Writers Need Thick Skin, Part 1: Dealing with Rejection

I tell my students this all the time: “You want to be a writer? You want to get published? You want to get your writing into the hands of readers? Then develop a thick skin.”

Sounds tough, I know. But it’s 100 percent true.

And this theme is a key element of my upcoming book, which has no title yet but is right now affectionately called, “So you’ve finished your manuscript? You want to get published? Here is everything you need to know, prepare, do, and plan for.” I know, too long. But that’s basically what it’s about.

And there’s a whole chapter on the idea of having a thick skin. Because writers need it.

We need it before we get published, and we need it after (which I will discuss in my next post as Part 2).

First, the BEFORE. Anyone who has been writing and submitting for more than a week has discovered that rejection is simply a part of the process. Writers need thick skin to be ready to handle those inevitable rounds of rejection and maintain personal mental health. No matter how many years you’ve been at it, no matter how many pieces you have or have not published, those four simple words “not right for us” hit right in the gut.

Every. Time.

Why does it hurt so much? Well, as a much-rejected writer, I believe it just comes down to how much of ourselves we put into every piece we write and how rejection feels like a rejection of us personally. Whether it’s a literary story, or a transparent memoir, or a how-to on keeping houseplants alive, we worked hard and put ourselves out there. So it is always with great fear and trembling that we send out the piece or the query or the proposal and anxiously await the response.

We fear that someone out there will laugh uproariously at our audacity to think we can write and that anyone would publish us, show it around so everyone else laughs at our expense, and then reply with the terse email, “Not right for us.”

Courtesy of memebetter.com meme generator (which I love!). Grumpy cat photo and meme created by Tabatha Bundesen.

Can I offer up a few facts to help keep those rejections in perspective?

However, first, I’m going to assume that you are a careful writer and researcher, that others have read and critiqued your work, that you’ve revised and revised to make it the best you can deliver. That is my assumption. (Please don’t be one of those writers who tries to send off the first draft or who dares to think that “God gave me the words” so therefore it’s perfect as is.) Good, solid writing takes time and care.

Beyond that, here are some thoughts from my own (and many others’) experiences:

  • Everyone gets rejected. Every single famous author started out right where you are — wallowing in the misery of the “not right for us.” If you don’t believe me, here’s an article about best-selling books that were initially rejected (often many times).
  • You have to understand how many pieces these editors are seeing every single day. Sometimes hundreds. You have a lot of competition when there are a couple hundred submissions for a single spot in a magazine, or when there are hundreds of book proposals for perhaps five publication slots at an imprint of your genre for the next publication season. So don’t take it personally.
  • It could be that, although your piece or proposal is stellar, someone got in right before you with something very similar. And yours gets rejected. There’s no way you could know that.
  • Acceptance is very subjective. The gatekeeper reading your query or literary piece or proposal needs to “feel it.” They need to resonate with your topic or your voice. And if they don’t, then it will be rejected. Not because you’re a terrible writer, but simply because this particular editor just didn’t have that gut reaction. And there’s no way you can control that.
  • Rejection is about the piece, the query, the proposal — it is not a rejection of you as a person or as a writer (no matter how much it feels that way).

So how can you handle rejection? Here are a few more thoughts:

  • Allow yourself to feel bad for a bit. It does hurt. (Give yourself a day to wallow, if needed. But no negative self-talk. Remember, it’s not a rejection of you.)
  • Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and go back to your tracking system for the next place to submit. (You do have a tracking system, don’t you? If not, create one. Make a list of all the places you want to submit to on something like an Excel doc. More on that in a later post — oh, and also in my upcoming book. <just a teaser>). What I mean is that on such a list you can now mark down that XX publication or publisher rejected it, so now turn around and send it to YY. Of course you’ll have to revise your piece, and double check submission guidelines and word counts, but get it out there again. If you really believe in it, keep trying at other places. You might hit right at the moment when they DO need just your piece and the editor DOES resonate with it.
  • You could even take an optimistic approach, like this writer, on why you should aim for 100 rejections a year (pardon the swear word in the article — but the point is valid). The basic premise is that the more you’re submitting, yes, the more you’ll get rejected, but by the law of averages, it also means the more chances you’re giving yourself to eventually be published.
  • Stay classy, don’t burn bridges with any editor or publisher, and thicken that skin.

