The Lectionary Companion: An Inspirational Tool for Christian Writers

As a Christian writer, you have no shortage of inspiration available to you. Through prayer, Bible reading, worship, and enjoying God’s presence in nature or in Christian fellowship, not to mention looking at all the names of God, all the testimonies of what He has done, and all the needs lifted up to Him, you have an endless supply of topics to write about.

Sometimes the inspiration is so vast and deep, you may need help to find a simple starting point. Your first starting point should always be prayer and allowing God to lead you. Sometimes it also helps to pray over specific writing prompts.

Here is a good resource that can help you in this process: Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary (published in three volumes, A, B, and C), Paul Scott Wilson, editor.

While the book’s title may not sound very inspiring, the book gives simple yet vivid themes, imagery, and hands-on application and description for weekly groupings of Bible verses. I’ve found this book to be helpful in coming up with ideas for Christian writing.

What is the Revised Common Lectionary?

The book is a companion to the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a weekly grouping of Bible verses that follows the Christian calendar and is used as a reference by many churches. Beginning with the first Sunday of Advent, the lectionary goes all the way through the Christian year. Many churches use the lectionary for their Bible readings, and many pastors write their sermons based on the lectionary scriptures.

The Revised Common Lectionary rotates every year:

Year A = 2019-2020

Year B = 2020-2021

Year C = 2021-2022

Then back to A again, and the cycle repeats.

The Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary has three volumes: Preaching Year A, B, and C. These volumes correspond to the rotation described above.

How the Lectionary Companion Can Inspire Christian Writers

These guides are not just for preachers. They provide wonderful inspiration for Christian writers too, based on a year’s worth of Bible reading and weekly themes.

As a writer, you can use the Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary to write about any of the lectionary verses. You don’t need to write seasonally or for that particular preaching year. Writers on a budget may not want to purchase all three volumes, and that’s okay. Just choose one and it will give you plenty of inspiration for your writing.

If you do decide to use the lectionary companion as a seasonal guide for a particular year (A, B, or C), it may give you an opportunity to write devotionals for your church. If your church follows the Revised Common Lectionary, as many denominations do, your devotionals would add to the biblical experience. Even if your church doesn’t follow the lectionary, you would still be inviting readers to experience the Christian calendar through scripture.

Each week, the lectionary brings together four scripture passages spanning Old and New Testament. As a writer, you can choose one passage to focus on, or prayerfully see how the passages come together and write from that convergence.

The lectionary companion can inspire your writing in many ways. You might be inspired to write on the main theme highlighted in the companion guide. Or you might pick up on one of the theological questions that arise from the readings that week, discussed in the companion guide.

The lectionary companion also gives tangible descriptions and images for pastoral and ethical issues. These can often inspire writing that applies scripture in daily life. The companion also connects the Gospel reading to the bigger biblical narrative, and that connection can also inspire your writing.

You might decide to write one piece based on the lectionary readings for one week. Or you might choose a particular week and write several pieces, perhaps a week-long devotional collection that covers 6 or 7 days and explores the week’s theme more in-depth or from many angles.

Example of Topics for Christian Writers: Second Sunday of Advent

Let’s look at an example to see how the lectionary companion might inspire Christian writing. This example will be from Preaching Year A, second Sunday of Advent (Dec 8, 2019). The readings are Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12.

For that week, the Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary, Preaching Year A, discusses themes of justice, hope, and peace.

Here are some topics you might write about for that theme, inspired by the lectionary companion:

  • How Jesus helps those who are oppressed.
  • How does the Holy Spirit bring justice, or peace, or hope?
  • What are the characteristics of the Holy Spirit? How do you know you’re seeing Him in action?
  • Testimony of when the Holy Spirit brought you into peace or gave you hope.
  • Letter of encouragement to someone who needs the Holy Spirit to meet them in their deepest needs.
  • How does hope give us glimpses of God’s kingdom in the midst of a suffering world?
  • How is biblical hope different from worldly hope or from specific concrete outcomes?
  • Who is Jesus as the Prince of Peace?
  • What kind of Peace does Jesus bring? How does it differ from the world’s peace? What are some examples of this contrast?
  • How does Jesus lead us to befriend one another? What are some specific illustrations?
  • What limits do we put on our hope? What does it mean to expect hope beyond those human limits? Testimony of a time when your idea of hope was expanded. When you were willing to stretch your hope, how did God change your heart?
  • How do we recognize the peace of Christ?
  • How does the peace of Christ differ from earthly peace? What are some examples of this contrast?
  • How do we move deeper into the peace Jesus offers? Helpful tips. Or what kind of story might illustrate this process?
  • Where does the world tempt us with its definition of peace, leading us away from the peace of Christ?
  • What wounding in us causes us to be tempted toward the world’s peace and away from the peace of Christ?
  • How do Isaiah and Paul (in the scripture verses above) suggest we (as individuals or as a church) move deeper into justice, hope, and peace?
  • How does our church relate to people who feel like outcasts or misfits? What would Isaiah or Paul say about it?
  • What do we need to repent of to see greater justice, hope, and peace in our midst?
  • How do we renew our hope?
  • What is the hope Jesus calls us to?

Those are just a few of the topics you might be inspired to write about after reading the lectionary companion for the second Sunday of Advent. If you dig deeper in prayer, you’ll have even more ideas and/or you can drill down further into one of these topics. Each week has new scriptures, new themes, and lots of inspiration for Christian writers.

