Thoughts on a Year’s Worth of Reading

Every year about this time, I look back, taking stock of what I’ve accomplished (or not!) throughout the preceding year. One thing I consider is what I’ve read.

I’m a voracious reader and have been since fifth grade, when good ol’ Mrs. George sparked the reader within me, kindled that flame of desire to know, and set me on the Reading Road. Ever since, I’ve tried to keep track of not only how many books I read each year but also what I’ve read. And I hope that all of that reading has, in some way or other, made me a better, more knowledgeable, and wiser person.

Well, looking over this year’s reading list, I notice some things that are no surprise. But I also find some surprises, one in particular.

As usual, most of the 35 books I read (at least that’s how many titles I remembered to record; there might have been others), 17 of them were histories or biographies. Of those 17, many of them were on topics about which I was doing research for my writing of articles and/or books. Seven of the 35 were Bible studies or about personal spiritual growth. Five of them were about the craft of writing, and heaven knows I need continual help in improving my writing. Three other books were on topics that didn’t fit into any of the other major categories. No surprises so far.

The big surprise came when I realized how much fiction I had read this year. Fiction?! Peterson reading fiction?! Isn’t that like cold heat or wet dryness? An oxymoron? A near impossibility? A dream (or nightmare)?

That inconsistency of character prompted me to do a bit of self-analysis! The fictional books I read ranged from “the old masters” (e.g., William Gilmore Simms, a famed Southern writer for all you Yankees) to a couple of modern authors. Their styles and subject matter varied widely. I read one novel in the course of doing some historical research. Another I read because I had won the book at a writer’s conference, sort of necessitating that I read it lest the awarder someday ask me what I thought of the book. The other two I read simply because I liked the author’s writing style (though not some of his content and organizational style). Be those factors what they are, I nonetheless read five fictional book-length works this year! And, for me, that’s a major milestone considering that most years I read none.

But the bigger issue here is what I gained from all those 35 books I read. Did they make any difference in who I am, how I live, or how I go about my work? I’m sure that in some way they did. Perhaps it was only that I learned better what I enjoy or don’t enjoy reading. Or which authors I like or don’t like, agree with or disagree with. Perhaps it was simply the discipline I learned from persevering and stretching myself beyond my comfort zone and venturing deeper (it’s a relative term, I know) into fiction. Or maybe I grew a little more spiritually, something that might be seen only by my Maker. Or others around me?

As I read, I’m always looking for interesting ways of saying things, new words, new combinations of words, new analogies, etc. As I close out this year’s reading (oh, I’m sure I’ll still read a lot more and begin several more books between now and December 31), I’d like to share just a few of the words that struck me (many of them from my more recent reading because I can’t remember too far back!).

“The secret of all good writing: Have something worth saying, and say it simply. Good writing is ‘the natural expression of an organized mind.'” (Inman)

“. . . as colorless as a used tea bag.” (Inman) (I especially like that image. It’s almost as good as “He had the personality of a cactus.”)

“He could repair anything from a broken heart to the crack of dawn.” (Can’t remember author)

“If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.”(Auden)

“Tomorrow is always fresh, with no mistakes in it yet.” (Montgomery)

“Beware of forming fanciful theories of your own, and then trying to make the Bible square with them. Beware of making selections from your Bible to suit your taste. . . .” (Ryle)

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” (Wilde)

“One must be careful of books, and what is inside them, for words have the power to change us.” (Clare)

So here’s to the reading of good books. May next year be filled with many more and better ones. For me and you.

 

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So Much for Predictions

A lot of things (more than we like to admit) are out of man’s hands, beyond his control. One of those things is the weather. Yet, we continue trying to predict or anticipate it. Short of that, we complain about it.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that when your local TV meteorologist starts giving the five- or seven-day forecast on Monday, the prediction is one thing, but by Friday the forecast has changed, sometimes a little but often a lot. The farther out the forecast extends, the less accurate it proves to be. And whenever the outlook is for a whole year, it’s really just a shot in the dark, anyone’s guess is as good as anyone else’s.

A couple of months ago, I made an impulse purchase, something I seldom do (wink, wink). I picked up a copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac. (I’ve never been able to decide whether old in that title refers to the farmer or to the almanac.) When I got home, I immediately turned to the weather forecast for the Southeast (North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) for December 2018, since we all have so many activities and travel plans that can be affected by the weather during that month.

