The (fourth) greatest gift is saying three words

vintage typewriter

It’s sometimes fun to overstate special moments in our lives, declaring them “the dream” or the greatest gift we’ve ever received. Obviously, as a Christian, the greatest gift is Christ—to be reconciled to God in and through Him. My wife is the second greatest gift, and my children are the third, collectively.[1. Because to call them the third, fourth, and fifth would imply some kind of preference between one and the others.]

But today, I have a greatest gift—a special moment that may well be the dream for every writer. Three words that are the three that every writer longs to say from the moment they start writing, well, anything:

It is finished.

I finally get to say those words today. Hurray! And soon, I’ll be able to tell you exactly what it was that I just finished.

But for now, I have another project to get done.

Pushing through the final push

vintage typewriter

If you’re a writer, you know how hard it can be to actually write sometimes. There’s always a new video to watch, an article to read, a Twitter rant to ignore. It seems like when you’re close to the end of a project, even if that end is only relatively close, those temptations toward distraction become stronger.

And then there’s the other side of it: you fight the distraction, but the words don’t come. You sit in front of your keyboard, clackity-clacking away only to select all and delete because you spent the whole time writing nonsense, or reorganizing your table of contents to to make sure you’ve got the latest version of that chapter title. Or the right number of chapters. Or…

Of course, I don’t know anything about any of these problems.


Nope, never.

So if I were to hypothetically be in such a situation, what would I do? How would I push through the final push?

  1. Start deleting apps on my phone. My biggest distraction is stuff on my phone that I don’t need. So far, I’ve deleted five time-suck apps. That has been good.
  2. Shut off Twitter. Good advice in general.
  3. Close my inbox. There’s no email I need to answer at the times of night I’m usually writing anyway.
  4. Get out of my house. If my kids are up, I’m not going to be able to write. If Emily needs my help with something, she generally wins. So if a deadline were to hypothetically be breathing down my neck, there’s a lovely coffee shop called The Coffee House at Second and Bridge just waiting for me to be there on Friday morning.
  5. Write something different. Maybe a bad poem, or an even worse haiku. Whatever it takes to get the creative juices flowing.
  6. Pray. Because I’m a Christian. Also, I’m desperate.
  7. Stop writing this blog post. See number five.

See you on the other side, Lord willing.

Three kinds of writing I want to try


I’m one of the most discontent writers I know, in that I’m always trying to learn how to write differently. Specifically, to try different styles and genres. Among the types I’ve been successful at, so far are:

  • Long and short form non-fiction
  • Promotional videos
  • Bible studies
  • Videos for Bible studies
  • Documentaries

I’ve even tried my hand at terrible poetry. But there’s a lot more out there. And a lot more I want to try. Seeing two friends write (really good) children’s books recently reminded me of this. A dinner conversation with a new friend in California only affirmed this. So what do I want to try sometime, even if no one sees it? Here are three types of writing that come to mind:

  1. A song. I’ve never done this. I’d probably be terrible at it, but I still want to try it. I’m, to borrow a line from one of my favorite films, a professional critic. I have lots of opinions about music, so maybe it would be good to try to put my money where my mouth is eventually.
  2. A children’s story. I’ve actually tried this once, and I got stuck. I couldn’t crack where I was going with it and it turned into a meandering mess. But I still want to try again. I just have to get the direction set from the beginning.
  3. A piece of all-ages fiction. This is probably the most fascinating to me, to the degree that I don’t know if I can pin down just one aspect of it to explain why. I mean, how do you tell a story that captures the imagination of children and adults? How do you write something that makes you not care how old you are and just invest yourself? I only know a few authors who do it really well. I really enjoy their work, and I don’t write like them. That’s probably a good thing.

Will I get around to these? I hope so. I want to. Will any of them see the light of day? Who can say? They might only be for me. They might be for my family. Or they may be for your you all to enjoy as well. Only time will tell, I suppose.

My current writing soundtrack


For the last few weeks, I’ve been spending almost every night working on a number of super-secret (ish) writing projects. Secret only that I can’t really tell you what they are yet. But I think you’re going to like them when I can say something formally.

Anyway, when I’m writing, I’m always listening to music. It’s part of what puts me in the zone, as the kids say (do the kids still say that?), and helps me figure out the rhythm and mood for my writing. This weekend, most of my time was spent defining sin, lamenting creation’s groaning, exploring the problem of evil, and supernatural beings.

About half of it went pretty well. Which half, I’m not going to say (yet).

