When Persuasion Dies

Eighty years ago, as World War II was erupting, the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, made a speech which sounds like it could have been given today.

He leads with a strong assertion. “Democracy is not merely a good form of government; it is the best.” His reason for this is interesting. “It is,” he said, “the only form of government that can combine three characteristics: law, equality, and justice.”

But, Hutchins asks, how can we know these three make a valid foundation? Because, he says, this basis for democracy is moral. “Its end is the good for man. Only democracy has this basis. Only democracy has this end. If we do not believe in this basis or this end, we do not believe in democracy. These are the principles which we must defend if we are to defend democracy.”

Here we come upon a problem, however. How can we know these characteristics are moral? How can we know anything is moral? It’s a problem because “for forty years and more” (and again, he was speaking in 1940) “our intellectual leaders have been telling us they are not true. They have been telling us in fact that nothing is true which cannot be subjected to experimental verification. In the whole realm of social thought there can therefore be nothing but opinion. . . . There is no difference between good and bad; there is only the difference between expediency and inexpediency. We cannot even talk about good and bad states or good and bad men. There are no morals; there are only the folkways. The test of action is its success, and even success is a matter of opinion. . . .”

Who is to say what is moral and what isn’t? If everyone is doing it, why not me or you? Who’s to say who is a moral person and who isn’t? I can justify anything I do as long as I can avoid the consequences of the law.

But an even more sinister consequence of this line of thinking awaits. If everyone’s opinion is equal, if there is no real way to convince someone that I am right and you are wrong, then we are left with yelling at each other. And if yelling doesn’t resolve disputes, the only option remaining is coercion. As Hutchins said, “If everything is a matter of opinion, . . . force becomes the only way of settling differences of opinion.”

What can we do in the face of all this? This is a huge question which requires a multifaceted response. Allow me, however, to mention just one simple step we can all take.

We can stop listening to people who yell, and start listening to people who are trying to make a rational argument. We can stop listening to those who are trying to manipulate, name call, or overwhelm us with hot rhetoric. As I’ve noted in my chapters on persuasion in Write Better, instead we should listen to those trying to persuade fairly, speak calmly, and appeal to the common good. We can also choose to listen to these who present different sides of an issue (not just one) while exercising this sort of principled persuasion.

Listening to or reading such persuasive arguments is harder than it may seem because it takes effort to follow such reasoning. It is also hard because doing so opens us up to the possibility of finding out we are wrong. And we don’t like to hear reasons or information that disagrees with conclusions we’ve already come to.

Being open and willing to learn is difficult but necessary because if we won’t practice principled persuasion or allow ourselves to be persuaded, force is all we have left.

Image credits: Dr. Robert Hutchins becomes Chancellor of University of Chicago, 1945. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/91481464/; Faces–Pixabay, Clipart-Vectors

The Story Behind Write Better

For decades I have loved, reread, recommended, and extolled William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. He is wise, practical, enjoyable to read, and absolutely on target for new and experienced writers.

While I have been dispensing writing advice for decades (to authors, in lectures, in writing), when I thought about doing a book on writing myself, I was met with two thoughts—neither encouraging. First, how could I possibly say anything better than Zinsser when he says so much so well? Second, what would I possibly put in a book that Zinsser doesn’t already cover? Was anything left to say?

Most other books on writing fell into one of two categories. Either they were memoirs of famous writers with a few writing tips sprinkled here and there, or they were detailed guides to punctuation, grammar, word usage and so forth. While both sorts of books can be helpful, what I appreciated about Zinsser was his middle path of providing principles. His advice was concrete enough to put into practice but general enough to be broadly applicable. That’s the kind of book I also wanted to write—if I could.

I began by making a list of possible topics. Soon I saw they fell roughly into the three categories of craft, art, and spirituality. Half of Zinsser deals with craft but he says almost nothing about the other two. What he writes in that first part about simplicity, clutter, words, and usage is unsurpassed. So I focused on topics he doesn’t cover such as structure, persuasion, narrative in nonfiction, titles, and more. While he also addresses openings, endings, and audience, I took a different but complementary approach.

The last two-thirds of what would become Write Better would clearly be distinct. My five chapters on art consider the nature and practice of creativity, the value of breaking the rules of writing, the significance of tone, the glories of metaphor, and how saying less leaves room for art.

