Be a Better Writer--TRANSPARENCY

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

Moderators: mikeedwards, glorybee

Post Reply
User avatar
glorybee
Moderator
Moderator
Posts: 2356
Joined: Thu Nov 10, 2005 11:46 pm
Location: Michigan

Be a Better Writer--TRANSPARENCY

Post by glorybee » Sat Nov 21, 2015 10:18 am

Below is a paragraph from a typical devotional or inspirational writing. Go ahead and read it, then try to determine what’s wrong with it. (Hint—it’s got nothing to do with grammar, spelling, or punctuation.)

When something bad happens to a loved one, our first instinct is to try to make it right. We do everything we can to help them to get through their difficult time. Sometimes we get so busy that we forget to pray, but we should remember that God will hear our prayers. He is always ready to comfort us and to meet all our needs.

Do you know what’s wrong? I’ll give you another hint: the problem with that paragraph isn’t the spiritual lesson. Remember—this is a lesson on writing, not theology. Let me give you a second version of the paragraph:

When something bad happened to a member of my family, my first instinct was to try to make it right. I did everything I could think of to help my family member to get through that difficult time. I was so busy helping that sometimes I forgot to pray, but God heard my prayers when I turned to Him. He was always ready to comfort me and to meet my needs and the needs of my loved one.

This second version is a little bit better (but an even better version is coming). I’ll stop hinting now and start the actual lesson, which is about transparency in inspirational writing.

In that first paragraph—which is typical for devotionals or inspirational writing—the universal ‘we’ is used. Writers use we/us/our to make the experience they’re writing about appeal to every reader; after all, it’s true that some experiences (like a loved one’s trials) happen to nearly everyone. A writer who chooses this somewhat abstract and distant style may feel that whoever is reading it will superimpose their own experiences over the template provided.

Unfortunately, there are problems with this. That universal ‘we’ paired with vague phrases like ‘something bad’ or ‘difficult time’ is so general as to be almost meaningless. An entire piece written in this abstract tone would not be a compelling read.

In addition, pieces like this are extremely familiar to people who have been reading Christian material for years. It’s easy to slip into “Christianese” where you’re writing such generalizations, leaving your reader with a feeling of I’ve read all this before.

The second version is written in first person, so it’s one degree closer to the reader, but it still has some problems. Someone reading that version might perk up with some interest at first: Oh, something bad happened in this writer’s family. I wonder what it was. But then they might quickly lose interest; this writing doesn’t say what happened. It’s more generalities, more Christian clichés. I’ve read a lot of this sort of inspirational writing, and it frustrates me to read a whole piece that’s coy about what happened in the writer’s life.

Writers might choose to do this for a few reasons:

• Like the writer who uses the universal ‘we,’ they may feel that if they’re vague about the circumstances, more people will be able to relate to it or to apply it to their own lives.
• They may be reluctant to share personal details. Those details might still be painful, or may include things that shouldn’t be shared, perhaps for legal reasons. There may be people involved in the situation who wouldn’t want their lives aired in public.
• They may be under the mistaken impression that this is how Christian writing is supposed to be, because so often that’s what they’ve read.

Here’s a third version of that same paragraph:

When my 18-year-old daughter had an accident that severed her spinal cord, my first instinct was to try to make everything right. I attended physical therapy sessions with her and called out my encouragement from the gym mats piled against the wall. I advocated for her, making sure that her dorm room and all of her classrooms were fully accessible. I listened to her dismay, holding and comforting her even as my heart broke.

There were times when I was so busy running ahead of her, smoothing the pathway, that I forgot to pray. I was so broken, in fact, that my prayers took on a form that I didn’t even recognize; sometimes the most I could manage was a wordless sob. But God heard my weeping. He met our needs—she is now a radiant wife and mother, and I have stumbled my way back to wholeness.


This version, you’ll notice, is longer. That’s because it’s got more specific examples and more actual events from my life. I hope—I think—that these two paragraphs were more interesting reading for you.

