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.

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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 203 – Idea Stewardship

How to handle and manage ideas, getting them from head and heart to paper?

In my style of writing, some ideas have a shelf life. In other words, often my ideas are strongly linked to now. To the moment.  To what is going on when they are generated. If I sit on them and don’t work with them while they are passionately on my heart, my desire to work with them disappears.

This affects the pacing of how I write. There are times where an idea pops by for a visit in my heart and brain and I can park it in the wordpress queue. It doesn’t seem to mind if I put it off for a while, just as happy to get some of my time whenever I can offer it. Then there are ideas who are more demanding – wanting something of me RIGHT NOW!!! When that happens, or when certain ideas just seem to be flowing in a “Deanna, pay attention, this-is-a-special-moment!” kind of way, I need to carve out time pretty quickly to work with them or…they go away. The creative spark, the mojo, the emotional investment fades. The idea is lost. Not because I didn’t record it fast enough, but because I didn’t flesh it out and give it life within the window of inspiration. And mojo is really hard to find. At least for this natural nerd.

I suspect other creatives know what this feels like. An idea comes alive and is moving in a moment… and then the energy behind it disappears. As I continue to walk a writer’s path, I am learning how it feels in my heart when the time is “now” – to focus and sit on down at the computer and stay there till my work is done.  And I am learning to recognize which ideas need immediate attention and which can be parked for later.These two things, how ideas feel and what they need from me to steward them well, are higher level writing skills that have only emerged in the last couple of years or so. I would encourage writers out there to spend some introspective time figuring what this looks like for you.

The writing process usually involves two very important parts. First, inspiration (the part I can’t control) – then, perspiration (the part I can control). When I find ways to marry the two, they have the most beautiful babies.

Just because an idea might need immediate attention to craft it properly, that doesn’t mean it needs to be published right away. I may write a series of blog entries a few weeks or even months before they post. Sometimes idea stewardship means having the discipline to sit with it a while, even when it feels like it is burning a hole in my blog queue. This patience allows me to interact with an idea or theme for a longer period of time. The longer I work with it, often, the sharper my articulation of it becomes. And the greater my engagement with Jesus is over the idea in my writing piece, which is often my personal goal in the process.

I almost always revisit things I write in the week or two before I publish it. I may make adjustments or I may not. It depends. It isn’t unusual for me to find sentences that made sense to me in the first writing, when the passion was flowing, that look overdone or nonsensical a few weeks later. Giving myself a longer window of time to interact with an idea often produces a very powerful synergy:

1.The energy  and spontaneity of the moment (my heart)

2. The safety net of time to cool down and engage my logical analysis (my head)

3. The time to work, work, work (my hands)

These are some of the keys to my idea stewardship.

Blogging and Writing 201 – Idea Preservation

I was asked recently, “Do you have a place where you collect your stories and illustrations, to write or speak with later?” This is a great question and I’ve actually wrestled with it for years. I think many communicators, writers and creatives have. Maybe a better way to word the question is, “How does one preserve ideas for later use?” 

If you’ve spent anytime in the creative process, you know how ideas seem to have a life of their own. They show up when they want (often inconveniently) and if we aren’t careful to pay proper attention to them at that moment, they have a way of disappearing quickly. There are few things more frustrating than knowing you had an amazing idea, only to lose it because you couldn’t write it down fast enough, or because you lost the napkin you wrote it on.

Holy ground for me. Lots of places to park ideas till I am ready to get to them. And lots of idea generators right in front of me. Plus a ton of memories.

You also probably know that some ideas aren’t for now, but for later. I often come up with the main points of a blog series months before I actually write it. The ideas may need to germinate a while longer before I am creatively and spiritually ready to tackle them. Practically, there may not be proper time to devote to the project. Parenting has that tricky way of interfering with life…

I sort of have a system for idea storage because I think it is good intellectual stewardship. If God sees fit to give me a great idea, I had better see fit to find a way not to lose it. And I sort of don’t have an idea storage system because it can easily devolve into a control thing. Jesus is the source of my creativity and sometimes trying to control it too much is actually a way to remove the process out of His hands. Part of my creative philosophy involves recognizing that all my abilities and ideas are actually His. I just get to channel them and pass them on. Idea generation for me is a deeply spiritual thing – a spiritual discipline almost.  It goes hand in hand with my relationship with Jesus and flows from my time with Him. I never want to get to the place where I try to write without Him and just from the notes I’ve accumulated. Therefore, an element of it needs to be dynamic, loose and a little messy, a little bit out of my control. Otherwise it loses some of its power. It becomes me writing – and on my own, I’m not really that good. At least that’s how it works in my life.

All that being said however, here are is one practical way I hold ideas till the right time arises to develop and use them.