You writers out there who have experienced rejection, how do you handle it and keep your writing sanity?

Finding Your Writing Rhythm

I’ve been thinking about my writing rhythm as I’m working feverishly to meet my book deadline (mid-May). First was getting past my imposter syndrome that plagued the early writing.

Now is, you know . . . finishing the actual book.

In mid February, when the spring semester began and I worked up my weekly class schedule, I thought I would take advantage of a free hour here and there during my work days between classes to keep the momentum going. “One hour of writing,” I boldly declared to myself in the box on the weekly printed schedule.

It has yet to happen.

There is too much else needing my instant attention in those in-between hours — whether it’s emails or grading or prep for the next class or students wanting to meet or just plain taking a breather. (As a card-carrying introvert, being “on” all day long is exhausting. Sometimes I just need to recharge in my quiet office before venturing back out in front of the classroom.)

I’ve discovered that I just can’t work on my book in those in-between hours. It takes too much for me to get going, and then, once I get going, I don’t want to stop and then have to pick up later. A single hour just isn’t enough. But give me an entire Sunday afternoon or give me a free day during our college’s spring break, and I can write for five or six hours before looking up and realizing I should go get something to eat.

Allie Pleiter (creator of The Chunky Method — check it out, it’s cool!) would call me a “big chunk writer.” There are “little chunk writers,” those folks who can pick up and write in the cracks of time between other events. Some of my students fall into that category. In the few minutes between classes, they write. Others are like me and need to find a place and a time where uninterrupted hours allow for uninterrupted flow.

Indeed, famous writers past and present have very different types of rhythms. This article, The Daily Routine of 20 Famous Writers (and How You Can Use Them to Succeed) by Mayo Oshin, offers up the routines of twenty of them. Stephen King tries to write six pages a day, while John Steinbeck strove for one a day. Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, and Maya Angelou wrote in the mornings (it seems that for many of them, mornings are key). Ray Bradbury wrote one short story a week, figuring that, with the law of averages, at least one out of 52 would have to be good. Mark Twain wrote all day from after breakfast until dinnertime. Charles Dickens always took a three-hour midday walk.

Some need music; some need silence (I’m a silence worker). Some write at the same time in the same spot every day. Some are compulsive about page or word count, others not so much.

The point is, no rhythm is right or wrong — you just need to find yours. And granted, I’m guessing you’re not making your living writing, so you probably have to work your writing time around job and family responsibilities. It’s a challenge.

Yes, it’s a challenge, but it will be worth it!

My senior capstone students are currently reading Andrew Peterson’s excellent book Adorning the Dark (if you haven’t read it, please do!). He writes, “If you wait until the conditions are perfect, you’ll never write a thing” (p. 40). And all of them resonated with that statement. (And, if they think it’s tough now while in college …).

So if you’re going to make your writing life work, you need to figure out a rhythm that works for your life right now in this season. Even then, a few months from now, your life routine may change and you’ll need to readjust. But figure out something that will work for you now.

  • Decide if you can make use of small chunks of time or you need long chunks of uninterrupted time.
  • Consider the time when you’re most productive (and have time to put into writing). If you’re a morning big chunk writer with a full-time job, maybe you’ll have to use Saturday mornings. If you’re a morning small chunk writer, maybe getting up a bit earlier and putting in an hour each morning will work for you.
  • Determine if you can work amidst chaos (will the kitchen table work while folks are moving around you, or a local coffee shop?) or if you need quiet. If you need a quiet space, can you set up a work table in a large closet, or the garage, or an attic? Is there a space you can set aside where you can work?
  • Can you do chaos but with earplugs or earphones? Does music help or hinder?

Find out what works for you. Just because someone says to write X number of words or pages a day doesn’t mean YOU have to do that. But if you’re going to keep moving ahead with your writing, you’ll have to find a rhythm that works best for you.

If you’ve found your writing rhythm, what does that look like? Share in the comments below.

3 Questions for Imposter Syndrome

I feel it (almost) every day. “Imposter Syndrome.”

