Love Thy Reader (Part 1)

Last week we talked about ways to move beyond the style of a "sophisticated fifth-grader." A reader named Stacey asked another question about writing like a grown-up, but I think it gets even closer to the heart of the matter.

Essays.  Academic writing.  Is there a difference between an essay for school and an essay for readers (not writing for a teacher).  Do all essays need a thesis statement?

Most of us learn to write in an academic setting. Teachers give us assignments. We complete those assignments. They correct us. They congratulate us. We learn to give them what they're looking for so that they give us what we're looking for: good grades, approval, permission to advance to the next grade, perhaps a letter of recommendation. If you stay in the academic world, you write articles and books that get you jobs and promotions and tenure and, hopefully, the respect and awe of your peers.

The problem with academic writing is not that it's overly formulaic or that it stifles creativity. Forms and formulas provide frameworks in which creativity can grow; the sonnet is a formula, but it doesn't appear to have stifled William Shakespeare's creativity one bit. For the less confident or "creative" student-writer, the formulas of academic writing are a godsend. We should probably erect a monument to the person who invented the five-paragraph essay.

No, the problem with academic writing goes much deeper than the formulas and rules and thesis statements, which are as easily put aside as a set of training wheels. The problem with academic writing is that it conditions us to write for what we can get rather than to write for what we can give.

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Let Nouns and Verbs Carry the Freight

[Letter-writer's note: It's important to me that I write about topics that are important to you. Would you take a minute to let me know what writing-related topics you'd like me to address in future issues of The Habit? I would appreciate it very much. Click here to send me a note.]

Recently, one of my online students asked if I could diagnose the problems that made her prose sound like the work of a "sophisticated fifth-grader." The very fact that she used the phrase "sophisticated fifth-grader" demonstrated that she was farther along in her writing than she gave herself credit for. Nevertheless, the question got me to thinking about what exactly makes prose sound like the work of a sophisticated juvenile instead of the work of a sophisticated adult (or, better yet, the work of an adult who is freed from the need to sound sophisticated). 

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"Look in thy heart, and write." Or, failing that, look in the refrigerator.

Valentine's Day is tomorrow (also Ash Wednesday. I shall resist the easy joke; I recommend that you do too). If you haven't finished your love letter(s), it is now time to hunker down and put some words on paper.

Sir Philip Sidney, the sixteenth-century poet, began his sonnet cycle Astrophil and Stella with a love poem about the difficulty of writing love poems. If you only read one Sidney poem in Survey of British Lit, it was probably "Loving in truth, and fain in truth my love to show." After listing the various ways the poet has failed to find inspiration (mostly by reading other poems), the sonnet ends with this memorable couplet:

     Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
     "Fool," said my Muse to me, "look in thy heart, and write."

I appreciate Sidney's reminder that looking to other writers can only get you so far. Eventually, you've got to stop reading and face the blank page or the blinking cursor. But I've got some things to say about that advice, "Look in thy heart, and write." 

If you find that looking into your own heart yields consistently good writing, I don't have much to say to you on this Valentine's Eve. The Lord bless you and keep you, and make his face to shine on you. For my part, looking in my heart tends to be the cause of my love-letter writing problems, not the solution. I usually don't know what's going on in my heart, and the more I do know, the less I'm able to put it into words. There are plenty of heart-related cliches ready to form up and march out, but my beloved deserves better than that, and so does yours.

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Think Outside the Quotation Marks

In last week's letter about "strong" verbs, I made a few remarks about verbs of attribution--those verbs by which a  writer identifies the speaker of a piece of dialogue. As I considered the topic over the last few days, I kept coming back to a truth that I often tell my writing students: In dialogue, the words outside the quotations marks are just as important as the words inside the quotation marks. 

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Sidney towers five feet tall. Some thoughts on strong verbs.