Zinsser had a Protestant upbringing and actually edited a book called Spiritual Quests. But he wrote little on the topic. In his final edition of On Writing Well, he considers the attitudes authors have toward their work—regarding voice, enjoyment, fear, and so forth. I consider some of these topics and many others in my final part on spirituality and writing, but within an explicitly Christian framework.

Something else I could offer that many writing books don’t include is a window into the mysterious world of publishing. Several appendices pull back the veil a bit on this realm of intense interest to writers.

I still recommend Zinsser. My aim is for Write Better to join him in the underpopulated category of principle-based books on writing.

Writing Tip #17: The Big Reveal

How do you keep readers reading? How do you pull them through a chapter or article or blog without them getting bored or distracted?

Fiction writers aren’t the only ones who can use a mystery to keep readers engaged. Nonfiction writers can also withhold a key piece of information—the whodunnit! It’s what I call the Big Reveal in Write Better. How does it work?

Adam Grant uses the technique effectively in his book Originals. At the beginning of chapter two Grant tells of “an invention [that] took Silicon Valley by storm.” Steve Jobs offered $63 million for 10 percent of the company and the inventor turned it down. But Jobs was so enamored “he offered to advise the inventor for the next six months—for free.”

Legendary investor John Doerr pumped in $80 million, thought it would be the fastest company to reach $1 billion, and “would become more important than the internet.”

“The inventor himself was described as a modern Thomas Edison—he already had a track record of remarkable breakthroughs” which Grant details. The inventor thought he’d soon be selling 10,000 units a week but six years after launch they had only sold 30,000 total.

The product? The Segway, one of the most hyped tech devices in decades with the most disappointing results.

Grant immediately tells us another tale in the same vein. Two entertainers with no TV writing experience struggle to put together a half-hour sitcom pilot. The test audience in Los Angeles gave it bland to bad marks. Somehow, though, the pilot was aired—to yawns. But a passionate exec ordered a few more episodes against the wisdom of others despite the fact that one of the writers said he’d run out of ideas and was ready to quit. Over the next decade, it became the most popular show in America.

“If you’ve ever complained about a close talker, accused a partygoer of double-dipping a chip, uttered the disclaimer ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with that,’ or rejected someone by saying ‘No soup for you,’ you’re using phrases coined” on Seinfeld.

Grant hooks us by putting two mysteries in front of us which we actively try to solve ourselves before the author reveals the answers. But he doesn’t stop there.

The author then asks, How can our predictions about innovations go so wrong—sometimes predicting a hit that becomes a flop, and other times forecasting a bomb that becomes a sensation? He outlines what’s ahead—again without giving away the solution. We’ll discover “best practices in idea selection . . . how to make fewer bad bets . . . meet two venture capitalists who anticipated the failure of the Segway . . . see why it’s so difficult for managers and test audiences to accurately evaluate new ideas,” and more.

If we want to find out about all these interesting results, we’ll have to read on. I did.

photo: Pixabay talliev

Write Better: The Preface

Today marks the official release of my new book, Write Better. To give you a taste of what’s in store, here is an excerpt from the preface.

Two of my sons, Phil and Dave, ran cross-country in high school. These grueling three-mile races were not on perfectly flat, machine-fabricated ovals but up hills, over ruts, through woods. In heat and cold, rain and wind I, like other parents, came to urge them and their teammates on.

Sometimes I’d run from one part of the course to another, taking a shortcut, so that several times during a race I could yell encouragement to press on, to not let down, to remember their training. Once when I was dashing from one place to another, a student cheering for another school almost slammed into me. As he flew by in another direction, he said, “Sorry, Coach.” I’ve never felt prouder to be mistakenly identified.

For over forty years I’ve trained, guided, and cheered on hundreds of writers. I’ve made suggestions for what to write about, how to write, and how to revise. I’ve encouraged and praised, cajoled and critiqued. In every case I have been stimulated by a desire to help people express their ideas as clearly and powerfully as possible. That is the motivation behind this book.

I’ve also done a fair bit of my own writing, trying to follow my own advice as much as possible. What I have realized in the process is how hard it is to write. It requires work and determination. It means saying no to other things I want to do or fitting it around things I must do (like my job). I have to overcome discouragement when progress is slow and when I don’t meet my own standards. As a result, I have great admiration for people who write, people like you.

In this book I offer some of the lessons I’ve learned in reading, writing, and editing nonfiction. If I can lighten your load as a writer of books, articles, blogs, newsletters, or manuals, and speed you on your way, I will be content.

Students and those who just want to write better may also find help in these pages. I hope you will feel free to take what is of value here and lay aside the rest till later.