Always Begin with Prayer

As always, read the scriptures and the lectionary companion prayerfully. See what God highlights for you, what stands out to you or speaks to your heart the most. Pray about which topic to work on next. Then present that topic to the Lord and let Him inspire you for how to approach it. There are so many different ways to write about each topic. Different angles, different readers, different testimonies, different types of writing. Your way will be as unique as you are in this moment.

As you grow in your Christian writing life, you will find many sources of inspiration. The Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary is just one helpful source that I have enjoyed using. It can help you find themes, images, and tangible questions and applications from the lectionary readings. Of course, remember your Bible readings should always begin and end with prayer and the help of the Holy Spirit.

Writing While Growing: Some Tips for Christian Writers

A friend and I were talking this weekend about Christian writing. Our conversation touched on a common concern of Christian writers, the concern of writing something that will lead someone astray. I have often told writers (and prayer ministers) that as long as you have that healthy concern, I am not worried about you. You are likely to be diligent and discerning, bringing everything before God and asking for feedback from trusted individuals before you publish anything. You will also be more humble in your writing, acknowledging what you don’t know and inviting your readers to explore along with you as you grow together. That is a healthy approach to writing.

The problem is that sometimes this healthy concern expands into paralyzing fear, and nothing ever gets written. The question “When do I know enough to write about it?” never finds its answer. Readers miss out because you were ready and you had something helpful to share, but fear kept you from publishing.

The conversation with my friend went more in-depth about this concern, and I would like to share some of what we touched on, in case it helps another writer with similar questions.

Sometimes Growth Means Re-Editing at a Later Date

My friend had observed how sometimes people write and publish their perspective on a Christian-related topic, assuming they have done their research. Then at a later date, after continued research and growth, they change their perspective. Should they have written that first piece or waited until they learned more? Of course, every situation is unique, so it’s hard to answer that question in general. But here goes my attempt.

Here is one example that came immediately to mind. This weekend, I re-edited one of my blog articles I wrote 7 years ago about centering prayer. Recently, I have discovered that some of the books I’ve read about centering prayer have been confusing for readers who are new to the topic. So I don’t want to refer to those books in a basic blog article. I went back to edit and remove the book references. If I had time to give a thorough background teaching, I might have left the book references in. But really the article was about spending quiet time with God. It wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive teaching about centering prayer. So I removed the reference to the books and republished the blog post with just the centering prayer reflections I had shared.

That’s an example of how we can write something where we are at in the moment, and then re-edit it later as we grow, learn, and discuss. In September 2012 when I first published that blog post, I was actively engaged in dialogue with those books for my own learning. I was also being taught about centering prayer in two separate venues: in seminary and in a ministry internship. So I had a deep contextual understanding (historical teaching, experiential training) of centering prayer. The books made sense to me, and I was able to take the meat and spit out the bones. But it wasn’t until I engaged those topics in a wider audience that I realized those books are not for newbies. If I didn’t plan to share the entire training in that blog post (would have been a book, not a blog article!), then I needed to not make reference to those particular books.

The Challenges for Readers and Writers

The reason for my concern is, as my friend mentioned in our conversation, unfortunately many people will read something and take it in at surface level without praying about it, asking questions, or digging deeper. Unfortunately many people who read Christian online content aren’t taught about accountability, even though the Bible reminds us of wisdom and safety in a multitude of counselors (Proverbs 11:14, 15:22, 24:6). But many people aren’t taught that. Ideally when someone reads an article written by someone they don’t know, and it hits them sideways, they should go to people they trust and get their feedback. And also take it to God for His guidance. But so many people aren’t taught to do that. And if they know the author personally, then ideally they should ask the author first to explain. That not only helps the reader find clarity but might also help the author rewrite to clarify. So that is one of the challenges on the reader’s side.

On the writer’s side, often we write from the season we are in. And where else can (or should) we write from? We have to write from where we are sitting at the time. Otherwise we will never write. Then later, we experience growth, and maybe that shapes our perspective in ways that the reader can see the growth in our writing over time. Think about an author you have read for many years. I’ll bet you can literally see that author’s spiritual growth and life experiences shape the things she writes. In most situations, this growth will be gradual and will tend to move more deeply in the same direction. But in other cases we, as writers, may do an about face and realize something we said earlier does not line up with where our spiritual growth has brought us.

Ideally we will remember things we wrote earlier. If something needs to be edited or updated, we should go back and either change it or write a note updating it (or possibly delete it), or we can even create a new edition of a book with a new introduction explaining the changes. The reason for doing this is that the meat of the book is still valid, but we want to add a new perspective or context based on what we have learned over the years.

Sometimes an author has to just say they have changed their view, especially when it’s a sea change. And they need to be transparent and public about this. If they are influential or have a big following, they need to say it out loud and publicly. A prominent author that I read did that recently. He did a complete about face on a writing practice he had promoted for years. He publicly wrote a letter to his readers and told them he had changed and why he had changed.

For my own example, I originally wrote a guide to devotional writing. I wrote it 13 years ago, and 99% of it is still correct. But I no longer believe that a writer should write a devotional every day. I can’t even believe I said that, let alone believed it. That was before I had any inner healing. I hadn’t learned how to rest, to just “be,” and to let God order the rhythm of my day. If I were still in the writing community I was with at that time, I would issue a public correction of that guide. But that community no longer exists. So I simply took the guide off my website. Maybe one day I will have time to change the guidelines and republish them. But for now, they are just removed from my website because I no longer want to say anything remotely like that to a writer. Instead I spent the summer telling my online writing group why I haven’t been writing lately and why it is okay if they are having the same experience.