"Use strong verbs" is the kind of oft-repeated writing advice that might help a bad writer become a mediocre writer, but it won't do much to help a good writer become an excellent writer. This old chestnut is an oversimplification--or, one is tempted to say, a debasement--of some excellent writing advice: For every sentence you write, figure out where the action is, and use the verb that most precisely depicts that action. Don't worry about whether the verb is strong or unique or engaging or unusual. Ask only whether it is the precise verb that helps your reader envision the action that you wish to portray.

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Mistakes Were Made: Using the Passive Voice

The passive voice is a favorite of academics ("A study was conducted..."), politicians ("Mistakes were made..."), business memo writers ("The shipping department will henceforth be outsourced...") and other communicators we love to hate. Indeed, the passive voice causes a lot of heartache for readers and writers alike. Somewhere along the line, you have probably been told to avoid passive voice. That’s not bad advice, except for the fact that sometimes the passive voice is exactly what you need. I just used it, in fact, in the sentence before last.

“Avoid passive voice” is a helpful rule of thumb; but it’s only a rule of thumb. The deeper rule is this: Make active voice your default. And the rule has this corollary: Use passive voice only when you have a good reason to.

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Conveying Information, Building a Scene

This week one of my writing students submitted a very moving story about the fallout that occurred in a family when a boy received a Christmas present that his parents couldn't afford. The story started with a great image: "The catalogs arrived in the same truck that brought the bills--a pile of shiny magazines full of things the Kramers would never afford, topped by a pink envelope that read, 'FINAL NOTICE.'"

Every time you write, you are doing at least two things: you are conveying information, but you are also creating an experience for the reader. To put it another way, you are conveying information, and you are inviting your reader into a scene. I am forever urging my students to focus on creating scenes and to trust that the information will take care of itself. 

By "inviting a reader into a scene" I mostly mean giving the reader something to look at (or perhaps listen to or feel or smell or taste). If you give the reader the right things to look at, you can trust him to collect the information he needs.

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On Finding Your Voice

Kayla C asked, How do I find my written voice, and how will I know I have found it? Sometimes I have a difficult time figuring out whether I am actually writing in my own voice (and what exactly that voice sounds like) or just emulating the voices of writers I admire.
"Finding your voice" feels like a monumental task, but here is a simple place to start: in your writing, weed out every sentence and phrase that you can't imagine saying out loud with a straight face. 

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On a Wedding

A few years back, some friends–Boris and Martha–asked me to give the charge at their wedding. To commemorate my own wedding (21 years ago today), here’s part of what I said… 

The old wedding ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer says that Christ “adorned and beautified” marriage “with his presence and first miracle that he wrought in Cana of Galilee.” You know that story. The wine had given out, so Jesus turned six big stone pots full of water into wine. A hundred gallons of wine.

When they served it out, the guests were astonished—not because Jesus had turned water into wine (they didn’t know that), but because it was better than the wine the host had served first. The steward marveled, “But thou hast kept the good wine until now.”

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The Man Who Planted Trees

Until recently, my in-laws had a farm in South Georgia. When they bought the place, its charms weren't altogether obvious to the casual observer. It was scrubby where it wasn't planted in pines and swampy where it wasn't scrubby. But my father-in-law made it the work of twenty years to beautify the place.

When he planted pines, he planted longleaf, the tree that once shaded all of South Georgia--indeed, the tree that towered over nearly every mile of Hernando Desoto's path from Florida through the Deep South to the Mississippi River.

By the time my father-in-law was born, the longleaf had been logged to near-extinction; when the trees were replaced at all, they were replaced by faster-growing slash and loblolly pines, which produce income twice as fast as longleaf, but always fall well short of the longleaf's native majesty. Much of South Georgia's wealth and beauty had once been attached to the longleaf pines, before they were felled and floated down the Ocmulgee and Altamaha to the ocean, then shipped away to be the ribs of great buildings far away from Georgia.  My father-in-law loves his native country; no wonder he planted longleaf. If they take forty years to grow to maturity--well, then, they take forty years. He is a man of imagination and hope.

