How to be a writer

We use the word 'writer' as a noun, as a job description, but really we use it as an honorific title. Those of us who love the written word struggle with how to bestow this title. We look at that word, 'writer', and see so many things. We see books on shelves, we see interviews in The Paris Review, we see a mythic figure, from whose mind springs whole new worlds. For many of us, we see a writer as one who has written, and one whose work was read and approved of by those who matter.

But, there are big differences amongst those who we could call writers. From the New York Times best-selling author, to the humble self-publisher who no one reads, we naturally see authors on a spectrum and only deem those above a certain point to be "writers." And the ones who are the worst about this, who judge success—or lack thereof—most harshly, and hold back the title most stingily are the people who aspire to the title themselves. I don't think we should look at the word that way.

I'm not suggesting that the title 'writer' is something that anyone should be able to lay claim to. Far from it. I think it should be a slippery handhold at the top of a long climb. I think it should be hard to lay your hands on, and hard to hold on to. I think it should be earned.

But if I do not think the title should be bestowed on only the well-reviewed, the best-selling, or the academic darlings, then on what basis would I commission by fellow artists with that precious word? By looking back to the meaning of the word.

A writer is one who writes. We shouldn't use it as a noun, but as a verb—as a description of action.

That should be the ground on which we claim our title, because writing is a practice. A writer must write every day. It is a muscle that withers easily, it is a skill that fades. And if you aspire to be a 'writer', then on that ground you should judge yourself. Are you writing each day? Or most days? Are your projects moving forward? Do your word counts continue to increase? If yes, then count yourself amongst the ink-stained wretches who seek to make their living with just their words and wits.

This post is motivation for me, even in writing it. Because I'm not a writer unless I'm writing. And lately, I haven't been writing. The circumstances don't matter, in these things they hardly ever do. My pen needs to meet paper more. My fingers need to touch the keys each morning. Because that is how you really become a writer.


Don’t write like a CEO, write like Hemingway

My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.</p>

― Ernest Hemingway

One of my primary responsibilities in my job as an IT strategist is documenting how our team sees the technology landscape, and how our organization should respond. By its very nature this task requires taking complicated subjects and making them understandable. Even further, our papers serve as advice and guidance to decision makers who do not necessarily understand the technical nuances of every topic, yet they must be equipped to make the right decisions. As you can imagine, this can be a tricky feat to pull off.

I act as an editor for much of the work our team produces, and I read broadly in the subjects we cover. As a result I have learned a lot about writing in the corporate/technical environment. And, the fact is, most of the writing in my industry is not very good.

It's not that the ideas aren't good, or that the authors are not smart people. That's almost never the case. These are smart people who are not trained in writing effectively and clearly for their context and goals. And it's not about being a "technical" writer, either. I reject the idea that technical writing is a wholly separate discipline.[ref]A good writer can write about technology, they just have to understand it well first. That's usually the problem.[/ref] And, it's not just in the technical fields, corporate writing on the whole is pretty terrible stuff.

Why is it so bad? Because it is too complicated.

In all writing, simplicity is a virtue. I love the work of Ernest Hemingway for this very reason, his work is steeped in simplicity. He is straight forward and honest in a way that was revolutionary for his time. In a world dominated by words spread at the speed of light, we need to rediscover that way of writing.

In that spirit, I offer three suggestions to improve your writing on the job:

Don't write in 'corporate-speak', write honestly

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.
― Ernest Hemingway

We've all read enough corporate-speak to know it when we see it. We tend to dismiss it as harmless. In its most innocent incarnation we hear it and use it as shorthand, a simple way to convey complex ideas. Of course it gets ridiculously out of hand easily: "The organization should leverage its synergies to facilitate bleeding edge advances in solutions that align with our corporate values." Ugh, gross.

On the more nefarious end of the spectrum, we can also recognize it as a politically correct nod to the difficulties of being honest with large groups of people. In fact, corporate-speak today aligns more with George Orwell's observation about political speech: "Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

Instead, write with honesty. Illustrate a simple point with simple words. As Hemingway would advise, fire up your shit detector.

