Shauna Niequist on Good Writing Practices

Author of the book Cold Tangerines Shauna Niequist wrote a brilliant blog about the discipline of writing. Here is an excerpt:

Here is my advice for today: write regularly, before the great opportunity comes for you, so that when it comes, you are the best writer you can be–nimble, full of great words, rich images, and disciplined by the practices that work for you.

The last time I had written in any sort of structured way was college.  In the intervening years, I wrote when I felt like it, lazily and without structure.  I wrote until I was bored, or finished with that particular thought, did a quick re-read for glaring errors, and then I went on to something else.  All of a sudden, with Cold Tangerines, I had a monster deadline, and a blank Word document staring back at me, and I had to learn very quickly how to get the words on the page, no matter how blocked and scrambled I felt.

So my advice is this: develop a writing practice that works for you, and do it with discipline and regularity.  Write once a week, or every morning, or on the third Thursday of the month, or when the moon is full.  But whatever you do, don’t just write when you feel like it.  Write when you’ve said that you will.  This is important for lots of reasons.  First, it slaughters the idea that inspiration is everything.  Writing is work, and we will never write well as long as we think that something kooky and mystical has to happen in order for us to feel inspired.

I don’t feel inspired to change diapers in the middle of the night, but I do it. I don’t feel inspired to do the laundry, but when I finally do it, I find that there is something soothing about folding each item, smoothing it into a drawer, lovely-smelling and ready to be worn.  Writing, I find, is the same way.  I don’t necessarily feel filled with butterflies and genius when I sit down to do it, but a few hours later, I feel proud for having worked hard, both emptied and filled, both in good ways.  William Zinsser, in his great book On Writing Well, says that he doesn’t like writing, but that he very much enjoys having written.  Some days it’s like that.  People who run tell me that it’s the same way: you do it for the feeling you get when it’s over.

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Christians Writing “Edgy” for the Wrong Reasons?

Christian author C.J. Darlington wrote an interesting blog post the other day entitled, “Writing edgy… for all the wrong reasons.” She raises a good point — for Christians and non-Christians alike — calling us writers to check our motives for writing something that is edgy, controversial, or contentious. I’ve been known to right a provocative article or two (see: “A letter to the Affluent Church“), and I admit that once you see a maelstrom of comments flooding in over something that touched on an edgy issue, the attention is nice. It makes you want to right more like that, even if the writing itself wasn’t very good.

Darlington writes:

In the last couple of years I’ve noticed a trend in Christian fiction. More and more aspiring authors desire to write edgy fiction. And by edgy I mean pushing the envelope of what has generally been considered acceptable in novels regarding violence, sex, language, etc.

Now I’m all for writing real. I want my characters and situations to be true to life. I don’t want to write about saints. But somewhere there’s a line, and I admit, it’s a gray one. Personally, I think it comes down to motives. Why do we want to write edgy? Is it to shock? To do it because we can?

Do you write what you write, because you can? Or because you hope it will make a difference in somebody’s life?

Do You Write Like Coldplay?

I’m listening to Coldplay’s song “Fix You” as I write this. In a simple, but powerful climax at the end of the song, Chris Martin sings:

Tears stream down your face
When you lose something you cannot replace
Tears stream down your face
I promise you I will learn from my mistakes

Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try… to fix you

A friend I know said she “had an encounter with God” listening to this song. There’s just something about it that’s electric.

The lyrics, while interesting and somewhat compelling, aren’t all that poetic or life-changing. There’s nothing musically complicated about the song, either: a simple bass line on the organ, a two-note piano lead on top of that, a three-chord acoustic guitar part, and delay-driven, unforgettable two-note electric guitar riff.

Each piece of “Fix You” — in and of itself — is nothing that a high school band geek who dreams of his own mediocre rock band couldn’t do. But the genius of Coldplay is that they put it all together; they layer it, build the tension, and wait for the final arrival that thrills their listeners.

And that’s what you can do with your writing — start small, simple, build slowly but intentionally, and let it all come together in a beautiful climax and resolution. It’s possible. You don’t have to be the best writer; you just have to know how to put together the right tools and resources. In fact, that’s true with just about anything creative.

Who Is Your Favorite Writer?

For me, there are several writers that I appreciate reading — it varies depending on my mood.

When I need my heart to be rejuvenated by simple themes of beauty, truth, and justice, I read John Eldredge.

When I’ve got a creative idea or am wanting to feel innovative, I read Seth Godin.

When I’m feeling profound and wanting to be challenged by something academic that will make my head hurt, I read C.S. Lewis.

When I want to read a great story told in an untraditional way, I read Ernest Hemingway (although, I confess, it’s been awhile).

When I’m feeling worn out by religiosity and perhaps a bit of angst towards the church, I read Anne Lamott or Donald Miller.

When I want to read something poetic, I read Pablo Neruda (in Spanish).

When I’m starved for truth or good theology, I read John Piper.

When I need a good old-fashioned kick-in-the-butt, I read the blog of my mentor Seth Barnes.

And, of course, whenever I need to feel inspired, I read the Bible — often an epistle of Paul, the Gospel of John, or the Psalms.

Who is your favorite writer? I don’t think that I could pick just one.

Get a Peer Editor

Most good writers struggle with ego. As a result, they do not become as great of writers as they could become. They coast along as merely “good” writers. And that’s not enough.

You don’t want to be good. You don’t want to maintain the status quo. You want to be great, because you’ve got something amazing to say, something that would change people’s lives if they took the time to hear it. Don’t you? Isn’t that why you’re committed to writing? (If not, I might reconsider your motivation for wanting to write.)

In order to earn the right to speak to your audience, you need to develop yourself as a writer. Being good, or even pretty good, just won’t cut it. You need to be great.

In order to be a truly great writer, you need an editor, someone who will tell you the truth about your writing without blowing smoke up your butt. You need someone you can trust, so that when (not “if”) they criticize you, you can trust that it’s not in order to tear you down, but to build you up.

For a good editor, I suggest a peer — someone close enough to you who knows you well, but not too close. Your editor needs to be able to tell you the hard truth without having to face the consequences of your not being “best friends” anymore. You need someone who is bold and blunt. You need an editor who will challenge you to write more than one draft of a piece, because, as we all know, the first draft is usually crap.

At the end of the day, we all need to grow. We all need to come down off of our high horses of achievement and success and be humbled a little. We all need people who will force us to set aside ego for the sake of the message we are called to spread.

So, get a peer editor, and get on your way to becoming great.