Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Writing Devotionals (Part 4 of 7)

Who reads devotionals? That is, who is your target audience? Think of them as individuals who will spend about five minutes to get their inspirational jolt for the day. Some people criticize such readers for spending so little time. I've responded with, "Be thankful they want to spend any time on spiritual issues."

You have fewer than five minutes to make your point
and to inspire readers.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Writing Devotionals (Part 3 of 7)

With only 200 words (about one page, double-spaced), you can't expect to delve into deep truths. You can, however, suggest ways for readers to examine themselves and live happier lives.

Until you try, you probably won't realize how difficult devotional articles are to write. In the 1980s, I wrote devotionals for a variety of magazines. They don't pay much ($10 to $25) and some don't pay anything, but I loved the discipline. I couldn't use extra words, limp phrases, or repetitions. Every word had to justify itself. My first draft often hit 600 words and I had to delete two-thirds of the text and still retain the heart of the material. I loved the discipline.

Here's the next rule: You're forced to stay with one idea. Any good article does that, but if you write for this market, you become aware of sentences that may be interesting, but aren't germane to the topic you address, and you delete them.

One idea expressed well and succinctly:
That's the secret of writing devotionals.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Writing Devotionals (Part 2 of 7)

The devotional isn't just for ezines and print magazines. You can also use the principle in books. I've published twenty books that fit into that category, although only eight of them have the word devotions as part of the title—and they were the first ones I wrote of that type. Books, of course, give you an opportunity to expand. When I write a devotional book, my personal rule is that I hover between 750 and 1200 words on each one.

Again, succinct is the rule.

The difference between meditations and personal experience is, of course, length. You can't say as much in 200 words so every word must count. Although devotionals don't have to be personal experiences, they need to be personal. That is, you can write about a verse in the Bible that took on meaning or a simple sentence your child said that gave you insight into life.

Devotionals aren't sermons on paper, lectures, essays, and certainly not authoritarian explanations about how to live. Instead, the short meditations enable readers to connect their lives with God or to find encouragement in their struggles.

Think of meditations as jump-starts for the day (or a way to end the day).

Friday, August 20, 2010

Writing Inspirationals, Devotionals, and Meditations (Part 1 of 7)

“I experience more than I understand," a friend said, attributing that statement to John Calvin. I would add, "And I understand those experiences even more when I reflect on them." One way to reflect on life is to write about it in what we call inspirational, devotions, or meditations.

Because most of you who subscribe write for the Christian market, I'll use the word devotionals, but the words are interchangeable.

Magazines and ezines are the primary buyers of inspirational thoughts. Some magazines devote themselves totally to this. Unity publishes Daily Word; the Methodist Church provides the most well-known, Upper Room; and four denominations produce These Days. I'll discuss books in my next post.

Writing devotionals is more than making sense of what happened. It's also an opportunity to use insightful moments to touch others who can learn and profit from your insights. If that sounds like personal experience, it can be just that. But there are differences.

The devotional format has a strict word limit, usually around 200 words. Personal experience articles can go from 800 to 1800 words, depending on the publisher. For this specialized format, the rule is to "write tight."

In my early career, I wrote many devotions because I considered them an excellent form of self-discipline. I could have no extra words. From writing those limited-word articles I learned more about succinct writing than I did from any other way.

You can write tight.
Practice doing it.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Writing Personal Experience Articles (Part 6 of 6)

Final PE Questions We Need to Answer:

As a recap, if you write Personal Experience (PE) stories here are questions to ponder:

• What was an insightful moment? It doesn’t have to be life changing, but it must be significant.

• How can I show this experience to readers?

• What did I learn from this experience?

• What can I teach others from my experience?

Here are four things to keep in mind:

1. Show your emotions as well as your actions. Readers want to identify with you and want to experience your pain and your victory with you.

2. Use dialogue. No one expects the words to be literal, but stay as close to the truth as you can. Dialogue makes stories come alive.

3. Don’t preach. This isn’t a time to lecture; it is a time to share. If you keep everything "I" centered, readers grasp the message through your experience.

