Close Reading — It’s Good for You

Back in June of 2015, I wrote a post about how excited I was to teach a class in our Professional Writing major called The Writer’s Craft. As it turns out, I’m teaching the same class again this spring semester, five years later. I have enjoyed recasting this class with some new writing to explore, new pedagogies to try, and five more years of teaching confidence under my belt.

As I noted in the earlier post, this class does not look at the why of a piece of writing. Instead, we focus on the mechanics, the how, the craft. What words does the writer use? How are those words making this piece sing? What about sentence structure? Paragraphing? How is this dialogue telling us the story without telling us the story? We’re still using some tried and true greats (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck), but I’ve added a few titles still classic but not as old (Tim O’Brien, E. B. White, John Updike, Flannery O’ Connor), along with diversity (Joy Harjo, Jame McBride, and a few names I’m still researching), plus some YA and fantasy genre pieces (also still researching).

Seriously, the class is planned, but in the short time frame between closing out J-term capstone class and beginning the spring semester (3 days), I found myself with a few TBDs on the reading schedule that I’ll fill in as we go along.

College teaching is just sometimes like that.

In addition, we’re still using Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writerbut this time I’ve also added Anne Lamott’s delightful Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeIt may be 25 years old, but I know it will speak volumes to my students about being writers.

 

The essence of the class is what Prose calls “close reading.” Usually when we read for pleasure, we skim along, anxious to discover who falls in love, or whodunit, or how to solve that problem the book promises to solve.

With close reading, however, we linger over the words. The students receive printed copies of the pieces they’ll be “close reading” so they can write all over them — commenting, highlighting, underlining, circling. This kind of reading helps us to read, as Prose says,

. . . more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. . . . I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls ‘putting very word on trial for its life.’

As writers, our currency is the words we string together. We write our first drafts and then go back and revise, putting every word on trial, forcing it to explain why it should stay, removing or replacing it if the case isn’t made — if the lyricism or characterization or structure or foreshadowing requires something else.

As we read these masterful writers, we stand in awe at how they make look so simple a scene that we know required dozens of small perfect choices.

And even as I continue to journal Scripture, close reading is causing me to slow down on familiar passages and read them more carefully, seeing them anew.

In our busy culture with quick social media posts and constant bombardment of words, it’s almost a relief to be forced to slow down and delight in the world an author so carefully crafted for us.

Try a little close reading. It’ll do you good.

What’s your favorite book that has delighted and astounded you with its writing?

In Love with God’s Word: Bible Reading Plans

The Bible is a funny book. Imagine if publishers today were trying to consider various books of the Bible on their own terms and whether or not to publish them:

Gospel of John: “Really too much like three other books already on the market. And a bit too esoteric compared to the biographical and chronological approaches of the others.”

Hosea: “While we like the titillating back story of the wife turned prostitute, the author simply doesn’t finish the plot arc and tie up her story. And the female character’s name is ‘Gomer.’ We can’t take that seriously.”

Revelation: “The style of writing in this book fits well into our spec fic line, but the author is insistent that this is not fiction. We feel that he has spent way too much time alone on that island and thus takes his writing too seriously. Could publish if he’s willing to put it in our fiction line.”

Speaking of the book of Revelation:

I am enjoying my experiment with the Scripture engagement plan of journaling Scripture, as I described in my last post. I used the Christmas story in Luke 2, and then moved on the Matthew 1 to read about Joseph and the magi and Herod (who subsequently sent soldiers to kill the little ones in Bethlehem–a horror story if there ever was one).

I’m going to spend the next couple of days in Revelation 12, which tells the same story.  The woman (nation) giving birth to the male child (Messiah), the dragon (Satan) waiting to destroy the male child (as Satan used Herod), chasing the child and the nation attempting to destroy both (all of history bears this out).

Fascinating. I wonder what God has for me as I journal these passages . . .

But then, what’s next? I’m still stuck with the same problem of “what to read now.” And I’ve been-there-done-that with the through-the-Bible-in-a-year plans. But now I’ve found something new. Again at Bible Gateway, you can choose any of several reading plans. This time, I want to do a Bible reading plan that takes me through the Bible chronologically.

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I signed up for a free account at Bible Gateway so I can have the daily reading delivered to my email box. The “what to read” question is answered with the added highlight of studying God’s Word in a different way. I can spend time journaling through these passages. I’m excited to pair my Cultural Backgrounds Bible with reading Scripture chronologically.

And as I read, I can check off my reading and the program will keep up with me. Perhaps I want to take a couple of days on a passage. Perhaps I miss some days (and I will). All is not lost . . . I can just pick it up the next time and finish when I finish. Start when I want (as in now) and finish when I want (as in, whenever–maybe a year, probably not).

