Tag Archives: the craft

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,


Writing Is a Process, Not a Product

I absolutely love the classic wisdom from Donald M. Murray, Teach Writing as a Process Not Product.

Speaking to English teachers and writing instructors, he says too often we become frustrated because we focus on the product, which is subpar. We want literature and what we’re holding is obviously not it. So we use our training and attempt to point out the errors with the product.


Danish painter Peter Ilsted, Interior with a Young Girl Writing, 1905

“The product doesn’t improve, and so blaming the student—who else?—we pass him along to the next teacher, who is trained, too often, the same way we were. Year after year the student shudders under a barrage of criticism, much of it brilliant, some of it stupid, and all of it irrelevant. No matter how careful our criticisms, they do not help the student since when we teach composition we are not teaching a product, we are teaching a process.”

Many people remember that shudder in English class…. How many beleaguered souls might find it hugely freeing to see their writing work as a process rather than a product?

And what is the process?

Murray: “It is the process of discovery through language. It is the process of exploration of what we know and what we feel about what we know through language. It is the process of using language to learn about our world, to evaluate what we learn about our world, to communicate what we learn about our world.”

Imagine the freedom if instead of striving to be finished writing, we sought to learn how to communicate well through writing. Not to complete the collection of all the right words just yet, but to continue the search for the one best word.

To get into that frame of mind, we first have to let go of that tyrannical concept of the “Product-as-End-Goal.”

“This is not a question of correct or incorrect, of etiquette or custom. This is a matter of far higher importance. The writer, as he writes, is making ethical decisions. He doesn’t test his words by a rule book, but by life. He uses language to reveal the truth to himself so that he can tell it to others. It is an exciting, eventful, evolving process.”

We can make this important shift easier by dividing the process into three stages: prewriting, writing, and rewriting. And how much time each stage requires depends on personality, work habits, maturity in the craft, and how hard it is to say what we’re trying to say….

…but how long it takes is not an issue once you break the habit of focusing on product over process.

Pasteurized process "cheez" product.
Mmm. Processed cheese product.

I think this is why it’s so difficult for consumer-blind Westerners: everything but everything is a product. We like measurable things. Tangible things. We like results.

How much? How many? How long? How difficult? How quick? 

Try to think of one thing in your life where you’re interested in the process and not the result. Go ahead, I’ll wait….


Coffee? Nope.


Try again.
Commuting? That’s all about the anticipated result.


Hmm. Okay, sure. There may be a gender difference on this one...
Sex? Well, okay. There may be a slight gender difference involved in this one…


We even make recreational things like reading and watching movies about what it produces, i.e. “results-oriented” instead of merely enjoying the process. If something can’t be measured and quantified, we don’t even want to deal with it.

And the habit is so ingrained at this point, many don’t even notice they’re doing it. To say this is a problem for writers is a gross understatement.

Gamely, Murray tries to quantify the time involved for prewriting, writing, and rewriting processes. Prewriting–researching, daydreaming, note-making and outlining–may take about 75-85% of a writer’s time.

Writing, merely producing the first draft, “the fastest part of the process and the most frightening” (because you soon find out how much you don’t know and have to face how rough, searching and unfinished your work is), this takes about 1% of your total time!

How many writers just starting out realize this? And how many could save themselves a ton of grief if they did? (Well, now you know, so ease up, my friend. Writers are ALWAYS prewriting!)

Rewriting, reconsidering your subject, form, audience, vision, intent, viability, and all the prewriting elements too (research, notes, outline), takes the remaining 14-24% of your time. Murray says in rewriting, everything is rethought and redesigned until finally a line-by-line edit, in which “the demanding, satisfying process of making each word right” is faced.

So the whole writing process–from prewriting to writing to rewriting–is involved before there’s any clue what the end product will be.

Why, then, do we focus on product?

And this is not to mention that rewriting can take many times the hours required for writing the first draft!

I hope some of you will say “Duh! Of course!” But have you retrained your brain to relax and accept that you’re in a process? This is the number one problem I run into as a book coach. Even many published writers don’t understand that several rewritten drafts are required before a book is ready for a line-by-line edit. We need the best raw material on the page first.

Otherwise, I’m getting paid to polish turds.