Writers Are Always Growing

We are always in a growing process spiritually. As Christian writers, we have the responsibility to do due diligence and make sure what we write lines up with scripture and God’s nature at the time when we are writing a particular piece, whether it be an article or a book. We need to be sure to ask for feedback on our work (before we publish) from trusted individuals who have a clearly demonstrated close walk with the Lord. This step is especially important in the age of blogging and self-publishing, where we lack the traditional layers of feedback that we would have found in working with Christian publishing houses. We also have the responsibility to follow spiritual health and growth practices like accountability, inner healing, and spending time with God and in His Word.

But we are always going to be growing. So we may, to the best of our understanding, write something that rings true at the time. But later we change our understanding and rewrite it from a place of growth. And ideally we help our readers see that transition where necessary, especially with a major about face.

We are accountable for the words we write – not just at the moment, but long after they are in print. While we are not responsible for someone’s response to our words, we do need to be aware of what we have spoken and repent when we realize our words may have been amiss. If we wrote and published something in the past, and now we realize that we were wrong, we ask and receive forgiveness. We ask God to help those who may have been confused by our words. That’s all part of growing up in Christ. And we take whatever steps are needed to publicly correct or remove those words so they don’t affect others. We’re like teenagers growing up under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We make mistakes. We learn. We repent (means a complete change of heart in a new direction, i.e., the direction of God). We take responsibility for what we have published in the past to the best of our ability and ask God what we need to do to make it right. We don’t engage in self-destruction by beating ourselves up. And we move on as God leads us. We write again.

As writers, we engage in a two-way interaction with readers. The reader also has the responsibility to use discernment, feedback, clarification, and accountability rather than just taking things in superficially. If something doesn’t sit right, the reader needs to look into it or take the meat and spit out the bones. So both the reader and writer share responsibility for how a piece is written and consumed, always taking things before God and getting wise counsel on both ends of the process.

As writers, we are also avid readers (or should be). So, we need to remember this responsibility when we are in reader mode as well. And as reader-writers, we need to be careful not to judge the authors we read for the mistakes they make. Not only does the Bible tell us not to judge others (Matthew 7:1-5, Romans 2:1-3), but also in the ways we judge other writers, we might end up reaping those judgments in possibly greater proportion in our own writing (Galatians 6:7-9, Hosea 8:7). We need to read responsibly and stay accountable for the words we consume as readers. When we read something that seems amiss, we need to realize it could just as easily be us writing that way. We are called to forgive that writer for their mistakes, as we would hope others would do for us (Luke 6:31-36). Reading the heartfelt words of other writers is a privilege that comes with a reminder to stay humble in our writing.

No Fear

As long as we do our due diligence in our writing, we don’t need to be bound up by fear that would prevent us from publishing where we are in the moment. If we have done our best to use discernment and to be sure our work lines up with God and His Word, and if we have sought healthy and trustworthy feedback, we don’t need to be afraid to publish our work. We are always growing. If we wait till we have completely grown, we will never publish anything. (See my article “When It’s Time to Hit ‘Publish.’”) And people will miss out on the blessing of the writing we could have shared with them.

People read things from where they are spiritually at that time. So a writer who has just gone through a stage of growth may be writing for someone just going through that stage, and who better to write it? Further down the road they might both be in a different place. But the writer can trust that God used that written piece to encourage that reader at that particular point in time.

Limits, and What to Do with Them

I do think also a writer has to know her limits. If there is a part of the Bible she doesn’t understand, maybe she needs to write about something more familiar to her. She might need to spend a season growing in that area she doesn’t understand, before writing about it. But she shouldn’t be afraid to embrace that area of growth and step into it.

The writer may say, “I should just forget about that passage. It’s too hard for me.” But if God prompted it, that’s a great invitation to learn and grow. She shouldn’t just dismiss it as “out of reach.” Maybe she has a helpful perspective for sharing it with readers, and maybe that’s why she should be writing about it. The writer’s personal and unique life experiences might give her the right approach to share that scripture passage in a way that will resonate with certain readers. If the writer is willing to learn and grow, she may be writing about that passage before long in ways that surprise her.

Or maybe that particular Bible passage is not for her to write about but for her own personal growth instead. It also might be a stepping stone that will lead to writing about something else altogether.

No matter what, if she feels prompted by God, she shouldn’t dismiss it. I never thought I could write about Exodus 32-34 (or any passage from Exodus for that matter) until I took the time to immerse myself in Inductive Bible Study of that passage. I would have thought it was impossible for me to understand. But if I hadn’t worked through it, I would have missed the rich teaching and truths in that passage that are so helpful for intercessors in understanding how God responds to our intercession.

Granted, the writer who moves forward with a passage that is difficult for her does need to take the time to understand it first, at least enough for what she will be writing about. This is where the use of reliable, trustworthy commentaries can be helpful. Also, the writer should know (or get to know) some pastors or Spirit-led teachers that can help give feedback and perspective. It’s helpful to have several such people to ask questions of (wisdom and safety in a multitude of counselors, Proverbs 11:14, 15:22, 24:6) and be sure they come from different life perspectives.