Here’s the deal, and the takeaway that I hope you’ll come away with for this lesson. Even though there are probably very few readers who will have this exact situation in their lives, if I write this piece well enough, readers who’ve experienced any number of distressing situations that caused similar spiritual pain should find some application to their lives. I’d rather trust my readers to gain meaning from my specific experiences than to turn them off by using overgeneralizations and platitudes.

In devotional writing, the transparent bit might be at the beginning--an illustration from your life that will lead to a spiritual truth for your readers to learn.

In inspirational writing, the entire piece might need to be transparent.

Some of you might be thinking that you’re not ready to be so transparent with your readers—that it’s easier to write more generally. It’s certainly less painful—less exposed—that way, but it’s less effective, too. Ease your way into it, perhaps by choosing a time in your life when you learned a valuable spiritual lesson through a humorous incident. If you get quite brave and decide to give increased transparency a try, you might want to go back to a previous writing that was overly abstract or too general, and change it (as I did on my 3rd example).

One word of warning: if your life incident involves someone else’s sinful or criminal behavior, or something that they’d be embarrassed to have ‘out there,’ you’ll need to be quite careful. Get their permission first, or use pseudonyms, or change the details enough so that a reader who knows you couldn’t immediately attribute those actions to Uncle Jack.

No real homework this week, but I welcome your comments or questions about transparency in inspirational writing.

If you have a Writing Challenge entry that illustrates any of my points (either one that is quite transparent, or one that is too vague), feel free to provide a link. Tell us something about your piece that’s relevant to this lesson.

You’ll find more about writing for devotionals here.
Jan Ackerson -- Follow me, friend me, give me a wave!
http://www.superioreditingservice.com
Twitter: @janackerson1
Instagram: janackerson
Facebook: Jan Worgul Ackerson, Superior Editing Service, Jan Ackerson, writer

User avatar
oursilverstrands
Pencil Plus (Over 500 Posts)
Pencil Plus (Over 500 Posts)
Posts: 852
Joined: Sun Aug 01, 2010 9:21 pm
Location: Georgia
Contact:

Re: Be a Better Writer--TRANSPARENCY

Post by oursilverstrands » Sat Nov 21, 2015 1:20 pm

Jan wrote:This version, you’ll notice, is longer.
Thanks, Jan, for this lesson. I've been giving serious thought to writing more devotionals, so the timing of the topic/post was perfect for me. Your need to lengthen the example of the more desirable devotional caught my attention because it is indeed more of a challenge, however not unsurmountable, to write when given a specific word count. I didn't know how to post a link to the following devotional, so I pasted it...sorry. I think there's transparency in the beginning paragraphs, but I shift to the "we" in the latter part. I would also like your opinion about my use of biblical characters? Does that remove the transparency aspect from the piece?

I also noted there were no bible verses in your versions. Could you address the pros and cons, if any, about their use when writing a devotional

Thanks,

Lillian




Godliness with contentment is great gain (1 Tim. 6:6 NKJV).

Your Contentment is Guaranteed

Contentment is an attitudinal asset that’s worth striving to attain. As a child, my mother would often say to me, “Make do with what you have.” I didn’t realize it then, but she was paraphrasing a biblical principle that I would need to fall back on in the years that followed. As an adult, my version of her homespun creed evolved, and I learned how to “make do” with what I didn’t have.

It wasn’t easy. I remember how dissatisfied I felt at not having money to buy whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, or to take vacations every summer like many of my friends. Learning how to be content when we feel discontented and unhappy with our current situation is a heavy burden with which we all struggle at times to unload. But Paul reminds us that we gain much more than money when we win that battle.

Consider Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Contentment with the have not may have been the most difficult challenge of Elizabeth’s life. As a Jewish woman, she endured a life of disgrace because of her failure to have a child during her child-bearing years. Despite the ridicule, Elizabeth and her husband, Zacharias, remained a godly couple who followed God with obedience and faithfulness. And God eventually rewarded them for their acceptance of what He withheld. God often turns thumbs down on what we ask of Him. But contentment and blessings come when we are satisfied with what we don’t have.