For December 10 to 12, it stated confidently, “Rain and snow, then sunny, cold.” As a writer who studies the market listings of a lot of publications, I know that the lead time for the almanac, that annual compilation of “new, useful, & entertaining matter,” is at least a year, perhaps even longer (as much as two years) for some parts of it. So I reacted to that prediction: “Aw, how can they know so far in advance?” and moved on. Other people, “experts,” were saying, “We have never had snow here [in South Carolina] before Christmas.” Even a “white Christmas” here is extremely rare. The average date for a first snowfall is usually sometime in January.

But on December 9, it snowed here. Surprisingly, the almanac was only one day off. Not bad for predicting a year or more in advance. And it snowed a lot. For here. I measured 8 to 9 inches on the hood of my truck, and that wasn’t in a drift. (The accompanying photo was taken early during the snowfall.) Only a 25-minute drive north of us, they had 17 to 20 inches. That’s a lot at any time during the winter down here. And it’s unprecedented this early in December. Technically, it isn’t even winter yet.

That set me to thinking about what the Bible says about the weather. Its statements on weather are perhaps more broad and general but nonetheless accurate and true. It says that as long as the world exists, we will always have distinct seasons, each with its own unique and defining characteristics. (See Genesis 8:22.)

We will always have summer, when it’s hot, and winter, when it’s cold, and periods of transition in between: spring, when things revive and grow, and fall, when things bear fruit and proceed toward dormancy. The various degrees of temperature for each season may vary, but each will retain its unique qualities. Summers will always tend toward hotter temperatures, winters toward colder temps. They might seem shorter or longer.

A few summers in a row that are warmer than normal will make us wonder if we’ll ever have fall. A few colder-than-normal winters will shift our wonderment to the idea of eternal winters. But over the long haul, everything will balance out. The distinct seasons will always be with us. One year will have alarmists crying, “Global warming!” but the next year will have them predicting another catastrophic millennial ice age.

Truth be told, they don’t know. They can only collect historical data. We can’t control the weather. It will be what it will be.

I’m reminded of James Whitcomb Riley’s poem “Wet-Weather Talk,” which tells us what our mindset should be, especially considering our utter inability to dictate (or predict) the weather. He wrote, in part,

It hain’t no use to grumble and complane;
It’s jest as cheap and easy to rejoice.—
When God sorts out the weather and sends rain,
W’y, rain’s my choice.

In short, take whatever weather God gives you and be happy and thankful for it. If it gets a little colder than you like, or it snows more than predicted, don’t complain or worry yourself trying to alter Nature. Put on another layer. If it gets a littler warmer or rains more, or less, than historical records indicate is normal, take off a layer or turn the AC to a cooler setting.

And writers, pay attention to your target market’s lead time.

Interruptions Bring Potential for Adventure

The difference between minor surgery and major surgery is determined by whether you are having it. That’s sort of the way it often is with interruptions. They can be incidents (if they happen to others) or potential adventures (if they happen to you). And such things are what provide the grist for a writer’s mill.

Such interruptions happened to me over this past weekend. Without going into great detail, allow me to offer a summary. I’m sure that something from the interruptions that I experienced will manage to find its way into my writing at some point.

It all began on Saturday with a “wintry mix”–rain, sleet, freezing rain, and snow. A heavy, wet accumulation occurred during the night. I knew it had when I woke up around 1 a.m. and thought my wife had left a light on. It was bright in our otherwise dark bedroom. That accumulation continued throughout the night. We rose at the regular time on Sunday and, church services having been canceled, we went about having a leisurely breakfast.

And then, about 12:40 p.m. it happened. After having the lights flicker throughout the morning, the power finally went out. We gathered flashlights, storm lamps, and candles in case it remained out into the night. With Duke Energy, one never knows.

The in-house temperature slowly dropped. We donned sweaters. It continued to drop. We donned more sweaters and sweatshirts. Layer upon layer. Soon we were in coats and gloves. I set up our propane camp stove in the garage, where there was plenty of ventilation and the temperature was about the same as inside the house, and boiled water so we had cups of instant coffee. I’d done this dozens of times before when we were camping and during power outages. The result is never as good as brewed coffee, but at least it’s hot. And I’d never had a hint of a problem.

