Eliminate Weak Writing

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

In my February 16 post, Five (Plus One) Tips for Flawless Copy, I suggested not doing any copy editing until a first draft is completely written. Once you’ve got all your material and have checked all your facts, you’re ready to go through your manuscript more slowly and carefully, checking for basic punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes, but also looking for less obvious but common problems writers often trip over.

Hunt down and eliminate words or phrases that are. . .

Meaningless

Instead of “At this point in time,” say “now.” You can almost always delete these words: really, very, actually, suddenly, and currently.

I’ve started to reduce my use of the word “that” but be careful about omitting it completely. Sometimes the word  is necessary for the rhythm or logic of a sentence.

Redundant and superfluous (see what I did there?)

This should be, you know, blatantly obvious but, sadly, it isn’t. Avoid overstatements such as “catastrophic disaster,” “close proximity,” and “plan in advance.” Another cringe-worthy example is “free gift.” Isn’t a gift, by definition, free? All novels are fiction. All surprises are unexpected.

Also be careful when phrasing actions. For example, “He shrugged his shoulders” or “He nodded his head.” Only shoulders can shrug and only heads can nod.

Ambiguous

“Child killers should be locked up.” Are you talking about children who kill or people who kill children? Reading your work back to yourself s-l-o-w-l-y will help you catch phrasing that might be awkward or easily misinterpreted.

Lacklustre (particularly verbs)

In Words Fail Me, Patricia T. O’Connor writes: “Find an interesting verb and the rest of the sentence will practically take care of itself.” Avoid these:

  • Passive verbs – Instead of “That car was bought by Janice,” write “Janice bought that car.”
  • Equating verbs – Instead of “This action is a denial of human rights,” write “This action denies human rights.”
  • “Making” verbs – Instead of “That experience made me a stronger person,” write “That experience strengthened me.”
  • Verbs that need nouns – Instead of “He gained entrance,” write “He entered.”
  • Verbs that need adverbs – Instead of “He ran quickly,” write “He sprinted.”
  • Verbs that make dialogue awkward – It’s not a rule that you can’t replace “said” with a verb that encapsulates a character’s full response (for example: “I’m glad to hear that,” she smiled.) but don’t overdo it. Use “said” whenever possible because it fades into the background and doesn’t jar the reader.

Descriptive instead of declarative

Every writer has heard it: Show, don’t tell. Sometimes a reminder helps. Show a character’s emotions by his actions instead of telling the reader how he feels or relying on adjectives. Instead of “Roger was very, very angry,” say, “Roger slammed his palm onto the table. The coffee mug fell off the edge and shattered. He didn’t notice.”

Good writing is as much about the words you take out as the words you put in.

What are some other tips you’d add to this list? Please comment below!

Point at Things

When you write, you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.

Steven Pinker

Step 1: Wonder at something.

Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you.

Point at things, say, “whoa,” and elaborate.

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

Five (Plus One) Tips for Flawless Copy

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

If you want to play the trombone professionally, you need to work at it. If you want to cut hair, make furniture, or sell insurance, you need to learn how.

Writing is a craft that, like any other, you must learn well and get better at. Yes, natural talent and creativity play a part, but if you want people to take your writing seriously, pursue excellence.

Here are my top tips for submitting a polished manuscript every time.

1. Get it on the page.

When you bake a cake, you dump all the ingredients in first. You don’t start to decorate the cake until it’s baked and cooled down.

In the same way, resist the urge to copy edit until after your piece is completely written. You may need to refine the content as you go, but don’t waste time correcting sentences or paragraphs you might later delete. (In fact, if you aren’t close to deadline, let your writing sit for a while. Putting some distance between yourself and what you just wrote can give you perspective.)

You can’t edit what you haven’t written, so put your first burst of energy into writing. Get it all down, as much as possible, even if it sounds lousy. Once it’s all on the page, you can start to clean it up.

2. Relax your grip.

When you’re ready to edit, put aside any affection you have for your manuscript. Don’t keep a sentence or paragraph just because you think it’s brilliant or it took you hours to write. If it doesn’t fit in, take it out. Read your work with the eyes and ears of a stranger.