Thanks,

Lillian
E-Book - Retirement Lane - How to Celebrate Life After 60
https://grammyspen.com
Fortunate 500


I write even when I think I can't, because I must. :-)

I love to write. Nothing escapes the crush I have on the written word. I'm hooked on words!!

"Let words bewitch you. Scrutinze them, mull them, savor them, and in combination, until you see their subtle differences and the ways they tint each other." Francis Flaherty

User avatar
itsjoanne
Moderator
Moderator
Posts: 1683
Joined: Fri Jul 14, 2006 9:52 am
Location: West Michigan
Contact:

Re: Be a Better Writer--TRANSPARENCY

Post by itsjoanne » Sat Nov 21, 2015 2:36 pm

I have written a TON of pieces for the challenge where I was quite transparent - especially about my husband's health issues and how we dealt with them. This one is about something different though - and is meant to actually be a devotional, while the others weren't necessarily written to be inspirational pieces. I didn't come right out and say what the incident was exactly, but I think I gave enough detail and information to make it relatable. Curious if you think I should have been MORE transparent. I am kinda on the fence.

Oh, Mercy!
Joanne Sher
FaithWriters Writing Challenge Coordinator
FaithWriters Blogger
FaithWriters Blog
My Profile
My Site
Me on Facebook

User avatar
glorybee
Moderator
Moderator
Posts: 2356
Joined: Thu Nov 10, 2005 11:46 pm
Location: Michigan

Re: Be a Better Writer--TRANSPARENCY

Post by glorybee » Sat Nov 21, 2015 5:07 pm

lish1936 wrote:
Jan wrote:This version, you’ll notice, is longer.
Thanks, Jan, for this lesson. I've been giving serious thought to writing more devotionals, so the timing of the topic/post was perfect for me. Your need to lengthen the example of the more desirable devotional caught my attention because it is indeed more of a challenge, however not unsurmountable, to write when given a specific word count. I didn't know how to post a link to the following devotional, so I pasted it...sorry. I think there's transparency in the beginning paragraphs, but I shift to the "we" in the latter part. I would also like your opinion about my use of biblical characters? Does that remove the transparency aspect from the piece?

I also noted there were no bible verses in your versions. Could you address the pros and cons, if any, about their use when writing a devotional

Lillian
I think I'll go edit my lesson a bit, because there really is a difference between devotional writing and inspirational writing (although many guidelines apply to both). Generally, devotionals will use Scripture and Bible characters, as you did in your example. Inspirational writing is more likely to focus on one person's story.

In devotionals, you may want to have a bit of personal transparency at the beginning, when you're setting up the lesson for your reader. That's not the only way to do a devotional (you may choose to use an illustration from someone else's life, for example, or from nature), but it's a very effective way. Your first two paragraphs are an example of that. I think they could even go a bit deeper--instead of just saying how dissatisfied you were at not having money as a child, you could give a specific event that caused that satisfaction, and describe what that dissatisfaction felt like (showing, not telling).

Inspirational writing tells something, well, inspirational, and is often a longer form. If you were to tell an entire story about that event in your childhood, with a nice, uplifting ending--that's inspirational. It's not as likely to have a Bible verse (although it could, if a verse led to the uplifting ending) or a lesson for the reader (perhaps they can infer one through what you learned).

One final thing, because it really jumped out at me--you've got a misplaced modifier in your second sentence. It reads:

As a child, my mother would often say to me...

The phrase 'as a child' modifies the subject of the sentence, which in this case is 'my mother.' But your mother was not the child, you were. Two possible corrections:

As a child, I often heard my mother say...
When I was a child, my mother would often say to me...
Jan Ackerson -- Follow me, friend me, give me a wave!
http://www.superioreditingservice.com
Twitter: @janackerson1
Instagram: janackerson
Facebook: Jan Worgul Ackerson, Superior Editing Service, Jan Ackerson, writer

User avatar
glorybee
Moderator
Moderator
Posts: 2356
Joined: Thu Nov 10, 2005 11:46 pm
Location: Michigan

Re: Be a Better Writer--TRANSPARENCY

Post by glorybee » Sat Nov 21, 2015 5:10 pm

itsjoanne wrote:I have written a TON of pieces for the challenge where I was quite transparent - especially about my husband's health issues and how we dealt with them. This one is about something different though - and is meant to actually be a devotional, while the others weren't necessarily written to be inspirational pieces. I didn't come right out and say what the incident was exactly, but I think I gave enough detail and information to make it relatable. Curious if you think I should have been MORE transparent. I am kinda on the fence.