And then darkness descended. There’s no darkness like that which occurs at night during a snowstorm, when the skies are dark and filled with precipitation and there’s no power. We stumbled through the house, flipping light switches as we entered closets and bathrooms and then laughing at ourselves for doing so.

The adventure, the interruption of our normal routine, had only begun. By candlelight, my wife tried unsuccessfully to assemble a jigsaw puzzle. We reenacted the days of our youth by reading by flashlight. The night dragged on. Time stands still when it’s pitch black and you’re without power. We roasted mini-marshmallows on skewers over the candle.

Our daughters and friends and neighbors texted, and we watched our phone batteries get weaker and wondered if the power would come back on so we could recharged them before they died. Finally, we went to bed. We added more layers to our clothing and blankets on top of blankets. My wife bemoaned the absence of her beloved electric blanket. We discovered that it’s hard to roll in one’s sleep when wearing multiple layers and weighed down by multiple blankets. And one has a tendency to keep waking, wondering if the power has somehow miraculously returned while he slept.

Morning finally arrived, and I rose, shivering, and fumbled to shave by the dimming light of a flashlight beam. It wasn’t the greatest or closest shave, but at least I no longer resembled Grizzly Adams. Although the electricity was out, we did have warm water supplied by natural gas. Unable to hold the flashlight while showering, I resorted to showering by candlelight. Not my idea of romantic. But I got the worst of the dirt off.

And then the neighbor texted to check on the old folks. He asked what we were planning to do. I replied that we were thinking of going out somewhere to eat breakfast and asked if they wanted to join us. They agreed, so we went to the place that is always open in times of natural disasters, Waffle House. It was our first ever visit to that fine dining establishment. It was crowded. Not a parking place in the lot. We parked alongside the building, almost in the fire zone. Everyone inside was talking about where they were and what they were doing when the power went out and how long it might be before it came back on.

From there, we took our neighbor to work so his wife wouldn’t have to drive in the mess. And we saw trees down all over the place. Traffic lights out. Cars in the ditch. Drivers who didn’t know how to navigate a four-way stop. A typical Southern snow storm.

Shortly after we returned home, I began to prepare a mid-morning cup of coffee for each of us. I again attached the propane bottle, lit the flame, and, leaning on the hood of the car, read my book while the water struggled to reach the boiling point. I knew better than to watch the pan on the stove. A watched pot never boils. Instead, I read, glancing over at the pot occasionally to see if the water was warm enough to approximate coffee water.

After several pages, I glanced again and noticed, to my alarm, flames shooting in all directions from the top of the propane bottle. I jerked the propane connection from the burner, but the bottle continued to spew flames. I couldn’t remove the connection from the bottle without getting burned, and obviously a leak there was allowing the flame to continue. Water! I needed to douse the bottle in water! (Sorry, I have no photo of this. I was a bit too busy to think of taking a shot.)

I grabbed the bottom of the bottle and dashed toward the door into the house, then I thought, Boy! That’s stupid! If I drop it, the whole house goes up in flames! Instead, I returned and set the blazing bottle down between the wall and the car and then dashed inside to get the fire extinguisher that is in the pantry. (I never thought about how close the flaming bottle was to the car’s gas tank.) As I did so, I ran right past the extinguisher hanging on the garage wall. When panicked, one sometimes ignores the obvious and does stupid things.

Returning to the garage, I pulled the pin on the extinguisher, squeezed the handle, and gave the flames a one-second blast of the extinguisher. Dust flew everywhere. Everywhere. But the flame died immediately. Disaster was averted. But there was still the problem of the dust everywhere, so thick I couldn’t breathe. I ran through the cloud and manually opened the electric garage door opener. I could breathe once again. We never got that cup of coffee.

But I certainly learned a lesson. Next time the power goes out, I’ll go to Waffle House for my coffee, maybe a whole pot of it, rather than using the propane stove. And maybe I’ll find another way to get writing ideas. It’s safer that way.

The power returned almost 24 hours after it died. The temperature climbed back to normal inside the house. And I’m brewing Keurig cups like I never have before.

