Write More Better: a new eBook on writing well

I wasn’t a writer until I was one, and I didn’t plan on being one at all. I started writing out of pure desperation. It wasn’t a perceived calling. I didn’t have a fire in my bones or any such thing. I was thrown into a writing job and needed to figure out how to not suck at it.

I approach giving advice on how to write well cautiously because of this. This is not because I don’t know what to say, but because I often feel like I’m making it up as I go along (even when I’m not). Nevertheless,

If you’re in the same boat I was a few years ago, or are just looking for some advice on how to write well, this book is for you: Write More Better: Unoriginal (but helpful) tips for writing well:

This is not the work of someone who has “arrived” or anything like that. Nor is a “here I write, I can do no other” type piece. Just as in the blog series that preceded it, what you’re going to find in its pages that follow are the tips that I’ve found helpful on the journey to becoming a writer.

Download a copy of Write More Better: Unoriginal (but helpful) tips for writing well.

I hope you find the book helpful. Enjoy!

Write more better: learn to play!

All this week, I’ve been sharing advice on how to improve as a writer. Among other things, writers need to embrace simplicity, be coachable, and read a lot. But one of the worst things a writer can do is play it safe. I don’t mean intentionally trying to be controversial or anything like that. I mean never try anything different. They stick to their strengths continually, and never attempt to develop in any areas of weakness.

Tip 4: learn to play.

Write more better tip 4

For a writer to grow, he or she needs to be willing to try new things. Here are a couple of key things I’d suggest:

Play with genres. If you write children’s stories, try writing a non-fiction article. If you write on theology, write a poem. These never have to see the light of day, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth trying. One of the best I know in this regard is Stephen Altrogge, who regularly releases short stories, collections of essays, and serial novels through Amazon. This is also why I’m glad my work requires me to write differently than I would here. I write fundraising material during the day (when I write anything). I write about theology and books here. You can’t think about these the same way. And this is a really good thing for me because it makes me a more nimble writer.

Engage in word play. There’s a reason I called this series “Write more better,” and it’s not because my grammar is terrible. It’s because it’s fun to play with words—pay attention to the rhythm of your writing, effectively wield irony, alliteration and other literary devices for the good all who read your work. Try to write something that makes you smile! When I can see an author’s love of words in what he or she writes, I get excited.

Don’t underestimate the value of “fun” as a writer. When you’re in a rut, it shows. When you play it safe, your readers know it. But when you experiment, you’re more creative and engaging (even if the only person who knows about your experiments is you).

Write more better: read!

There are certain authors whose books are about as much fun for me to read as chewing glass. Some are written so poorly that, in my cynical moments, I wonder whether their authors are functionally illiterate or simply hate words. Most of these are written by pastors and academics, sadly.

There are several reasons for this: some, while being very well-spoken, lack writing skills (they’re only being published because they have a big church). But others either don’t read or read too much of the wrong types of books.

And so comes today’s tip for becoming a better writer:

Tip 3: Read. A lot!

Write more better tip 3

This advice is well-known, particularly to those familiar with Stephen King’s On Writing, or Douglas Wilson’s Wordsmithy. Both are strong advocates of writers being readers:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” King writes. “There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of.”

“Go for total tonnage, and read like someone who will forget most of it … Most of what is shaping you in the course of your reading you will not be able to remember,” Wilson likewise encourages. “The fact that you can’t remember things doesn’t mean that you haven’t been shaped by them.”

Both advocate reading in terms of sheer volume, but another concern needs to be raised: variety.

Writers—especially Christian writers—desperately need to vary their reading. I’ve never really had a problem reading a lot, but I have frequently had issues varying the genres I read. It’s easy, especially when one writes a lot of contemporary theological issues or reviews books written with Christians in mind, to get stuck reading only books of that sort. This was me up until a couple of years ago when my friend and colleague, Amber, called me out on it and challenged me to start reading fiction again, which I’ve been doing increasingly ever since.

What’s been fun for me in reengaging fiction, beyond enjoying good storytelling, has been looking at how authors are using words–the emotions they’re trying to convey, the response they’re encouraging, what they’re doing to keep me following along and interested… This is really helpful from a practical standpoint (as well as being a lot of fun).

Some may read this and object, saying, “But I don’t like fiction.” Okay. My wife is right there with you. Try it anyway. But try the right stuff. Go to your public library, for goodness’ sake. Ask for recommendations on Facebook or Twitter. Heck, read the blog post I’ll write on this sometime next week! But even if you never want to write fiction, you should still read it. It’ll make your non-fiction work better.