So what kind of music helps when writing about topics like this? Well, here’s what I spent most of my time listening to this time around, which I’ve compiled in a handy-dandy Spotify Playlist:

  1. Beggars (Thrice)
  2. Psalms, Hymns, & Spiritual Songs (Emerald Hymns)
  3. Rumours (Fleetwood Mac)
  4. Chaotic Neutral (Matthew Good)
  5. London Calling (The Clash)
  6. Citizens (Citizens & Saints)
  7. Sonic Highways (Foo Fighters)
  8. Tusk (Fleetwood Mac)
  9. The Good King (Ghost Ship)

This isn’t one of my more eclectic mixes, but it’s a fun one, the pace is pretty decent (thought a bit strange when putting it on random). I’m adding this to playlist all the time, so if you’ve got something you think I should check out, let me know on Twitter.

If I were to write a memoir


I’ve lived in the United States for more than a year now. It’s weird, but kind of great. A friend of mine has been asking me for a while now to write about the differences between living in Canada and the US. I’ve been hesitant, though.

I mean, where do you start?

I could go on a Canada vs America rant, which, depending on your political persuasion and understanding of Canada’s healthcare system, could be entertaining. Or I could get serious about everything I wish I knew a year ago (and probably will eventually). So what if it were a memoir?

I could write one of those, couldn’t I? After all, it seems to be that all you have to do is come up with a hook, usually some form of experiment, and then go to town. So what would I call it?

A Year of Living Americally

In 10 chapters, I would cover the most interesting and bizarre features of this lovely nation:

  1. “Free Refills: Shut up and drink your diabetes.” Because, seriously, that’s a lot of Sweet Tea, y’all.
  2. “Let’s all watch the news together!” Everywhere we’ve gone, the news is ALWAYS on. Always. And it’s terrifying.
  3. “Guns: A Love Story.” Every day, I pass a giant billboard about about a gun shop with roughly 50,000 styles of guns available. 
  4. “What the Heck is a HOA?” On feeling overwhelmed by the neighborhoods in Middle Tennessee.
  5. “Everything is Big.” Insert whatever joke you want here.
  6. “Cracker Barrel.” Americana caramelized.
  7. “There’s Booze at the Kroger!” My ongoing shock at the existence of alcohol at the grocery store (and Target. And the gas station. And the corner store…) instead of in a government controlled liquor store.[1. Note: I don’t partake out of personal conviction.]
  8. “I Got Carded.” On my experience buying NyQuil at Target.
  9. “I’m Canadian, too!” How to win friends and not talk about healthcare with our fellow ex-pats.
  10. “Missing U.” Brief reflections on spelling.

Would it be a bestseller? Probably. Maybe someday I’ll actually write the thing.

Emily Armstrong contributed the funniest chapter titles to this post. 


Three benefits of writing bite-sized reviews


I used to write a TON of long books reviews. By that, I mean, I wrote at least one a week, every week, for about five years. I don’t do that anymore. Actually, I probably write more reviews now than I did then.

How? I write a bite-sized review of every book I read, every month. That’s the big idea behind my “what I read in…” series that I run, where I share a thought on the books I’ve been reading, and it’s a lot of fun. Here’s what I see as the benefits to me as a book reviewer:

It drives me to understand the book well. This probably seems like a given, but it’s worth mentioning. When I read, I’m looking to get a good sense of the big ideas of a book. I want to know it well enough that I can communicate it back simply.

It encourages me to share something of substance efficiently. I want to communicate something about the book and why it matters. I just want to do it in a sentence or two, instead of 1000 words.

It challenges me to discern what requires longer-form review. Some books just need more words than 50. They need 500 or 1000 to adequately express the key takeaways. So when I’m reading, I’m doing so with the idea that there might be a big idea worth exploring in greater detail (like this).

Writing a book review isn’t about the length of your post. It’s about the value you’re communicating. Writing smaller, bite-sized reviews has been really helpful in this area. Maybe it will be for you, too.

The hardest type of book to write in the world

Dr Seuss Collection

A few years ago, I decided to try something a little different to help me branch out as a writer: I wanted to write a children’s book. Specifically, I wanted to write a children’s book for my wife to draw (because she’s great at these things). We batted ideas around for a while, and came up with some basic concepts and a rough plot for one, and I started going to work.

And then I stopped. And then started again. Then stopped again. Then I wrote a documentary instead.

But, hey, that counts. It was something different.

. . .

I was discussing writing another book with a friend last night. It’s something I want to do, obviously, and have been working toward. But that conversation brought me back to this idea of a children’s book. So I went back and re-read what I had done so far (I’d gotten a little more than halfway through it). And honestly, it wasn’t bad as a starting point. It meandered a bit, but it could have some potential if it were tightened up, and were a little more openly goofy instead of subtle.

Y’know, and finished.