3. Fact-check.

Fact check and then double-check your fact-checking. Editors don’t like finding out they published wrong information. Save everyone embarrassment and frustration by checking numbers, geography, name spellings, titles, dates, and references.

4. Watch sentence and paragraph lengths.

The energy of a written piece is often directly related to the length of its sentences and paragraphs.  So if you’re dozing off while proofreading, consider those factors.

If a sentence takes up more than two lines of type, shorten it. It should not contain more than one idea. Express the central idea first. If necessary, use separate sentences to include other significant points. Same thing with paragraphs: Make your most important point at the beginning of the paragraph.

The traditional approach is one theme per paragraph. That’s generally a good idea but sometimes a new paragraph can emphasize a point in the previous one, it can indicate a change in time or place, or simply break up text that is getting too dense.

Paragraphs are visual punctuation. Your paragraphs should not look bigger than a hamburger. On average, look at 100 to 200 words, but sprinkle in shorter or longer ones as necessary, which helps avoid monotony and making the reader’s eyes glaze over. For example, opening and concluding paragraphs might be shorter, and topics that need serious and in-depth discussion might be longer.

5. Crosscheck before take-off.

Read through your story one last time while comparing it to the details laid out in your assignment or contract. Tie up loose ends, submit your manuscript to God and then submit it to your editor. (On time!)

Remember that these five tips won’t make up for copy that’s shoddy. I’ll talk about eliminating weak writing (that’s the “plus one” promised in the title) in my next post (on March 2).

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Five “I”s for Finding Stories

by Chris Maxwell

Debbie and I smiled at friends as we walked out of the church. We enjoyed the conversations in the cool November air. One of our friends informed us that the pecans falling from trees beside the church were ours if we wanted them. So, we began picking up pecans. My mind imagined a pie. Debbie’s mind focused on gifts for family.

Things changed quickly. As we worked, Debbie said, “What’s that?” She was watching what looked like a squirrel competing with us for the pecans. The more we looked, the larger the animal appeared to be. I walked closer as the creature climbed a pecan tree. If that was a squirrel, it was bigger than any I had seen in my years of disliking squirrels stealing food from our bird feeders.

I got close. Very close. The animal sat on the tree limb as we stared at each other. It didn’t have a mobile device. I did—I used it to take pictures, search the web, and ask a friend to come back to tell me what type of squirrel we had seen.

Our new friend? A fox squirrel. I posted pictures on social media. We all had pecans; I had a story.

Where are the stories?

Writers often struggle to find stories. Before we type nouns and verbs, before we reveal illustrations and key points, we search for stories. But where are they? In our hurry to find quality stories that have the potential to reach an audience, where do we spot them?

Stories are everywhere. Nearby. Far away. As writers, our job—and our privilege—is to notice them, craft them, present them. The stories are all around us, though we often miss the fox squirrel desperately chasing our pecans.

One place to trace stories is through IMAGES. We live in an image-driven world, so images shouldn’t be hard to detect. They stare back from our screens and devices. They rush through videos crafted to keep our attention. They sit in paper for those of us who still enjoy magazines.

We don’t always need to be staring at a screen. Look out the window. See the clouds as they ride through the sky. Pictures convey actions, feelings, experiences. See them. Stay there. Stare there. Stories are waiting.

Another way to discover stories is through IMAGINATION. Our brains can serve as tour guides into realms we will never visit. Mentally, we can go there. Listen for sounds. Look. Breathe. Hear the bird chirping? What is that smell? Roses? Do you see them? Who needs a rose from you? What is their story?

I have written for one company for three decades. They assign fictional stories as devotionals. So, I let the brain begin its tasks. Regions of my brain artistically reveal scenes. Nonfictional conversations merge with unreal narratives. Knowledge and encounters manifest as bizarre blends of actions. Stories emerge. They have been waiting there all along. We must give them time to wonder, to adjust, to merge, to mingle.

In my book Pause with Jesus I didn’t just read and study the stories. I imagined being in the stories. In the story, you need to write this week, imagine. Give yourself time to imagine.

