“The Lord God gives me the right words to encourage the weary” – Isaiah 50:4
Many times I have used this verse from The Holy Bible in classes or conferences for the training of less experienced writers. My words may not always encourage the weary, but that’s always been my aim and intent – with God’s help. From time to time, this page on my author’s web site will offer various free resources and practical tips for would-be writers who have grown weary of the task. Right now at the very beginning, take that verse from the Prophet Isaiah and make it your prayer and motto. Remember, as Christian writers we don’t primarily try to write in order to become rich or famous: Instead, we try to find “the right words to encourage the weary.”
Free Tip for Writers #1:
Write what you know.
Every would-be writer has heard that well-worn piece of advice. “Don’t always be trying to write about princes and princesses, about elves and fairies, about space warriors engaged in intergalactic battles, about all those things you don’t really know very much about. Write what you know!”
That’s very good advice.
Yes, yes, I know it’s also a cliche that has been thrown at aspiring writers many times over many years. Yet that’s not a good reason for ignoring it.
You should indeed write what you know.
If you try to write what you do not
know, . . . trust me, sooner or later it will show.
Here’s the thing we often overlook: There are different ways of knowing. Or, as stated by Dr. Samuel Johnson, noted novelist and dictionary-maker of the 1700s: “Knowledge is of two kinds; we know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can get information upon it.”
You can know through first-hand experience, through seeing and hearing and feeling and tasting and smelling. You can also know through second-hand experience . . . that is, if you’re willing to work hard.
May I share briefly from my own experience as a published writer? Some of my books have been written based on first-hand experience: Winding Road, for instance, reflects in part my own childhood and youth. Good News from Indonesia tells the stories of many people I have known face to face.
More of my books, though, have been written based on second-hand experience: I’ve never made a long, stormy sea voyage like the half-Jewish teenage boy Jeftha in I Sailed with Saul of Tarsus. I’ve never suffered imprisonment for my faith like Jamie Ireland, Freedom’s Champion or like the hero of To Be the First: Adventures of Adoniram Judson, America’s First Foreign Missionary.
The big question is, can a writer make second-hand experience seem as real as first-hand experience?
That’s where the hard work comes in. You have to read and study anything and everything about a place and time and situation you’ve never experienced personally — colonial Virginia in the 1760s, for instance, or a ship adrift in the Mediterranean two thousand years ago. It isn’t enough to find dry facts, either: You need to make those facts come alive. You need to learn what people ate and wore back then. You need to work hard at imagining what they must have seen and heard and felt and tasted and smelled.
In other words, you have to work very hard to make second-hand experience seem as real to your reader as first-hand experience.
That’s the main reason why would-be writers are often told: “Write what you know.” It’s ever so much easier writing about things you have experienced first-hand, than it is trying to work and imagine your way into the experiences of others who lived long ago and far away, and to do it so successfully that what you write about them will have the ring of truth, the aroma of reality.
Maybe a better tip for aspiring writers should be worded like this: “Start out by writing what you know.”
There’ll be time enough later on to dig into the hard job of writing based on second-hand experience.
Free Tip for Writers #2:
Write at the right time.
And when (you may well ask) is the right time?
Suppose you could have put that question to old Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the most prolific writers in all of human history. Of course what Bach wrote was mostly in the form of music, but his answer might well apply to other types of writing, too: Morgenstunde ist Geld im Munde. You German scholars, please forgive me if I haven’t written or translated this sentence correctly, but it basically means: “Morning hours are money in the mint.”
I don’t really know whether those words were original with J. S. Bach, or whether he was just quoting a familiar proverb. I do know this: Bach found from his own experience that the right time to write is in the morning.
Many other writers have made the same discovery. As for me, I have sometimes written at all hours of the day and night; yet I have often found that my most creative and productive time for writing has been in the morning, when body and mind and soul are at their freshest. (Of course I always begin my day with prayer and reading The Holy Bible; I hope you do the same. By the way, Ecclesiastes 3:11a says, “There is an appointed time for everything.”)