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The Next-to-Last Supper

When my father was growing up, he knew a fellow called Deafy (pronounced "Deefy"). They called him this because he was deaf. When Deafy wanted to get somewhere, he walked right down the middle of the road. When the occasional car chuggered up behind him, he swerved nary an inch. When the driver honked his horn, he never startled. When the driver cussed him, Deafy never heard that either. The practice of nicknaming people by their infirmities seems to be on the wane. I get the impression that there used to be more Deafys and Stumpys and Shortys than there are now.

Jesus'  last supper before the Last Supper was hosted by a man known as Simon the Leper. As insensitive nicknames go, Simon the Leper has Deafy and Stumpy beat all to flinders. But there Jesus sat, eating in the home of a man whose very name was his shame. Simon the Leper. Simon the Unclean. Simon the Outcast. To the very end, Jesus was pouring his life into misfits and losers, refusing to leverage the influence of the powerful and well-connected but insisting on doing things his way--a perfectly backwards way, by the world's lights. This was the Savior from Nazareth, after all. The village wasn't just podunk, but so mean that one of the disciples asked, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" When Jesus came home for a visit, the locals tried to throw him off a cliff. I picture Nazareth as a place with more than its share of three-legged dogs. Whatever was the first-century equivalent of a speed-trap, I suspect Nazareth had one. And a Deafy and a Gimpy and a Shorty. Jesus, no doubt, felt right at home at the house of Simon the Leper.

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Regarding Texas--Or, What Love Sees Is True

There are a lot of things to love about Texas, including breakfast tacos, beef brisket, and Lyle Lovett. When I was in Austin last week, Lyle Lovett stood behind me while I waited in line for beef brisket; my heart grew two sizes that day. But the loveliest thing about Texas is the fact that Texans love it so much.

Chesterton wrote, "Men did not love Rome because she was great; she was great because they had loved her." The same is true of Texas. I have come to love the state my own self, but I must say, to a visitor from Tennessee, the glories of Texas are not self-evident. One suspects that in a place so beloved, there must be more than meets the eye. So one looks again, and glories begin to reveal themselves. As Richard Wilbur says, "What love sees is true." 

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On the Greatness of Saint Patrick

This homage to Saint Patrick is derived from my biography, Saint Patrick (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2010)

Patrick lived at the end of the world. A Roman citizen, he was born and raised in Britain, the northern- and westernmost extremity of a Roman empire that extended (overextended, as it turned out) south to Africa and east to the Tigris and Euphrates.

I often run across people who are convinced that our culture is running hard toward rack and total ruin, but any sense of cultural doom that keeps you up at night is nothing to what a Roman Briton of Patrick’s era must have felt. The exact date of Patrick’s birth is unknown, but he was probably born within a decade of 410 AD, the year the Vandals sacked Rome. That same year the Emperor Honorius sent a letter to the cities of Britain putting them on notice that they were officially on their own; they could expect no more help from Rome. The letter was only a formality. The Roman army had withdrawn from Britain three years earlier; the Roman Britons were keenly aware of the fact that they were on their own.

Patrick’s real name—his Roman name—was Patricius, as in patrician, noble-born. A scion of a wealthy family, he grew up in a Roman villa, surrounded by British barbarians (the island was never very Romanized), who were themselves surrounded by Irish barbarians, Scottish barbarians, and Angles, Saxons, and Jutes on the continent. At the beginning of the fifth century, these barbarian tribes saw significant Roman wealth in Britain and no Roman army to protect it. You can probably guess what happened next.

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In Which I Pay Attention

public computers
public computers

This is a re-post from five years ago. I've been thinking about the importance of paying attention, and this story came to mind...