INTERVIEWS also help us transform life experiences into stories. Engaging in conversations to begin crafting stories can be thrilling opportunities. They can also be intimidating. Choose to see the positive side. Ask open-ended questions. Listen well—remembering we have one mouth, but two eyes and two ears. Search for stories behind the stories.

I recently wrote an article about someone’s pain and grief. The original plan changed as I interviewed this person. The editor and I knew enough of their story to interest us, but we didn’t know the deeper part of the story that would appeal to a larger audience. One of their answers took me into streets I didn’t expect to travel. Those roads revealed portions I didn’t know existed.

Ghostwriting book projects taught me deeper ways to find stories in the interviews. My role as a pastoral counselor has helped me in this; those I am interviewing are not only providing information. They are telling stories they desperately need to tell. I must listen. Then I must write.

A fourth way to find our fox squirrels around all the leaves and pecans is through INTERRUPTIONS. Welcome interruptions.

When a dog barked, her high volume interrupted my planned thoughts. I struggled to get my mind back on track, but the bark continued playing in my head. It turned into a story—not about disliking dogs, not about the cause of a bark being hunger or hurt, not about frustration. The interruption became a story about grief—remembering a friend’s dog that died. The interruption became a story about how life is bursting with disruptions. Though annoying, they can teach us lessons. Though disturbing, that can distract us into a track for a story we otherwise would have never found.

Some of my best received blog entrees and stories originated with interruptions. Though we need to distance ourselves from distractions when writing, we shouldn’t always push aside that news alert. We shouldn’t always shake our heads amid commotion. We should sneak in and find a story.

Another way we can find stories is through INTERSECTIONS. Junctures of life barrage us with stories. We cross with age. We shift with grief. We turn during times of career change or health change or financial change or political change or international change or emotional change. We aren’t alone on those intersections. Others travel there. Others are stopped there, seeking solutions. My friend writing about his wife’s death—he has a story from that intersection. My friend writing about his move to a foreign land for mission work—he has a story from that intersection.

Good stories need intriguing take-aways. Those found in the intersections of life bring those to types of stories to us. Though uncomfortable at times, these intersections might be your most stimulating stories. Notice them. Write them.

I can still remember the first time I attended an Evangelical Press Association convention. I sat at a lunch with an editor who knew of my writing because of curriculum I had written. He listened to my ideas for his magazine. He was nice, but I could tell none of my concepts thrilled him. Our conversation continued as we told personal stories. When he found out my brother-in-law was a major league catcher, his facial expression changed. He asked me to write about that. I did—using images, imagination, interviews, interruptions, and intersections. It became their cover story. It was my first of many articles with them.

Let these five trails aid you in finding a few pecans. Let them also help you notice the fox squirrels of life. Those are the stories. Look at them. Stare as they glare back. Sit with them. Study, observe, and learn from their climbs and jumps. Notice their belligerent pursuit of pecans, their stillness when seeking to convince you they’re not there at all.

Readers are waiting to see a fox squirrel as they eat a few pecans. Craft your story to take them there.

Chris Maxwell served 19 years as lead pastor in Orlando, Florida, after five years of youth ministry. He’s now in his 15th year as Campus Pastor and Director of Spiritual Life at Emmanuel College. He speaks in churches, conventions, and schools, and is the author of ten books, including Pause With Jesus, Underwater, and a slow and sudden God: 40 years of wonder. His latest book is his 2nd collection of poems—embracing now: pain, joy, healing, living.

Highlight Reel

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

A couple of years ago, this blog was just a gleam in our eye (which sometimes made me wonder if I needed to clean my glasses yet again) so it’s exciting to look back over the last year of activity on the Christian Freelance Writers Network blog. We weren’t sure whether it would take off and now we’ve already got material lined up for our readers for the next few months, so we’re not even close to running out of posts to share with you!

Some of you are new to this blog, so you may have missed the earlier posts. Today, to celebrate CFWN’s first anniversary, I’m going to highlight several posts you shouldn’t miss (or might want to revisit). Click on the titles to read the posts.