But . . . maybe you’re not a morning person. (I am, and apparently J. S. Bach was.) Maybe midday or afternoon or evening or midnight is the right time for you to write. Whenever it is, here’s the important thing to remember: The right time to write will not be right for you . . . unless you go ahead and write!
My wife and I have a dear friend who has encouraged and mentored many Christian writers, both in North America and in faraway East Africa. She has real gifts herself as a writer. Yet nearly every time we see her, she asks the same question: “How do you find the time to write?”
I suspect she really knows the answer but doesn’t want to face up to it. You don’t find the time to write: You take the time to write.
I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has come up to me and said, “You know, I also have a book I’d like to write, but somehow I just haven’t found the time to get around to writing it.” Let me tell you a secret: That book will never get written, because that person will never “get around to writing it.”
Becoming a writer involves taking the time to write — sometimes even making the time to write. One of my old professors was a prolific writer in his field. When asked how he could carry a full teaching load and still publish so many useful books, he would reply: “I just sit down at my desk and resist the first fifteen impulses to get up again.”
When is the right time to write? Any time! You just have to go ahead and do it.
Free Tip for Writers #3:
Write sensuously, not sensually.
Are you sure you know the great difference in meaning between those two similar words? If not, here’s your chance to learn it!
Sensuous writing is writing that appeals to the reader’s five senses — seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching.
Sensual writing is writing that appeals to the reader’s sexual nature.
Can writing be sensuous and sensual at the same time? Of course. But should it be?
I am not a prude. I do not write in an ivory tower. I am the father of two and the grandfather of seven. I am well aware that our sexual natures are God’s good gifts to humankind. After all, didn’t God tell Adam and Eve in the beginning to “Be fruitful and multiply”?
However, I have a problem with overly sensual writing, just as I have a problem with overly sensual dramas, films, and television programs. It’s not that I feel we must close our eyes to our sexual natures and all that this entails. Rather, as a long-established writer I have a theory about sensual writing or sensual acting — see whether you agree with me:
Portraying explicitly sensual acts, either on a page or on a stage or on a screen, gives them a greater shock value, and makes them more likely to appeal to our baser instincts, that the same acts will cause when occurring normally in real life.
People have argued with me when I have voiced my strong dislike for overly sensual writing. They have said that I am trying to hide from reality, that I am seeing things through rose-colored glasses. I disagree — not only for reasons of personal morality, but for the literary reason stated above in italics. Reading about a sexual act is not the same thing as performing a sexual act. Printing it explicitly on a page (or acting it explicitly on a stage or projecting it explicitly on a screen) turns it into something disconcerting, something disagreeable, almost as if the reader (or viewer) has become a peeping tom.
That’s why in all my books I have tried very hard to write sensuously, appealing to all of the reader’s senses. But I have avoided writing sensually. When sexual matters are a normal part of something I write, I have tried to respect the privacy of the characters in my book, just as I would respect the privacy of my neighbors.
No doubt about it, sensual writing sells. But . . . so does sensuous writing, if you can write it well enough.
I’ve made my choice.
Free Tip for Writers #4:
Write continually, not (always) continuously.
These two similar words are not as distinct in meaning as “sensuously” and “sensually” (see “Free Tip for Writers #3”). Some writers seem to use the two almost interchangeably. Yet there is a difference.
Writing continually suggests writing often, frequently, in an intermittent but ongoing manner.
Writing continuously suggests writing that is connected, writing that has a degree of continuity.
Do you know anyone who writes continually? Perhaps not. But change that question only slightly and then ask it again: Do you know anyone who sends text messages continually?
I haven’t gotten into the text-messaging habit. Yet I won’t criticize the many people who seem to be doing it all the time, because at least they’re writing something. (With all the use of acronyms and abbreviations, however, I wonder how much practice they’re getting in good writing style.)
If you don’t write often, frequently, in an intermittent but ongoing manner, then how do you ever expect to become a real writer? In this context, what you write isn’t as important as the fact of writing itself. Verbalizing your thoughts, putting them down in black and white – this is an important discipline in and of itself. Inarticulate people don’t become writers.