So what about you? With the new year approaching, many of us have plans to “be more consistent” or “try to do better.” What will you be doing to stay in God’s Word (and stay in love with God’s Word)?

And while you’re at it, what might be a current publisher response to a book of the Bible?

 

 

In Love with God’s Word: Scripture Engagement & Journaling

I have a strange problem. As much as I love God’s Word and as important as I know it is for me in my daily life (and as much as I talk and write about that), I have struggled with my daily quiet time with God.

Here’s the thing. I’ve been deep in the Bible for almost thirty years, daily editing notes or articles or devotionals for various types of study and devotional Bibles. I have read it in its entirety over and over and over. So when I want to have a quiet time, I don’t know where to start without feeling like I’m on the clock and editing. When I try various devotional books thinking I’ll get some new insights, I’m frankly bored by them.

Maybe you’ve been a Christian for a long time. Maybe you, like me, are trying to find a way to come to Scripture with fresh eyes and open heart without feeling the same-old same-old that too often blinds us.

Then I have a treat for you, something I just discovered that I want to share.

It’s called “Scripture Engagement,” and it’s over at the BibleGateway website in a section created by the Christian Educational Ministries faculty and students at Taylor University.

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As I learned more about these many types of Scripture engagement, I discovered some new ways to “engage” with God’s Word. The link for Scripture Engagement gives an overview of 14 types of Scripture engagement techniques, and then sublinks guide you to various helps and videos that show you how to incorporate that new kind of Scripture engagement into your own quiet time. Many of them are good for individual study; some will work with group study.

I am starting with the Scripture engagement practice of “Journaling Scripture.” I watched the accompanying video, taking notes in my new notebook where I want to capture my thoughts as I experiment with these various types of engagement. I read all the tips and helps; I wrote down the questions and thoughts where I should focus. Basically, Journaling Scripture means to read a passage and begin by asking God, “What do you have for me today?” Then write:

  • verses that stand out
  • questions that arise
  • truths to hold onto
  • personal action steps
  • praises, prayers, confession

It’s a time to listen to God speak to me through His Word and a time for me to write what I sense God is saying to me.

I’m a student at heart, and so I really want to study the passage for a bit more depth. So when I read the passage for the day, I also read the study notes in both my Life Application Study Bible and my brand-new Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Reading these helps me keep that “wow” factor alive as I learn something new or relearn something I forgot. Then I begin the process of journaling, sitting quietly, and seeking God. As the pages in my journal slowly fill with my handwritten thoughts, I get a sense of God and I engaging together.

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To get into the Christmas spirit in our decidedly un-Christmasy situation, I read Luke 2 and Matthew 1. I studied about Bethlehem (where Rachel is buried, Gen. 35:19; the story in the book of Ruth takes place; David was anointed, 1 Sam. 16; Micah prophesied as Jesus’ birthplace, Micah 5:2). I read the notes. I thought about Mary and Joseph basically putting their reputations on the line for their entire lives by their willingness to obey God’s call. I imagined the long trip to Bethlehem. I asked God,

  • “Why do you seem to do everything the hard way?”
  • “Why does obedience so often lead to difficulty?”

And those questions led me to much introspection about God’s working in my own life. Several pages’ worth, actually.

I encourage you to try Journaling as a method of Scripture engagement. And stay with me as I experiment with this and a few others in the weeks to come.

Like me, you might find a brand new way to listen to God.

 

 

 

Catching Up …

From the fire at the end of August to our now sadly undecorated and still unfinished restoration that will not happen before Christmas (we’re living in two rooms and a kitchen), life has managed to be an adventure.

Another school semester has passed.

At the end of September, I had the privilege of teaching at the Maranatha Christian Writers’ Conference and taking seven of my Professional Writing students along. It’s a joy to watch them network, meet authors they admire (like Travis Thrasher and Steven James), bond together as a group, and learn how to navigate a writers’ conference.

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Enjoying Lake Michigan!
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Meeting author Travis Thrasher (above) and Steven James (below).

 

October found my husband and me visiting Washington D.C. Highlights included the Library of Congress, seeing the Gutenburg Bible, all the wonderful monuments, and meeting up with several dear high school friends I haven’t seen in over 40 years.

 

But the main reason for visiting was to attend a celebration at the Museum of the Bible honoring the release of the third edition of the Life Application Study Bible. (Read more about the event here.)