4. The lesson or the moral of the story comes out of experience. "This is what I learned."

My bad experiences can become powerful experiences to help readers through their painful experiences.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Writing Personal Experience Articles (Part 5 of 6)

Other Factors in PE:

In personal experience (PE), the story itself becomes the vehicle to relate the message to readers. We are the main character or at least the one who changes. The best PE articles invite readers to identify with our experience and apply the message to themselves.

If we’re going to write PE, everything pivots around our vulnerability. Editors don't want stories of our great triumphs or success. Readers identify with failure and find hope in rising above mistakes.

PE isn't where we confess our sins, but we show that even the most thickheaded individuals (ourselves) can gain insight.

After the insight, we don’t become perfect; we remain human. Years ago, I wrote a PE piece about dealing with my temper. I concluded, "I still struggle with losing my temper, but I’m growing and my volcanic eruptions occur less often."

That's realistic and that's what we want readers to grasp: Not perfection but ongoing victory over struggles.

When I'm transparent about my shortcomings, readers identify with me.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Writing Personal Experience Articles (Part 4 of 6)

Every Personal Experience (PE) article needs one more crucial ingredient. Before you end, you have to answer this question: So what?

That leads to the final ingredient for PE accounts. It’s not enough to have a learning experience, even one with universal appeal; we have to answer the implied question: How does my experience help others? What meaning does the story hold for readers?

I concluded my article on forgiveness by sharing that years after I had forgiven the man, we met unexpectedly in the United States. When I stared into his blue eyes, I knew I had forgiven him and that I cared about him. We warmly hugged each other. By describing our meeting, I pointed readers to the healing results in the other person and in me and said that when we ask forgiveness, each of us benefits.

So what? We haven't finished an article or story until we've answered that question.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Writing Personal Experience Articles (part 3 of 6)

To write a successful Personal Experience (PE) story, first you need a unique story. Second, your story must have universal appeal.

As you tell the story, you show that your experience appeals to a wide audience. That is, your learned insights hold meaning for others.

In my HomeLife article about forgiving another missionary, the universal appeal was that all of us struggle with being hurt by others, especially when we feel we’ve done nothing wrong. It took me a long time to want to forgive the man and even longer to admit that I might have had some culpability in the situation.

As I told my story, I showed readers how Cec Murphey learned to forgive someone who had hurt him. I could have said, "I learned four principles from this experience." Instead, I chose to show the four things (not numbered) by relating my progress from wanting to forgive to being free. Either method can work as long as we help readers grasp what we’ve been through.

If my articles don't have universal appeal, I have nothing to share.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Question About Newspaper Columns

Leah sent me a private email and asked about counting newspaper columns with articles. Even though I finished the topic of articles first, and this is out of order, it’s a good question.

Does a newspaper column count as article writing? Yes and no. For eight years I wrote a column for a weekly paper, so I respond from my experience. Yes, it means the discipline of writing a weekly column (twice-weekly for Leah). It shows commitment and sincerity. But no, because they rarely edit columns, especially not the way good magazine and ezine editors do. (Also, some writers syndicate their columns so they must all be the same.) In my eight years of writing for no pay, my editor didn’t change a word. I assume it was because I made no grammatical mistakes and punctuated properly. She probably could have improved my work.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Writing Personal Experience Articles (Part 2 of 6)

Personal Experience (PE) articles need two special qualities. First, you need a unique story. That part is simple. You tell what happened to you—an incident that made a significant impact on you. It can be an answer to prayer, a failure in your job, going through a divorce, or struggling over the death of a child. It may involve a moral issue, an ethical lesson, or the discovery of a religious truth. You can tell how a Bible verse has slammed into your life.

PE accounts don’t have to hit 10 on the Richter scale. They can involve everyday things such as frustration over traffic jams or problems we face with a dishwasher. It’s not the event itself, but the effect the incident had on us that makes it unique.

For example, HomeLife magazine asked me to write a PE piece about forgiveness. I wrote about an experience that involved another missionary who criticized me and gossiped about me. That’s a unique setting; not many people are missionaries.

That has to be coupled with a second major factor. Read my next blog.

My experiences are unique. No one else has encountered exactly what I have.