Where’s Your Foundation?

As a Christian publishing professional, editor, writer, and now faculty member teaching Professional Writing, I have been considering my responsibility to my students about their responsibility as Christian writers.

The first concern, as noted in this post, is that my students stand firmly on the foundation of their faith. From the first day of the 101 class to the last day of capstone, I want to help them understand that they must stand on solid foundational truths that will undergird their writing (and, by extension, their lives).

bitumen waterproofing of the foundationMost of my students have a foundation of faith that drew them to Taylor University. Most are Christians but with a wide variety of perspectives on doctrines, social issues, and politics. There is room for all of those perspectives in my classroom, but I always want to draw them back to where we all agree: belief in Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior. Scripture is pretty basic: “If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9 NLT). We have our theologies and our beliefs and our opinions, but it really comes down to that.

So where do they land? Where is their faith, personally? Much of this exploration occurs outside of my classroom in other classes, at chapel, in their small groups in the dorms, and just in living lives as college students. I want them to wrestle with these questions so that as they take the classes across the Professional Writing curriculum, they stand on a foundation as they think critically about how their faith matters in their lives and how it affects their writing.

It matters because their faith matters first and foremost. They don’t know if their words will ever get published into the world, but they do have a responsibility to write where they are called to write. They must not make their reason for being or their standard of success tied to getting published—that should never be the “be all and end all” for any writer. Far more important is their obedience to God wherever He places them and whatever words He gives them. Their relationship with God trumps anything else in life—it trumps every success and every failure, for it is ultimately what matters most.

I encourage them to pay attention in the Biblical Literature classes, to explore Scripture in small group studies, to read the Bible all the way through, to listen to God in a quiet time (in whatever way that looks to them). I want them to understand how God’s Word is “alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires” (Hebrews 4:12 NLT) and how Scripture needs to be a daily “lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105 KJV). I want them to love the Bible.Bible

So then, what it means to be a Christian is to have foundational belief and, I would add, to seek in individual, faulty ways to live and act on those foundations through a daily personal walk with Jesus. It means staying in Scripture and prayer so as to always walk closely with the Father. This doesn’t mean that all Christians will believe the same, act the same, apply those foundations the same, or carry that faith into the world in the same way. We are each working out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12-13). But still, the biblical faith foundation is vital.

Christian writers must be marinated in Scripture, in prayer, and in a daily walk with Jesus.

That’s the foundation we must have.

Christian writer friends, how do you keep your faith fresh and alive?

The Challenge of Christian Writing and Publishing

It’s been an interesting challenge, this past school year, as I’ve taken on new classes (translate—learn what I need to teach and then figure out how to teach it) and gotten out of my comfort zone.

But it has forced me to do some deep thinking about what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and what really matters.

Why do I teach writing and publishing?

What do I really want my students to know?

In the past few months, three things have become more clear to me. For the Christian writers who come through the Professional Writing major at Taylor University, I am committed to them graduating with the following understandings:

  1. as Christians, I want them stand strong on the foundations of their faith, understanding that Scripture and their faith impacts every aspect of their lives; I want them to fall in love with God’s Word and see its power for the rest of their lives;
  2. as writers, I want them to understand that their love for and ability with words is a calling and a gift from the Caller that they should and must continue to hone and improve;
  3. as Christian writers, I want them to comprehend the power of those words and their responsibility to God for how they use their giftedness with words, especially as they seek to publish those words into the world.

How can my faith intersect my discipline as I teach the Professional Writing curriculum? How can I—a Christian publishing professional, editor, writer, and faculty member—bring these fundamental truths into our program? How can I bookend my students’ learning from their 101 introductory class to their final capstone class with these truths that matter?

It feels like a very heavy load.

But down deep in my soul, I sense that this is vital. This is more important than anything else I can do.

It is incumbent on Christian publishing professionals—whether authors or editors or publishers or marketers or bloggers or social media experts or agents—to deliver material that is well written, winsome, true, biblical, and honors Jesus Christ.

In a recent discussion, one of these Christian publishing professionals told me, “Too much of Christian writing is either preachy or saccharine. We need to bring wisdom, winsome words, and truth from our foundation into our writing.”