Oh, Mercy!
Joanne, I'm not sure how you could have been more transparent, except maybe to go more into detail about your frustration or guilt or anger or whatever it was you were feeling. But the piece is very good.
Jan Ackerson -- Follow me, friend me, give me a wave!
http://www.superioreditingservice.com
Twitter: @janackerson1
Instagram: janackerson
Facebook: Jan Worgul Ackerson, Superior Editing Service, Jan Ackerson, writer

User avatar
oursilverstrands
Pencil Plus (Over 500 Posts)
Pencil Plus (Over 500 Posts)
Posts: 852
Joined: Sun Aug 01, 2010 9:21 pm
Location: Georgia
Contact:

Re: Be a Better Writer--TRANSPARENCY

Post by oursilverstrands » Sat Nov 21, 2015 5:57 pm

Jan wrote:One final thing, because it really jumped out at me--you've got a misplaced modifier in your second sentence. It reads:

As a child, my mother would often say to me...
Oh to have the eyes and heart of an editor. You are one par excellence! Thanks SO much for pointing that out. I will be on the alert for that faux pas from now on.

Blessings,

Lillian
E-Book - Retirement Lane - How to Celebrate Life After 60
https://grammyspen.com
Fortunate 500


I write even when I think I can't, because I must. :-)

I love to write. Nothing escapes the crush I have on the written word. I'm hooked on words!!

"Let words bewitch you. Scrutinze them, mull them, savor them, and in combination, until you see their subtle differences and the ways they tint each other." Francis Flaherty

User avatar
RachelM
Pencil 5 (200-299 Posts)
Pencil 5 (200-299 Posts)
Posts: 297
Joined: Fri Jun 07, 2013 11:52 pm

Re: Be a Better Writer--TRANSPARENCY

Post by RachelM » Sun Nov 22, 2015 2:16 am

Great lesson! It's fascinating that when we get more specific about our own trials, that it actually resonates with more people.
My FaithWriters profile: RachelM FW member profile

Vonnie
Pencil 1 (1-49 Posts)
Pencil 1 (1-49 Posts)
Posts: 29
Joined: Thu Aug 15, 2013 10:46 pm

Re: Be a Better Writer--TRANSPARENCY

Post by Vonnie » Sun Nov 22, 2015 6:13 pm

Jan, Thanks for explaining the difference between devotional and inspirational writing. I write a lot of devotionals, but would really rather write longer pieces of the inspirational type. The problem I am facing is the one you mentioned of hurting someones feelings or maybe more serious. I live in a small town of under 800 people. If I write about anything, even changing names, someone is sure to know who I am referring to. How can I be personal and share my innermost struggles and triumphs without hurting someone else? Don't I have the right to tell my story? Yet, I really don't want to hurt others, even though they have hurt me.
I have found that when I get more personal in my writing that I score higher in the challenge. Blessings, LaVonne

User avatar
Sibermom65
Pencil 2 (50-99 Posts)
Pencil 2 (50-99 Posts)
Posts: 61
Joined: Mon Oct 27, 2014 6:10 pm

Re: Be a Better Writer--TRANSPARENCY

Post by Sibermom65 » Mon Nov 23, 2015 5:26 pm

This is a gospel reflection I wrote for the church bulletin (I do several each year). I like to "personalize" - or as Jan says, make it transparent. While it was written 3 years ago, it seems just as pertinent to today's events.

Where is God?