Defining terms:

An imposter, a fraud. Someone who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive.

A syndrome, a group of symptoms that occur together creating some kind of abnormality. Over at the U of Utah Health site, it says, “A disease usually has a defining cause, distinguishing symptoms and treatments. A syndrome, on the other hand, is a group of symptoms that might not always have a definite cause.”

Put together, one feels like a fraud because of some undefined group of symptoms with no definite cause.

The full definition, as noted by Psychology Today, is:

People who struggle with imposter syndrome believe that they are undeserving of their achievements and the high esteem in which they are, in fact, generally held. They feel that they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might think—and that soon enough, people will discover the truth about them. 

It looks like me asking such questions:

“What am I doing teaching at a college? I never trained for this! Everyone else on faculty is so much more [academic, interesting, challenging, capable, professional, creative] than I am.”

“What am I doing writing a book about publishing? Everything has already been written. How can I possibly add anything new to the mix? All the other authors [are better writers, have deeper knowledge, have stronger writing voices, can promote their books better, are already on the circuit, are more fun to be around].”

Then basically choose any other task or role, and I’ll find a way to feel like either I shouldn’t try to do it or shouldn’t be there if I am doing it … because, you know, someone else could do it so much better.

I’m not alone. Again according to Psychology Today, 70 percent of adults may experience this at least once in their lifetime. But my imposter syndrome is less about me feeling undeserving of accolades or awards (don’t currently have any to speak of); instead, it’s more about me feeling like I’m merely acting a part and, yes, someone at some point is going to find out I’m not as competent as I pretend to be and they’ll call me out.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Ever feel like that?

I don’t want to feel like an imposter, even as I humbly acknowledge my shortcomings in so many areas. So I’ve learned to ask myself three questions because, as a Christian, I look not just within but outside myself as well, to my heavenly Father, for help in dealing with this negative thinking and self-doubt.

(1) Did God call me to this job or give me this opportunity?

(2) Have I sensed his clear guidance and peace in pursuing it?

(3) Do I continue to sense his presence — whether things are going smoothly or not?

If I can say yes to these questions, then I can look imposter syndrome in the face and calmly explain that I am NOT a fraud. I am not perfect, I’m still learning, I’m still striving to improve, but I’m not going to let imposter syndrome cause me to do less than my best or refuse to take risks or try new opportunities. I won’t let it stifle me or God’s plan for my life.

(Well, at least I’m going to keep trying …)

What’s that verse we all love? “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13, NKJV). When Christ is giving me strength to do a task he has clearly called me to, then who am I to feel like I’m just an imposter?

Have you ever been inflicted by imposter syndrome? What has helped you through it? Share in the comments!

To the Old Man Working at Starbucks

You sort of stand out. Most Starbucks employees are pink-haired, nose-ringed youngsters happy to have a first job that isn’t sitting behind a desk. I can say this because my daughter used to work as a shift-manager at a Starbucks right out of college. She was not pink-haired and nose-ringed, but she was young and happy to have a job that wasn’t behind a desk. She loved that job, although a marriage and three daughters later, she has moved on to—you guessed it—a job behind a desk.

But you, sir, you’re tall and grey-haired with glasses. You’re very distinguished looking. You have on the green apron and the headset. I’m at the cash register getting my chai and watching you heat up my blueberry scone. You’re staring into the microwave window as the scone circles. There’s a lag in the activity, a rare quiet moment for you in the day of busy baristas. You’re looking in that window, but you’re not seeing anything.

Image courtesy of Annie’s Eats, Flickr

Why are you here amongst these young bouncy extroverts? Do you have this job because you have to or because you want to?

Is this a job to get you out of the house because a beloved wife passed away and being alone at home all day is just too much?

Is this a job to give you some money because social security just isn’t enough to live on?

Did you get hammered in the stock market? Did your mortgage get under water? Is the economy taking such a hit on you that you have to be here taking latté orders with a shot of this or that?

I’m sorry. I want to come around the counter and give you a hug.

I want to tell you it’s okay that it takes you a little longer to get my drink or to heat my scone. I want to tell the flurry of baristas to just slow down a little.