In no particular order…

The Best Way to Be Creative (It Involves Coffee) by Anita K. Palmer

As writers we tend to work in isolation. An original idea, though, most often does not come in a lightbulb moment. No “eureka!” Good ideas need a community.

5 Tips to Enrich Your Pitch by Randy Petersen

Is our breadth keeping us from finding a successful niche? Is our desire to be everything to everyone keeping us from being anything to anyone?

Three Essential Qualities by Jen Taggart

Having cerebral palsy has helped me to develop empathy, problem-solving skills, and humor. These three qualities are essential for anyone to have, especially a freelancer.

Pursue Excellence, Not Perfection by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

When we breathe God into the things we create and produce—when we do what we do with love and humility and generosity—we raise them from the level of “good” to “very good.”

5 Questions to Ask Before You Challenge Your Editor by Michael Foust

Imagine, for a moment, that your story is a triage unit, and you’re determining which patients need the most help.

Is Writing a Spiritual Gift? by Joyce K. Ellis

Just as some pastor-teachers use their gift in large congregations, others at racetracks, and others in children’s work, some of us use ours in print.

Ten “Its” for Writing Well by Stephen R. Clark

For many, writing well in a compressed period of time seems impossible. But you can write quickly and write well. 

Thank you for following our blog! We’d love it if you shared it with your writing friends, students, and groups.

P.S. To find more writing and freelancing tips, use the “Categories” or “Past Posts” lists on the right to access our archives.

Word Play

by Randy Petersen

My first job out of college was editing prayer letters for a mission agency. I admired the missionaries who penned these epistles, but most of them weren’t writers.

During one lazy afternoon at my desk, I tried an experiment. Taking a letter that was badly overwritten, I applied all the Strunk & White guidelines. No passives. Verbs over nouns. Few adjectives. Short sentences. I managed to cut the verbiage in half.

While it was better than the rambling document I started with, it seemed stark, robotic.

I tried again, this time going halfway on those improvement measures.  I allowed some verbs of being and passive constructions. The best modifiers got to stay. If compound sentences tumbled down in an orderly manner, I looked the other way.

This turned out to be the best version of the day.

Learning to Read

Eight years later, I got a freelance job editing books for a literacy project. The publisher gave me two rules: no word more than two syllables and no sentence more than fourteen words. This seemed arbitrary to me, especially the syllables. I could use rhythm, which seems difficult for a novice reader, but not harmonica, which could be easily sounded out. Yet those were the rules and they paid me to follow them.

Despite my initial objections, I found it a great training experience. Through this project, I honed my ability to write simply and clearly. I recommend it as an exercise for you. Could you take a paragraph you’ve written and rewrite it with these two rules? Is the result better or worse? I’m not suggesting this is the way to write everything, but it might give you the ability to tighten your style when you need to.

An Editor’s Wisdom

Let me fast-forward a few more years to an extremely helpful interaction with an editor—though I wasn’t too crazy about it at the time. The editor, whose name was Tim (one of the few details I recall about the incident), asked me for a rewrite of something, and I was initially shocked. My pride kicked in. A professional writer for more than a decade, I had developed a crisp style that many editors liked. It wasn’t weighed down with academic ostentation or religious jargon. And I had learned a lot from that literacy project: compact words in tight sentences.

Tim dared to tell me that my writing was punchy. Noun-verb. Noun-verb. One short sentence after another. I had prided myself on a punchy style—more journalistic than devotional, I thought—but Tim was right. Punchy prose makes readers feel that they’re getting punched. It’s not enjoyable to read.

“Change it up,” Tim said. “Vary your rhythm. A long sentence can be clear if its ideas are in order. And the variation can create a pleasant reading experience.”

The Adams Family

One more stop on this journey of discovery.  Today. I’m working on a project now, creating a collection of material quoted from American Christians of the last four centuries. It’s a fascinating study in styles of communication and how they’ve changed. In general, writers of the past were far more verbose than their modern counterparts. I can’t rewrite these quotations, but I can cut them off when they start to wander. (Ellipses are such wonderful tools!)