Don't be passive, write in an active voice

This is the number one issue I find, and in my opinion it's also the worst thing an author can do to a reader. Think about the typical corporate-speak that is applied to problems. How often do we read something like, "We experienced issues on the website due to unplanned maintenance." I'm sorry, what? 'We experienced issues', is so distant sounding, which is of course the point. We didn't break the site, the site 'experienced issues'. It's usually just a not-too-subtle way of saying, "don't blame me, man!"

Instead, even when talking about things such as server issues, use an active voice. It's more interesting, and it is usually far more honest. Simply put, active voice is when your subject performs the verb: 'The boy hit the ball.' Passive voice is when the subject receives the action of the verb: 'The ball was hit by the boy.' So why don't we write in active voice? Why don't we write, "The website is unavailable," instead of "we experienced issues on the website"? In my experience, it's usually for two reasons. First, passive voice distances the subject from the verb, which often shifts accountability. Second, many people think passive voice sound more high-minded (on that, see the next point).

While Hemingway never wrote about server issues, but he did have a knack for connecting to the reader with active, direct language. He was able to convey full experience in just a few lines. While few can live up to his accomplishments, we should think of the clarity and directness of his language when writing, even at work:

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.
― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Don't try to sound fancy, write with clarity and simplicity

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.
― Ernest Hemingway

Using big words when simpler words will do does not make you look smart. Sorry, it's just true. No reads the word 'use' and thinks, "Wow, what a dummy. He didn't write 'utilize'." The extent of a writers vocabulary is not related the quality of his work, nor to the value of his work to the reader.

This is not to say that unusual words are out of bounds, I love strange and unusual words. When used well and sparingly, interesting words can grab the attention of the reader and spark interest. There is no denying the power of just the right word, in just the right place. But in corporate writing the use of complicated words instead of simpler, better, and more understandable words is far, far too common. I think these selected examples show the value in simplicity:

  • Advantageous — helpful
  • Consolidate — combine
  • Endeavor — try
  • Facilitate — ease, help
  • Leverage — use
  • Optimize — perfect
  • Competencies — skills
  • Regarding — about
  • Subsequently — after or later

Even if writing is not the majority of your work, if you use a computer for any significant part of your day, then you really are a writer. These rules apply across the board. From emails, to business plans, from whitepapers to project specs, the written word is foundation of business in the modern age. And the better writer you are, the better you will be at your job.


Better tools won’t make you a better writer

The newest and fanciest writing tools will not help you to become a more effective, efficient and creative writer. A new piece of software or new notebook alone can't make your writing better.

Let's be honest, good tools are great. Tools help writers out. They can help us out a lot, in fact. But good tools won't make you a good writer. They can make you more efficient or faster, and they may even make your words look better on the screen or page. But they won't make the work better. Only two things will do that: work and time. Together.

There are well-meaning and smarter writers than me who advise other writers not to worry about their tools and simply write. They are correct. Of all the opinions and advice I will offer on this site, my echo on this point is the most important: sit down and write.

I am susceptible to the lie that tools will help my writing. A simple list of past purchases will show how effective the software sirens are at luring me off course. Or the sirens of fancy pens. Or those who peddle fancy notebooks. And on, and on, and on...

What I have learned in my various excursions into the writers' marketplace? Every software or supplies purchase I've made, and will make, is based on one of two impulses: a physical requirement to complete a project, or a hope that it would make the project better. Sadly, there have been far more of the latter.

In the era of web magazines, social media and self-publishing, I believe every writer can benefit from using the right toolset for the job. In fact, this is not even linked to our era. We can certainly see how the switch to papyrus from stone as a medium made life much easier for the scribes of the day. But then, as now, not one scribe's work became better due to an obsession over the details of fine papyrus and the search for the perfect reed pen.

Don't ignore your tools, they are important. Go ahead and try new things out. Sharpen the tools you already have.

But then, sit down and write. Do the work, it's the only way to get better.