As I read it, though, and then later spoke with Emily, I started thinking about some of the kids’ books I adore. Books like Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie series,[1. No, that’s not a typo on “Piggie”.] or Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs, or… well, anything by Mo Willems, really. But Melanie Watt’s Scaredy Squirrel and Chester books, Lauren Child’s Charlie and Lola books, pretty much anything by Robert Munsch

The more I think about these, the more I realize children’s books—specifically those geared toward kids between the ages of four and nine—have got to be the hardest in the world to write! Think about it: these books have to be clear enough in their writing for kids to understand, but they also have to tell a compelling story. They need to have actual plots.[2. I’ve read way too many that don’t.] They generally have to be pretty clever (at least, many of my favorites embrace a more absurdist style of humor). And they have to connect with the parents who have to read them, too!

Basically, you need to be a superhero to write a really great kids’ book.

And a superhero I am not.

But I like the challenge. Not of being a superhero, but of writing something really difficult. I like how it forces me to think differently, and that it frees me to be a bit sillier than I normally am in my work. I might never get there, but I want to keep trying. Because who knows? Maybe I’ll find I’ve actually written a fun book at the end—one my kids might actually want to read.

Photo credit: Dr. Seuss collection via photopin (license)

What it means to “put yourself out there”


I finally did it.

It took a while, but I did it: I submitted another book proposal. (And no, it’s not for anything on this list.)

The past six months have been a big deal on this front—I’ve actually submitted two proposals, one of which has been rejected and the other I won’t know about for a while yet. I say this is a big deal because I find proposal writing to be the hardest part of writing a book (aside from, y’know, writing the book).

Proposal writing forces you to really think about whether or not you’re the right person to write a particular book, after all. I’ve had a number of ideas that are actually really good, but as I’ve tried to outline them, I realized I’m not the guy to write about them. (This is why I tend to not write about sports, in case you’re curious.) But there’s something else about proposals that scares me: it’s the “putting yourself out there” factor.

Remember that scene in Back to the Future where Marty and his dad are in the cafeteria and he learns that George wrote “stories—science fiction stories, about aliens, coming down to earth, from other planets”?[1. Admit it: you can hear Crispin Glover’s bizarre delivery as you read that.] When Marty asks if he can read them, George balks, saying, “What if they think they’re no good—I just don’t think I can take that kind of rejection.”

Every single time I send out a proposal, I have a conversation like that in my head:

  • What if they don’t like it?
  • What if they think I’m no good?
  • What if they like it but think I’m the wrong person to write it?

What if, what if, what if… 

It’s dumb, I know. I should have more confidence. I mean, I’ve been around the block a few times now. I’ve actually had books published. Yet, it still happens. And I’m not sure the “what ifs” ever really go away.

But this is what it means to put yourself out there: it means to confront the “what ifs” head on. It means saying yes to the possibility that someone might not like my idea, or may not think I’m the guy to write what I’m planning to write. But it also means confronting the fear that can paralyze me from doing something really cool. And it means there’s the possibility a publisher might say yes.

Aspiring writers, don’t let the “what ifs” prevent you from doing something you love. The worst thing a publisher can say to you is “no.” “No” isn’t the end of the world, and it’s not a confirmation that the “what ifs” were right. If you really love writing, if you think you have something of value to say, the best thing you can do is take the risk and put yourself out there. Because even though you’ll probably be told no (a lot), you might eventually get a yes.

And wouldn’t that be something?

The hardest part of writing


No one told me before I started writing how unpleasant some parts of writing could be. For example, some people really, really hate editing—or more correctly, they hate being edited. Having someone challenge what makes sense to them, to reorganize and offer copious notes and suggested rewrites (which happens more than you’d think) is too much. Just leave it at a simple spelling and grammar check and they’re fine thank you very much.

Others hate the marketing side of writing. Most writers are not natural marketers, and to try to drum up interest for their work… no.

Others still prefer the idea of writing much more than actually writing itself, and if a book could just magically appear, they’d be over the moon.

None of these are the thing I dislike most or find difficult. I like the work of writing because it forces me to think. I actually really like the editorial process because I learn a ton from the changes editors make. I tend to, like many authors, neglect the marketing part of my books, but that’s only because of time, rather than a lack of interest.

No, for me, the hardest part of writing is the book proposal.

What makes a book proposal

I didn’t know what a book proposal was until I actually had to write one.[1. A great tool to guide you through the process in more detail is Michael Hyatt’s Writing a Winning Non-Fiction Book Proposal.] And with my first one, I more or less fumbled my way through it (thankfully, my publisher was very forgiving). As I did, I learned from friends who had worked in publishing what a good proposal needs to answer:

  1. What is the book about?
  2. Who is your audience?
  3. Why are you the person to write it?

Those are, in essence, the three key questions you must answer (though there are a lot of details within each to consider). And hopefully you can see why they’re so difficult. Within each one, there are a number of other questions to answer:

When you think about what the book is about, it’s not just trying to figure out its premise, but its promise—what will people walk away with when they buy and read it? How will it change their lives? When you consider who you’re writing to, it’s not only a matter of trying to figure out your target audience, but determining who you’re competing against.