Today is another day. My wife returns to her regular teaching schedule. Well, somewhat. Her school is operating on a two-hour delay although the temperatures are well below freezing and all the snow that melted yesterday has frozen on the roads, making it even more hazardous than before. Snow Southerners can deal with; ice no one can deal with. Perhaps the morning ice drive will present further adventures as I take her to work and hopefully without hitting someone or getting hit by someone or sliding off the road and into the ditch. Who knows what further grist for the writing mill may result from the waning hours of this adventure.

Thoughts While Posting Christmas Cards

As I sat engaged in the various tasks of readying Christmas cards for mailing, I began to muse. I weighed how the practice has changed over the years. I noted the number of people I had to cross off my list because they had died. I considered the rising costs of cards and postage. And as my arthritic wrists and fingers protested, I even questioned why we exchange Christmas cards at all.

When I was a kid, I loved to get the mail in the weeks before Christmas to see who had sent us a greeting, what the cards said, and who had to money to send family photos in or as their cards. After everyone in the family had read the cards, Mother placed them along the mantle top over the fireplace in the living room so that any visitors could enjoy them as well. My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, taped them around the door frames in her living room. When that space ran out, she moved to the coffee table and a sideboard along the living room wall and from there to the mantle. (I always assumed that the mantle was the place of last resort because of the dangers inherent in having paper products so close to the always hot Warm Morning coal stove that was in front of it. She kept the room so hot that whenever one stood up, he was in danger of passing out from the heat. Indeed, had a Christmas card fallen onto that stove, it no doubt would have been incinerated in mere moments.)

When I got married and my wife and I began receiving Christmas cards of our own, I instituted Nannie’s practice of taping them around the door jambs. We had neither a mantle nor a stove. But over the years, I’ve noticed that the number of cards we receive has steadily declined. To be perfectly blunt about it, we’re losing friends through Death. In looking through our college alumni newsletter, we now know fewer and fewer people in the “Class Notes” section and more and more in the “With the Lord” column. That’s a sobering thought.

But another reason for the decline in the number of cards we receive is that fewer and fewer people are bothering to send out Christmas cards. Have you seen the price of cards today? I’m not talking about the fancy Hallmark variety that you might buy for a spouse but the common, mass-produced, boxed kinds of cards. Knowing that the price gets higher with each passing year, we tried to “stock up” for this year by buying after-season cards right after Christmas a couple of years ago. But then the store went out of business, and there are no other Christian bookstores in the area. Even buying them online is getting outrageously expensive nowadays. And then you have to add the cost of postage. At 50 cents a card, that adds up really quickly even if your Christmas card list isn’t a mile long!

Some churches have begun providing a “mailing” service within their congregations. Some smaller churches have built banks of “mail boxes,” with every member or regular visitor having a designated slot. Friends bring their cards to church and stick them in the appropriate slots. Other churches provide a large, communal mail box. After everyone has deposited their cards, members of the youth groups sort and deliver them to the appropriate families. This definitely helps defray at least the postal expense of sending cards.

I can foresee that in a few years, when both my wife and I are retired and living on a fixed income that is a fraction of what we’ve become accustomed to living on, we’ll have to cut corners everywhere we can. Although in the big scheme of things financially Christmas card costs aren’t a major item, every little expense counts. When that day comes, I hope all of our friends don’t think we’ve forsaken them. Or that we’ve died and they didn’t know it. When that time comes, I guess we’ll just have to pick up our cell phones (if we can still afford a cell phone!) and call our friends to wish them a Merry Christmas. Actually, that’s not a bad idea! Sort of like telling friends, “Don’t come to my funeral to visit me; visit me while I’m still alive!”

But the thought that really bothers me most is that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find cards that actually say something. Most of the cards on the market are so generic today, the age of political correctness when everyone is so afraid of offending someone by saying something that might be construed as overtly religious, that they don’t really say anything.

  • “Happy Holidays.” (What holidays are we celebrating? We might as well substitute a blank line and let the recipient fill in the holiday of choice for the word holiday for all that sentiment says.)
  • “May you feel the magic of the season.” (It’s not about feelings; it’s about a Person! And it was a miracle, not magic!)
  • “Peace on earth.” (Great. But you can’t have any real peace without the Person that everyone seems afraid to name!)