Seek Feedback from Trusted Individuals with a Variety of Life Perspectives

I once had a pastor disagree with how I wrote about a particular Bible story. So I quit writing about that topic. Later I talked with other pastors who agreed with my perspective. What I realized was that the first pastor I asked about it was a happily married man. He didn’t see things from the perspective of a woman who had been through an abusive marriage. He didn’t understand the dynamics that come with that experience.

In the story I wrote, my emphasis was on how my personal anger (although certainly understandable and even partly righteous anger) had turned into bitter, long-term anger that continued to hurt me. This anger would have led me to cause further abuse if I hadn’t allowed God to heal me. My anger certainly did lead me to many more years of self-abuse. That wasn’t something the pastor could relate to. I believe he thought I was being unmerciful toward people who have been abused (in his defense, he didn’t know I had been abused). In reality, I was talking about the long-term damage that continues to affect a person long after they have been removed from the situation of abuse – the pain that comes with long-term bitterness, unforgiveness, anger, and self-hatred. Often that damage has far worse consequences over time than the initial abuse, no matter how violent that abuse had been. We often do far deeper damage to ourselves than anyone else ever could. (I am the poster child for that, and I thank God for my healing.) The story I wrote ultimately showed how both abuser and abused person needed to seek Jesus’ healing at the cross.

It’s unfortunate that I stopped writing about those topics at that time. I would have written from a fresh perspective on it that might have resonated with people going through or recovering from abuse. I was remiss in not seeking out other pastors to talk to, instead of just listening to one person’s opinion. I failed to recognize that he didn’t have the life experience to see where I was going with the story I was writing. I also neglected to push back and discuss it further with him. That last point, had I done it, might have led to a fruitful discussion where he could have helped me see how to write it more clearly, and it also might have helped him grow in his understanding of his parishioners who were struggling with abuse. If not, the discussion might have led me to see why he couldn’t understand, so that I wouldn’t have dismissed a potential calling to write and publish on the internet for readers who were struggling with abuse.

Not All of Your Readers Are Christian

Whether we write on the internet or write books or articles for magazines, many of our readers may not be Christian. That is all the more reason for us to do our due diligence as writers and communicate clearly when we have experienced growth that changes or clarifies something we wrote – or in some cases to remove it or take it out of print if we are concerned it would lead someone astray.

At the same time, when we are writing pieces about spiritual growth for Christian readers, we don’t have the time or space to include everything that someone would need to understand if they are not Christian or if they are a new Christian. They are not our intended audience for that article or that book. The church needs to provide that growth and understanding for them. So we need to point them in the direction of a healthy church.

This is a reminder that we, as writers, should offer (in our books, on our websites, etc.) an invitation to pray for salvation, an actual prayer of salvation, and encouragement for that person to find a good church (and explain what that looks like). I try to include a salvation prayer and encouragement to find a healthy church in each of my books. But as I write this, I realize I don’t have such a prayer on my website or my blog. That will be the next section I add on my website.

Do Write

To sum up, I think it’s important that writers do their best to bring due diligence into their writing, to be sure it’s in line with God’s Word and His nature, and to get feedback and wisdom from multiple and trusted perspectives. I also think writers need to be diligent about their continued spiritual growth, inner healing, Bible study, prayer, accountability, and intentional quiet time with God.

Additionally, I think writers have a responsibility to be aware of what they have published in the past. When they experience a major change in perspective through a season of growth, they should make those new insights publicly available for their readers, either by publishing a new book edition with a new intro or republishing an article with a new intro. If that’s not possible – e.g., if a publishing company won’t let them – then at least they can share their insights publicly by writing a new article or delivering a podcast that informs their readers of their new perspective.

At the same time, I believe readers need to take responsibility for how they take in and respond to what they read, similar to those things mentioned above – accountability, wisdom from a multitude of counselors, their own Bible study and spiritual growth, and asking the author to clarify when they have questions. I think this is how God designed us to be in the body of Christ. And how wonderful if a piece of writing can inspire and remind us to practice these spiritual disciplines and ways of fellowship and accountability in the body of Christ.

If you are a Christian writer, let God lead you in all that you write. Practice spiritual health, growth, and discernment. Ask trusted people for feedback on your writing. Stay accountable and humble.

But do write. Do not be afraid. Trust the Holy Spirit to prompt you and help you. So many readers will be blessed.

Don’t Let Commentaries Slow Your Christian Writing

When I teach Christian writing classes, I emphasize the importance of Bible study. Christian writers have an incredible privilege of inspiring and encouraging readers to draw closer to God and to dig deeper into His Word. That means writers need to know the Bible and have a solid foundation for presenting scripture in their writing.

This doesn’t mean a devotional writer needs to be a scholar of biblical texts. But there are some basics that anyone writing about scripture needs to practice. One of these is the use of reliable biblical commentaries.

When I mention commentaries, a creative writer may sigh and think, There goes the inspiration or There goes the fun or even There goes the Holy Spirit. I get it. I often have the same response. But learning how to use reliable commentaries in minimal ways is important for Christian writers. And the use of commentaries does not need to slow or make tedious our inspirational writing.

I am creating this article as an encouragement to Christian inspirational writers on the importance of using commentaries and some simple and interesting ways to do so.

Why Should We Use Commentaries in Our Christian Writing?