To be fair, being a reader doesn’t make one a writer. Many people read a great deal yet still cannot string together a coherent sentence (without the help of a well-paid ghostwriter). Regardless, while not all readers are writers, exceptional writers are readers.

Write more better: be coachable

I’ve never met a good writer who has it all figured out. The best I know are eager for feedback. This isn’t because they love having their egos stroked, but because they want to get better at what they do. As much fun as praise is—I mean, who doesn’t love reading an encouraging comment (they’re not just an urban legend!) or a thoughtful review of a book you’ve written?—it doesn’t help you become a stronger writer.

For that, you need thoughtful critique. And you also need humility in order to learn from it. Which takes us to the second tip in our quest to become better writers:

Tip 2: be coachable.

write more better tip 2

Being coachable is primarily an issue of character. It means being humble enough to evaluate oneself honestly and to receive instruction and correction where needed. As a writer, there are several groups you must be willing to hear from:

Editors. One of the most difficult moments of writing my second book was when my editor told me, “What you’ve said is right and good and true, but you’re losing focus. I need you to re-work it.” Hearing this, I was disheartened. After all, I’d put in a ton of work already, and the idea of more wasn’t terribly appealing (since I was trying to avoid a season of writing from after dinner until 1 am). But the criticism was bang-on. So, I got to work and we wound up with a better book as a result.

Why do I share this? Because good editors are your best friends. They’re there to help you sharpen your words and ideas, and help steer you back in the right direction when you’re going off on a rabbit trail. Listen to them!

Audience. Yes, our writing is “for” us, but it’s also for other people (or else, we would keep diaries instead of blogs). My favorite moments here have been receiving constructive criticism in a comment and taking that as an opportunity to revisit what I’ve written (this happened last week, in fact). An engaged audience is really helpful to learn where you’re lacking clarity, making a weak argument or a strong point. Listen to them!

Peers. This is a funny group, because they sometimes act as our editors (informally), other times they are a part of our audience, and a lot of the time they’re simply there to help us push through a block or work out an idea. They’re also really great at providing hard critique in a way that doesn’t crush your spirit. Listen to them!

But the ability to listen to any of these really comes down to your character. You can “hear” what’s said and not do anything with it, but your writing will suffer for it. But if you can be humble and learn from the critique (or outright criticism) you receive, and act on it, you’ll be much better off.

Write more better: write simply

Most of my training has come on the job. I didn’t go to school for journalism or anything like that. I wasn’t a writer until I was one, and I didn’t plan on being one at all. So, when I’m asked the question, “How do I get better at writing,” I feel a little embarrassed. This is not because I don’t know what to say, but because I often feel like I’m making it up as I go along (even when I’m not).

I’m kicking off a new blog series called Write more better: Unoriginal (but helpful!) tips for writing well. Over the course of the next few days, I’ll be sharing a few tips I’ve found helpful on the journey to being a writer. If you’re in the same boat I was a few years ago, or are just looking for some advice on how to write well, I hope you’ll find this series helpful.

Alright, let’s get started.

Tip 1: Write simply.

write more better tip 1

What do I mean by “write simply”?

Three things: Avoid technical language. Keep your sentences simple. Don’t be a show-off:

Avoid technical jargon

Now, there are times when technical jargon or other big words are unavoidable. When it is, we should bring clarity by explaining what they mean. But any time we can avoid jargon, we should. Often, we use jargon not because we must, but because it’s convenient. This does a disservice to our readers and paints us as being a bit lazy.

Keep your sentences simple

While there are appropriate levels of complexity, overly-complicated sentences tends to suggest we don’t know what we’re doing.

Take this sentence for example:

A chief programmatic outcome is to ensure beneficiaries have developed sufficient relational skills to thrive.

I’m sure you can figure out what I’m saying here, but there are easier ways to write it. If I were writing with simplicity in mind, it might look a little more like this::

We are going to teach people how to make friends because it’s important.

The first makes you die a little on the inside. The second actually tells you something.

Don’t be a show-off

The best way to summarize this point is as follows:don’t use “utilize” when “use” will do.

I hate people using the word “utilize.” Just hearing the word is like fingernails running down a chalkboard, something that amuses my coworkers greatly. While I don’t believe most people mean it this way, using unnecessary big words often comes across as showing off. You’re trying to impress us with your vocabulary, but you’re really only making yourself look silly.