After all, I bet you have a story to tell. Are you a veteran? What have you seen?

Were you at the top of your game—a CEO or an academic?

Were you a solid and loyal employee for a company that repaid you by downsizing or moving away?

Why are you here?

I could ask but I just think that would be rude. But I want to hear your story.

Why are you here?

And then I think about how I’m suddenly seeing so many older people in jobs where they shouldn’t be—at the checkout line at Walmart, handing me my burger through the McDonald’s window, mopping the floor in the grocery store.

All of them are someone’s mom or dad, someone’s grandpa or grandma. What if you were my dad? What if an impatient punk lit into him for taking an extra ten seconds to gather his thoughts and count the right change? I’d wanna punch that kid.

I really hope you aren’t doing this because you have to, but I suspect that isn’t the case. I wish the economy wasn’t tanking and COVID wasn’t turning everything upside-down.

Sir, I’m not sure why you’re here. I don’t know what circumstances led you to put on the green apron and headset and heat up my scone for me.

But I appreciate you. Whatever your story is, I appreciate you.

I Got a Book Contract!

Hey writing friends! I just have to share some good news.

I got a contract for another book and I’m so excited.

I’ll be working again with Bold Vision Books, who published my last book titled Word by Word: An Editor Guides Writers in the Self-editing Process (you can read more about that book here).

This will be a revised and expanded version of that book–probably incorporating much of what is in the current book but then bringing in everything that a writer should be doing in the process of preparing for publication. After all, the actual writing of the manuscript is only part of the process.

So I began an outline. See what you think. What am I missing?

  • Seeking an agent
  • Seeking a publisher
  • Building (or enhancing) your social media presence
  • Self-editing your manuscript (that part I have)
  • Going to writers’ conference and what to expect
  • Writing the book proposal
  • Writing the one sheet
  • Perfecting your pitch
  • Preparing for book promotion
  • Being confident in your work
  • Handling rejection
  • Handling acceptance
  • Understanding contracts and rights

As I have attended and taught at many writers’ conferences, I have begun to realize how much knowledge of the industry I take for granted and how much most people simply don’t know. A one-stop basic book for writers just putting their toes into the publishing waters will offer them understanding and confidence as they move through the process of trying to get published.

There is a lot to unpack here. If you have thoughts about something newbie writers should know but don’t — in other words, topics I should address in the book — please comment below or write to me. I would love to hear from you.

Help me make this happen!

Thank You, Dr. Leax, for Your Inspiration (part 2)

I am recently inspired by a book that I randomly picked up in a dusty resale shop in Marion, Indiana. You know how it goes — at least if you’re a reader or writer — the first stop is in the back where castoffs unsold at garage sales or lugged from overflowing home libraries rest precariously on makeshift bookshelves or in unorganized piles.

I’m usually looking for classics, memoirs, or books about writing, although our own overflowing bookshelves force me to try to be selective. But that day, I found a treasure. In Season and Out is a book by John Leax, my writing professor from Houghton College, whom I’ve written about before. A bonus is that the lovely illustrations are by a dear family friend, Roselyn Danner, now in heaven.

The book is simple, beautiful, lyrical. Divided into four seasons beginning with summer, the entries are dated and chronicle Dr. Leax’s woodcutting, vegetable gardening, teaching, and small town living. This passage, in particular, resonated with me:

Last night while walking Poon, I suddenly realized I had walked past nine houses within one quarter mile and did not know the occupants of any of them. I can rationalize my ignorance. The generation gap accounts for part of it, most of the houses are occupied by elderly couples or widows who keep to themselves. The cultural gap figures in it too; college English profs are not easily assimilated into the daily life of a small rural town. And the inevitable knowledge gap between old and new residents finishes it off; I’ve only been in this town nine years — I’ll never possess the local knowledge of those who go back generations.

(In Season and Out, Zondervan, 1985, p. 41)

My husband and I take a twilight walk. We’ve been in this tiny country town for almost exactly three years, slowly remodeling our 110-year-old house. We don’t know most of the 986 occupants of Swayzee. Fortunately, we do know most of our direct neighbors along our street, but any conversation quickly uncovers the truth that no matter how long we live here, we will always be newcomers who will “never possess the local knowledge of those who go back generations.” Folks here grew up together, went to school together, and lived around one another as they married, had children, worked, and grew older.