But my overwhelming impression about previous generations of wordsmiths is that they loved to write. Abigail Adams took five sentences to tell her husband what I could edit down to one, but clearly she was having a great time finding different ways to make her point. For her, and for many in past centuries, writing was not merely a conduit for ideas; it was a sport, an art, a pastime. Writing was their YouTube.

So maybe it’s okay to use a five-dollar word once in a while—for the fun of it. Maybe a run-on sentence could reflect something delightful about my state of mind. Maybe there’s a pleasing rhythm in a well-turned sentence. Maybe I can forget the rules once in a while and just play.

Fly a Little

The brilliant Joyce Ellis wrote a great piece in this space recently urging us to tighten up on verbal constructions that are redundant or unnecessarily wordy. She is absolutely right. Tight language keeps the reader’s energy with you, and it can free up space elsewhere in your writing (especially if you’re on a word count).

But good writing is not always short writing. Sometimes you need to spread your wings and fly. Have fun with it, and bring your readers along. Let your sentences be as long as they need to be, as we celebrate our delight in this gift of language.

Write Tight

by Joyce K. Ellis

Sitting in a face-to-face conference appointment with a highly revered writer, I trembled as she silently read my devotional article. I clutched my notebook like a shield over my heart, awaiting her reaction.

“This is good,” she said. “I think it’s publishable. Tighten and polish and send it off.”

Ecstatic, I found refuge in a nearby restroom for a quick thank-You-Lord session. Then I realized I didn’t have a clue what she meant by “tighten and polish.” I’ve spent the rest of my career figuring that out.

With shrinking publisher budgets and reader attention spans, we can increase our publishing quotient if we learn to economize with words. Here are a few “cutting” reminders.

Stay Focused

Begin with the big picture. What is the purpose of your nonfiction piece? Write, in one sentence, what it will say (not what it’s about). For example, not this: My article is about how we can strengthen our prayer lives. But something like this: We can strengthen our prayer lives by learning the art of worship, learning the importance of a pure heart, and learning the practice of praying without ceasing. By the way, those would make great subheads.

I call this an article-in-a-nutshell sentence. Does each sentence, paragraph, anecdote, quotation, and statistic support the article’s focus?

Similarly, write a book-in-a-nutshell sentence for your novel and each chapter. Is every action, dialogue exchange, and setting description essential to that scene’s purpose? If not, cut it. (But save it in another file. You may be dumpster-diving for ideas someday and find a way to recycle what you discarded.)

Eliminate Redundancy

Once we shape the big picture, we can start hacking away at smaller pieces of “deadwood,” such as these redundancies:

  • ecstatic with joy. Could we be ecstatic with sadness? Ecstatic is sufficient.
  • down through the long centuries. All centuries consist of exactly one hundred years, none longer than another. Through the centuries will do.
  • mischievous grin on her face. Where else would she be wearing it?
  • She nodded yes, or he shook his head no.

When noting this last redundancy in workshops, I say, “Look at me.” I nod. “This means yes, right?” Then I shake my head. “This means no, right? So we don’t need the yes and no.”

Note: Axing a word here and there can leave room in our word count to develop our theme better.  

Pick One

Writing flows better with wise word choices. Often we use too many words, trying to ensure readers understand, and we wind up sounding like the Amplified Bible. That reference work provides unique insights, but it’s awkward to read.

So, painstakingly pick the best word. Here’s an example: Through Christ we experience the joy and delight of our salvation.

How much difference is there between joy and delight? When you find other multiple-choice synonyms, such as sins and transgressions or sadness and sorrow, in your writing, I hope you’ll hear my little bell-like voice in your head, chiming, “Pick one.”

Streamline

Wordiness tires readers. Keep them engaged by streamlining expressions such as these:

Wordy: Diane inquired as to his reason for coming. [8 words]

Streamlined: Diane asked why he came.[5 words]

Wordy: Jesus often used stories as an effective means of making abstract truths understandable. [13 words]

Streamlined: Jesus often used stories to make abstract truths understandable. [9 words] Or …to clarify abstract truths. [8 words]

Wordy: We need to take time to reflect on what we read. As we do this, we will receive new insights into what God has to say to us. [28 words]

Streamlined: As we reflect on what we read, God will provide new insights. [12 words]

Note: If you want to emphasize taking time, you might retain that part. However, reflecting implies taking time.