Five things I’ve learned from five years of blogging

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So it’s been a couple years since I last wrote a state of the blog type piece and I figured I’m overdue, especially since five years ago today, in a moment of sheer madness and desperation, I hit the publish button on a WordPress blog. Five years later, I’m still hitting publish (and some days, it still feels like a bit of madness and desperation involved).

So in honor of the blog’s fifth anniversary, I thought I’d share five things I’ve learned along the way:

Controversy is boring. I’ve said it many, many times, but it’s worth repeating: controversy might get a lot of traffic, but it’s boring to write about. Honestly, I don’t know how the watchblogger types do it. Honestly, I think I’d go nuts if I only wrote about what stupid thing some yahoo who thinks too highly of himself did this week. Sometimes controversy is unavoidable, but only when it’s coming at you like a multi-car pileup on the highway. If you’ve got time to hit the brakes, do.

Breaks really, really matter. Fairly early on, I set August as the month where I’d take a break from blogging (it started as a week and expanded from there). Taking a break helps clear the head and give you fresh perspective—which, when you write daily, you really, really need.

Interacting with others is fun. Not every post has to be a 100 percent original thought. My favorite times are when I’m engaging with something I’ve read and working through the implications in my own life. This is one of my favorite (recent) examples. Whether it’s another blogger’s post, a news story or a passage from a book, this has been some of the most rewarding writing for me.

Encouraging spouses are the best. My wife is a big help around here. She regularly listens to me ramble on about an idea I’ve got, gives feedback when I’m working on a post, suggests topics to write on. Occasionally, she even writes something herself, too! If Emily weren’t supportive of what I’m doing, I’d probably have to quit.

Followers and stats don’t equal influence. Whether you’ve got 20 or 20,000 readers, five followers or 5000 on Twitter, or two friends or 2000 fans on Facebook, influence isn’t about numbers. Influence has far more to do with what’s happened as a result of what you’ve written, rather than how many times someone potentially saw it. Most of the time you never hear what’s come from it, but every so often you get a comment or an email. And when you get those little glimpses, it’s a great time to give thanks to God.

So those are a few things I’ve learned (and relearned) over the last five years of blogging. Thanks for making it fun, friends!

 

What to remember when you change your mind about a book

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Maybe you’ve had this experience before—the thought that comes the exact moment after you hit publish:

What if I change my mind?

I’ve written a lot of book reviews over the last five years. Some books I’ve really enjoyed; others I wonder why I ever read in the first place (probably because I got them for free from one of the blog review programs). But for the most part, I’ve never felt a deep burden to go back and change a review once it’s written. Even so, every so often, the temptation strikes:

  • when a book makes its way back into the reading pile and I notice something different about it;
  • when other thoughtful reviewers raise concerns I didn’t even notice during my read through (either because I didn’t pick up on them or I was blinded by a nasty case of “fanboy-itis”); or
  • when the review simply wasn’t very well written.

So what do in these situations? Well, there are a few things you need to remember:

1. Your review is representative of your opinion at the time it was written. This is just the result of time, and (hopefully) wisdom and maturity. Opinions change, writing abilities improve, convictions either firm or soften… it just happens. And when it does, you can change what you’ve written, but it doesn’t mean you have to.

For example, some time ago, I wrote a review of N.D. Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl. The first time out, it had a few catchy lines, but it was in dire need of a polish. In all honesty, even though I loved the book (still do, too), the review itself was kind of a mess. So I decided to rewrite it and republish it.

But poorly written reviews aside, there are a number of books I’ve reviewed over the years that, honestly, I don’t think I was hard enough on. I wasn’t asking the right questions of them, or I was filling in the gaps for myself. (Here’s one example that comes to mind.) But do I feel a burning need to revisit it? Not really. I’ve got enough on my plate to deal with than that.

2. The shelf-life is short, so you probably don’t need to worry about it. Book reviews tend to be very (VERY) time sensitive, and because so many books are published each week, the book you might have been sure was going to be life-changing may be collecting dust in a remainder bin right now. So if you wrote a review and you feel like you gaffed on it, you probably don’t need to sweat it. it’s likely no one’s reading it these days, anyway.

3. It’s never too late to publish a retraction or clarification. This really comes down to a matter of conscience. If you wrote a glowing review for one of Joel Osteen’s books and have recognized the error of your ways, it’s okay to fix it. If you wrote a particularly harsh review of a book that, after some more time and maybe an additional read, you realize wasn’t so bad, it’s alright to say so.