That’s why, whenever I find a card with an honest-to-goodness message, I buy it in bulk. If Sam’s sold bulk cards with a real message, I, skinflint though I am, would even be tempted to fork over money for a membership!

Despite the cloudy, troubled thoughts I had while getting my Christmas cards out this year, I’ll still send them with the hope that they, as weak as their message might be, coupled with the few words of my own that I’ve added, will convey the real meaning of Christmas and friendship to those who receive them. And I’ll look forward to receiving those that do come to my own mailbox. And I’ll dutifully tape them to our door jambs. Some traditions are worth keeping, even if it is getting harder to do so.

Verbal Voyeurism

One of the key ingredients of both good fiction and creative nonfiction is realistic dialogue. Readers certainly know that fact. Writers should know it, too, but they often forget and must be reminded. Actually doing it, however, is hard, and that’s the rub, as the saying goes.

One of the most logical ways of learning that skill (and, yes, it is a learned skill that doesn’t just “happen naturally”) is to practice what might be called verbal voyeurism. Now don’t get alarmed. I’m not suggesting that you do anything illegal or even a little shady. I’m saying that you simply must train yourself to begin listening–really listening–to people talking in their normal conversations. Listen to not only what people say but also, and more importantly, how they say it. Jot down those aural observations and incorporate your findings in your writing.

One of my sons-in-law made me more aware of this skill when he began noting aloud the many odd (to him anyway) things my daughter, his wife, said and how she said them. Here are a few of the ones he found recurring in her conversation but that he had heard nowhere else in his life.

  • “We were meant to be here” (usually spoken whenever we found a parking space close to our destination).
  • “I could eat more for taste” (at a meal when one was full but enjoyed the taste of the food).
  • “. . . going around Nicely’s new ground” (another way of saying “beating around the bush” or taking too long to say something).
  • “. . . got the gaps” (when one was yawning).
  • “tuna fish” (noting the redundancy of the phrase).

Another characteristic of “real world” conversation is the fact that people don’t always use complete sentences. They speak in fragments, often even allowing single words, knowing that the listener can fill in the missing words from the immediate context of the conversation.

Moreover, they often include nonessential details in their conversations, get off the subject, and finally find their way back. They often cut sentences short, stopping in mid-sentence, to interject some new detail, maybe even something totally off the subject. (That’s how conversations evolve, and the speakers sometimes will even comment at some point, “Now how did we get to that subject?”) This was a technique that Mark Twain was an expert at using in his writings. (Read his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” as just one example.)

Another characteristic is that people use a lot of slang, colloquialisms, idioms, regionalisms, and euphemisms. All of these, used in your dialogue, add authenticity and color. But they must be genuine and authentic to your setting (time period, geographic location, etc.), or readers will perceive them to be forced or artificial. Moreover, they must be used in moderation. As is often the case with such writing tools (e.g., writing in dialect), a little goes a long way.

Verbal voyeurism takes practice. Whenever you’re sitting in a waiting room or eating in a restaurant, try practicing it. Casually listen–really listen–to what the people around you are saying and how they say it. Listen to people around you whenever you’re shopping in a busy mall or grocery store. Note your own speaking patterns. You’re as guilty as anyone else; we all are.

The goal is to make dialogue in your writing sound natural and authentic. Practicing verbal voyeurism and applying what you learn to your writing will go a long way toward ensuring that your dialogue is both.

An Article Finally Sees Daylight!

Things notoriously often move slowly in the publishing world.

Quite some time ago, I queried an editor with an article idea I had. I was given the go-ahead to do the article. I worked for several weeks researching and writing the article and then additional weeks making trips to the subject sites to obtain usable photos to accompany the article. I submitted the completed manuscript and waited.

More than two years (and two editors later, with a baby–the editor’s, not mine, sandwiched between them), the article finally was published. While serving as one of two docents on duty at a local historical society museum, the subject of my writing came up in our conversation. A copy of the publication which I had submitted the long-delayed article happened to be lying on the table between us, and I tapped on the cover as I mentioned that one of my articles was scheduled to appear in the next issue. My fellow docent took a photo of the magazine and said, “I’ll have to check this out and read your article.” Later that day, she e-mailed me a photo of the cover of the latest issue, which she had just found in a local supermarket.