As Christian writers, we need to look at reliable commentaries. Through our writing, we are expressing our voice in Christian community. We need to converse with others in the community over time and space. That need to engage in dialogue is also why we check more than one commentary and see where we find overlap, consensus, or disagreement. I recommend always consulting at least two commentaries to enhance our understanding of a particular Bible passage.

In our writing, we are pointing our readers to God’s Word. We need to understand the weight of doing that. We want to be sure we are presenting scripture in a way that reflects our own dialogue with Christian community, so we are presenting to the reader as a representative of that community. We’re all in this together.

We need to take some effort to grow in our understanding of scripture over the course of our writing lives. The Holy Spirit leads us as we search the depths of scripture. Commentaries offer a good aid along the way.

Our own wounding can cause us to skew the way we understand a Bible verse. Commentaries can help us sort it through and see more clearly.

The enemy loves to mess with Christian writers, telling us one or more of the following: our understanding of scripture is wrong or not good enough; we don’t have the biblical foundation to write about scripture; or we’re going to lead readers astray. The enemy wants to stop us from writing because he knows how powerfully God will use our writing. By consulting reliable commentaries, we will be able to discern and dismiss the lies of the enemy.

When we love scripture, as most Christian writers do, a good, trustworthy commentary can also provide insights that deepen our understanding of a Bible passage. That experience is something to treasure and appreciate. Good commentaries should add joy to the inspirational process of our Christian writing.

Some Tips for Using Commentaries with Ease

Consider your use of commentaries as part of your ongoing long-term biblical growth as a writer. Don’t let it slow your writing. Let your exploration of God’s Word (a lifelong process for all of us) continue to shape your writing as you go along. Start with where you are right now. Take it as God leads. He will guide you for sure!

1. When you start working with a Bible verse, don’t go to the commentaries right away. Begin with your own prayerful work with the Holy Spirit. Don’t consult commentaries until after you have done your own study of the Bible verse and surrounding passages. You want God to work the scriptures into your heart first. Then use the commentaries for confirmation and to shed light on additional layers to explore later.

2. Find your go-to source of commentaries now, so it doesn’t become a big deal each time. It is worth the up-front investment of time to line up the commentaries you will use as a writer. Start with your church. Does your church have a library? Ask your pastor for suggestions on how to find good, reliable commentaries. (Sadly, not all commentaries are trustworthy, so seek advice from your pastor.)

Do you have a college nearby with online databases? Many local colleges give free public access to databases, and many of those databases contain biblical commentaries. Some school library databases also have free online access to full-text articles that may focus on particular biblical passages. You can often search by chapter and verse. I recommend peer-reviewed articles as the most reliable. Talk to your local college reference librarian for help. They will be glad you’ve asked.

Commentaries can be expensive to buy, but keep your eyes on your favorite publishers. Sometimes they run sales on commentaries, and you will often find good discounts on e-book versions. If you enjoy working with a particular book of the Bible, it might be worth it to buy a good commentary focusing on that book.

Do you have fellow Christian writers in your church or community? Maybe create your own co-op for commentaries. Each person buys one, and then you share with each other.

If you invest the time up front to find good sources of commentaries, you will save time down the road when you are ready to consult those commentaries. You will know exactly where to go each time.

3. Start with Bible verses you know well. One of the best ways to get your feet wet with using commentaries is to start with Bible verses you already know. When you know the meaning of a verse really well, the use of a commentary won’t bring a huge learning curve. It will simply confirm what you already know. That’s one of the easiest ways to get used to looking at commentaries.

A commentary brings you into dialogue with Christian community regarding the interpretation of a Bible verse. For some of the more commonly referenced Bible verses, you have already lived out that dialogue in Christian community. You know the interpretation of that verse and can be confident of how you are sharing it with your readers.

When I chose the Bible verse for my devotional, “Firelight,” I was very certain the core message in my devotional expressed at least part of the meaning of that verse. Why? Because I’ve heard that verse taught, preached, sung, and lived out over my entire life. I had already experienced conversation about the verse in Christian community.

So, start with Bible verses you have heard taught and discussed many times. Verses you know well. Then see how the commentaries reaffirm what you already know. That’s a great way to get used to using commentaries.

4. Start by reading just a few paragraphs from a commentary. For devotional writing and many other inspirational writing projects, you will most likely focus on one Bible verse at a time. You don’t need to read a huge portion of a commentary, just the part that covers your verse. You can read more, of course, but don’t let that cause you to put your writing project on hold. Take baby steps and grow from there. Take a quick peek at the commentaries and keep writing.

5. When you start out, you will notice how much the commentary agrees with your own understanding of your Bible verse. That shouldn’t surprise you because you know God’s Word. That’s really all you need to do: just confirm your understanding of that verse with reliable sources. It’s great if you want to explore further and discover where the commentary offers new insights. If you have a really good commentary, you may find that enjoyable. But you don’t need to do that at the start. Simply confirm: “Yep. We agree!”

6. Remember Bible verses will often have layers and nuances of meaning. If you are writing devotionals, your message will be very focused. You will just be looking at one aspect of the Bible verse you are writing about. You can skim the commentary, looking for your particular focus, and skip all the other aspects the commentary covers. That way you won’t get overwhelmed by all the layers of meaning.

When you are starting out as a Christian inspirational writer, keep it simple. Take one step, then another. With each step, you will move more deeply into your journey of Christian writing. Before long, commentaries will become a simple and natural part of prayerful preparation for your writing.