Writers: Beware of the ephemeral web

The internet has been a boon for writers, particularly in terms of exposure. But, there are many downsides—just ask print journalists. In my mind, one of the biggest questions we face as writers is a new framing of an old question: How can we preserve our work?

Over the last few weeks I kicked off a GTD reboot[ref]Getting Things Done is a great productivity system created by David Allen that's not really a system. It's more a way of thinking that drives your own system. I love it and it's the only thing that works for me, but my lack of discipline in pretty much all things means that I have to reboot my system a couple of times a year. Despite this, I HIGHLY recommend it.[/ref]. I usually do this a few times a year, but this one was especially needed as both work and personal projects were out of control. I wanted to tweak my system, so I went digging around on the web.

After a while I ended up on 43folders.com, the now mothballed productivity site from the inestimable Merlin Mann, checking out his classics. A lot of the really good content on the site is old, downright ancient in web terms, and dates back to 2004-2008. Half the links I seemed to click seemed to go 404 on me. Then, one more link led me to a site where I saw this:

I didn't know Ms. Harpold or her work, but this notice stopped me in my tracks. She apparently died in 2006, and now her website, her work, is gone. It may have been her wishes, it may not have been, but for my purposes that was not the question. After 30 minutes of following dead links and googling for long-gone articles, the ephemerality of the internet became very, very real.

In some sense, all of our writing that stays in bits and bytes and never makes it to paper is living in a future black hole. Sure, books go out of print, and many, many of the world's writings have been lost, but there is something undeniable about the pure physicality of a book. The internet may haunt some people forever, but it seems that for many writers it doesn't hang around long enough.

So, fellow wordsmiths, here is my advice. Don't forgo the physical. Write on paper, make offline backups of your blog, try to publish on paper. Save your work. Because the internet won't do it for you.


At the intersection of plot and the gospel

This blog post is an adaptation of a training talk I gave last week for The Austin Stone Story Team.

As our mission statement for the Austin Stone Story Team says, we “use creative storytelling to glorify the name and purpose of Jesus Christ, encourage the saints, and compel all people to gospel action.” We do this by telling the stories of how the gospel changes lives, but I also believe there is a deeper meaning to the idea of “gospel stories”. Ideally, our stories should not just describe how the gospel changes lives, they should reflect the gospel storyline.

Before we get there though, we should explore the artist’s place in God’s grand redemption narrative. I think it’s extremely important for us to understand how writers and editors fit into the church, and the lives of our fellow believers.

If I talk about literature enough, maybe 5 minutes or so-- I will get around to referencing J.R.R Tolkien. In his essay On Faerie Stories (which I highly recommend if you like fantasy fiction, but even more highly recommend if you think you don’t) Tolkien, a devout Catholic, used the word ‘sub-creator’ to describe the artist who creates another world in their work.

In his book Echoes of Eden, Jerram Barrs takes this idea of Tolkien’s and expands it to cover all artists. He explains, “We never create ex nihilo (out of nothing) like God, for we are always working with some aspect of what he has already made.”

The realization that our acts of creation are subordinate to God’s first creation should lead us to a place of humility, found in the recognition that all we can ever do with our art is hold up a mirror to the world that God created, and show people how we see it.

C.S. Lewis lights the way for us in thinking about the act of sub-creation when he says that, “an author should never conceive of himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom that did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.”

God shows us what sub-creation looks like, and how much he values it in the life of his people, in Exodus 31:1-6, through an artist named Bezalel (bezʹuh-leel):

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you.’”

These were part of God’s instructions to Moses to build the tabernacle. The tabernacle was the Israelites’ traveling temple while they wandered in the desert. It housed the presence of the Lord, and served as the location where the priests could offer their sacrifices. It also pointed to a time when Jesus would be present with us here on earth, and make the final sacrifice for his adopted ones. By equipping Bezalel and the other artists and craftsmen with intelligence, ability, knowledge, craftsmanship and the very Spirit of God, the Lord clearly set him apart for this service. Bezalel was not creating from scratch, God gave him the materials, inspiration, and mission. His creation was subordinate to God’s creation.