So fire away with your text messaging! Post something on a blog. Keep a journal. Write out your prayer requests – and the answers God gives. Try short articles. Compose poems. Write brief devotional messages or Bible study helps. Whatever you do, keep on writing continually!
How about writing continuously?
Many beginning writers make the mistake of starting out by trying to write continuously. In other words, they sit down one day and say, “I’m going to write a book.” More power to them! But . . . have they ever practiced first by spending awhile in writing something a lot shorter than a book?
I started writing in the third grade. During those early years I wrote articles, stories, poems, dramas, all sorts of things. None of them were much good, but they did give me much good practice. More importantly, all of them were short. Somehow I had enough gumption to know I wasn’t ready yet to tackle a big piece of continuous writing.
Not counting school and university publications, the first time I ever broke into print in a standard periodical came when I was nineteen – more than a decade after I had first started writing. And my first book wasn’t published until more than another decade after that.
Some people make a successful career of writing – even a rewarding ministry of writing – without ever writing continuously. In other words, they never write anything that’s very long. More power to them! Poems of various types, magazine articles, short stories, Bible lessons, devotional messages – all of them are important. Yet remember: Writing a book is a hard job, not to be undertaken lightly.
Whatever age or stage you may be in as a writer, if you do think you want to write a book, perhaps you’d better ask yourself first whether you have the three P‘s: passion, planning, and patience.
Are you passionate about what you want to write? Is it something that you feel desperately needs to be written? Do you have a book idea that’s different from anybody else’s?
Are you willing to make a long-term plan of action? Working for many years on dated Bible study curriculum materials taught me the importance of deadlines. Do you have the discipline to set your own deadlines? It’s not enough, either, just to make one over-all estimate of when you hope to finish your book. You also need to be planning intermediate deadlines: Prepare a chapter outline by May 1. Write chapter 1 by May 15. Revise chapter 1 and write chapter 2 by May 31, and so on.
Do you have the patience it takes to complete the writing of a book? After you’re written your manuscript, do you have the patience it takes to revise it – editing, checking for errors, insuring consistency, providing balance and drive and all the other things a good book needs?
After you think your book is as good as you can make it, do you have the patience it takes to try to convince a publisher that it’s good? Oh, of course I know that in today’s world you can publish it yourself. Or you can find any number of publishers who will do it for you, if you pay them enough. If you’ve got the money, more power to you! Yet recognize the hard fact that taking such an approach may severely limit your number of potential readers.
Patience may involve learning the slow and tortuous process of finding a publisher in today’s literary marketplace. First there’s the query letter. Then if you clear that hurdle, there’s the synopsis with one or more sample chapters. Only then will most publishers ask to see your complete manuscript. And many publishers won’t even give you the time of day unless you are working through a literary agent or a literary gate-keeper such as Authorlink, The Writer’s Edge, or Christian Manuscript Submissions.
Don’t let me discourage you: Write, write, write! I’m just trying to suggest that you may find more success at first in writing continually rather than in writing continuously.
Free Tip for Writers #5:
Write for others, not (only) for yourself.
Does “Write for others” mean sharing your every thought and action through social networks such as Facebook or Twitter? Well, . . . no.
I sometimes wonder about the amount of personal data that’s being typed into cyberspace these days. Is it really all that important? (I also wonder about the amount of talking that goes into cell phones; is it all really necessary?)
So we’re not talking here about sharing whatever comes into your head. No, “Write for others, not (only) for yourself” has a special meaning for those of us who consider ourselves to be writers, whether or not we choose to scribble on social networks. What we’re talking about is this: Use your own skills in writing to help others succeed as writers.
There are several ways to do this. Some of them are open to any amateur in the writing field. Others are more specialized or more professional.
One obvious way to help others succeed as writers is by joining or organizing a writers’ group. Probably there’s already a writers’ group in your area – perhaps more than one. In today’s electronic global village, “your area” needn’t be limited to a geographical location, either. Yet there’s a special value to sitting down face to face with one or more fellow writers and talking about your common calling.