Each draft may progress in a particular area–characters and supporting characters, plot and subplots, theme and metaphor, and setting, dialogue and tone. But slow, careful drafting is what eliminates the distractions and inconsistencies.

It’s also where you learn what you’re really writing. (And no, there’s no shortcut to that discovery, but I’m absolutely convinced it’s the difference between bestsellerdom and obscurity.)

Bottom line, writers who would be professionals must realize the writing craft requires shifting focus from the end goal to the “in medias res”–the “in-the-middle-of” getting there.

How many of the world’s most beloved works went through complete rewrites and multiple drafts? The vast majority? All of them? Does it matter how many once the final draft is done?

More importantly: how much fear, tension and stress could be alleviated if you focused on the process of writing rather than the product?

[Part 2, “How to Be a Great Edit” and avoid editing the heart out of your work is here…]

A Not-So-Very-Secret Secret to Getting Out In Front of Readers

You know the easy button? I’m always looking for the easy button to editing.

And more often than not, I find it by zooming in a little closer.


Recently, I found one I think deserves a special place on this blog, because it’s a time-saver for new authors. And it’s a trick that hooks readers better than anything else, the story beneath the story.

Whether you’re just starting out writing or you’ve been at it awhile, one not-so-secret secret to it you need to use is to get out in front of readers. 

Writing is like a magic show. You want to surprise and delight people who don’t see how you’re making this thing work.

My friend Jim Rubart is a pretty amazing magician and now he writes supernatural fiction. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

And unless you want to stay outside with the clueless audience, there’s a little trick to storytelling you need to know. It involves getting out ahead of readers and surprising them. In writing, staying ahead of readers means knowing their questions and withholding the info to reveal it at the right time.


For most first-time authors, this is done in editing because in their finished draft, too much is still on the surface. They’ve told the story, but it lacks art, intrigue. What’s going on?

Maybe it’s not much of a “secret” because we all know it already. But it’s so simple it’s often missed. And getting out in front of readers means taking the time to know their questions.

You have to study them and realize you’re the show, the teacher, the sorcerer they’ve come to see. You have to prove you belong up on that stage by asking yourself the secret question…

Secret Question: What’s hidden between the lines here?

Readers always want to ask what’s really going on here? And if they already know the answer you risk losing them.


If you haven’t hidden anything, you have no story. If you don’t hide enough, you have a boring story. Hide too much and you can lose people too, but this is the not-so-secret secret: there’s got to be a story beneath the story.

You’ve always got to be working to tell something that’s beneath or behind or inside of the words on the page. Sometimes it’s very subtle and sometimes it’s perfectly clear; it depends on what kind of author you are and what kind of books you like to read.

But between you and the reader, there is always an unacknowledged pact and that is that you agree to tell a story and much of that story is actually beneath the words on the page and is driving everything on the surface. That’s the mystery readers pay good money for. That’s the entertainment, the romance. And if you don’t give it to them, they won’t talk about your book.

What’s critically important is how you indicate what is beneath the story with clues, descriptions, little telling glances. You can be as obvious or as obtuse as you want, but it has to be clear and evident there’s more going on here.


How can it be obtuse and clear at the same time? Because there’s more to every story than we can capture in words. And when you read a good story, you enjoy the game of figuring things out.

Think about this next time you read: when there’s dialogue but their words aren’t saying what their bodies and eyes and inner dialogue is saying? That’s subtext. It’s not clear, but it is because you noticed it.

When there’s a secret someone’s holding or a motive others in the scene don’t know, that’s another mystery you’re in on. When there’s something the main character notices that others don’t, that’s the intrigue the writer is selling.

It’s like gold.

Readers want to dig for it. Point it out and hand them a shovel.

Is it so important? I think it is because the more you can get out in front of readers and hide things between the lines, the more they’ll want to try to figure out the story’s secrets. And that makes your story more book-worthy, more exciting, more remarkable.

Everyone has a story. But not everyone can write it. Even fewer can see how to give readers the story beneath the story and show what’s really going on without just blurting it out like a newb. Learn to tell the story beneath the story and you’ll show why yours is especially valuable.

Spend some quality time with the source of inspiration this week and ask for some insight into your secret question. You can do this.

That’s how you’ll know what to share and set up for readers to figure out.