As much as I love our small town, I mourn the boarded-up and vacant buildings, the cafe someone bought to remodel and never finished, the houses unkempt or uncared for, the closed-up hardware store still full of supplies, the empty downtown building that fell (literally fell) because of neglect. At one time, this was a vibrant town — now the biggest news is that we watch a field outside of town slowly transform into a Dollar General.

But there is splendor here, splendor in the ordinary. The open fields, the sunsets, people’s care for one another, the annual rummage sales, the tractor day parade, the parks, the elementary school kids lugging their backpacks, the fresh wind bringing the scent of a new harvest.

Dr. Leax’s book inspired me to spend my summer writing about my small town, our butterfly gardens, our slow remodeling progress, our attempt at growing vegetables, my preparation for fall classes — all of which he touches on. I want to celebrate my very ordinary life, capturing its splendor as best I can.

I am not trying to get this published. I am writing to sharpen my skills and voice, to keep doing what I teach my students to do.

I owe it to my old prof, forty years later. Once again, Dr. Leax, thank you for your inspiration.

Submitting in 2021: Get It Done!

I’ve been watching Twitter feeds in the #writingcommunity hashtag and seeing lots of folks post that 2021 is the year they will finally submit — to magazines or literary magazines or a book publisher. I say, YAY. GO FOR IT! You pour yourself into those words and you have something to say into the world.

In order to do that, you’ll need to submit to gatekeepers at these various publications. Let’s make sure you do everything you can to get read! Following are a few tips as you make 2021 your year for submitting!

1. Follow the submission guidelines.

I can’t stress this enough. Read those submission guidelines — don’t just send off your piece. Not following the guidelines will assure that your submission will be rejected before it’s even read. Remember that editors and agents receive hundreds of submissions. They will immediately toss or delete anything that isn’t submitted per the guidelines.

You can find submissions guidelines on most publication or publisher websites (same for literary agents). You might need to scroll to the fine print at the bottom of the home page, or locate the contact page, but generally they will be there. You can also find information in Writer’s Market (or Christian Writer’s Market Guide if you’re writing for the Christian market).

For instance, if you’re going to submit to Grit magazine, navigate to their submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. Here’s the link as an example. Notice on the Grit submissions page that it tells you:

  • what they publish and what they don’t
  • the fact that you can’t send anything unsolicited; you must send a query letter first
  • where and how to send the query (even what to put in the subject line of your email)
  • word counts
  • where and how to send your submission

Or check out the submission guidelines for the Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books here. Notice again:

  • how to write your submission (even how the first paragraph should read)
  • how NOT to write your submission
  • that you must submit through their website

That basic information will get you a long way toward getting your piece in front of an editor’s eyes. Of course, you still need to write well, have a compelling piece, and fit the editor’s desires or needs (which, of course, you have no idea about necessarily). But you could have all of that but will lose the opportunity if you don’t follow the submission guidelines to the letter. So make that a resolution!

2. Proofread your submission and have someone else (who knows what they’re doing) proofread as well.

Have your proofreader double check your submission along with the submission guidelines. (They might see something you missed.) Make it a joint effort. Don’t be in such a hurry to meet your goals of submitting that you hurt yourself. And proofreading by yourself is never a good idea. You’ve read the piece so many times your mind will automatically correct words or fill in missing words. I have previously noted some tips and tricks to help you proofread.

3. Don’t take rejection personally.

You’re going to get rejection letters. The more you submit, the more you’ll get rejected. That’s just the way it is. But also, the more you submit, the more opportunity you have to get published. It might help to do as this writer did and actually set a goal for rejections — the point being, of course, that eventually out of all those submissions will come publication. Sort of takes the sting out of it . . . a little . . .