This web site isn’t the place to go into detail about joining or organizing a writers’ group. My current copy of The Christian Writers’ Market Guide, edited by Sally E. Stuart for more than a quarter-century and now being continued by Jerry B. Jenkins, lists no less than sixteen pages of “Area Christian Writers’ Clubs, Fellowship Groups, and Critique Groups.”
Critique? Yes, joining a writers’ group and sharing your writing may mean that one or more of your fellow writers will then undertake to criticize what you have written. Will it be constructive criticism or not? That’s where “Write for others, not (only) for yourself” can come into play. Gentle, thoughtful criticism from someone who also knows something about writing – this can mean a lot. Helpful suggestions may make all the difference between success and failure.
Actually you don’t even have to seek out a writers’ group. Another way to “Write for others, not (only) for yourself” is by offering personal encouragement.
Many years ago, I met a fifth grader who was about to go off to Paraguay with her missionary parents. Despite our age gap, somehow she and I managed to become good friends, mainly because she was such an avid writer. Through her years of childhood and youth, into adulthood, marriage, and parenthood, she and I have continued to stay in touch. Not long ago she wrote me happily that a book of her devotionals has now been published.
If through offering personal encouragement I have helped this young woman to succeed as a writer, it is no more than what others have done for me. A dear friend and gifted writer (who has now gone to be with the Lord) strongly encouraged me during my earlier years in writing. Nor did she hesitate to offer gentle suggestions or criticisms. Once when I was enthusiastically sketching for her the broad outline of what would later become my coming-of-age novel I Sailed with Saul of Tarsus, she put her finger precisely on a weak point in the plot. How glad I was that she had given me the opportunity to revise my book even before I wrote it!
If you should happen to hold some official, professional, or vocational position that involves writing, this may present you with even more opportunities to “Write for others, not (only) for yourself.” Sometimes you may find yourself offering helpful revisions of someone else’s work.
As I moved into my first full-time job in the field of writing, I was mentored by an older editor with decades of experience. “I can write like a chameleon,” she once boasted to me. “When I need to revise someone else’s writing, I can imitate his or her style so well that even the other writer sometimes can’t spot the difference!”
That is a gift. It comes only with practice. I have been edited by those who skillfully improved what I have written without making noticeable changes. I have also been edited by those whose awkward and heavy-handed rewriting has done serious violence to my work.
I wasn’t the only aspiring writer who was mentored by that senior editor mentioned above. One day she received a phone call (or – back in those days – was it a telegram?) from a woman in Oklahoma who said, “Thank you for every word you made me rewrite! I have just won – ” and then she went on to mention some literary prize or other.
Often, both as writer and editor, I have found that offering helpful revisions involves seeking a third way. Sometimes the first draft just won’t do. The suggested revision doesn’t quite say it right either. Yet this still inadequate revision may trigger a third way, combining elements of both earlier efforts and stating more clearly or smoothly what was originally intended.
Yet another way to “Write for others, not (only) for yourself” is by writing down and sharing what you have learned about writing.
Some years ago I had the privilege of leading workshops in basic writing skills. These workshops were held sometimes on campuses, sometimes at publishing houses, in several different countries of Asia and Africa. Once the workshop itself was over, how could I continue to help my students? I started mailing out occasional newsletters in two languages (the only two I know!). I tried to put into writing some of the things I had learned through years of writing.
Guess what? The years have passed, bringing great changes in communications media; yet that’s exactly what I’m still trying to do right now. I hope it helps!
Free Tip for Writers #6:
Write – and re-write.
Here’s an old saying among writers and editors: Good books are not written: They are re-written.
As a substitute for “books” in that sentence, you could insert instead any other type of writing that you might hope to do.
Do you like to re-write? Or do you dislike it? Here’s the response I got from a writers’ workshop participant in the Philippines: “I hate it!” By contrast, Adoniram Judson – pioneer missionary in Myanmar (Burma) and first translator of the Bible into the national language – once confessed: “I have a lust for finishing.”
Maybe I do, too. Since childhood I have almost made a hobby of erasing, marking out, adding to, correcting, improving, and generally tinkering with what I have already written.
Some writers, like that Filipino friend, would be dismayed by this tendency. Some might even say, “Oh, if I feel inspired by the Lord to write something, then that beautiful inspiration will surely fade away if I have to re-write it again and again.”