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Thirty years ago, this group (pictured above) worked together on what would become the bestselling study Bible of all time (I discussed the process here.) We didn’t know then that God would use our prayerful labors to sell 20 million copies so far of the Life Application Study Bible. I am humbled to have worked with this group and appreciate the honors we received on the evening of October 16 as the pioneers on the project, now also celebrating those who completed work on the third edition of this Bible that has been updated for a new generation. We so enjoyed hearing from special speakers Ed Stetzer (director of the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton) and Dr. Barry Black (chaplain of the US Senate). It was a wonderful evening of celebration of the power of God’s Word.

Finally, in November, Tom and I drove to Nashville to attend the meeting of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. I recently became a member of this group, knowing that in my teaching about publishing, I need to stay on the cutting edge of the industry. Was fun to see a former student, Amy Green, publicist at Bethany House, who helped to plan the Christy awards celebration.

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Enjoyed hearing from musician and author Andrew Peterson. His book, Adorning the Dark, will be a text in my senior capstone class this January.

Now I’m prepping for final exams and papers and decidedly NOT decorating for Christmas. But we’ll get in the spirit. I’m looking forward to sharing how I’m working on that. Stay tuned!

How was fall for you? What are you doing to get into the holiday spirit?

In love with God’s Word—even thru fiery trials

We sat in our typical living room spots, my husband and I, bingeing something on Netflix as we unwound that late August evening.

“Do you smell something?” he asked.

I did. A slight husky smell of smoke. He looked out the back door and noticed our neighbors’ bonfire.

“It’s next door.” He shrugged and added, “Let’s go get the mail.”

We live in a tiny town, so tiny that we only have a P.O. box and need to go there to get our mail. It takes about seven minutes to walk the few blocks to the post office. We chatted as we walked through the cool end-of-summer evening. It was still light, 6:30ish.

The post office is next door to the local fire house. As we passed, the big doors were opening and our local volunteers were loading into trucks and pulling out.

We waved cheerily.

We collected our mail and ambled down the side streets heading home. The volunteer fire fighters were squealing into town, the blue lights on their varied pickup trucks flashing.

“Wow! Wonder where they’re headed?” we asked each other.

Two minutes later and around the corner onto our street we discovered that the fire was – US! Our garage was burning.

Long story short, the small blaze had started on the outside of our garage, perhaps from a stray ember. The fire traveled up across the garage ceiling and then into the great room ceiling. I located a kind neighbor who rescued our terrified Shih Tzu (those big men in yellow suits with oxygen masks tromping into her domain!). Then I could do nothing more than hold her and sit helplessly in the back yard swing  watching smoke pour from our new roof, firemen bashing their axes through the great room ceiling, smoke ascending, water descending.

What does all of this have to do with God’s Word, you ask?

Well, for several days we waited for the restoration company to do their work and for the freedom to make our way into the destroyed great room. The overturned furniture bulged from under wet smelly insulation and soaked drywall. The computer I’d been working on was soaked. Books, papers, everything lost.

My Bible had been on a ledge under the coffee table.

This is the Bible that carried me through marriage and child-raising. The Bible that has pages stained with tears. It has underlinings, comments, thoughts, prayers, and dates when a particular verse resonated with a particular situation. It’s the past 30-plus years between blue leather covers. I purchased this Bible right after we had completed the Life Application Study Bible in the NIV.

I expected the poor book to be soaked—a congealed mess of thin, Bible-paper pages.

Only it wasn’t. It survived. Its place under the table must have protected it from the worst of the cascading water from the firemen’s powerful hoses.

It has a slight smoky smell and its cover shows a few new dents. But the moment I saw it, I was overjoyed. Don’t get me wrong; I have other Bibles. I can buy more. But THIS one, this one holds much of my life between its covers, and it holds the promises that have helped me live that life to the best of my ability to honor God.

I’m not claiming anything miraculous; I’m just very thankful.

Even through fiery trials.

In Love with God’s Word: The LASB Commentaries

After we completed several versions of the Life Application Study Bibles (as I’ve mentioned in the last couple of posts, here and here), someone came up with the idea of creating actual commentaries—one for each book of the New Testament. Seventeen red volumes—some including two or three of the smaller books in one volume.

Several more years of intense work. Our study notes for the Life Application Study Bible had been necessarily limited by word counts and physical space on Bible pages, so we couldn’t include much of the material that we had gathered in the course of writing the notes. And, in the process of writing the notes and working our way through the piles of commentaries in the middle of our conference room table, we learned that most commentaries are extremely difficult to read and, while they offer information, they lacked that vital “so what?” element that had become our mantra.