Image courtesy of writers.write.co.za

4. Keep good records of your submissions.

Do this now if you haven’t already. Create a document or an Excel sheet or some kind of system whereby you track where you send what. Trust me, over time, you’ll forget. Whether you’re writing articles or seeking an agent/publisher for your book, you want to capture:

  • the name of the publication/publisher/agent
  • website link
  • submission guidelines general information
  • title of the article/book you queried (or sent)
  • date sent (so that if it says they’ll respond in one month, you know when that month has elapsed and you can follow up)

In addition, you can keep a running list of various places that you want to query. In my Freelancing class (in the Professional Writing program at Taylor University), where we focus on writing articles, the students create a tracking system listing at least 10 possible magazines they can submit to, a separate page for literary magazines, and then another page with their various article ideas or WIPs captured. If they hope to one day get a book published, a new page can begin to capture potential agents or book publishers for the genre of their book. For every piece they write, they have to write an accompanying query letter, and then actually send three of those letters during the semester. Learning to have the discipline of creating solid query letters, tracking where they’re sent, and having a list of potential publications means that they can keep writing.

For example, you send out the query, you receive a rejection. Instead of letting that stop you, you go to your tracking list and mark down the rejection (so you don’t accidentally send the same query to them again). Then you look on your list for another publication that might like that same article or that article with a slightly different slant or focus or word count. You revise your query letter and send it to that publication. I know some writers who have such a system that, when a rejection arrives, they have that same article pitched somewhere else within 24 hours.

The same goes for book publishers. Find the agents and publishers that accept what you’re writing, create a solid query to them, and send it on. When a rejection arrives, move on to someone else.

The point is, keep going, dear #writingcommunity. Make 2021 your year!

Good Old Summertime: Or Why I Got Nothing Done and I’m Okay with It

I truly tried. I had a list. I had a schedule. I had good intentions. I was going to GET STUFF DONE.

Write some articles. Work with writing prompts. Submit. Start a more vigorous exercise program. Learn InDesign and Google Analytics. Write some letters.

Image courtesy memegenerator.net

Instead, you know what I did? Not that.

I rested. I slept. I read books. I spent more time in God’s Word. My husband and I spent many hours deciding on paint colors for our three rebuilt rooms. I cheered him on as he painted all those rooms (I offered to help, but he knows my shoulder problems would only be made worse). We brought some furniture to replace what was destroyed in the fire. We bought a dining room set at a garage sale. We planted and maintained our gardens.

Painting, painting, painting.
Butterfly garden in its third year. Mostly perennials, a few annuals.

I freelanced on a manuscript style tagging job. I ran our Taylor University Professional Writers’ Conference again — only virtually this time, with great help from my Taylor University IT friend and fellow writer and editor T.R. Knight, who managed our Zoom conference with great skill and patience.

But, honestly, I feel like I accomplished nothing.

I frustrate myself so often. What is it that makes me create lists and check off the little tasks (buy coffee) but let the bigger ideas, the longer-term items (finish that creative nonfiction article) go from week to week in my schedule book, carried over as if I can do so indefinitely?

What makes those writing tasks so hard for me?

Some if it is rejection. Some of it is imposter-syndrome. Some of it is being just plain tired. I could blame the pandemic and all of the stress of online teaching this past spring. I could blame the pandemic for lack of personal contact with many of the people I love most. I could blame the worries over the many issues bombarding our world today and how my brain is tired trying to navigate them. I could blame our house rebuild that has dragged on because of scheduling issues with various contractors. I could blame my age.

OR I could just let it go and say it’s okay. I did what I did and it was all good. Time with books and in God’s Word and resting were probably what I most needed considering everything else going on in my life and in our world.

Yeah, I think I’ll go with that.

I’m a Type A personality who always feels the need to “be accomplishing something.” Everything I do needs to be something I can check off a list or post on Goodreads or have something to show for it. My writing so often doesn’t. It sits on my computer because no one else should ever see it. Or I took the chance to send it out and get rejected.

Maybe I need to add “take a nap” and “get a rejection letter” and “write X number of terrible pages” to my daily to-do list.

That’s actually not a bad idea. I could at least trick my brain into thinking I’m accomplishing something. I already know that rejections and terrible pages are the stuff of good writing (well, probably naps as well).

And I’m okay with that.

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?

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).

Most 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.

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?

Image courtesy of Thumbtack via Google images.