 

So, fellow struggling writers, don’t lose hope! Persevere! Keep waiting. Your work, like mine, may soon see the light of day!

On Where Time Goes

Can it really be November 30 already?

Another month has flown by. It’s only 25 days until Christmas! Wasn’t it just last week that we were returning Christmas decorations to the attic? I’m realizing all too well my grandmother’s declaration that the older one gets, the faster time flies.

Years ago, I read an article written by veteran journalist and war correspondent Don Whitehead titled “On Where Time Goes.” (No, the title of this blog post is not unique, but thankfully titles aren’t copyrighted.) In his article, Whitehead calculated how much of his life he had spent engaged in various activities. Working, whether in a newsroom office or in foxholes along the front lines during World War II. Sleeping. Dressing and undressing. Shaving and bathing. Watching things, from the growth of tomatoes in his garden to the flow of the Tennessee River outside his home.

When Whitehead completed his calculations, he discovered that he had large blocks of time for which he could not account. I suspect that if each of us undertook to make similar calculations for how we’ve spent our time, we’d come to a similar conclusion. We never seem to have enough time, and what time we do have flies by.

Think about it.

We don’t have to chop wood to fuel our kitchen stoves. We have electric or gas stoves for instant cooking heat. And if that’s not fast enough, we can “nuke” our food in our microwave ovens. We don’t have to spend time or exert the effort to saddle a horse or hitch a team of horses to a wagon and then spend hours in the saddle or on a hard buckboard seat to reach our destination. We push a remote key and start the engine of our automobiles, which heat up or cool down for us by the time we enter it and make a quick trip in cushioned comfort. We don’t even have to visit the store to buy our groceries or other commodities. We just order whatever we want online and have it delivered to us.

Yet, we’re always complaining that we “don’t have time.” We’re always in a hurry. No time to sit and relax and talk with family members or neighbors. No time to read our Bibles and talk to God about our lives. No time to meditate or reflect or think.

Oh, I think that we have time; we just waste a lot of it on things that don’t really matter all that much in the big scheme of things. We have time (or make it) for what really matters to us.

All of us, like Whitehead discovered, have large blocks of time for which we can’t account. Yet, each of us is accountable for how we spend every moment of time that has been granted us. We all have the same amount of time: 60 minutes per hour, 24 hours per day, 30 or 31 days per month (or 28 or 29 if it’s February), and 12 months per year. How well we use the available time is what makes the differences among us.

A wise poet once declared,

Only one life; ’twill soon be past.

Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Carpe diem! “Seize the day,” with eternity’s values in view. Nothing else really matters, so use your time wisely.

Struggling Off Hiatus

It’s always been hard, it seems, to get “back in the swing” once I’ve been away for a while, and the week just past has been no exception. It’s hard enough returning to work, but it’s especially hard when that work is writing and one’s office is in his own home, as mine is.

I’ve returned from my Thanksgiving hiatus of visiting three of my four daughters, three of my four sons-in-law, and four of my seven grandchildren. I played with the grandkids a lot. They pulled me hither and yon to show me various toys and to take me into rooms that were otherwise off limits to them. (I assume they thought that if Pappaw was with them, they wouldn’t get into trouble with Mommy.) They cajoled me into pushing them on the swing. And they insisted on scattering toys all over the floor to test my agility. But they also gave me so many smiles and laughs and hugs and kisses that it was hard to leave them when it was time to return home.

I also ate too much, and lot of what I ate was the wrong things. There was the traditional turkey and cranberry sauce, Daddy’s hot sausage dressing (I guess the Yankees call it “stuffing,” but it never was stuffed into anything but me!), and my wife’s special cheese mashed potatoes. And melted marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole. And a lot more dishes that I couldn’t find room for on my plate.

And the pies. Oh! The pies! Pecan, apple, and pumpkin. And assorted cookies and dessert bars. None of which are on my diet plan.

But overall, I was good. Well, as good as I could expect to be considering the circumstances. I never had seconds on anything. At least while I was at the table during the regular meals. I limited myself to one roll per meal. I took small slices of pie when I desired more and bigger slices. I tried hard not to eat between meals, but boy! That’s hard when foods are lying everywhere and the aroma of dishes in preparation fill the air!