But what does that even mean anymore? The world is so deeply divided. Even among Christians there is so much division we sometimes act like a circular firing squad. I wonder how we can impact our world for good. How can we disagree about living out our faith (our politics, our work lives, our theological beliefs) but do so in a winsome and respectful way? How can we engage the questions so important in our culture, even as we disagree, while still being able to help others find what we have discovered in the foundations of our faith? In the end, that foundational piece is going to be all that matters to us anyway.

How do I guide my students to these understandings—even as we learn good writing and style tagging and editing and platform building and how to do a book proposal?

How do I guide them—even as we look for truth in Scripture and perhaps disagree on many other areas?

How do I help us all “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” and work out our writing and publishing lives in the same way?

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I invite you to join me both as I prayerfully seek God’s guidance and express my thoughts in the blog. I invite you to comment with your own thoughts and ideas as I think this is a big conversation worth having.

Writers have a lot of power with their words.

And the world needs our very best.

 

Prepping for Life (Part 2)

“Calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion, dynamism, and direction lived out as a response to his summons and service.”

–Os Guinness, The Call

In a previous post, I told you about how our Professional Writing capstone class was kicking off with my 17 seniors. That was Part 1.

For Part 2, my students worked on the Flower Diagram from What Color Is Your Parachute? (I used the 2017 version). If you don’t know, the Flower Diagram is a self-inventory that helps individuals work through their own personal preferences in working style, environment, coworkers, location, and even stretching to what each person wants to accomplish in life. The students overwhelmingly found this exercise (which took us two class days, so seven hours) to be helpful in capturing in one spot a lot of scattered information about themselves. (We even built a preliminary budget on Excel docs!)

For another class, we talked about how to network — which basically means learning how to be a good listener. I then had each student write a 30-second elevator pitch to answer the question, “So tell me about yourself” (much as an interviewer might). They then did a “speed dating” exercise where they moved from one person to the next, spending three minutes sharing their pitch, listening to the other person’s pitch, and then conversing before the bell rang and they moved on to the next person and did it again.

Having to say the pitch and hone it over eight times helped them be ready for . . .

. . . mock interviews.

I gave the students a list of the most-asked questions, and a link to a website that would help them understand what employers are looking for when they ask these questions. I required the students to use their journals to write answers to each question, or at least to take notes as to what they would need to do to prepare for those questions.

Six professionals gave of their time to interview six students each. The students went in groups of three; each was interviewed while one of the other two kept time and both observers wrote assessments. After each interview, they all had five minutes to talk together about the good and the areas that need improvement, and then the groups moved to another interviewer to try again and improve.

Sort of helped with the jitters and to make the interviewing process a tiny bit less intimidating.

I really wanted this to be a practical class so that they are ready — resume polished, LinkedIn profile and portfolios ready, answers to interview questions prepped, all with a feeling of certainty that they understand themselves and their goals just a bit better.

But lest you think it was all fun and forms, stay tuned for Part 3.

 

 

Prepping for Life (Part 1)

“Calling transforms life so that even the commonplace and menial are invested with the splendor of the ordinary.” (Os Guinness, The Call)

My seventeen Professional Writing seniors are closing in on the end of their careers at Taylor. I’m privileged to be teaching what our program calls the “capstone” class — three credit hours together to “cap” their time at Taylor U and their time in our major.

It’s a daunting class — and this was the first time I’ve taught it.

From the start, I knew the class needed to have a writing element, it needed some self-inventory, it needed some interview and job hunt practice and information, and it needed some “adulting” conversations. Three solid weeks, 3-1/2 hours per day. And I wanted all of it to feel practical and meaningful and purposeful.

And that’s what I’ve tried to do.

One day, we talked about our “callings,” considering the definition in Os Guinness’s classic book. How calling can be to many types of work, not just “Christian” work per se. How calling can be simply to finding splendor in the ordinary. How calling can change the world in small ways. How calling, with the acknowledgement of a Caller, gives meaning to life. That was the initial part of our self-inventory.