Though I’m mathematically challenged, I believe we have saved twenty-three words in these few examples. That offers another sentence or two to develop an important point elsewhere. We don’t want to change the nuance, but such streamlining can enhance precision.

Restructure Prepositional Phrases

Prepositional phrases can also indicate places to simplify. For example, we wouldn’t write the favorite planet of Janet. We’d turn it into a possessive: Janet’s favorite planet.

But when a proper noun isn’t involved, we often miss an opportunity to write tight. Note these examples:

Original: opportunity for self-advancement

Restructured: self-advancement opportunity

Original: her address in London

Restructured: her London address

Original: tablets of stone

Restructured: stone tablets

Little by little, we whittle and whittle—tightening our writing.

Write Lean

Often we ease into a statement instead of hitting it dead on, even in fiction.

Wordy: Michael decided to get even with the bully.

The decision isn’t the important thing here, so we can delete that whole sentence. In context, we will know what Michael decided when we read what he did.

Better: Michael punched the bully in the stomach.

Watch for Trigger Words

Other expressions that slow the flow include these: one of the, there is/are/were, it’s interesting to note that…. I call them trigger words because they trigger a need for “surgery.”

Surgery candidate: One of the fears many of us experience as a reality in our lives is the fear of being alone.

Healthier: Many of us fear solitude.

Surgery candidate: There are many people who have never read the Bible through.

Healthier: Many people have never read the Bible through.

Surgery candidate: It is interesting to note that God didn’t rebuke Peter when he began to sink.

Healthier: God didn’t rebuke Peter when he began to sink. (Let the reader decide whether it’s interesting or not.)

Clean Up Qualifiers

We can slash most qualifying words, such as these: very, slightly, almost, nearly, just, really, and seem to.

Ridiculous example: I just want you to know that I really don’t like to see so many qualifiers in your writing. They seem to be very distracting and almost always make meslightly nauseated.

Cleaned up: Eliminate nonessential qualifiers. They’re distracting, even sickening.

Qualifiers have a place in our language. But cut the nonessential ones.

Go on a Which Hunt

Use your manuscript search capability to find the word which (also who, whom, that)in your piece. Often they can go bye-bye:

  • conversations which are replete with stories [delete which are]
  • people whom we have known [delete whom]
  • Teenagers don’t enjoy the same activities that they did when they were younger. [delete that].

The more we read good writing, carefully edit our own work, and get peer critiques, the more ways we’ll learn to tighten and polish our writing.

Want to communicate clearly and hold reader attention? Eliminate nonessentials.

This blog post is adapted from Joyce’s book Write with Excellence 201: A lighthearted guide to the serious matter of writing well—for Christian writers, editors, and students.

The Power of Parables

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

A lion used to prowl about a field in which four oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them.

At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four.

This is one of the many short but thought-provoking fables by the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop I read as a child. It is also the source of the oft-quoted, but rarely attributed, phrase: “United we stand, divided we fall.” The fable is only 90 words long, but it sure packs a punch!

Everybody loves a good story. From the brief to the epic, fictional or true-to-life, historical or modern, there is something compelling about a well-told tale, especially if we can identify a moral in the story that we can apply to our lives. We are drawn to fables, fairy tales, legends, and parables because we’re all searching for answers to life’s questions and dilemmas, but we generally don’t want those answers given to us in the form of a sermon or lecture. Like medicine going down more easily with a spoonful of sugar, life lessons seem more palatable when they’re in the form of a story.