 

On Writing Testimonies that Mention Others

Lately I’ve been helping some of my ministry colleagues edit their testimonies, especially of inner healing and forgiveness. One question I’ve been asked often is, “How do you tell your story of healing in a way that honors the people you have had to forgive?”

That’s one of the biggest challenges in sharing a testimony. It’s not easy. But I have learned it can be done.

Here is one thing that helps me as I’m writing about healing and forgiveness regarding other people: I try to keep the focus on me. One of the pioneers of inner healing, John Sandford, taught that we are responsible for our sinful reactions to what others did (good or bad).

If I’m writing about childhood neglect or trauma, I’m not going to make my parents the focus. I won’t talk about what they might have done wrong. Instead, as I am writing, I’m going to focus on the ways I reacted to the circumstances, how my own reactions affected me, and how I sought God for my healing.

When people read about my healing, they don’t need to know what happened. Most readers will relate it to their own circumstances anyway, so the less detail, the better.

Childhood wounding can occur from genuine abuse or neglect. It can also occur from a child’s perceptions of parents’ behavior. Perhaps a parent did nothing overtly wrong but simply was unable to meet what the child needed or wanted. The child sees that as hurtful, even though the parent might have been loving.

Our healing is about our own reactions, not about what our parents did or didn’t do. It is possible to keep the focus largely on ourselves as we write about how God has healed us.

That’s how I approached my book I Choose Life. I talk about my sinful reactions to my parents and husband. The focus is not on them. It’s on me. The reader doesn’t need to know any more than that.

There may be certain difficult parts of our testimonies that need to be shared. If I am writing a book or a blog post to help women recovering from abuse, I will need to share that I have recovered from abuse. I will also need to let them see, through my writing, that I understand what they are going through.

Notice how the focus, again, is on my own experience, not on the person who was abusive toward me. I am trying to share enough to identify with my readers in their pain, without bringing into the story the person who hurt me. The focus becomes my hurt and what Jesus did to heal me.

If I am writing about my personal healing from generational sin, I’m going to have to name the sin that has been passed down in the family line. But I’m not going to name names or specific ways that people (other than myself) participated in that sin.

One of the biggest challenges was an article I wrote recently, “Honor Is Not the Same as Tolerance,” about how my mother struggled with bitterness, and how I never honored her by helping to lift that off of her. In my case, it is somewhat easier to write about my parents because neither one is living. But there are individuals – family and friends – who will read these articles and who knew my parents. So I still want to honor my parents’ memories. Not only that, but I always want to talk about my parents in honoring ways.

So I was careful how I described my mom’s participation with bitterness. Again, I kept the focus more on myself: how I dishonored her, and how in healing, I learned how to rightly honor her. Even so, I asked a trusted friend to read the article before I published it. She confirmed that my writing honored my mom.

Why go to all the trouble of writing about these challenging situations? Because I believe that God can use our healing testimonies to heal others. Having worked with mothers, wives, sisters, daughters at a men’s addiction recovery center, I know it’s important to share the testimony that enabling is not the same as honoring. I also know it’s important to help women see how bitterness undermines their well-being – and how subtle it is, and how it often stems from wounding in a sensitive heart. So it was worth it to me to write and publish the article about my relationship with my mom, if it could help someone else.

As I mentioned, my parents aren’t living. That makes my challenge a little less than for someone whose parents are alive. If you are writing about a situation that affects living family members, and if you are in active relationship with those people, put yourself in each person’s heart. Imagine what they will feel when they read your healing testimony in print – especially as it relates to issues of their past.

It doesn’t matter that you have left out their names and identifying information, or even changed the details. They will still know they are reading about something that involved them. That can create a feeling of being very exposed, even when it’s in the past and healed. Hearing something spoken and seeing it in print are two very different experiences. It is hard to see our sins immortalized in print.

I recommend that you sit down and talk with them about what you are writing. Tell them when and where you will publish it. Help them to know what they will see when they read it. Also help them understand why you are writing this – as a testimony of how God brought healing, with the hope that this testimony will help others.

Again, this sort of conversation is only in situations where you are in a current and active relationship. If you have been freed from an abusive situation, please do not go back there. Find a place in your community that offers safe, professional help.

For some testimonies, it may be necessary to use a pseudonym or to publish the story as fiction. I have edited life stories and coached authors in both of those situations, and they were able to convey to readers the hope and power of their testimonies, without concern that readers would identify their families or other living people.

Even so, their families might recognize their own circumstances that led to the development of that testimony, even when told with a pseudonym or as a fictional narrative. So the authors honored their families by speaking with them prior to publication and explaining why they wrote the stories to help people. They also honored their children (those who were old enough) by helping them understand the genuine circumstances of the authors’ own lives that led to those testimonies.

It is especially important to have those conversations when a work is fictionalized. Fictional characters do not and should not reflect living people, and fictional story plots are developed in ways that do not mirror the true story that inspired the fictional one. So it’s doubly important that you talk to people in your life who might otherwise think you have created fictional characters to represent them.

Above all, pray and ask God to help you in writing difficult testimonies. If God puts it on your heart to share, don’t shy away from it. The benefits to others will be worth it. He will make a way for you.

 

 

 

5 Self-Editing Tips for Christian Writers

Every written, published piece is a reflection of several different processes: writing, several rounds (and types) of editing, proofreading, formatting, and publishing. Often we think of the whole process as “writing a piece,” but it’s important to look at those individual steps of the process. All must be done well in order to delight the reader with the finished piece.