I tried to work off the extra calories by installing running boards on my pickup, thereby making it easier for my four-foot, ten-inch wife to climb aboard. But I must confess that my son-in-law actually did all the work. I merely handed him the tools and parts as he needed them and tried to make sense of the confusing how-to instructions. What else can a mechanically and technologically challenged father-in-law do? It certainly gave me another reason to be thankful.

I got a lot of laughs watching as the kids helped (or did I merely help them?) put up the Christmas tree. The highlight was watching the shortest walker among the kids putting the ornaments on the tree all by herself. And they were all in one spot right at the very bottom!

And while other members of the family braved the madding crowds of Black Friday eve and early morning, I bravely kept the home fires burning and didn’t spend a cent in the process.

During this hiatus from writing, however, I was not void of work. Rather, my writer’s mind and eye and ear were hard at work, recording in my memory bank the assorted ideas and sights and sounds of family members of all ages at play and work and of the smells of the assorted foods being prepared. Who knows, some day in the future I might find a piece of writing that needs just those very sights and sounds and smells to convey my message. As the mug, a gift from a daughter years ago, says, “I’m a writer. Anything you say or do may be used in a story.” My loved ones have been forewarned!

So, now that this hiatus is over, I must “make hay while the sun shines,” as the saying goes. Time waits for no man. A glance at my calendar tells me that Christmas is fast approaching. My wife will be out of school soon, and the “honey-do list” will grow exponentially, meaning that no writing will get done during yet another hiatus. Already I’m reminded that recent heavy rains and a stiff fall breeze have loosened the leaves’ lockhold on their branches and are accumulating on the lawn, demanding that I deal with them.

[SIGH]

But it’s so warm and relaxing sitting here in the sun on the front porch. Watching those leaves blow by. Listening to the birds and the traffic. Oh, the noise! noise! noise! noise! (This rural oasis surely has gotten busy since we first moved here!) Thinking. Meditating. Ruminating. It’s so easy to get lazy and extend that Thanksgiving hiatus.

But all good things must end. I sigh again and try to convince myself that the best is yet to be. If only I could get up and force myself to restart!

David’s Principles of Good Writing

The best writers, writing teachers often say, are avid readers, and high on their reading lists are great writers, those who stand as exemplars of what good writing is. So it stands to reason, if one wants to become a good writer, one should read the works of great writers and follow their examples.

I realized while reading the other day that one such great writer is typically overlooked as a writing exemplar because his name is generally associated not with writing instruction but with religious instruction. That’s too bad because writers can learn a lot of important principles about not only spirituality but also writing from the psalmist David.

Consider, for example, only one of his psalms, perhaps the most famous one, one known among even non-religious people: Psalm 23, which is often called “The Shepherd’s Psalm.”

If you type that entire psalm as a Word document and then run that software’s spelling/grammar check feature, a box pops up showing the “readability statistics” for the piece. I did that, and what I discovered was an eye opener.

The entire psalm (in the King James Version) consists of only 118 words in 6 paragraphs. (For you Twitter aficionados who must worry about such things, it contains 478 characters.) David averages one sentence per paragraph (or verse) and 19.6 words per paragraph. The words he chose to use average 3.9 characters per word. In readability, the psalm scores 85.2 on the Flesch Reading Ease scale; is, according to the Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level chart, on the 4.6-grade level; and he used no passive constructions, only active voice.

So to what principles of good writing do all these statistics point? Well, I identified at least three, but you might discover even more upon careful study.

Brevity

David shows that you can say a lot without using a lot of words. Only 118 words, but how much deep content they contain! They have been comforting millions of people down through the ages, and they continue to do so today.

We writers should never try to fool people into thinking we’re profound by piling on the verbiage. The older I get, the more I’m coming to conclude that those who are the most verbose aren’t really the smartest people on the block. If a writer’s central message is well thought-out, he or she should be able to communicate it concisely and succinctly. The root of the word concise is cis, which means “to cut out.” So “make every word count.” “When in doubt, cut it out!”

Simplicity

David wrote this psalm so simply that the average fourth-grade student can understand what he intended to communicate. The sentence structure is simple; the words are short (typically one syllable and less than four letters) and simple. But the message they communicate is deep, profound, emotional, and effective.