LASB commentaries

Our team set out on another five years of work, making our way through a verse-by-verse commentary of every verse in the New Testament. I was still at home, working as a freelancer. My job was to create the skeleton of a note for every verse. I would start with what we did on that verse in the LASB (if, indeed, we addressed it there). If not, I worked as we had in our meetings—checking every commentary, reading what it said, condensing it to something readable, tying it to the context, making it interesting, applying it to today. With my home office desk piled high with commentaries, I began the process of doing, on my own, what we had done in a group. Bible chapter by Bible chapter, my rough material would go to the same guys to do their own edits and additions.

Some have asked me in the past how I could possibly work on the Bible this way, actually writing commentaries. “You’re not trained. You’ve not been to seminary. I don’t see how they could let you loose on something this important.”

I took this to heart and at first was really frustrated. Working with the Bible is a huge responsibility. It has to be right. And some passages have many interpretations by sincere believers. Why were they trusting me with this?

Then it struck me. Part of my work had to do with the fact that I knew our process. We had honed it in those hundreds of hours working together in the conference room writing the notes for the Bible. And my part? I had to be able to read and understand, and then I had to be able to rewrite in a readable way.

That was it. And I was by no means the final voice. What I wrote as a rough draft was read by our team of pastors and M.Divs. and Bible scholars for their revisions and edits—piles of pages coming back to me with my skeleton often intact but lots of red markings.

I realized that I didn’t have to be a Bible scholar to do what I was doing. Of course, all of the reading was giving me a vast education—I might as well have been in seminary. But in the end, it came down to being able to write well. To take a tough topic and condense it down for an unscholarly audience (like me) to be able to understand it. Simplifying scholarly material for an unscholarly audience seemed to come naturally to me.

It’s the same with anything I edit. I don’t have to be an expert in the topic of the book I’m editing—indeed, there would be no way to do so. I just need to read each manuscript with fresh eyes (as a reader would) and make sure that I as reader am following, getting what I need, understanding, not getting lost.

That’s the key to being a good editor.

 

In Love with God’s Word — and Its Many Versions

When the complete Life Application Study Bible in The Living Bible paraphrase came out around 1988 (as I discussed last week in this post), I worked on other Bible versions of the LASB by revising every ancillary feature to match that version. We began in The Living Bible, then did the King James Version, the New King James Version, Revised Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, New International Version, New American Standard, and Holman Christian Standard.

Seven years, approximately a translation a year. The life application concept was such a massive success and such a new approach to a study Bible that suddenly every publisher wanted it. (In the world of Bible publishing, there are public domain texts, such as some versions of the King James Version, and then pretty much every heavy-hitting Bible publisher owns its own—pays to have it created or purchases one. That way, they can create various kinds of study and devotional Bibles without having to pay royalties to another publisher.) Those publishers wanted to be able to sell the LASB in their own translation.

What that meant was that someone needed to go through all of the ancillary material and make it match the wording of the new Bible version text. During those seven years, I would receive the default original version of all of the Bible notes (thousands of them) and features (map copy, chart copy, people profile notes, book introductions) and a Bible (not electronic, just a book) with the new version. The base files of all that material came to me on 5-1/4-inch floppy disks. I would insert the disk in my computer, open Genesis and begin to work. Wherever we quoted Scripture, I had to look it up and make it match the new version. At times, place names or people names would be treated differently: Is that son of Saul named Ishbosheth or Ish-bosheth or Ish-Bosheth or Ish Bosheth (it’s actually all of them, depending on which Bible version).

Eventually I learned to watch for key words that might be different (NIV says the Israelites wandered in the “desert”; most other versions say “wilderness”). Some versions have John the Baptist’s mother spelled with a z “Elizabeth,” some with an s “Elisabeth”; some have his father as Zechariah and some as Zacharias. In some, Esther is married to King Ahasuerus; in others, King Xerxes. This is not an issue of error; it’s an issue of translation and sources and Greek and Hebrew—and I suppose, whatever the translation committee eventually agreed upon. And then, of course, some versions include upper-case deity pronouns (such as the NKJV) and some do not. For those that did, every single reference to God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit as a he or a him or a himself or a his had to be tracked down and fixed with a capital H.

I went through the Bible several times over the course of those seven years. A couple of years later, Tyndale House set aside their popular but often-questioned Living Bible paraphrase for an actual translation done by teams of scholars. This became the New Living Translation, and, of course, Tyndale wanted their signature study Bible to be available in this new Bible text. And who do you think they contacted for that work?

Well, it was me. What a privilege it has been to read and reread Scripture and these notes across all these years.

I’m in love with this book. Reading start to finish over and over has given me appreciation for the big picture of God’s salvation from creation to the promise of His return in the future.

It’s all about my heart’s desire to help others to fall in love with God’s Word. Because when we do that, we’ll read it and we’ll begin to understand God’s great plan for us all.

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