Let me answer with a quote from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess: “It ain’t necessarily so.” Nowhere in The Holy Bible have I read that divine inspiration has to be put down in the first words that come to mind, without having passed through the mature thought processes of the writer.
(Maybe there’s one exception to that: Gospel of John 19:22, when Governor Pontius Pilate stubbornly reaffirmed, “What I have written I have written.”)
Please pardon me beforehand (as we say it in the Indonesian language) if what I am about to say hurts your feelings. Let me share a brief personal testimony, which has been confirmed by the experience of many other writers all over the world.
I consciously started trying to be a writer in third grade. My writings began to get into print (beyond local media) in 1951, while I was still a college student. My first published book was released in 1962, and up to now there have been more than sixty of them. I’ve never quite been able to get an accurate count on the total number of published articles, stories, poems, devotionals, and curriculum materials I’ve written during these many decades.
This is not intended as a boast, but rather as a basis for my personal testimony, which is: I myself have never written much of anything which was so good, that it didn’t need any re-writing.
Once again, please forgive me if I underestimate your own talents and abilities as a writer, yet it must be said: On the basis of experience, I seriously doubt that you are likely to write much of anything which is so good, that it doesn’t need any rewriting.
My experience is not unique, nor is it limited to my own cultural background. The noted Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o (also known as James Ngugi) said this many years ago:
“Writing is a highly conscious art. But most of us seem to be contented with the first fragile fruit of instant inspiration. We take luscious greenness for ripeness. . . . No writer should be satisfied with his first, second, or third drafts. A work of art is never really complete. . . . Talent and inspiration are inadequate without sweat, much sweat” (quoted in WRITE!, Journal for Christian Writers in Africa, vol. 1, no. 1, 1973, pp. 19-20).
If you like re-writing (as I do), you are fortunate (unless you do it too much or too long – as I also sometimes do – and it becomes what Adoniram Judson called “a lust for finishing”).
If you dislike re-writing, . . . sorry ‘bout that, you need to learn to do it anyway.
Free Tip for Writers #7:
Write, guided by what you read – and re-read.
Certain books on writing techniques suggest deliberately choosing a particular writer as a model – a good writer, of course – and then consciously trying to imitate that writer’s style. Certain teachers of writing make a similar suggestion.
I’m not so sure I agree. However I would heartily agree that my own writing style has been heavily influenced by others whose writings I have read – and re-read.
Perhaps Louisa May Alcott has influenced my writing style more than anyone else. In my opinion Alcott was not just a great woman writer, and not just a great children’s writer: She was a great writer, period. She could write prose or poetry, factual reports or flights of fancy, stories of family and neighborhood for children or tales of passion and intrigue for adults. In her 56 care-worn years she turned out an amazing body of work.
Of course Alcott is most famous for her children’s books. The marvelous thing about them is, they’re not just for children. I still like to pick up and re-read them from time to time. It’s always a positive experience for me, both as a reader and as a writer.
As a child I probably began with Under the Lilacs because it features lots of animals, even a circus. I also read Jack and Jill in childhood, but didn’t get around to Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom till adult years. I wouldn’t read Little Women at first because I thought it was a girl’s book, so I started Alcott’s great trilogy in the middle with Little Men. Since then I have read all three of these gems a good many times. Jo’s Boys is sometimes considered the weakest in the trilogy, but it’s worth re-reading if only for a hilarious chapter about one day in the life of a published writer.
As influential as she has been (and still is), Louisa May Alcott isn’t the only writer who has had an impact on my work. As a child I loved the short stories and novellas of Jack London, especially those set in the South Pacific. Did the Lord subliminally use this reading and re-reading to lead me toward a three-decade Christian ministry of writing in Indonesia?
I’ve always appreciated authors whose books give me a strong sense of time and place, such as:
Kenneth Roberts (many novels in varied settings during the late 1700s and early 1800s)
Alfred Leland Crabb (many novels about Tennessee in the 1800s, including the Civil War)
John Fox, Jr., The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (Kentucky in the 1800s, climaxing with the Civil War; in my opinion this charming book, written a century ago, is still a great coming-of-age story about a pilgrimage from childhood through youth into young adulthood.)
