go to visit a friend at their house. At least in my experience, the conversations I have as I arrive and as I leave are often them most important ones. They determine how I remember the quality of my visit. In your writing, first and last sentences or the short paragraphs that surround the core ideas found within them, are what link your readers to a particular article. Take some time and really word-smith the first and last things your readers will read from you.

9. Consider numbering your points – If you write topically, numbering your points may be an idea worth considering. Sure, it takes away from the flow or poeticism of your prose. But if your objective is to impart information, (and this is where knowing your objective is very useful) then you want to make it as easy as possible for your reader to find and access your points. Numbering is a visual handle, allowing your readers to grasp and take away what they need easily.

Blogging And Writing 102 – Getting Started

In response to the occasional request for writing/blogging advice, this is part two in a series about how to improve at either. I’m numbering them sequentially from the start of the series. Part one is here. 

3. Read other good writers.  Sometimes I think that as many people as there are on the planet, there must be twice as many bloggers. And many of them are very very good. Look around out there and see how others shape their thoughts, form their sentences, structure their content, time their entries. It could help jumpstart some ideas of your own.

4. Practice with boundaries. I generally try to limit the length of my blog entries. I do this for a number of reasons. First, most people don’t read past 500 words and since I actually want people to read what I write, I swim with this current. Second, it forces me to condense my thoughts and really craft my words. I write different, better sentences and get to my point much faster and more effectively. Third, the limitation inspires creativity. Children stuck inside on a rainy day must find things to entertain themselves within their limitations. A boundary can be quite inspirational. Maybe you want to publish every Tuesday. Or pick a random topic and write so many words on it. Or write a post start to finish within a certain time frame. Maybe your boundaries are topical and not form-based – as in you want to write 10 posts on one theme.  It doesn’t matter what you choose. But the choice can drive you to do things as a writer you never thought you could.

5. Take your time finding your readership. If your goal is to get lots of folks to read your work, you will probably be disappointed in the process. Oh sure, every writer wants others to connect with what they write. Some folks do phenomenally well at this. The reality however is that in our world we are bombarded with too much information. Most days there are too many words for us to take in. And honestly, most of us should probably spend more time outdoors or with friends anyway. That being said, there are many satisfying reasons to write and/or blog that transcend putting the definition of success in someone else’s hands. The joy of writing that perfect sentence that perfectly captures what you want to say. The value of finally articulating a thought, opinion, story or truth in a way that helps you really own something in your inner world. The comments that come in from readers who say how you touched them, impacted them, helped them realize something they didn’t before.

And if you regularly post, consistently write well about a topic others care about and if you follow a few tried and true strategies for gaining readers, they will eventually find you.

Blogging And Writing 101 – How It All Began

I have been asked several times this past year for blogging and writing advice. I have been an active blogger since 2005, and while I am no expert, surely this means I am at least experienced. So I want to spend a few posts and explore and explain what I have learned as I’ve attempted to communicate with others through this medium. Let me start with how it all began.

My blogging story – I began blogging very innocently, not knowing at all what I was doing and with no expectations or aspirations. We were getting ready to leave for Germany as student workers with the IMB and I wanted to keep my mom updated on what we were doing. That was pretty much it. My first blog Beyond the Water’s Edge, began as a travelogue, with stories and pictures of our adventures. It was a way for me to record and share the amazing life we were living. Then, along the way, I realized there were a lot of people reading, including our students. As our journey grew from just living in another country to experiencing God deeply in our context, what I wrote about began to morph. I mixed telling stories with linking those stories to universally understood connecting truths and their spiritual underpinnings. Basically, I started writing about where God and His truth was meeting my life. I got bit by the blogging bug and have been hooked since.

When we returned home after several years overseas and with another baby in tow, my mom suddenly died. With so many changes in my life all at once, it seemed like a good time to transition to a new blog. I began What Box? with the tag line, “There’s nothing wrong with boxes. I just don’t always see them.” Those who know me catch the inside joke about my unorthodox approach to life and stuff. Looking back, this was a transitional blog (and time of life) for me. I still used it to update folks on our lives, but I also began exploring writing about deeper, spiritual themes.

Then, my life sort of fell apart. We had been in the process of trying to return to Europe when family responsibilities here made that impossible. I was heartbroken. In the fall of 2009, I traveled to Norway to visit a friend and say goodbye to the life I thought I was going to get. I needed some time to walk the streets there and to give God a chance to speak to me about what was next. To my surprise, He spoke quite clearly. He said, “Create. Something. And put it in my hands.” It was obvious I was to start a new blog, to begin the process of creating and being creative and offer it to Him. When I got home, I sat in front of my computer for about 3 weeks straight and the first 6-9 months of this blog popped out. I haven’t stopped writing since.

As I look at the tone and topics I write about now, it follows a trajectory I’ve been on for several years. I’ve found a writing voice, a style and a niche that totally works for me.

What are some of the higher level lessons have I learned as a result of this journey? My thoughts will begin in this entry and continue weekly for a while…

1. Writing something is better than writing nothing. Pr. 25:14 says, ” Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of gifts he does not give.” One thing I know about the creative process is that if you don’t create something, you create nothing. And you don’t improve without creating something. It is sort of like the saying, “God can’t steer a parked car.” I look back at some of my early writing and it was pretty ugly. But I wrote it, learned from it and still have the record of what I did, was thinking, experiencing at the time. And I know something of how my stories have influenced others. As ugly as it might have been, it is still better than if I had created nothing. Lots of people think about doing something and never get around to it. If you are thinking about blogging or writing but aren’t sure of the details of what you want to write, just get started with something. Even writing about nothing is better than not writing at all. Because…

2. The only way to improve as a writer is by writing.  Writing ability is like a muscle and it only gets stronger with exercise. I would encourage anyone who wants to improve to set goals for yourself like writing so many words a day, or writing so many days a week or establishing a posting schedule for your blog to force yourself to write regularly. It may start out rather rough. But it is a start – and putting one foot in front of the other is the only way to make progress.