Category Archives: Editing

Designing the Read

Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.

Anne Lamott


When you set out to write, you’re designing the read for a certain type of reader – you.

So the question is, FullSizeRender_2What inspires you? 

As I mentioned last week, powerful writing comes from powerful editing. So when you edit and when you’re writing your first draft, you’ve got to continually think about what fires you up about this story. How is the theme, the big idea, the message, involving and providing what you want to read?

The thoughts and feelings of your main character and the story itself arise from that. That’s where the deepest drama comes from.

This is why I recommend considering your favorite books and how the author captured that essential empathy and connected to your own hopes and desires. Think about and decide specifically what you love and why. Likely, you share some similar passions with your favorite authors you can cultivate and develop.

What is it exactly? Certainly, it involves the words and phrasing–the elemental writer’s passion. But beyond that, what in the subject, the observations, the dialogue and relationships shows the author’s mind at work, their heart for this story? Think of the book as a well-tended garden and consider the care invested in it.

That’s what your applied passion will produce if you just keep at it.

FullSizeRenderRemember, your reader wants to figure out not just the external puzzles and mysteries, but the interior ones as well—the insights and connections, the hidden distinctions and revelations. Those are the uniquely suited plants a writer chooses and waters. And then, as they flourish, decisions come about which elements to bring forward and which to prune into subtler background. Your preferences matter most and your vision needs to be strong to shape the effect you want to have. But what readers need, that’s the writer’s job to consider too, no matter what kind of book you’re writing. And that’s where good editing considers all the elements and designs the best possible experience.

The beauty of a well-designed garden is obvious. But how exactly the gardener made their decisions, what went into each plant and how much pruning was involved? Most people won’t care. But you will. Because you’ve felt the swell in your spirit at knowing someone took the time to care that much. And it inspired you to care as well.

Repeat it until it’s second-nature: the drama and impact of the read comes from what you write and what you don’t. Ponder on that for several mornings as you sit down to write: it’s what you’re bringing and what you’re taking away that makes the garden beautiful. Consider your favorite books and how you yourself are thrilled when you read a story that allows you to fill in and imagine what the author suggested. That’s what good writing does. And if you’re writing a first draft, just tell the story to yourself and don’t worry about designing it yet. This shaping work creates the magic from the editing process, where you think about creating a stronger experience by augmenting the essential, and eliminating all else. But in writing, often you have to over-plant and then edit for economy and efficiency.

Focus on the 2 of 3 rule when you write, and think what readers need in each chapter/scene/section: 1) reveal character, 2) advance plot, and/or 3) describe setting. Ideally, have 2 of those 3 happening at any given spot and you’ll have a lush garden.

FullSizeRender_1Then, once the first draft is done, read aloud with someone and address any obvious weaknesses as you work to strengthen the experience — heighten the central desire, deepen the opposition, raise the stakes, convey the plight. Show what your character is seeing and feeling through description of the setting, reduce extra detail, digressions, and places where the story stops moving forward. Show us the characters’ feelings about her situation and the people in her life. Use your outline to consider what each chapter experience is—happy, sad, anger, fear, or surprise. And refer to the feel wheel often.

And where does your motivation for all of this work come from? From the chance to do something very few people get to do for perfect strangers: offer hope.

What brings that hope, what saves someone desperate to live, is a story—your story. That’s why you’ve got to believe in that power.

You don’t need to know whether the story is timely, fitting, competitive, or even desirable. You only need to believe in the power of your story to save.

You can do this if you’ll choose to ignore the distractions and lesser gardens around you. You can speak the truth of your experience clearly and powerfully so that anyone attuned to hear it will feel in their heart it’s their own story being expressed.

For as Buechner said, “The story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.”

Free your reader, my friend. Concentrate on that concentrated passion….

For the higher purpose,


Want to Write a Best-Seller? Mine Your Empathy

The greatest of divides…is between those who regard the visible world as being of primary importance…and those who do not.

Dallas Willard


There are so many challenges to writing a story that works, let alone that can capture readers’ hearts and imaginations to get talked about and shared. And so few people who talk about writing never will for one simple reason: permission.

First, you need full permission to share your story exactly as it happened. Even if it’s fiction, you’ve got to be able to go to the heart of what made this story grab you–the reality and heartache of it, the real pain and struggle it speaks about.

That’s job one. And in a way, knowing you have it because it’s the truth, and claiming that freedom to say it all is all that matters. Make that the heart of your motivation, because with it, you can overcome any other opposition—all the skill, ability, competition, understanding, logic, research, organization and all the logistical problems of writing a book are secondary.

Though as you know, there are so many things that need attention after that.

If you also need to ask permission from others, do it. If it means reconciling, forgiving, feeling your grief or anger and then releasing it and writing that part into the story, then that’s what you need to do. Don’t waste time setting things right.