The best book on writing I’ve ever used is Writing for Young People by Mabel Louise Robinson. This practical treatise helped keep me going through multiple re-writes and 18 rejections (or was it 21?) before Indian Treasure on Rockhouse Creek was finally accepted for publication.
Courtney Anderson’s magisterial biography To the Golden Shore inspired and made possible the writing of To Be the First: Adventures of Adoniram Judson, America’s First Foreign Missionary. When I first read Anderson’s book, I knew : The incredible story of Judson and his three intrepid wives (serially, not simultaneously!) needed to be retold in a form more accessible to younger readers.
Several fascinating and factual books made possible the writing of I Sailed with Saul of Tarsus:
Paul the Traveller by Ernle Bradford
St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen by Sir William M. Ramsay
The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul by James Smith
Above all, Dr. Luke’s own travel journal in The Holy Bible provided me with the most complete account of a sea voyage that has survived from antiquity; have you re-read the last two chapters of Acts of the Apostles recently?
FULL DISCLOSURE: As a child I avidly read (and re-read) the early numbers of The Bobbsey Twins. These were all produced by Edward L. Stratemeyer and his marvelous book machine; he hired hack writers to churn out The Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, and several other popular series. Probably the poorly-paid writer of most of those endearing juvenile stories that once meant so much to my childish mind and heart was named Lilian C. Garis rather than “Laura Lee Hope.”
Have you noticed that I’ve been mentioning American writers only? This is a great pity, because great writers from other cultures have also influenced me. Yet there needs to be some kind of limit to how many writers I can list here.
Lest you think I never read anything shorter than a book, let me hasten to add that my almost-complete file of Christian History magazines was an indispensable help in writing Exploring Church History: 20 Centuries of Christ’s People. (Recently we donated this treasured collection to a divinity school library.)
Much of my own writing has been for children and young adults. How fortunate for me (and for everybody else) that the past several decades have seen a host of great American writers for young readers! Here are just a few of them, listed in alphabetical order:
Lloyd Alexander, Jeanne Birdsall, Gary Blackwell, Eleanor Cameron, Beverly Cleary, Elizabeth Enright, Paula Fox, Jean Craighead George, Isabelle Holland, Irene Hunt, E. L. Konigsberg, Joseph Krumgold, Madeleine L’Engle (she and I once corresponded briefly), Scott O’Dell, Katherine Paterson, Elizabeth George Speare, Cynthia Voigt, Jane Yolen, and many others.
Then there are those novels aimed at adult readers that prominently feature children and youth. Charles Dickens wrote many of these. Here are some others, from American writers in recent years (again, I especially like those that give me a strong sense of time and place):
Esther Forbes, Paradise (New England in the mid-1600’s – Forbes is better known for her Newbery winner, Johnny Tremain, set in Revolutionary times.)
Willa Cather, My Antonia (Nebraska in the 1880’s)
William Faulkner, The Reivers (Mississippi and Memphis, early 1900’s)
Olive Ann Burns, Cold Sassy Tree (Georgia, early 1900’s)
Ivan Doig, The Whistling Season (Montana, 1909-1910)
Ferrol Sams, Run with the Horses and Whisper of the River (Georgia, 1920’s and ‘30’s)
Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding (the Deep South during the mid-1900’s)
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (ditto)
Mildred Lee, The Invisible Sun (ditto – Harper Lee is famous for her two books, of course, but the under-rated Mildred Lee wrote many books.)
Chaim Potok (many novels on the Jewish community in New York during the mid-1900’s)
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany (eastern USA, later 1900’s)
Richard Lewis, The Flame Tree (eastern Java, later 1900’s – we knew this author when he was a Third-Culture Kid in Indonesia.)
Somehow I have never gotten into reading sci-fi or fantasy novels very much, with the exception of these two contemporary American writers: Ursula K. Le Guin and Orson Scott Card. Again, much of their appeal for me lies in their focus on younger protagonists.