And when you sit down to think about why you should write the book, you have to honestly look at yourself, your platform and your background to make sure you should actually be the one writing it. You might have a great idea, but if the topic is too broad, people may not understand why you’re the one to write it. An editor put it to me this way: The wider your influence, the broader you can write. But when you have a limited platform, you need to focus.

What makes you right to write?

It’s that last part that’s probably the worst.  I can come up with good ideas. I can figure out the benefit to a reader. I can identify the competition… but then I realize: I’m not the best person to write it. And every time it happens, it kills me.

So how do you know you’re the right person to write the book you think is a great idea? Here are tw0 considerations:

What have you lived? I probably shouldn’t write a book on the challenges of pastoral ministry. Why? Because I’m not a pastor. I’m not an expert on that, any more than I’m an expert on women’s ministry or personal finance management.

But I had no problem writing a biblical theology of poverty. This isn’t because of my education (not sure my graphic design diploma helped much there), but because of my experience working for an international child development ministry. That gave me the credibility I needed to get a valuable message out. Similarly, there are another two books I’m proposing that make sense for me to write because they’re built around my life experiences—not presenting me as the hero, but taking my own mistakes (in some cases) or flaws and foibles to share something hopefully life-giving to those who read (assuming of course they get picked up).

As many authors have said, if you haven’t lived it, you probably shouldn’t write it. If you’re writing is hypothetical, it will be distant. But if it’s something you’ve lived, you might have something a little more meaningful to say.

What do you naturally gravitate to? If you’re someone who loves to write on a specific topic—like, say, gospel-zeal in children’s ministry—that should tell you something. What you naturally gravitate to in your writing, and what you get the most excited about when you think about writing, should probably be an indicator of the kind of book you ought to write. Don’t discount your interests, whatever else you do. If you’re not excited about what you’re writing, no one else will be, either.

Good writing, prioritizing and gospel communication


Some of the best advice I ever read about writing came from Seth Godin.

Now, I know Godin’s a pretty divisive figure for some—he’s either beloved as a marketing genius, or he’s derided for speaking almost exclusively in buzzwords and sound effects. But when I was a brand-new writer, there was one thing he wrote on his blog that made writing make sense to me. He wrote,

Most people work hard to find artful ways to say very little. Instead of polishing that turd, why not work harder to think of something remarkable or important to say in the first place?

In the years since reading this, the advice has stuck with me. And the more writing I’m exposed to—whether from paid professionals, authors, bloggers, or folks writing emails in the office—the more I realize just how hard a time we have communicating well.

I’ve read entire books where the author’s said virtually nothing. I’ve read three page letters that could have been a paragraph. (I’ve probably even written a few of them.) We would all do well to remember that brevity is essential to good communication. Although I’m a fan of playful writing and treating writing as art (points I discuss in greater detail in the Write More Better eBook), it’s easy to forget that communicating simply is an art, too.

In their book Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath, put it this way:

Simplicity isn’t about dumbing down, it’s about prioritizing.… What’s the core of your message? Can you communicate it with an analogy or high-concept pitch?

A commitment to simple communication doesn’t reject beautiful writing. It reminds us that our words are servants of the message. And this is where I see much to be encouraged by in the Scriptures.

In the Bible—and especially in the gospel message—there is a marriage of simplicity and beauty in thought and form. The message of the cross is profoundly simple in many ways: the entire gospel message can be summarized as simply as “Jesus died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures… he was buried… he was raised on the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). It’s a simple statement, but it’s foolish to treat it as simplistic. It tells us the major beats, yes; but invites us to delve deeper. It hooks us. It makes us want to discover more (or at least it should).

That’s the kind of thing that I’m talking about—that’s what simple and simply good communication does.There are other examples, of course: many of Jesus’ parables, John’s epistles and even much of Paul’s writing can be easily understood, and invite us to plumb their depths. And that’s the point: in the same way the Bible embraces this “profoundly simple yet simply profound” form of communication, so should we as Christians. We need to recognize that the gospel isn’t a complicated message (even if its implications leave our heads spinning). We need to be thankful for that fact. And when we write, we should always make it our aim to let our words serve the message, rather than our message become muddled by our words.

This post is adapted from an article originally posted in June 2010.

Photo credit: Aftermath of the Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots via photopin (license). Designed with Canva.