A while back I was in the library checking my email on the public computers. The patrons of the library's public computers constitute what may politely be called a cross-section of humanity. At my library, they don't just let you sit at whichever computer you like. They assign you one, and it's right next to the person who sat down just before you did. Which is to say, there isn't any of that natural spacing of the discreet whereby two people in an elevator stand in the back corners and the third person stands in the middle right by the door. No, at the library computers you're spang up against the next fellow. The fellow I was spang up against was managing his account at an online dating site. He was a white-haired, paunchy old boy with a long, straight nose that ran bulged off to the left just at the tip-end, putting me in mind of a train that derailed right before pulling into the station. Every half-minute or so, he chuckled at something some dating prospect or other had written in her profile, wagging his head each time and cutting his eyes over toward me. Clearly he hoped I would ask him what he was laughing about or otherwise engage him in conversation. I was determined not to. I was in a bit of a hurry--just trying to check my email and get out of there--and I wasn't up to it anyway.

Soon my neighbor wandered away from the dating site and to a medical self-diagnosis site. He stopped chuckling and instead made little murmurs of interest--or maybe it was concern. I didn't take the bait. I was locked on to that email. At last the man nudged me with his elbow. He pointed at his screen. "How would you pronounce that word?" he asked.

I looked at his screen. "Splanchnoptosis, I guess." I went back to my email.

"Splanchnoptosis," he repeated. "Prolapse or backward displacement of an organ in the abdomen." He rubbed his ample belly. "I'm pretty sure that's what I've got," he said. I glanced in his direction and gave a quick, sympathetic nod, then looked off, hoping he would get the message.

The man turned his chair to face me. "You probably didn't know that you can cure cancer with baking soda, did you?"

It finally occurred to me that whatever my email said, it wasn't going to be nearly as interesting as the things this old boy had to say. I turned my chair too, and we were face to face.

"That's right," he said. "Some doctors in Italy taped pouches of baking soda under the armpits of women with breast cancer. Six weeks later, the tumors were gone. No surgery. No chemo. No radiation. I saw it on YouTube." He crossed his arms triumphantly, as if he had been one of the Italian doctors who made the discovery. "It's all about the pH levels."

He extended a thick right hand in my direction. "I'm David," he said.

I shook his hand. If I told him my name, I'm quite sure he didn't hear it. He was off again. "But there's no money in baking soda, is there? Where would the medical-industrial complex be if everybody was controlling their pH levels with baking soda and wasn't getting cancer? What would the doctors do? You can't make the mortgage on one of those doctor houses by selling baking powder, can you?"

David looked behind him as if to be sure nobody was eavesdropping, though he was speaking so excitedly now that I suppose everybody in the computer room could hear every word, unless they were wearing foam earplugs. He leaned in close. "You know who built all the hospitals, don't you?"

I shook my head.

"The Rockerfellers. That's who. The same Rockerfellers that are in charge of everything else. You think that's a coincidence, that the Rockerfellers built all those hospitals and the Rockerfellers are in charge of our health policy? You want to know why you didn't know baking soda is the cure for cancer?" He snorted disdainfully. "Ask the Rockerfellers. Only they won't tell you."

David gestured toward the people who were lined up outside the computer room for early voting. "It's like I told one of the women out there," he said. "I said, 'Do you really think you're smart enough to vote? Do you think you can outwit the military-medical-industrial complex? Because that's who runs things around here. Do you think you're smarter than the Rockerfellers?'"

To think my natural inclination was to ignore this guy.

"But there's no telling what women want, is there?" David said. I wasn't sure if that was a rhetorical question. "I know what women want," he said, "and I know how to give it to them." He leaned in even closer than before assumed a confidential tone. "They just want somebody who will listen."

On Self-Forgetfulness...Again

I have a friend named Laura who shows up at our front door every now and then with a cake she's baked or a pot of soup she's cooked. "This is fabulous," she always says. "I want y'all to have some." There is neither pride nor false humility in her utterance, but bare, declarative fact. Everything she brings is fabulous. 

Laura's motives, it appears to me, are as pure as any artist's motives could be. She loves food enough to perfect her art as a baker and cook. She loves her friends enough to share her creations with them. Her pride, her humility, her self-consciousness--none of these things seem to enter into the equation one way or another. She loves the work. She loves her audience. 