Too often, I’m afraid, writers try to impress readers with their alleged superior knowledge by using big words and complex sentence structure when simple terms and simple structuring can communicate just as (or perhaps even more) effectively. Never try to convince readers of the profundity of your thoughts by the obscurity of your vocabulary or the complexity of your sentence structure.

Producing writing that is brief and simple is not easy. It takes a great deal of thought and often many drafts before one gets it just right. I learned this lesson the hard way when I was tasked with revising the text of an eighth-grade history book. I quickly discovered that the reading level of the original text was twelfth grade! Reducing it to the eighth-grade level required shortening paragraphs, restructuring sentences, and using shorter words. It was hard work! But it can be done. We should do the same with our writing. Put your writing “on the bottom shelf,” where everyone who reads it can understand it.

Humility

And this leads to the third principle of good writing that we can learn from David’s psalm: humility. David was not only a talented writer but also a mighty king, a great warrior, and an able administrator and logistician. Yet, he was, more importantly, a humble writer. He knew that his writing talent came as a gift from God. He always remembered that he was just a simple shepherd who had been called by God to lead a great nation. He acknowledged that everything he accomplished, including his voluminous writing of most of the psalms, was a direct result of his being blessed and used by his God. He never took upon himself the praise that rightly belonged only to God. In himself, he was nothing. But God chose to use him to be a blessing, through his writings, to generations of people.

Do you have a gift for writing? Recognize that it is not due to anything within yourself; it is a gift from God. Also, acknowledge that, having that gift, you are accountable to its Giver for what you do with it, the uses to which you put it. So use it aright. “Use it, or lose it.”

These are just three principles of good writing we can learn from Psalm 23. You can probably come up with others. If so, share them with us in the comments section. But look beyond even those writing principles to discover the even more important life lessons it holds for the spiritual side of your life. If it’s been a while since you’ve read that psalm, why not read it again with a “fresh set of eyes.” (An excellent help in such an endeavor is Phillip Keller’s book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.) I look forward to hearing from some of you about what you glean from your own examination of David’s writing.

First Impressions

“You get only one chance to make a good first impression.” That statement is especially true when it comes to submitting your writing to a book or magazine editor.

You can do much, however, to shape that first impression, thereby increasing your chances of getting your work accepted and published. My experiences as both an author and an editor have taught me that making that good impression requires looking at your work on two different levels: a macro view and a micro view.

The Macro View

Looking at your work from the macro view means looking at it to get the “big picture.” Imagine it as using a telescope to view your writing. It involves asking yourself the following questions about your writing.

  • Does your manuscript deliver what your proposal or query promised?
  • Is it logically organized?
  • Does it adhere to the publication’s/publisher’s stated guidelines and style?
  • Does its message meet a clear need?
  • Does it have a clear focus?
  • Has it had the benefit of a second (or even a third or fourth) “set of eyes”? (Have you had others read and comment on it and suggest any changes?)

 

The Micro View

The micro view of your writing involves examining it for the details. Imagine it as using a microscope to view your writing to detect such characteristics as those listed here.

  • Spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization, etc. (Don’t rely on the spell-check feature of your software. It can be a big help, but it is not infallible!)
  • Style (Does it reflect the industry standard and the publication’s/publisher’s guidelines?)
  • Usage and vocabulary (Is it age appropriate for the intended audience? Is it precise?)
  • Reference citations, if any are necessary (Are they accurate and formatted correctly?)
  • Active versus passive voice (Does the subject of each sentence do the acting, or is it acted upon? Eliminate as many passive constructions as possible.)
  • Strong verbs and nouns (Are they precise? Ensure that you aren’t overly reliant on adjectives and adverbs to “carry the weight” of your message.)
  • Concise and precise vocabulary rather than needlessly verbose (Make every word count. When in doubt, take it out!)

Looking at your writing from these two levels and asking the appropriate questions will help you identify any weaknesses that would tend to give an editor a bad impression of your work. Correcting those weaknesses before submitting your work will take you several steps closer to your goal of acceptance and publication. The less work the editor must do on your submission, the greater your chances of acceptance.

So do your homework, ensuring that you make that good first impression and making it easier for the editor to say “Yes!” You will reap the benefits of not only acceptance of your work but also possibly a long-term relationship with that editor and publication!