The Bible is not only an historical account dating back to pre-creation, but it is also a treasure trove of stories and parables that still serve a purpose. Parables, we should note, are not the same as anecdotes—they are fictional examples and not true accounts. Unlike fables, which generally feature non-human characters, they are always about hypothetical but realistic human situations. When Jesus, a master storyteller, used parables to teach spiritual lessons, he usually began with phrases such as, “There was a man…,” “A certain ruler…,” or “The kingdom of heaven is like…”

Sometimes his point came across clearly. At other times, it seemed he wanted to provoke his disciples to ask questions and dig deeper. Mind you, Jesus wasn’t the first person in the Bible to use parables. For example, in 1 Samuel 12, when King David committed a series of grievous sins, God sent the prophet Nathan to him, and Nathan used a parable—a story about a rich man who stole and killed a poor man’s lamb—to bring the king to repentance. About 120 words (in the Contemporary English Version) is all it took to get David to confess, because those words became a mirror in front of his face.

That is the power of a good story. Not only does it get the message across in a simple and relatable way, but it also makes the point stick because stories are easy to remember, especially if they stir up emotions.

Despite the vastly different genres of stories that exist today, whether we write fiction or non-fiction, the most effective ones share three key elements: characters, conflict, and resolution. From the account of Daniel in the lion’s den, to the 10th-century fairy tale about Little Red Riding Hood, to the latest episode of our favorite television show, we pay attention because we empathize with the characters and we want to see them have a happy ending.

The more we know and understand Scripture, the better we can tap into the power of story. This is true when we’re sharing our testimony of faith or explaining Scripture to others, and it’s also true when we’re writing a feature article or book.

Language and Story

by Randy Petersen

A story lurks in every sentence.

See what I did there? You probably have a dramatic image flashing in your mind right now—the story crouching under the staircase, ready to pounce.

I’ve been reading a book that is alternately confounding me, challenging me, and dazzling me. It’s deep stuff, rooted in the study of language, its nature, and its origins. I can make sense of every third sentence, which I then have to read three times—and then it blows my mind.

The book suggests that human language is built on story—more specifically, what it calls parable. We find and express meaning as we throw one observation alongside a separate context. Our brains do this so naturally, we don’t even recognize it. When I write, for instance, that “language is built on story,” I’m throwing that philological principle alongside a tale of construction. Somewhere inside my brain, and yours, there are hardhats and backhoes and cement trucks with their spinning payload pouring a story-foundation for everything else we say.

There are two directions I want to go with this. (And you may already be recognizing a story of travel in those words—perhaps I’m stopped at a traffic light with the GPS saying “turn right” and my friend in the passenger seat pointing left. Travel is a common story-thread in language. How often have you written a piece that “doesn’t go anywhere” or “ends up” where you didn’t expect?)

You might already be traveling in my first direction. I say foundation and parable, and you’re thinking about Jesus’ mini-story of houses built on rock and sand (Matthew 7:24-27). A life built on the firm foundation of Jesus’ teaching will withstand storms. So . . . how did Jesus teach? Often with stories. So if human language is built on a foundation of story (as my mind-blowing book asserts), and Jesus asks me to build my life on his own story-based teaching, can I build my writing on that foundation? Is there some way the divine story can inhabit my vocabulary, my syntax, my subject matter?

I’m not just saying, “Use nice words.” And I’m not suggesting that we ensure our writing aligns with theological principles. Quite the opposite. I’m suggesting that there are action-stories at the heart of our faith, and at the foundation of our lives. As language merchants, we can import the action of those stories—in all their vagaries, scandals, and contradictions—into our modern communication.

 Not sure exactly how to do that, though.

My second point is simply a writing tip. Find the stories in your sentences. Language wants to be active, dramatic. Treat ideas like people. Don’t just say what they are. Find out what they do. The resulting metaphors and mini-parables will energize your writing at a granular level.

I wasn’t going to tell you the name of the book, because then you’d buy it and blame me when it baffled you. But if you have the patience, it’s The Literary Mind by Mark Turner. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

A Lesson from Lizards

Run fast, stand still. This, the lesson from lizards. For all writers. . . What can we writers learn from lizards, lift from birds? In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.

Ray Bradbury (from “Run Fast, Stand Still, or, the Thing at the Top of the Stairs, or, New Ghosts from Old Minds,” in Zen in the Art of Writing)