Last week I wrote about self-forgetfulness. Laura on the front porch with her oven mitts is as good an example of creative self-forgetfulness as I can offer. "This is fabulous. I want y'all to have some."

That kind of self-forgetfulness in the face of one's own good work brings to mind one of my favorite passages from "The Weight of Glory," the sermon by C.S. Lewis. In heaven, Lewis writes, we will bask in the pleasure of God's approval. That may sound like the ultimate vanity. But, as Lewis argues, it is the purest, even the humblest pleasure of the creature, to please the One who made you for his pleasure.

There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it is her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval she will most innocently rejoice in the thing God made her to be, and the moment which heals her old inferiority complex for ever will also drown her pride.

Lord, haste the day.





Writing Tip: Be Less Introspective

You write, presumably, because you have seen something in the world around you, and you want to show it to someone else. Why, then, do you spend so much of your writing time thinking about yourself? You're there at your desk, trying to work out the next sentence, and before you know it, you're thinking about yourself instead: your failures, your ego, your word-count goal. You speculate on how you're going to feel when you make your goal. You get a jump-start on the self-loathing you'll feel if you fall short. You wonder what people are going to think when they read what you've written. You wonder if anybody will even read it. You question whether anything you've ever written was actually good. You buck yourself up, remembering that, yes, you've written plenty of good pieces--brilliant pieces, in fact. Which makes you suspect that you've already used up all your brilliance. You think about your friend whose blog gets twice as many comments as yours, in spite of the fact that he can't write his way out of a paper bag. Then you ponder Edgar Allen Poe, who died penniless and alone in a Baltimore gutter. It occurs to you that you'll never write as well as Edgar Allen Poe. In short, it takes about 45 seconds to decide that you're the piece of crap that the universe revolves around.

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Writers' Consortium: The Goal Roundup

I've been looking over the goals articulated by the the 100+ writers who have joined the Further Up and Further In Writers' Consortium. They're pretty interesting. More than thirty of you hope to finish novels this year. About a dozen of you plan to write memoirs or family histories. A dozen of you are looking to write poems. A whole lot of you have committed to regular blogging (the Lord bless you and keep you…a blog is a hard master).

It was exhilarating to see what many of you hope to bring into the world: fiction for mentally handicapped high schoolers, a concept album based on GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy, a book about gluttony. Some of you are writing to chronicle or memorialize or work through pain--the pain of cancer, the pain of a hard season of ministry, the pain of watching a mother disappear into Alzheimer's.

Many of you stated your goals in terms of process rather than end product. You have committed to write every day, or once a week, or one Saturday every month. I admire you commitment to the work and your trust in the process, which can hardly help but yield good things.

I do get the sense that some of you view your process-driven goals as somehow humbler or less ambitious than the product-oriented goals--novels and memoirs and sonnet cycles. This is not true. Those writers with sexier goals will have to commit to the process too: they too will have to say, "I will write X hours on Y days of the week, starting at Z o'clock in the following location." Those of you who have committed to big, product-oriented goals, take a cue from your process-oriented peers. I will soon be asking you to describe the very mundane routine that you are willing to commit to.

Having said that, I do have a couple of questions for those of you who have defined your goals in terms of process rather than product. First, if you backslide some day or week or month--and you almost certainly will--what can you put in place to ensure that you get your butt back in the chair the next day rather than giving up on your goal (which, technically, you have already failed to accomplish)? If your "Read through the Bible in a Year" plan has ever crashed and burned somewhere around Leviticus 2, you know what I'm talking about. Have a plan that balances no-excuses rigor with a willingness to extend to yourself the same kind of generosity and mercy that you would extend to anybody else you love.

Here's my second question for those of you whose stated goals are entirely process-driven: are you sure you can get up and write every day (or every week or every month) without having a clear sense of the end product you're writing toward? I only ask because I know I can't. I can keep a very rigorous schedule if I'm finishing a chapter or an essay. But if I'm not pushing toward a clearly defined goal, I find the snooze button very tempting. I know there is real value in sitting down every day and keeping the pen moving to the rhythm of whatever is on your mind. Good things come out of that discipline. I've just never been able to do it with any consistency. 