While many types of editing go into producing a finished piece, today I want to look at simple self-editing steps. If you are writing an article or a devotional for your blog, you might not go through as many editing stages as you would for a book. But you at least want to take some simple self-editing steps to be sure your piece is polished for your readers. The same goes for preparing a manuscript for a professional editor to read. If you are working with an editor, you want to self-edit first, and give that editor the best piece you can.

Following are five self-editing tips for the Christian writer – and you will want to begin each round of editing with prayer, inviting the Holy Spirit to guide you through the process.

1. Remove the word “that.”

“That” is a word we tend to overuse in writing because it helps us think and make connections. While “that” may be part of your mental process in writing, your reader doesn’t need to see it. Each time your reader sees “that,” it breaks up the flow of the piece. You want your reader to immerse herself in your writing and engage the story, the testimony, the wisdom you are sharing – not focus on the words, especially empty words like “that.”

Go ahead and write “that” in your first draft. You should never edit yourself while you are writing the first draft, otherwise you will block the flow from heart to paper. But after you complete your first draft, spend your first round of editing eliminating “that.” And yes, occasionally you really will need to use “that” for the meaning of the sentence. But “that” will happen about 5% of the time. Most instances of the word “that” can be removed without affecting the meaning of your sentences.

2. Remove or limit your use of adverbs.

I realized I had an “adverb problem” when a friend, who is not a native speaker of English, read a chapter I had written. She pointed to a sentence: “The boat cut sharply through the water.” With brow furrowed, she said, “Doesn’t it mean the same thing? Sharply and cut?” She had a point.

Most of the adverbs we write are not needed by our readers. If our verbs are strong to begin with, they don’t need boosting. The verb “cut” is very descriptive for a moving boat. It creates imagery of water parting with sharp edges. No need to add “sharply.” When we over-describe, it weakens the imagery formed in our readers’ minds.

Again, it’s okay to write adverbs into your first draft. The first draft is all about getting the word imagery from heart to paper. But when you self-edit, make one round focused on “marking up” your adverbs. If you edit with a printed draft, circle the adverbs. If you use a computer, use the built-in highlighter to mark the adverbs. The reason for doing this is that you may want to leave a few of them in for color or texture. But first, circle or mark them all. Then cut about 95%. Leave a strategic few – and know exactly why you have chosen to leave those few.

3. Remove or minimize your use of exclamation marks.

When overused, exclamation marks have the opposite effect of what you intend. An exclamation mark minimizes the impact of a sentence. The more you use them, the less emphatic your writing will be.

Instead, create impact through your choice of words and sentence structure. Use strong verbs. Create atmosphere through succinct descriptive phrases and action. Vary sentence length to build tension. Let your reader be moved by the sentence without the need for an exclamation mark.

To test this out, write a paragraph about an exciting event. Make two copies. On the first copy, add an exclamation mark to the end of each sentence. On the second copy, be sure every sentence ends with just a period (unless it needs a question mark). Put the two paragraphs aside for a few days. Then go back and read them. Pay attention to how you react to the exclamation marks. Which version sounds better? Which is more impactful? Why?

You can still use exclamation marks in your writing. But use them sparingly. Be sure you have a very good reason when you use one.

4. Read out loud and listen for awkward-sounding phrases or anything that makes you stumble or trip.

It’s a phenomenon of the human eyes and brain, but when we write something and spend time tweaking it, our brain tends to smooth over things as we read it back to ourselves. It’s hard to tell, just by re-reading your own work, whether or not it will sound smooth to your readers.

It will help if you do the following:

Put it aside for a day or two. Then read it to yourself out loud. Listen for any awkwardness. Then ask someone else to read it out loud to you. Make a note of where they stumble in their reading (ask them to put a quick mark on that place). Also make a note or what sounds awkward to you when you hear it. And make a note of what doesn’t come across the way you intended. Go back and edit those places. Then read them out loud again until it sounds right.

5. Read with all five of your senses.

A powerful piece creates a sense of texture. Your readers can engage your written piece with all five senses. This doesn’t always come through in your initial writing process. Most often, texture comes through editing.

Consider reading through your piece five different times. Each time, focus on one of your senses. What can you hear? How can you bring more “hearing” into the piece. What can you smell? How can you heighten the piece so your reader will come away with a certain fragrance? If you describe an object, can your readers feel it? Days after they finished reading your piece, so they feel as if they really touched that object?

Weaving the five senses into your writing is not something you want to overdo. You should choose a few effective places to bring sensory texture. As you edit, you will see the most ideal places to engage your readers’ sense of sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing. A little effort spent on a few such places will give greater impact to your piece.

Self-editing takes time. It should be done in several rounds, not all at once. For each round, decide what you will look for and work on. One round might be for removing adverbs. Another round might be to develop the sense of smell. Take the time to shape your written piece. It will make all the difference for your reader.

Even so, part of editing is knowing when you are done. A piece can be perfected infinitely more than it needs to be. Take several rounds to shape your work for optimal impact. But then, decide to be done. Publish your piece and share it. That’s why you wrote it, after all.

Bonus Exercise

This exercise might help you practice editing. On Sunday, I published a portion of a letter I wrote while serving as a visiting lecturer in Russia 21 years ago. This letter was handwritten and unedited. I published the text “as is” to preserve authenticity. But it’s a goldmine of all the things I would want to eliminate through self-editing.