FullSizeRender_1But whether you’re writing a true story or fiction, your first task after claiming and establishing your full permission to share is to think of the external story and the internal as distinct, but related stories. This is so basic, but it’s so neglected in the writing instruction and literature I’ve seen. There are always those two parallel stories and they need alternating attention, often within a paragraph or two. Otherwise readers get lost and forget what’s happening.

Readers can’t see the story as you can—and most writers can’t see that fact until it’s pointed out (= job security for me). Your job as writer is to show them. And you’ll develop this skill best by learning to get inside your reader’s head.

But how in the world do you do that?…

Simple. Give up what you know about the story, discard your knowledge and power as creator, and become ignorant, pitiful, and lost. Because that’s always how your reader feels when they start your story. When you think about it, it’s a wonder anyone reads books at all. Who wants to feel all that? And I’d argue it’s exactly for those feelings that people stop reading. So your job is to prevent that at all costs.

FullSizeRenderWhen you become like your reader, you will know exactly what it feels like to know nothing about your story, and you’ll know exactly what’s needed to resolve those problems.

Empathy—that’s why it’s the key element necessary for becoming a great author. Humility allows you to enter the reader’s experience and make that your strategic priority over teaching or telling them something. You feel their need and you know you need to engage their hearts, reach into their darkness, and reveal the exciting surprise of your story.

Why haven’t you read this in writing books or heard it talked about in courses? Why don’t published authors speak of it more? They obviously know developing this empathy is essential. It’s more than feeling sorry for the reader—it’s getting inside them and feeling and seeing what they do. It’s knowing and feeling what they feel inside, and acting on it in your own external world. See how that works? When you allow your external to be impacted by another’s internal, you’re entering the space of the author’s essential empathy.

FullSizeRender_3That’s your sixth sense that’s developing, and that’s what tells you when to cut, when something needs revealing, deepening. Can the reader feel it or see it yet? If so, congratulations! You’re done. Stop. If not, keep defining and refining to the point. And always remember the internal and external stories must be shown to happen concurrently and influence each other in many ways.

Your main character is the representative of the reader’s experience, which means he or she must respond to external action either similarly or exactly like the reader would. Sometimes, it’s best for the main character to respond better than the reader would, to demonstrate the best self the reader aspires to be—to inspire positive change through wish-fulfillment (“I wish I could be so confident/decisive, etc.”). This will seem obvious to the authors who’ve been writing a while, but many haven’t yet thought about this vital skill enough and they’re forgetting the one key they need to unlock the reader’s understanding and delight in their stories.

I’ve talked about this essential empathy a lot because it’s so important. But it’s important because there’s an internal story that the external is both creating and threatening. Don’t miss that. It’s everything. Too many writers think they can just write “what happened” and expect that to hold readers’ interest. And they’ve missed that there’s an internal world writers must strive to make come to life, to make real.

We have to first feel what readers want conveyed. What emotion is natural to the action, and how will it come across? Consider the sensory experience—the sights, sounds, smells, the words that will bring the right emotion and context.

Think about deepening engagement by evoking feeling with your words. And remember, you create the drama from what you write and what you don’t. Often, the magic comes in the editing where you think about all you don’t need and how much stronger the experience becomes when you eliminate what’s not working or pulling its weight (= more job security for me).

Powerful writing comes with powerful editing. When you edit, think of the internal story, showing the experience of that—the main characters’ thoughts and feelings—and eliminate the words that aren’t necessary to that. It will absolutely increase the sense of drama.

There are many specifics I’d love to share here, but we’ll continue discussing over the coming weeks. For now, think about your favorite books and whether part of the reason was feeling strangely cared for or helped along by the author’s essential empathy for you…

Have you felt that? If you have, share this post with someone and let’s discuss….

For the Higher Purpose,


How Are You Relating to Your Reader?

Last week, following my church’s vision meetings, I was inspired by the connection to our two distinct strategic priorities required for writing and editing:

“Do You Know Your Priorities As a Writer?”

And this weekend, God provided more excellent inspiration to help further define this fundamental difference between writing from inspiration, and editing to help your readers.

wineWe started with a clear objective: meet our friends for wine tasting event at Terra D’Oro winery in the California foothills. Having received some free tickets from the employer of a generous friend, we were excited to get together and see how things were going for everyone while we enjoyed learning more about winemaking and several wineries with growing influence in the region and beyond.

Not knowing much about the business and industry, we were mostly interested in connecting with our friends and enjoying some time together in the beauty of the early summer. However, as is always the case, our objective didn’t take everyone’s into consideration. It couldn’t.

Fortunately, given the wonderful people involved, our friends’ objective for the day matched our own, and we had a great time talking and catching up with each other about the past year. But it could have gone very differently. And afterward, I was struck and amazed again at how important it is for writers to realize this, that editing is an experience in relating with others. And in every experience with others, knowing your objective and remaining open to theirs is the very definition of relating. 