In other words, it’s never too late to say, “In 2011, I wrote that I believe Real Marriage was more good than bad. Upon careful consideration since reviewing the book, I no longer believe this to be true.”1

Changing our minds is simply part of life. Sooner or later, it’s going to happen to you. So enjoy it when it happens. Leave what should be left alone, alone. Change what needs to be changed. Just make sure you don’t lose any sleep over it.

Links I like

What Do Protestants Protest?

R.C. Sproul Jr:

Sadly in our day, not much of anything. Luther, of course, began the Reformation by posting his 95 theses. His chief concern was the sale of indulgences. Underscoring that concern were two principle concerns—the singular authority of the Bible, and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Luther, along with the other magisterial Reformers, argued that the Bible is our alone ultimate authority in binding our conscience with respect to our faith and practice. It denied that the church provided either a compelling interpretation of the Bible, or a second source of infallible information.

The Power of the Word

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bPXGupb0d8

Kindle deals for Christian readers

Be sure to check out this weekend’s list as many are ending today!

Too Big Not To Fail

Jared Wilson:

Like the Babelists, we build our towers, not knowing the great dangerous irony — that the stronger we get, the more vulnerable we become. The fall is prefaced by pride. The split second before the great collapse is the proudest we’ve ever been.

The lesson appears plain: if you really want to fall, get big.

The danger of a how-to

Timothy Raymond:

Somewhere along the way, evangelicals embraced a different definition of what makes a Christian. While we once defined a Christian as someone who confesses the gospel and gives reasonable evidence thereunto, we slowly, imperceptibly but eventually, concluded that a Christian is someone who strives to follow Christian ethics. The entire ‘Christian’ core shifted from those who embrace the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints to those who live a certain lifestyle. And given this redefinition, I was being too hard on the Roman Catholics. “If my good Catholic neighbour attends church every week, reads his Bible, sings the same doxology we sing, opposes abortion, and supports traditional marriage, does it really matter if he thinks Jesus’ body is literally present during the Lord’s Supper?” I suspect the vast majority of our church members would answer in the negative.

Critical thinking is good for your soul

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

There’s a line I shared in my little eBook on how to write book reviews that goes like this:

“Brothers and sisters, we are not to be sycophants. Don’t write a review that sounds like it was written by one.”

I want to take a bit of time today to expand on that a little more.

One of the mistakes I see less experienced bloggers make—which, by the way is a really bizarre statement to make (when did I become one of the more experienced bloggers??)—is always writing positive reviews. They seem to be wowed by every single book they read!

Now, I know there are some bloggers who only write reviews of books they like, and that’s fine, if your genuine, heartfelt conviction is you only want to talk about books you unabashedly love. But honestly, I can’t go there. Why?

Because critical thinking is good for your soul—and it’s a skill we sorely lack in our culture, Christian and otherwise. The Bible calls critical thinking “discernment,” which is referred to as both a discipline and a spiritual gift. Basically the idea is being able to identify truth from error, and doing so requires effort. It’s like exercising. The more consistently you do it, the stronger your muscles get, and the more your endurance increases.

So what do you need to do? The best way to know how to identify truth from error is to know the truth really, really well. So you read your Bible, you study it diligently. You work hard at this.

But then you need to put it into practice. There are two ways I do this: the first is I periodically read books I know I’m unlikely to align with theologically (such as A Year of Biblical Womanhood or Love Wins). This allows me to both test my own assumptions as well as think through the arguments and implications of other works. The goal, particularly when reading a book like this for review purposes, is to develop a balanced, helpful critique.

The other way I put it into practice is by, as I explained in the eBook, treating the author as secondary to the message. This is especially important when reading someone you like. Because you’ve got your own biases at work, you’ve got to be diligent to push through and not assume—whether because the author is a personal friend or an influential figure you admire from afar—what’s being written should be given a pass. Doing so is both dishonoring to the author’s intentions1 and damaging to you as a Christian. Thinking critically about the material from trusted sources has allowed me to dig into my own assumptions in a way that even reading opposing views doesn’t.

This was certainly the case when reviewing Why Cities Matter, which actually helped me to focus my views on urban ministry a little more definitively (in that I’m now far less comfortable saying we should focus on urban contexts at the expense of rural ones in order to “reach the culture”). Driscoll’s new book helped me work out my views on video preaching and think about the implications of a teaching pastor divorced from the body.