I hadn’t taken any writing or editing classes when I wrote this letter – that will be obvious when you read it. I started my writing/editing career the following year. When I returned home from Russia, I had so much to write about that I dove into learning the craft.

Take a look at the first letter, and see what stands out from the above self-editing tips (especially tips 1-4). You will find a lot! You can add to the above list my overuse of semi-colons.

The letter will open in a new page, so you can refer back to the tips on this page while you are reading the letter. Portions of the letter will be published in four parts over the next few Sundays, so you will have several opportunities to practice.

 

The Best Way to Write Your Book Is Your Way

Many people have asked me the best way to put together a book. I’m talking here about non-fiction books. (Fictional novels are different. Story structure is a whole different art.)

The beauty of book writing is that your book will be as unique as you are. And wouldn’t your readers be sad if it wasn’t? There is no right or wrong way to create your book. The best way is the way that works for you. You need to find your way to bring your words to life for your readers.

And the same thing I teach about all writing applies for book writing as well: Get your heart on paper first, in whatever way you can. All the rest is editing. If you see yourself writing a book, you need to find the best way to get your heart on paper, and then shape the material from there.

Books are like puzzles (except you don’t have the nice picture on the box). You create a book by first creating each puzzle piece. Then you figure out how they link together.

Here are several very different ways of putting books together that are followed by various non-fiction book authors. Maybe these will inspire you. But resist the urge to mold yourself to a particular way. You have to discover what works for you – and God will help you with all of this.

1. Create an Outline

For those who think in a very logical and orderly way, sometimes it’s easiest to start with an outline. The outline might change as you go along, but it gives you a way to get your thoughts on paper. You might list a few topics, and treat each one like a shorter piece of writing – maybe like an article or a journal entry. And just write what you want to say about that topic. When you finish responding to each topic in your outline, you will already have the basis of your book. You can then tweak and shape to your heart’s content. But you’ll have something to work with.

2. Write from Your Heart

For those who prefer not to outline, just write from your heart about the subject of your book. Get everything out that you want to say. Then read through it and label paragraphs with relevant topics. You will start to see topics in common, or themes and threads emerge. The puzzle pieces will start to take shape, and you will see how they fit together into a book.

3. Brainstorm Your Ideas

If you prefer a combination of free-writing with a little outlining, you can try brainstorming about all your ideas on a particular subject. Instead of writing paragraphs, just list your ideas as bullet points. Once you’ve exhausted all your ideas on the subject, look through your bullet points and group items that are related. Those can be the roots of your chapters.

You might even realize that you have more than one book on the subject, and those bullet point topics will help you narrow down your first book. Sometimes brainstorming is the most helpful way to discover which specific topics you are most passionate about concerning your book’s subject. It might surprise you!

4. Talk into a Voice Recorder

Sometimes it’s easiest to talk into a voice recorder. At one time, I ghostwrote a novel for a client, based on his life story. Once we had mapped out the scenes, I literally “talked” the scenes into the voice recorder. This helped the characters and scenes come alive for me. (It was fun!) I then transcribed the voice recordings and molded and edited the material into what would become the finished book.

5. Write for Your Blog

Another way to create a book is to blog on a particular subject. Take time to label each blog post with the most relevant categories and tags. (You should do this anyway; it will help people find your blog on search engines.) After you’ve written a number of posts, search by category and see what you’ve written. You might find a way to combine those into a book. It doesn’t matter that your blog posts are already published. That just means more people will be ready and eager to read your book.

(Keep in mind that I focus on self-publishing. If you plan to publish your book with a traditional publishing house, they have different legalities for using blog posts. You will do best to check with them before you start blogging. Traditional publishers also have requirements for completing outlines, sample chapters, and book proposals in advance. If that’s your path, you need to learn as much as possible about how it works before you ever start planning and writing. The best Christian source for learning about this, in my experience, is Jerry Jenkins.)

6. Compile Your Written Articles

Right now, I am editing and consulting on a book for a writer. It is a compilation of previously written articles. To organize the chapters, I started going through each article, one by one, deciding on an appropriate topic label (a label that was specific to the topic, yet general enough to include other articles). I wrote each topic label on a separate document, and beneath each label I typed the article title. As I read through more articles, I reached a point where 10 labels was enough, and the rest of the articles fell under one of those categories.

At the end of this process, I had a list of 10 chapter titles and a list of about 5-8 articles in each chapter. Perfect! I rearranged the chapter titles in a sequence that made sense. And under each chapter title, I rearranged the order of that chapter’s articles in a way that would best engage readers.

7. Answer Questions or Record Your Teachings

I’ve learned of several writers who create books by answering questions. I took this same approach years ago, in which I wrote a book entirely based on questions people had asked me. I’m working with another writer who is anointed for teaching. She has recorded her teachings (including her answers to student questions) and those teachings will become the basis of one or more books. I’ve learned of other writers who record video teachings on YouTube and then compile the transcripts and summaries into a book. This also gets them a following who will be eager to buy their book.

Remember – the best way to write your book is the way that will work for you. It’s a matter of getting your heart onto the page. You can mold and shape and edit from there. But you have to get your heart on paper first, in whatever way it takes. There might be one way that works for you, or if you’re like me you might use different ways for different projects. Try things out. Experiment. See what works best for you and your next book.