I have a dedicated space I work in – and I use it to store my ideas visually and in an incomplete form in front of me. Like most people, I have a desk where I park my computer. But I also view this space as more than just that – it is holy ground. My eyes spend a lot of time looking at the corner in front of me, so what that space looks like is important. It will generate or deaden my ideas and thoughts. I have two whiteboards there, a magnet board and lots of sticky notes on hand. As ideas float around, I park them for a while where I can see them, till I can get back to them. Keeping them in front of me is a valuable way to allow my thoughts to develop and percolate until it is writing time.  In a down moment, as my thoughts drift, these ideas find their way back to my mental front burner and when the time is right, get handled. (More on writing when the moment of inspiration hits in a later post.) My idea storage isn’t a file, but the wall space in front of me.

Also, my most recently read books are here. I keep lots of highlighters, colored pens and sticky notes nearby for when a creative moment strikes. I also have photos of meaningful things here. Postcards of important trips. Unusual and funny kid pictures. Verses that are especially vital for me at the present time.  It might be more cluttered than some like, but visually, it is a happy, vibrant place. It stirs my mind and spirit. It works for me. Jesus and I spend a lot of time together here.

I do have to protect it however. Life is crazy. I have 3 kids who try to creep their stuff in here. I have to fight to keep it ordered. When I do however, it does great things for my creative process.

Blogging and Writing 104 – Learn To Write Well

(This is part 4 in a series on the how-to’s of writing and blogging, numbered from the beginning of the series. Previous entries are here: 101, 102 and 103)

Blogging is a dynamic medium. That means you can think it, write it and post it all within a few minutes time. This is great in terms of communicating from the heart and the moment. It is not so great regarding grammar, spelling and sentence construction. Or writer’s regret – i.e. writing something in the heat of the moment you’ll regret later.  I am not stickler for anal-retentive punctuation. Some of my favorite bloggers intentionally don’t use capitalization – or they creatively punctuate for emphasis. And I believe if you are going to write something, please feel free to write substantively or emotionally. All that being said however:

10. Check grammar, punctuation and sentence structure before posting. Many people who read your work don’t know you personally – and their first impression will be the neatness of your work. It is sort of like when you invite a friend to your house but neglect to clean the foyer. It doesn’t inspire confidence in the homeowner.

11. Learn to write clearly understood sentences. I was a former high school science teacher, which meant I graded a lot of science project reports. One of my favorites informed me that “90% of all people were satisfied with the results of their autopsy.” Really?  Something in that sentence didn’t flow right, did it? Feel free to be creative. Short, long, wordy, sparse, rhyming, whimsical, comedic, ironic, poetic, matter-of-fact…Use whatever style suits you. (Hint – I think some of the best writers manage to write exactly how they talk.) But I would suggest that whatever style you use, construct sentences that say what you mean and say it clearly. Don’t make your readers work too hard to follow your point.

12. Read up on how to write well. It should come as no surprise to my regular readers, that if I am interested in it, I have probably read on the topic. This includes writing. Below are two of my favorite writing books and definitely recommended for anyone wanting to improve as a writer.

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott.  Author and writing instructor Anne Lamott nails it here. While the second half of the book focuses on fiction writing (not my territory, but interesting nonetheless), the first half is solid gold in terms of learning to find your style, getting over writer’s block, identifying what it is you really want to say, the writer’s journey (those of you who are compelled to write will understand this), etc. Plus, it is very, very well written and laugh out loud funny in places, making it a pleasure to read.

Word Magic For Writers by Cindy Rogers This book is an amazing summary of how to write well. It is covers a lot of grammar (in a very engaging, easy to follow and even entertaining way – really:), but it is also about effective communication. All who aspire to be good writers should read and refer to this book often!

13. Please be aware of the cringe factor. I’ve read some blogs and thought to myself, “TMI!” (too much information). I cringe because I know they’ve gone beyond the boundaries of appropriate sharing and know they will probably regret posting this later. (More on this in a later post.) Please, before you hit the publish button and put your thoughts out there for the world to read, think about whether you will regret it later. Or whether your readers will regret it. The tension of course is that many writers want to connect authentically with their readers. Sharing on a personal level can certainly be a part of it. But usually we know when the line has been crossed. Figure out where your line is and try to stay on the safe side.

14. Wait at least a week from the end of the writing process to pushing the publish button. Not everyone needs to follow this. Personally however, I’ve found that I need the time to sit with a topic before I’m ready to release it. I might want to edit it. To think about whether it is too personal or how it might affect another’s perception of me. (I don’t write to please others, but I do need to guard my platform and respectability – or I will lose any influence and audience I might have.) Because I am a spiritual writer, it gives me time to engage my Jesus on what I write, making sure it is true, human, accurate and beneficial. I will often bounce my topics off of other people, to see how it lands with them. This is very valuable feedback. The in-between time, from when I first write until when I publish, is often my favorite part of the whole process. It can feel like an ongoing conversation with the idea I am trying to communicate, like an ongoing conversation with Jesus about the idea He is stirring within me. This process of waiting also ensures that what makes it to the light of day is my best work.

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.