I’ve divided my material into three parts. Part one on craft is about mastering certain skills such as finding strong openings and closings, staying focused on an audience, creating a clear structure, being persuasive, revising well, and developing good titles.

Part two is on art, which is notoriously difficult to define. I use the term a bit reluctantly because we can misapply it to writing pretentiously or can misunderstand it as being so subjective that nothing practical can be said about it. Rather than “high art” in the sense of historical or cultural artifacts, I mostly mean human creations that speak deeply to the full human experience (heart, soul, mind, body as well as our social and historical dimensions). Sentimentality and cliché need not apply. I seek to demystify some aspects of art in writing by considering strategies that can nudge us along the continuum toward fresher, more vital, and perhaps more beautiful expressions of our human condition.

Part three is on the spirituality of writing. Here I do not focus on the spiritual content of what we write so much as on our spirituality as writers. What affect does the act of writing have on my life in God?

While this book is about writing better and not about publishing or how to get published, in the appendixes I try to pull back the curtain of mystery a bit from this often unseen world. How do you find an agent? What is involved in promotion? How does coauthoring work? What about the self-publishing option? And is there any way to make sense of copyright? Also at the back are listed further online resources (found at ivpress.com/write-better), including questions and exercises for students.

I like order, so I would tend to read a book like this straight through. But you can skip around if you wish, going from one chapter to another as your needs or interests lead you.

Photo credit: Pixabay extremis

Ground Rules for Writing Groups

Groups which gather regularly to encourage people in their writing, can sadly turn into something less than encouraging. Writing can be intimidating in the privacy of our own rooms. But when others are called together to point out the errors, shortcomings, weakness, or plain lameness of our writing, we all may cower.

I have found a few simple ground rules make this process more human and more constructive. When I lead groups, I essentially break the discussion of each piece of writing into two parts: (1) What worked? and (2) Where could it be improved?

Responses in both parts should be specific (an apt word choice or metaphor, an aspect of structure, a strong illustration, a good use of building drama, etc.). “Something I thought was strong was . . .” is a good way to begin.

Also, responses in both parts should be brief. No lectures, please. Aim for one or two minutes. Get in and get out.

Then in part two be positive by focusing how it might be improved rather than what was weak. The shift may be slight but it’s important. I encourage comments like, “I wonder if it could be made better by doing X.” Or, “Here’s something I wondered about…” Stick to “I” statements rather than “You” statements such as, “You were weak when…” which can feel like a personal attack.

A final key rule is this: Content is off limits. We don’t discuss whether we agree or disagree with a viewpoint, only whether a point is well expressed or well researched. We focus on the writing, not on the merit of the ideas. If someone wants to discuss content, go out for coffee or a beer afterward. This rule keeps the discussion and the group both focused and constructive.

Content is obviously an issue regarding nonfiction. It can also arise for fiction if the discussion moves to theme (which some may find problematic).

Certainly gray lines can appear when it comes to, for example, “Was the writing persuasively argued?” That can lead to comments like, “Well, I wasn’t persuaded because I think X.” Soon we are diving into the deep waters of content.

In such a case, I try to refocus the question: “Did the piece clearly and honestly reflect opposing viewpoints (i.e., not set up straw men)?” If so, we move on. If not, we encourage the writer to do better.

The purpose of writing groups, you see, is not to show how astute I am but to build others up in the challenging and rewarding work of creating good, true, and beautiful writing.

Photo credits: Pixabay–suju (sparrows); padrinan (pencils)

Second-Book Syndrome Strikes Again!

Last time Alan Fadling shared his thoughts on an unexpected form of writer’s block. Having written one book, authors often find major hurdles in finishing a second, especially if the first was successful. In working on Write Better (due out October 2019), I also asked Jen Pollock Michel about her experience with what I call Second-Book Syndrome. Here, with her permission, is what she told me.

The writing of my second book, Keeping Place, was pretty tortuous. I think partly it was the onerous sense of expectation, especially in that my first book, Teach Us to Want, won the CT award. I shed many surprising tears about that award, wishing I hadn’t won it. That sounds incredibly ungrateful, and I don’t feel that way now. But at the time, it felt like the surefire way to be a disappointment to people.