So to recap, if you are able to commit to the process without an end product in mind--if you are able, as T.S. Eliot suggests, to "take no thought of the harvest,/ but only of proper sowing," then good on you. Proceed with my blessing. But you also might find it helpful to commit to an end product. 

In writing, as in may facets of life, it's important that you do do whatever works best for you--whatever keeps the pen moving across the page. But you should also be open to the possibility that you don't know what works best for you. 

Next up: I reflect on your reactions to one another's goals and ponder how we prevent the Further Up and Further In Writers' Consortium from becoming a shame factory.

The Next Light Pole

I've taken up running in recent years, and it's done me quite a lot of good. Besides feeling better physically, I have benefitted from knowing that I, an old dog, am still capable of learning new tricks. I'm not a natural runner; cultivating the discipline to do it has taught me lessons that have applied elsewhere in life, including my writing life. Here's the most important thing I've learned from running: when I find myself miles from home and exhausted already, I've learned not to ask, "Can I run all the way home?" The truth is, I usually don't know whether I can run all the way home. I have learned instead to ask, "Can I run to the next light pole?" The answer to that question is almost always "Yes." And once I've made it to the light pole, I start thinking about the next light pole.

Of the few books I've read about how to write, my favorite by far is Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. That book has done much to shape my day-to-day approach to writing. Lamott compares writing a book to driving at night. Your headlights don't illuminate any farther than the next turning. But you keep going anyway, knowing that by the time you make that turn, your headlights will light the way to the next turn. And eventually you get where you set out to go.

Writing a book is a daunting task. Writing, like night-driving or distance running, requires a certain amount of faith. You set out for a destination without knowing exactly how you're going to get there. For me, at least, it helps to remember that I don't write books. I write sentences. A book is what you have after the fact. On any given day, I'm only writing pages. I'm only running to the next light pole.

Further Up and Further In: A Writers' Consortium for 2015

Do you have a big writing goal for 2015? Do you want to write a novel? A memoir? A sonnet cycle? An opera? Do you find it difficult to know where to start or how to keep going? Further Up and Further In is a community of writers who have taken the (rather large) step of stating, "My writing goal for 2015 is ____________." Throughout the year, we will offer each other encouragement, accountability, advice, and--hopefully--a growing conviction that the long journey of the writer is worth the effort. 

What should you expect from this consortium?

Good question. To some extent, we'll be defining the process as we go along, depending on what members of the group need. At least once a week I will post a consortium-related article here at That article may be about the writing process or about crafting better sentences; it may answer a question that has come up in the consortium that week; it may be a writing prompt. These articles will be part of my regular blog and will be available to anybody who visits the site. Some of the consortium discussion, however, will take place in a private Facebook group inhabited only by those who have joined the consortium. For instance, you will state your writing goals, your schedule, etc., in that private group, not on the public blog. Though I am the host of the gathering, much of the value of the consortium will derive from the members' interaction with one another. Perhaps the most important function of this consortium is to provide a place for writers to say, "Here is my intention," and to be taken seriously by people who have stated a similar intention.

What should you NOT expect from this consortium?

In Further Up and Further In, we will not be discussing publishing issues such as finding an agent, writing pitch letters, marketing, etc. There are many excellent Internet resources on these topics; I'm sure you can find them. This consortium is all about the writing process and writerly craft. Also, while critique is a vitally important part of becoming a better writer, we won't be critiquing one another's work in this consortium. I ask that everyone refrain from posting excerpts from works-in-progress on the blog or in the Facebook group. I imagine that some of you will choose to share your work with one another. Please do so via direct communication--private messaging, email, etc.

How to join Further Up and Further In

To join our writers' consortium, fill out this short form. It simply asks for your name, your email address, and a few details about your 2015 writing goal. I will add you to the private Facebook group, and the next time you begin to doubt that you are a "real writer," you can remind yourself that you are a full member of a writer's consortium.