Occasionally I like to “live for awhile” inside a sprawling trans-generational family epic, like Alcott’s famous trilogy. Here are a few more great ones:
Mary Ellen Chase, Silas Crockett (I treasure a handwritten letter from this author.)
Conrad Richter’s masterful trilogy, The Trees, The Fields, and The Town
Thornton Wilder, The Eighth Day
Helen Hooven Santmyer, “. . . And Ladies of the Club”
Larry Woiwode, Through the Bedroom Wall
Thomas Duncan, Gus the Great (Another under-rated writer, in my estimation; if I hadn’t read and re-read his sprawling novel about circus people, I might never have written Church in the Big Top or the two chapters in Good News from Indonesia about our friends of the Oriental Circus. I’ve also written two juvenile novels that include a strong circus component.)
I could go on to name great American poets (Anne Bradstreet, John Greenleaf Whittier, Sidney Lanier), great American historians (Harold Lamb, Roland Bainton, Bruce Catton), great American biographers (Robert K. Massie, David McCullough, Fawn Brodie).
But enough is enough. I’ve made my point: How can you expect other people to read your writings if you don’t read other people’s writings? Besides that, reading – and re-reading – good books can offer many hints toward improving your own work as a writer.
Free Tip for Writers #8:
Write, guided by both fact and feeling.
By definition, fact means actuality; something known to exist or to have happened; truth known by actual experience or observation.
Also by definition, feeling means a person’s response to fact or truth or actuality.
Which of these two should be more important in guiding what you write?
Of course there’s no immutable law of the Medes and Persians in this case. Both fact and feeling have their place in writing. The trouble is, some writers get them in the wrong place!
Once in Indonesia I worked with a young translator who wanted the freedom to write whatever he chose, regardless of what the original actually said. Furthermore, he often broke the rules of Indonesian grammar and good writing style. Whenever I would try to correct or improve his work, he would always defend himself by saying: “Ah, sir, you haven’t been here long enough yet to fully realize that we Indonesians go more by feeling than by fact.”
There was truth in what he said. It is a sad fact that I have made many mistakes because as a Westerner I have not gone deep enough into the feelings of Asians.
Yet there is a limit. Fact can’t always lose out to feeling. Some things simply must be determined by fact, and may not be changed around according to feeling (as that young Indonesian translator apparently wanted to do).
There are facts about space. If the editor wants something 1500 words long, she will take a dim view of the 3000-word masterpiece you have submitted.
There are facts about time. If your deadline was last November, the editor will not accept your peerless writing when it lands on his desk in February.
There are also facts about the meanings of words, about correct spellings, about rules of grammar, about historical events. It’s no use arguing against facts such as these, whatever your personal feelings may be.
Maybe you’re thinking, “If you write fiction, feeling is more important. If you’re writing nonfiction, fact is more important.” Yet it doesn’t break down as neatly as that.
Famous writers of fantasy tell us that fact is extremely important in their writing. Even though they write about incredible things, yet they’re hoping the reader will believe those incredible things. That’s why they scatter established facts throughout their stories of fantasy, so the reader will more easily believe that it all might have really happened.
Yet if you look at things from another angle, feeling is also extremely important, no matter what kind of writing you do. If for instance you write a report about certain important facts, yet your report shows no marks of feeling whatever, . . . if it’s flat, colorless, “lukewarm – neither hot nor cold” (Revelation 3:16 in The Holy Bible), . . . will your reader believe that the facts you are reporting are really all that important?
Of course feeling is most important in writing poems or short stories or novels or dramas. It also has an important place in writing devotional messages, spiritual guides, and sermons, for these kinds of writing have as their goal the moving of people’s hearts.
Feeling is also important in writing any kind of stories, whether from your own experience or from someone else’s. Would anybody want to read my Good News from Indonesia, only in order to master the many facts about Indonesia that it contains?
That’s why I truthfully added as a subtitle Heartwarming Stories from the Land of the Tsunami. I have deep feelings for the men and women, boys and girls whose lives are mirrored in that book. That’s why, in telling the facts about them, I have also tried hard to communicate my own warmth of feeling.
You can do the same.
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