Here’s what eventually helped me:

1. The recognition that every book is different, requiring different things from you as an author and delivering different things to your readers. (The “books” are “babies” analogy here can certainly be extended: your second child is going to be different than your first, and it would be silly to expect every subsequent child to act and look like the first!) When you can allow your books their distinctiveness, rather than forcing every book to imitate the previous book you’ve written, that can help. Teach Us to Want required a lot of vulnerable self-disclosure. It seemed necessary to the topic of desire. There were a lot of people who resonated with that approach, and truthfully, it was “easy” to do in a first book in the sense that I didn’t have a readership or any certain expectation that people would read.

Writing Keeping Place was totally different, however. First, I wanted the book to reach a broader audience of women and men, so it’s more systematic in approach and probably a little less personal (although there are still personal stories in every chapter). Also, it’s just a different book. I’ve heard some people say they like it better than Teach Us to Want. And I’ve also heard the opposite! So maybe that leads to a second conclusion:

2. You can’t write books to secure approval from readers. That’s the surest way NOT to say what you’ve been called to say. Of course I want to say helpful things, and I write with readers in mind in the sense of their questions, their fears, their anxieties, their hopes, their longings. But I try to avoid questions like, “Will they like me? Approve of my spirituality? Admire me?” Reading is such a personal thing: if you get hung up on maintaining the approval of readers you already have, your writing is not going to risk and grow. In the “books” are “babies” analogy, I think we have to say that some readers will find some books cuter than others. And that’s ok.

3. Get yourself a contract! Force yourself to write! Put yourself under a deadline! I don’t know of a better way of overcoming writers’ block. When I signed for a second contract with IVP for KP (and a third), I didn’t necessarily feel “ready.” You’re not going to feel “ready.” Your first book comes from such a deep place on conviction. I think it asks and attempts answering some of your most pressing questions as a human being. Your second book, without the lifetime of germination your first book might have had, won’t feel as cured. And that’s ok.


Second-Book Syndrome

In working on Write Better (due out October 2019), I asked some other authors about their experiences with writer’s block, especially one unexpected form. Having written one book, authors often find major hurdles in finishing a second, especially if the first was successful. I call this Second-Book Syndrome. I couldn’t fit all of Alan Fadling’s helpful comments in the book, so here, with his permission, is more of what he told me.

I really did wrestle with my second book, An Unhurried Leader. Some of the dynamics were probably unique to me, and some are, I’m sure, common to many, such as a major vocational transition.

I also had to deal with the unexpected success of the first book, An Unhurried Life. Where I could have simply been grateful and encouraged by a CT book award (which I was, actually), I also let it become a point of fear and anxiety: “How in the world do I top my first effort? How can my second book be anything but a disappointment to readers of the first?”

I overcame this by deciding that my goal was not to top my first effort, but simply to share some important insights that had meant a lot to me. It helped me to think that writing this second book was something I wanted, and maybe even needed to do. Instead of focusing on the imagined response of future readers, I focused on sharing my stories, my insights, my experiences, trusting that they would be helpful to those future readers.

I also dealt some of the resistances I felt writing book one and feel now writing book three with my wife. I shared the paragraph below with a friend who is an aspiring writer.

My reasons for not writing are legion. I don’t feel like it. I don’t have anything to say right now. What I have to say won’t help anyone. I don’t have a good focus for my writing. I’m in too busy a season to write. I’m in too noisy a place to write. There is too much to write, so I don’t know where to start writing. No one will want to read what I’m writing. No one will want to publish what I’m writing. Ad infinitum.”

Fear. Anxiety. Self-doubt. Insecurity. Perfectionism. All of these are resistances I often have to press through to write.

The last thing I’ll say is that I find a lot of help in Dallas Willard’s encouragement to release outcomes to God. It is my attachment to outcomes, imagined as amazing or imagined as dire, that gets in my way a lot. Usually, getting unstuck ends up being a matter of being in the present moment, being in the Presence, and being focused on the present task of actually writing.

Alan Fadling

Silencing Our Inner Censor

When we think about writing or being creative in some way, we often suffer from negative messages echoing in our heads.

“No one will think this is good.”

“What makes you think you can paint?”

“Who will want to read this.”

“You don’t have what it takes.”

“Your brother is the talented one.”

“You can’t make a living from art.”

“It’s too late in life for you.”

When we do think about starting a project, these voices can halt progress before the first word is written or the first photograph is taken. As a result many who long to be creative stuff our impulses, appreciating the work of others from a distance.

How can we can get out of this wearisome cycle? Julia Cameron, in her classic book The Artist’s Way, offers a simple solution. Simple but not necessarily easy.