After last week’s tragedy many were asking questions like ‘Is God missing in action?’ ‘Does he really care about individual people?’ ‘Does he even exist?’ Being Catholic, I believe God is present and cares about us all. I have, however, asked the question “Where was God during all this?” But the answer bounced back at me was “Where did you leave him?”
What’s this, am I being accused of abandoning God? Isn’t it His job to watching over me? If I’m lost, shouldn’t he be seeking me out?
But that’s what Advent is about. We’ve been waiting for God to appear. But how have I spent that time? The Christmas baby didn’t go looking for the wise men, they came looking for him. Have I been actively seeking God? Have I been struggling to make the way straight in the wilderness of my mind? Have I made room for him in the inn of my heart?
Where did I leave God? Did I leave him in the manger last Christmas? Did I set him aside after the holidays, like a treasure to be admired then put away? Perhaps I left him hanging on the cross. Was he just a good person who lived his life for others, but now is ancient history? I have to believe he was more than that. He was alive to me even after Easter. Did I leave him in the past, teaching the apostles, but not living the lessons with all my heart and soul? I would like to think I kept Christ closer than that, but I seem to be having a problem locating him.
When did I last get close to God? I believe it was just last week at the altar. Did I leave Church with him, or did I even make it out to the parking lot in his company? Did I leave him there to visit again next Sunday, or did I bring him along for the Sabbath. Perhaps I left him in the back country when we took that beautiful and peaceful drive. I’m sure I didn’t bring him to town with me. It wouldn’t be a fitting place for him, not at the workplace with all its frustrations. Or take him to class? Wouldn’t the others make fun of me over that! No, I didn’t invite God to come home with me.
Christmas is once again upon us. God is giving me another chance to pick the baby up out of the manger, to hold him close, and nurture the Prince of Peace. Perhaps this year I won’t lose track of him, but will keep him with me all day, every day, all through the year.

User avatar
glorybee
Moderator
Moderator
Posts: 2356
Joined: Thu Nov 10, 2005 11:46 pm
Location: Michigan

Re: Be a Better Writer--TRANSPARENCY

Post by glorybee » Mon Nov 23, 2015 6:34 pm

Vonnie wrote:Jan, Thanks for explaining the difference between devotional and inspirational writing. I write a lot of devotionals, but would really rather write longer pieces of the inspirational type. The problem I am facing is the one you mentioned of hurting someones feelings or maybe more serious. I live in a small town of under 800 people. If I write about anything, even changing names, someone is sure to know who I am referring to. How can I be personal and share my innermost struggles and triumphs without hurting someone else? Don't I have the right to tell my story? Yet, I really don't want to hurt others, even though they have hurt me.
I have found that when I get more personal in my writing that I score higher in the challenge. Blessings, LaVonne
You may have to forego total transparency in this case. If just using different names isn't sufficient, and you don't feel comfortable tweaking the circumstances a bit, you could, I suppose, be quite vague about the exact circumstances but very transparent about your actual feelings and reactions. So, instead of

When Evelyn Smith told me that Susan White had done a far better job at directing the children's Christmas program than I did, I felt as if I had not only failed my church, but I'd failed God, too...

You could write

When I was wounded by a sharp comment by a woman at church, I felt as if I had not only...

And if that's still too specific

When someone criticized something I'd poured immense energy into...

The idea is to be as transparent as possible about YOUR feelings and YOUR behaviors, if you can.
Jan Ackerson -- Follow me, friend me, give me a wave!
http://www.superioreditingservice.com
Twitter: @janackerson1
Instagram: janackerson
Facebook: Jan Worgul Ackerson, Superior Editing Service, Jan Ackerson, writer

User avatar
glorybee
Moderator
Moderator
Posts: 2356
Joined: Thu Nov 10, 2005 11:46 pm
Location: Michigan

Re: Be a Better Writer--TRANSPARENCY

Post by glorybee » Mon Nov 23, 2015 7:19 pm

Sibermom65 wrote:This is a gospel reflection I wrote for the church bulletin (I do several each year). I like to "personalize" - or as Jan says, make it transparent. While it was written 3 years ago, it seems just as pertinent to today's events.