IMG_6801Think about this: to relate is two distinct actions. One is telling your idea, story, or experience, and the other is connecting to someone. Both are required for every writer. And though both are contained in that one word, the two definitions are separate and distinct.

Depending on who you’re relating to or with, you may be required to compromise more or less. Consider how as a writer it isn’t enough simply to know your own vision or strategic priority of relating your story–you’ve also got to know what your listener needs and wants. Sometimes that compromise will feel too stretching and you’ll resist. Other times, you may go too far and forget your own priorities in trying to make it accessible or palatable to others.

In my work with authors, balancing those two objectives is the universal struggle. My training focuses on bringing the readers’ voice and desires to bear on the writer’s telling, and yet it’s also critical to give readers a strong writer to connect to, one with a unique story related in a distinct voice.

IMG_6800That’s why I love when authors recognize editing is for readers, and that relating their story to readers is always a good, refining challenge to their vision. Whenever we set out to relate with others, we simply don’t know what competing priorities they bring. But if we’re open to listening and adjusting, we can achieve our goals and not merely improve others, but be improved ourselves in the process.

I believe this is the wonderful work of writing and editing books that stand the test of time. It’s what I’ve enjoyed doing these past 16 years, and each new project brings new facets of the process to appreciate and learn from.

IMG_6813Other people might have had a very different objective for their wine-tasting experience. And that would have required more adjustment on our part to try to relate with them while we tried to relate our own story and ideas. And yet the inspiring connection would be the same: relating is always a blend of give and take, requiring compromise and clarity about your own priorities.

Both are needed. And both lead to enjoyment and fulfillment in this pursuit of creative living as writers called to connect and relate all we’ve been given to share.

I pray you will know this very week that you are becoming more aware of all that was once unseen — and that it’s one of God’s strategic objectives for your life as His sensitive observer and recorder of His wonders….

For its all ultimately for His Higher Purposes that we commit to this process together,


Do You Know Your Priorities As a Writer?

For nearly six years, each week I’ve posted my best teaching on writing and editing for motivation and practical help.

IMG_6749I’ve taken a break or two, but the archive of several hundred posts prove it’s a priority for me–and it’s largely because I need to keep the wind in my sails and the breeze at my back.

I write to myself to remind myself of what I know and all I’m learning. It’s an intentional strategy though it didn’t start out that way.  I sensed I’d lose much of it if I didn’t keep a record.

And I felt that early on.

Using my own recent and previous experience makes the posts honest, inspirational and often embarrassing/humorous.

The past few weeks I’ve focused on some specific help to improve your approach to writing and the overall quality of your work. Today, I’m struck by how writing and editing are similar yet distinct and have very different objectives–or strategic priorities.

I heard this phrase at church a lot this weekend as about 25 of us met to discuss next steps in implementing our “strategic priorities.” If you’re like me, you’re a bit cynical about marketing speak, particularly in reference to God’s people. But it’s just a phrase. And it describes well what we always try to do when we communicate.

We each have priorities we’re promoting, whether we realize them or not. And if we can be more strategic about how we promote and inspire those priorities in others–be it a congregation or an audience of readers–that’s worth our time.

strategicprioritiesFor our church, identifying those required some hard work and discussion over several weekends with an outside consulting group. It ended up looking something like this. The process revealed so many surprises, just like my work with authors in identifying their vision and goals.

I found it cool how well this correlated to books, especially in seeking God’s inspiration throughout the process to define the plan of action. (I probably can’t claim it’s a coincidence that I was assigned the task of “communication coordinator” between the task forces.) While I didn’t like the phrase, I’ve long felt that identifying your “strategic objectives” should probably be a first step toward writing at a competitive level.

But here’s the idea I want to unpack over the next few weeks: Writing has a different strategic priority than editing. And from my experience with books that go through minimal editing and those that go through extensive editing, the importance of this distinction can’t be overstated.

Too often, new writers conflate writing and editing as one task or at least as closely related tasks, and miss the fundamental difference between them. Where writing is necessarily an exercise in listening exclusively to the inspiration in your own heart, the priority when editing is serving the reader. One focuses on what the writer feels, wants, and needs, the other focuses on what the reader feels, wants, and needs.

They aren’t 100% exclusive, and there’s overlap with both. But I believe being clear about these different strategic priorities helps tremendously when it comes to creating books that will stand the test of time.

Making such distinctions is critical all along the journey of writing and editing a book. So let’s explore this together in the coming weeks and be aware there’s more to this task than is visible at first glance.

daylilyAfter all, becoming aware of all that remains unseen is obviously one of God’s strategic objectives for our lives as sensitive observers and recorders of his wonders. Let’s commit to exploring the depth and breadth of his inspiration to us through the original creative Word.