She calls it morning pages. Each morning for twelve weeks we commit to filling three pages with text. We can recount what we did the previous day or describe what’s in the room or why we like our dog (or hate our neighbor’s dog) or the fact that we have nothing to write about. Stream of consciousness is fine. Our pages don’t have to make sense. And most important, we promise ourselves to show them to no one.

What’s remarkable is that whether we want to sculpt, make movies, paint, or do interior design, writing our morning pages each day helps get us unstuck. The negative voices will carry on even as we write. But after a week or two they typically begin to fade. We drown them out with output, quieting our inner censor, and getting in the habit of actually producing.

Eventually something that finds its way into our morning pages may trigger and idea or project we want to pursue. That’s fine. We can work on it outside of our time set aside for morning pages, and that we can show to others for input if desired. But we never show others our morning pages themselves. A friend of mine, Bill, who didn’t think he was very creative undertook Cameron’s disciplines and started producing some remarkable poetry.

Writer’s block can be one of the most challenging obstacles to face. We need every tool and tactic at our disposal to overcome it. Morning pages is a powerful option.

Photo credit: Andy Le Peau

Good Writers Borrow

T. S. Eliot famously said, “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.”

As it turns out, Pablo Picasso and Oscar Wilde are also credited with saying the same thing—which perhaps proves how true the saying is. While we actually can’t find any evidence that Eliot made this statement, he did say say something very much like it:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.*

What did he mean? In a way, he’s saying all writers, indeed all artists, take inspiration from the past. Bad writers take something from the past and make it less than it was, turning it into nostalgia, sentimentality or sensationalism. We can all think of examples.

Eliot went on to say, “The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”*

Good writers take from the past and add to it, creatively turning it into something different and perhaps deeper. Everyone borrows when creating a new work. No one is entirely original. That’s not the point.

The point is what do we do when we borrow. Art comes not from developing something completely different but from using the materials of the past to make something in the present which speaks to the future.

*T. S. Eliot, “Philip Massinger,” in The Sacred Wood  (Methuen: London; Barnes & Noble: New York, 1920, 1960), 125.

English Made Fun

Benjamin Dreyer is the Stephen Colbert of grammar, style, and punctuation—informative while always being cheerfully acerbic.

When he tells us in Dreyer’s English to never use actually, it is “because, seriously, it serves no purpose I can think of except to irritate.” When offering examples, Dreyer also gives us cause to smile. Honorary titles should be capitalized, as in, “Please don’t toss me in the hoosegow, Your Honor.”

You’ll have fun with this book whether or not you care or know that “the verb in a relative clause agrees with the antecedent of the relative pronoun”—not least because Dreyer hates that stuff too! Even as a decades-long copyeditor he still has to look things up in dictionaries and style guides. We should too!

His stance toward the nature of rules in English is one I have long advocated to authors. They are helpful, but don’t take them too far because spoken English profoundly affects written English (eventually, usually). And he chirpily breaks, bends, and bruises them all the time—once, for example, suggesting we “give it a good think,” right there in front of God and everybody.

Memorable tips abound. How do you tell if a sentence is passive (with the likely result of changing it to active)? If you can add “by zombies” to the end. “The floors were swept, the beds made, the rooms aired out.” Yep. Passive.

And here I can now confess that I could never keep straight the rule about restrictive and nonrestrictive commas because neither can Dreyer. But he has a dandy new name for it that makes all the difference.

Use the “only” comma, as he calls it, when the noun in question is unique. So “Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, was born in 1843” because Lincoln only had one eldest son. But if more than one son could be under discussion and must be named for clarity—no comma. Thus “Lincoln in the Bardo concerns Lincoln’s son Willie.”

He also festoons his text with, well, I wouldn’t call them explanatory footnotes. They are more like asides. After offering three acceptable options for use of a possessive he concludes with, “You choose.†” At the bottom of the page we find, “†Psst. Take the middle option.”

What every one of you is wondering, of course, is how Dreyer’s English differs from my Write Better (available October 2019, since you asked). Dreyer’s book is a wonderful journey into the details of punctuation, grammar, and use of numbers, augmented by many lists of misspelled, misused, and miscellaneous words—all whimsically annotated. I say almost nothing about these things.

My focus is on larger strategies for writing which Dreyer does not —such as, how to find openings, focus on readers, develop a structure, battle writer’s block, be persuasive, make a compelling title, increase our creativity, use metaphors, and say more by saying less. The last part of Write Better considers how the act of writing affects our relationship with God.

The two books should be enjoyable and valuable companions.