Where is God?

After last week’s tragedy many were asking questions like ‘Is God missing in action?’ ‘Does he really care about individual people?’ ‘Does he even exist?’ Being Catholic, I believe God is present and cares about us all. I have, however, asked the question “Where was God during all this?” But the answer bounced back at me was “Where did you leave him?”
What’s this, am I being accused of abandoning God? Isn’t it His job to watching over me? If I’m lost, shouldn’t he be seeking me out?
But that’s what Advent is about. We’ve been waiting for God to appear. But how have I spent that time? The Christmas baby didn’t go looking for the wise men, they came looking for him. Have I been actively seeking God? Have I been struggling to make the way straight in the wilderness of my mind? Have I made room for him in the inn of my heart?
Where did I leave God? Did I leave him in the manger last Christmas? Did I set him aside after the holidays, like a treasure to be admired then put away? Perhaps I left him hanging on the cross. Was he just a good person who lived his life for others, but now is ancient history? I have to believe he was more than that. He was alive to me even after Easter. Did I leave him in the past, teaching the apostles, but not living the lessons with all my heart and soul? I would like to think I kept Christ closer than that, but I seem to be having a problem locating him.
When did I last get close to God? I believe it was just last week at the altar. Did I leave Church with him, or did I even make it out to the parking lot in his company? Did I leave him there to visit again next Sunday, or did I bring him along for the Sabbath. Perhaps I left him in the back country when we took that beautiful and peaceful drive. I’m sure I didn’t bring him to town with me. It wouldn’t be a fitting place for him, not at the workplace with all its frustrations. Or take him to class? Wouldn’t the others make fun of me over that! No, I didn’t invite God to come home with me.
Christmas is once again upon us. God is giving me another chance to pick the baby up out of the manger, to hold him close, and nurture the Prince of Peace. Perhaps this year I won’t lose track of him, but will keep him with me all day, every day, all through the year.
Sibermom, I think I'd like even more specificity, if you ever re-visit this. What specifically did you do that seemed like abandoning God? You used a lot of "I" in the last few paragraphs, but they're so general that a "we" or a "you" in place of the personal pronouns wouldn't really greatly change this. Take this paragraph, for example:

Where did I leave God? Did I leave him in the manger last Christmas? Did I set him aside after the holidays, like a treasure to be admired then put away? Perhaps I left him hanging on the cross. Was he just a good person who lived his life for others, but now is ancient history? I have to believe he was more than that. He was alive to me even after Easter. Did I leave him in the past, teaching the apostles, but not living the lessons with all my heart and soul? I would like to think I kept Christ closer than that, but I seem to be having a problem locating him.

It doesn't feel much different to me than if you'd written it this way:

Where did we leave God? Did we leave him in the manger last Christmas? Did we set him aside after the holidays, like a treasure to be admired then put away? Perhaps we left him hanging on the cross. Was he just a good person who lived his life for others, but now is ancient history? We have to believe he was more than that. He was alive to us even after Easter. Did we leave him in the past, teaching the apostles, but not living the lessons with all our hearts and souls? We would like to think we kept Christ closer than that, but we seem to be having a problem locating him.

In other words, just writing in first person isn't enough to give your piece transparency, even though it's a start. On the other hand, something like this is more transparent:

Where did I leave God? Did I leave him in the manger last Christmas? I was returning the sweater my sister-in-law had given me (it was two sizes too small) when the woman behind me in the returns line bumped into me, spilling her coffee on my suede jacket. "Watch where you're going!" I snipped at her, "unless you're planning on paying my dry cleaning bill!" I had tucked my ceramic baby Jesus back into his tissue-padded box just that morning, and already the grace and peace of his holy season had left me...

Thoughts, feelings, reactions, questions?
Jan Ackerson -- Follow me, friend me, give me a wave!
http://www.superioreditingservice.com
Twitter: @janackerson1
Instagram: janackerson
Facebook: Jan Worgul Ackerson, Superior Editing Service, Jan Ackerson, writer

Post Reply

Return to “Jan's Writing Basics”