FaithWriters who enter the weekly writing challenge might have noticed that fiction and poetry tend to win recognition more often than nonfiction (primarily devotionals and Bible studies). There may be several reasons for this, but primary among them, I think, is that devotional writing tends to be dry and uncreative. It’s difficult to write a devotional that will catch the judges’ eyes—and if your writing isn’t grabbing the judges, it won’t be grabbing your intended readers, either.
Here’s my working definition of devotional
for this lesson: a short piece of writing, focused on one or two scriptures, intended to inspire or to teach a lesson. I’m differentiating devotional from Bible study
, which is a more in-depth analysis of several verses or passages.
If a person has been a Christian for any length of time, she has probably read many, many devotionals. That’s the first problem for a devotional writer—finding something to write that doesn’t register with the reader as something she has read before. Devotionals tend to be riddled with “Christianese.” This website
examines the problem of using too much Christian jargon, and it links to several similar articles. If you don’t have the time to read the article, I’ll summarize: your Christian audience will have read those words and phrases hundreds or thousands of times. There’s little reason, then, for them to keep reading. Yeah, yeah, I’ve seen this already. Moving on
. Additionally—there’s little of your own writing, if your devotional is riddled with Christian jargon—and if you’ve entered your devotional in the writing challenge, it will be rated lower for the creativity
criterion if there is too much Christian jargon.
Moreover, your non-Christian readers will be turned off by Christianese. Christian jargon feels to them like an insider’s secret handshake. They don’t get it, and it further distances them from a world that they are not yet a part of. If you want your devotional to reach non-Christians, you have to avoid language that they won’t understand. By all means, keep the Christian message, but if your intended audience is non-Christians, you need to write it in their
So—how do you write a devotional that will grab readers? Here are my suggestions:
1. Obviously, avoid Christianese. Look through your piece for familiar phrases (washed in the blood, personal Lord and savior
) and ask yourself—Have I ever read that phrase before? If you have, then find another way to express that concept.
2. Give your devotional a great hook. Do not
begin with a definition, a quote, or a rhetorical question. These devices are often taught by high school teachers as good ways to start a piece of writing. They are not—they are overused and clichéd, and you can do better. Start with something new that your reader has never seen before: a true story about you or someone else, a made-up anecdote about a person needing to learn the lesson that you’re about to teach, a shocking statement or statistic.
Incidentally, I don’t generally recommend that you start right off with the scripture that you’ll be introducing in your devotional. Readers’ eyes tend to skip over blocked-off or italicized text at the beginning of an article, and get right to the devotional. If you want to be sure that the scripture gets read, embed it in the body of your devotional.
3. Don’t think that because you’re writing nonfiction, you have to give up characters, dialog, and creativity. People are social creatures; we like to read about other people. You can include great storytelling in your devotional, illustrating the lesson you’re trying to teach. Many devotionals tend to be too abstract or theoretical, never really reaching the flesh and blood level.
4. Don’t abandon humor. Of course, humor will not be appropriate in every devotional, but neither do devotionals have to be dry and ponderous.
5. Your language should be rich in the same kinds of things that make fiction writing interesting: metaphor, imagery, symbolism, and the like. There’s no reason why a devotional can’t include compelling writing.
6. Give your devotional an unusual structure. The most common structure is something like this: opening scripture, anecdote, lesson or application, prayer. See what you can do to shake that up.
7. Just as you should give your devotional a great hook, you should also give it a great ending. End with a strong image, an emotional appeal, a humorous statement, or “the rest of the story.”
When I was writing for the challenge, my forte was fiction, but I wrote a devotional called After the Unspeakable Minute
one week when the topic called for inspirational or devotional writing. I’m linking to it here not because it’s the world’s best devotional, but as part of your homework.HOMEWORK:
1. Read the devotional link above. Which of the seven points of this lesson do you see in this entry? Which are missing? Do you have any comments or reactions to this article? (Don’t be afraid to criticize; I can take it.)
2. Ask a question or make a comment about anything in this lesson.
3. If you’ve written a devotional here on FaithWriters, feel free to link to it, with a specific question for me. I won’t have the time to do a full-fledged critique of your devotional, but I can give an overall opinion, and a few pointers.
4. Several FaithWriters and friends have a group blog in which we write devotionals with the theme of encouragement. You might want to stop by and read some of the blog posts here.
Determine which devotionals work best for you, and why.
5. If you’re a devotional writer—are there additional pointers for a good devotional that I have not included here?If you know any writers who are not aware of this forum, please direct them here. And as always, I welcome ideas for future lessons, questions on anything writing-related, and general feedback. I respond to every post on these forums, and I’d like nothing more than a lively participation.