Finally, moving beyond the personal, there’s the benefit to those reading the review: when you read a critical review, you’re seeing a model of how to think critically. When I write a critical review, I don’t want you to just know what I think, I want you to see how I got there. I want you to see how I think and use what’s helpful in your own thinking.

Obviously I’m not advocating slamming books for the sake of slamming them. And I don’t want anyone to feel bad about writing predominantly positive reviews. What I am advocating for is careful, consistent, thoughtful discernment. A little good ole fashioned critical thinking is good for the soul, both your own and your reader’s.

How to write a great book review

“How do you write a great book review?”

I have a love-hate relationship with this question. It’s wonderful to see that people want to know how to do this, and it’s a real privilege that they seem to enjoy mine enough to want to know how I write mine. But—and there’s always a but, isn’t there?—I always feel like a bit of a fraud when I get asked. You see, I have a confession:

Most everything I know about writing good reviews, I learned from other bloggers.

That’s why I’ve put together this new little eBook, How to Write a Great Book Review.

This book isn’t intended to be “how to write a review like Aaron Armstrong.” Honestly, I don’t believe I’m pretentious enough to say that my reviews are always worth emulating (at least, I hope I’m not!). Instead, I want you take the principles I’ve learned over the last several years from writing a couple hundred different reviews, work them into your own routine and go to town!

Download a copy of How to Write a Great Book Review.

But it’s not just my advice you’ll read here: a short while before diving into this project, I asked a few of my friends in the blogging community to offer up some of their best advice for book reviewers. Their advice is worth far more than anything I can offer on my own, so I’m grateful for their contributions.

I hope you find the book helpful. Enjoy!

The Dos and Don’ts of Book Reviews (or at least how I do them)

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while has probably noticed I do a lot of book reviews, typically one per week. Recently I was asked about how I do book reviews—do I have a general guideline or process, or is approach different every time?

I tried to give a short, 140 character response, but realized that it wasn’t enough, because, frankly, “yes” is an insufficient answer.

So, for better or for worse, here’s a look into my reviewing process:

General Precepts

1. Read with the intention of reviewing. This might seem like a “duh,” but I read a lot material for a variety of purposes, and it’s not always about reviewing. Knowing I’m going to review it forces me to make sure I’m paying careful attention to what is written.

2. The “who” is less important than the “what.” Whenever I’m reading an author I genuinely enjoy, it’s easy to simply just say “I like it,” without necessarily considering what’s been written. Whether it’s MacArthur, Driscoll, Piper, Sproul, Chan or whoever is the cat’s meow, it’s important to not let preference for the person dictate approval (or disapproval) of the content. (Side note, brownie points to the person who can tell me if I used the correct form of “whoever/whomever.” :))

3. Don’t fill-in-the-blanks. When someone writes a very…ambiguous book, it’s tempting to start filling-in-the-blanks with my own theological presuppositions. A lot of books that don’t stand up against even the most rudimentary understanding of Scripture have been embraced by many evangelicals. This is why.

4. Acknowledge my biases. Similarly, I need to be aware (as best as I’m able) of my own biases and predispositions. This will reflect how I approach books by authors I don’t enjoy or who I know hold to a different theological position than I do.

5. Try to be humble. Everybody goofs sometimes. Not everyone who says something stupid is a heretic. And not everything I think is wrong actually is. Something I am continually to do (with varying degrees of success) is acknowledge that I can make mistakes and when I do, I need to be corrected. This, incidentally, is why comments can be helpful.

Guiding Questions

1. What is the main idea the author is trying to convey? Can I figure out what the big idea of the book is and articulate it in one or two sentences?

2. How does the author support his/her idea(s)? Scripture, tradition, history, illustrations from real life examples… every point made needs to be backed up with something. If it’s nothing more than “I think,” chances are, it’s wrong.

3. How does the author handle Scripture (if reading a Christian book)? How an author approaches Scripture is an indicator of their trustworthiness.

4. Do I agree with the author’s main idea? Why or why not?  Can I support my position with appropriate Scripture? In the same way that an author’s assertions must be tested against Scripture , so too must my assessments. If my position cannot be supported by Scripture, it must be rejected.

5. What difference does it make? While there are always some things that you read for which you don’t have an immediate practical application, the question of “what difference does it make in my life” is essential for why determining whether or not to recommend a book.

So that pretty much covers it. I’m sure I could come back to this later today and add a few other items. But if you’re interested in the process of reviewing books (or at least how I do it), I hope today’s post has been helpful!