For it’s all, “to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! (Eph. 3:20,21)

His power is at work within us–that is nothing short of amazing.

To him be the glory.

Beware in your prayer, above everything, of limiting God. Not only by unbelief, but by fancying that you know what he can do. Expect unexpected things, ‘above all that we ask or think’. Each time, before you intercede, be quiet first, and worship God in His glory. Think of what He can do, and how He delights to hear the prayers of His redeemed people. Think of your place and privilege in Christ, and expect great things!

Andrew Murray


For his higher purpose today in all He inspires,


Why Language Matters

 “Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides.” 
– Rita Mae Brown

Writing is editing. You know that. You accept that.

But do you love it?forest path I’m serious. It’s easy to love writing, even when you don’t. But editing? Who loves that?   

And yet, if you plan to continue your career as a writer, it may be time to learn.

When people ask me about editing as a career, I often ask them this question: Do you like language? I think the editor is someone who has made that transition from appreciating language as a spectator, to not only enjoying it as a player, but now engaging the grand game of words as a coach, a manager, or even a referee.

Editing isn’t merely about grammar rules and knowing the parts of speech. It isn’t just how best to arrange the words for maximum impact. It’s all of those things, but it also involves a deeper understanding of human nature, the subtle preferences of readers and especially the particular interests and needs of the specific audience one is speaking to. Anyone can spout off rules about verb tense agreement or dangling modifiers, but the more advanced skill is knowing why these things matter–and why and when they don’t.

“Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style, that have been defied by great writers for centuries, and that have been disavowed by every thoughtful usage manual.”
– Steven Pinker

Last week, I talked about how to overcome knee-jerk reactions to strong language as a way to employ words more powerfully. My firm conviction is that wielding language is a power–quite literally–and possibly, the greatest power we writers have. And as such, I believe we’ve got to start learning to risk speaking dangerously to reclaim and renew our listeners’ understanding of language. Frankly, even a cursory look around proves there’s no time for skirting this issue any longer.

So this week, I want to go straight to an idea that the invisible work of editing is arranging words to reveal readers to themselves.

A polished sentence, paragraph, chapter, or book conveys a clear message, an intentional revelation. And the way to having that effect is a proper edit which carves out truth, truth that heals readers’ misconceptions—about the world, themselves, God and others.

Too many people, and I believe Christians especially, either don’t understand or don’t believe that. And I don’t know why. (My basic theory is that some folks think only God’s “original revelation” is the unaltered truth, and therefore editing is unnecessary and/or damaging. Can’t God inspire an idea and also grow and inspire us further through the editing process?)It’s true. Editing isn’t always easy—in fact, it rarely is. But how else do you expect to help others find themselves in a story so new yet so familiar, and experience that though somehow they forgot, they’ve always known this incredible revealed truth?
There is a language so pure it knows your very mind–it just is so rarely mastered.
Yes, if you are called to write, you are a lover of words. Yes, it is possible for you to seek and find this mastery of language. You know great books are not simply written. They’re rewritten. They’re edited. And edited again.
Like counselors, good editors use questions to guide the initial process. And then like surgeons, they find the phrases that bring out the best qualities and efficiently solve the confusion and dullness that plagues us. Good language isn’t flashy. It isn’t quick. It’s effective. It’s challenging. And it can be a struggle to uncover.
But it’s worth the effort. Because it’s what love requires.
It’s always surprising and thrilling to watch a book take shape out of the clay. The frustration, the hard work, the struggle, it’s all eventually forgotten. But the beauty and power of a well-crafted story or well-stated idea remains.
Without working through all the considerations and possibilities, a book wouldn’t eventually find it’s shape. It wouldn’t have any value. Don’t be cowed by the work. Unstoppable ideas are not born, they’re fashioned into language by a commitment to speak with power and precision. Every important idea required effort to be said, some struggle to chisel it out of all the possible words, and a commitment that’s your birthright and heritage.
Why does language matter? Because when you speak your inspired words as the culmination of all you are, you demonstrate a freedom that others long to find. You show how language frees us by allowing us to name and define our world. And it’s a truth that requires discovering yourself.
So commit to the work of editing and working with your language and forget all else. When it’s hard and unclear and requiring so much time, remember this is where the book first shows you yourself. You’ll find what you initially intended to say, maybe what you thought you already said, and ultimately what you must give readers—it’s there in the love of this gift of language. It’s always there.
Love it and love the learning, the growing more aware and adept with your basic tools, and the appreciation of your reader’s intelligence. And show them that great respect of your commitment to say it all, best and clear and true.
Will you show readers themselves by speaking your words most effectively? For a writer, what could be more fulfilling than that?
“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein
For the higher purpose,