Of course, we won’t have our names recorded in the Bible for what we do, but God equips artists with gifts and talents, like he did with Bezalel, to serve him, and build up the church today.

If we properly understand the subordinate nature of being an artist we can approach our work humbly. If we truly see ourselves as sub-creators, then we know that God first conceived of the very mediums we work in. The nature and mechanisms of art were created by God, and given to us as gifts. He is not only the creator of story, but he is also the master storyteller. Which, finally, brings us to the intersection of gospel storytelling and plot.

I don’t know if you all remember this diagram from your middle school English class or not, but this is the standard plot structure that we all know and love, even if you don’t consciously think about it.

[caption id="attachment_61" align="aligncenter" width="1020"]The traditional, three-act plot structure The traditional, three-act plot structure[/caption]

 I have great respect for screenwriters. If you read a book like Story by Robert McKee, or Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, you will quickly realize that they have storytelling down to a science. If you look at most movies, except for maybe Terrence Malik films and other art house fare, you will find this structure.

Screenwriters refer to this as the three-act structure. Act One is the setup, where we are introduced to the characters and setting. Act Two is the confrontation, where conflict is established in what is called “the inciting incident” and obstacles are set up. The stakes are raised as the action rises and tension builds, leading up to the climax. The action of the climax launches us into the final Act, where we find resolution.

The gospel itself has a three-act structure.

[caption id="attachment_60" align="aligncenter" width="1008"]The storyline of the gospel matches up to a traditional plot structure. The gospel storyline[/caption]

In Act One, God creates Adam and Eve, setting them up in Paradise, giving them dominion over the earth. Act Two begins when Adam and Eve sin. They rebel against God’s only command, setting up the conflict between a holy God and mankind’s sin. For generations, Israel persists in a cycle of sin and repentance, demonstrating that man cannot defeat sin within his own power.

Then, Jesus shows up on the scene. He brings the sin of Israel into sharp contrast with his own perfect, holy life. Each conversation and confrontation with the leaders of the day raises the stakes until they have had enough. In one weekend, we have the climax of redemptive history. On Friday the Innocent One is found guilty. On Saturday he is in the grave. But on Sunday, history changes. God redeems his people in the most dramatic way.

From that point on, the victory has been won. Sin is already defeated. But, we live in a world where the final redemption of all creation has not yet come. Theologians call this reality “the already, but not yet.” Finally, we have the New Creation, promised to us in the Word. God will resolve the story with all glory and honor resting on him.

This overarching storyline is called the Biblical meta-narrative. It is the full story of God’s plan to redeem the world from sin, and display his glory in the person of Jesus. It is the storyline of the gospel.

I believe the three-act structure is present in the gospel storyline not because it is a structure we all relate to. Instead, I believe that we all understand and relate to the three-act structure because that is how God gave us the gospel.

Let me put that another way. The gospel is the original plot structure, and we tell stories in this way because they resonate with humans who were created to receive the gospel story.

I think there are profound questions for writers and editors to wrestle with in these truths. But today, our focus is on how we tell the stories in a way that reflects the gospel.

Every believer has a gospel storyline in our lives. We all have a creation, fall, redemption, and we will someday have a new creation in our stories.

But we also have them in our smaller stories and events. In an adoption story, isn’t the loss of a parent for an orphan a type of Fall? In a story of healing, isn’t a believer living in the ‘already but not yet’? After all, their body will still die someday, and their new body is coming one day.  Finally, the Incarnation is the heart and soul of a 100 people story. The goer is emulating exactly what Christ did for humanity.

Here is my proposal: for a story to truly reflect the gospel we cannot pick and choose what parts we show. We cannot just show creation and conflict, because we leave out redemption. We cannot just show redemption either, because a picture of redemption without a background of sin makes no sense. We only need redemption because of our sin.

When we seek to tell stories of redemption and gospel change, I suggest that at a minimum, we must show conflict and redemption. If we can show more of the story, great. But if we cannot, the gospel story must have at least two things: our sin, and God’s grace.