Then we did what one of my colleagues calls “the red thread.” Each student went through all of the classes taken at Taylor, noting what they liked and didn’t about each — trying to understand how they like to learn, how they learn best regarding type of class, type of instruction, type of content, etc. This traces a “thread” that serves to remind them of the many types of information and skills they’ve gained across these four years.

A highlight was a bus trip to Grand Rapids to visit Zondervan Publishing House, RBC (Our Daily Bread and Discovery House Publishers), and lunch with author Travis Thrasher. The students were encouraged that many of the folks in jobs they hope to have got there in convoluted ways while learning much about themselves along the way.

 

The Zondervan folks were incredibly welcoming, even offering us a panel discussion. They shared with my students about their pathways to their “dream job.”

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In the lobby at Zondervan. The mission statement applies to my students as well.

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Travis Thrasher has gone from being an employee at a publisher to being a full-time writer. We enjoyed hearing about his fiction writing and ghostwriting.

 

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At RBC (Our Daily Bread and Discovery House), we learned about their incredible worldwide ministry, got to see their printing presses in action, and heard from two editors who told about their pathways to where they are today.

The takeaway? Be patient. Try on a lot of jobs. Learn what you can wherever you are. Network with people and let them know the kind of work you’re looking for.

And this was pretty much just week one. I’m excited to watch my students get excited about their possibilities for the future. They are well prepared to become publishing professionals.

Stay tuned for more adventures in Professional Writing capstone!

 

A Song of Syllabi

I never appreciated the syllabi my professors handed me at the beginning of each of those college classes. I’m sure — studious and perfectionistic student that I was — that I lived and died by them during the semesters. I’m sure I monitored homework and project due dates in my student planner. Rarely was I late on an assignment. Rarely did I miss a class.

Now, forty years later, I am sitting with eyes crossed in front of my computer finishing the fifth of five syllabi. How did I never know or begin to appreciate how much work these things were for my profs? I’m grateful to do them because now my classes are organized for the next four months. These little sets of papers are — dare I say it? — works of art!

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When creating a new class, the syllabus is my way of planning it, start to finish. I need to know what I will be doing during each class period, what homework I expect from my students, and then I want to prep all of the required material in the appropriate spot on Blackboard. Beside me as I do the syllabus is my notebook where I fill in the detail for each class period that goes with the general info on the syllabus.

At least, at this point, I’ve taught all of these classes before, so I can begin with last class’s template. But I have a new textbook in one class, another class went from meeting Tuesday/Thursday to Monday/Wednesday/Friday (which meant spreading out the material to fill the new number of class periods), and minor revisions I wanted to make to the other syllabi based on class feedback and my own desire to offer a class that is that much better each time.

It’s self-editing! I try to make my syllabi so thorough that the students can know exactly what will be happening every day of the semester in class — what’s due when and what to be prepared for.

So the self-editing part often includes:

  • dumping bad ideas that didn’t work (a class activity that fell flat, for example)
  • revising homework assignments from hard copy to online quizzes and reflections (saves paper, makes grading faster)
  • checking the links for required reading of online articles to make sure they’re still live, and then replacing some older material with more recent articles
  • revising point structure on assignments to reflect level of work and level of importance to the overall class
  • sometimes I remember how I thought at the time last semester, “I should make a PowerPoint for this section,” and now I need to make a PowerPoint for that section
  • finding new memes for said PowerPoint, as well as to put on the syllabus itself (because, face it, memes are hilarious)

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But suffice it to say, I really love both the process and the completion. And it makes me excited to get started teaching. I mean, that’s the point. The class should excite ME so that my enthusiasm can overflow to the students.

I went over to the university today and photocopied my works of art for each class (23 in Communication Writing Essentials; 19 in Public Speaking; 12 in Social Media Strategy; 18 in Manuscript to Book: How It Happens; the fifth syllabus is for my online Freelancing class). Next week, I will carefully and joyfully hand these to my 72 students . . .

. . .  who won’t have a clue how much work and care went into them.

But that’s okay. My job is to make sure they know where we’re going and to get them there. And hopefully, along the way, they’ll read the syllabus.