Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Carol's Last Post: Choosing Words

The old wooden door slams behind me as I enter the bead store in the small town where I live. Visitors who frequent the quaint, antique-filled shops on Main Street can come in, pick up a miniature cupcake holder, choose beads, and then sit at tables to make a necklace. The array of beads is astounding: shiny, matte, and mottled ones; round or flat ones; tiny, middle and large sizes; of every hue and shade. My imagination races thinking of what dazzling concatenations might emerge from fashioning piles of beads into stunning pieces of jewelry.

The same emotions excite me when I sit down, choose words and write. The vast array of English words boggles my mind, especially when I realize that they are all created from only 26 letters. I search for interesting “shapes” and “colors” to thread through my message. I pray I’ll arrive at “paternoster” words—sequences of beautiful, appropriate ones. I know just the right ones are out there, if only I can find them in my brain, the thesaurus, or an online dictionary!

Wealth of Words
Mature writers and speakers of English master only an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 words, but the total number of English words, according to The Global Language Monitor, will surpass a million in 2009. Because English draws on both Norman-French and Germanic roots and also includes thousands of borrowed words from other languages, it is extremely rich—enough to qualify as a world language. (How ironic that late 16th century English was considered a crude and inadequate language, used only by peasants.)

In The Miracle of Language, Richard Lederer* shows the source languages of the numerous synonyms I can pick from in English (p. 20). From Anglo-Saxon, we get the word ask; from French, the word question, and from Latin/Greek, interrogate. Other such triplets include: end, finish, conclude; fast, firm, secure; holy, sacred, consecrated; and thin, spare, emaciated.

If I still fear I may not find just the right word or original turn of phrase, I consider what Lederer claims. “Incredible as it may seem at first thought, practically every sentence that you speak and write during your lifetime has never been spoken or written before in human history” (p. 14). With tomes of available word choices, no wonder it often takes time to find the winner.

Best Necklace
Recognizing the incredible choice of words at my disposal, I imagine what kind of necklace the most beautiful string of words would resemble. It would not be a diamond one. Big, sparkling words that are rare and costly, ones that are unfamiliar to most readers, need to be kept for state occasions and academic publications. Readers might admire the beauty of the sentence, its cadence and alliteration, but would turn away disappointed, not able to afford the time and effort to “buy” it, to understand it.

Suites of words resembling a pearl necklace would prove more affordable, but would not be especially appreciated. With every pearl the same color and shape, the “necklace” would prove too boring, too predictable. Variety of words keeps the reader surprised and delighted.

For poets, a stunning pendant reflects the art of their craft—a short, compact jewel of a thought. Laid on a wide expanse of white, it stands out and draws appreciation for its uniqueness and impression.

What will please a reader most is multi-stranded strings of words picked from every color, shape, and texture. Some strands hang long, some short, and some in between. In such strings, some beads (aka words) should be repeated: articles, prepositions and helper verbs are like tiny, round gold beads, almost unnoticed, that separate the larger, significant ones from each other. And even some major beads repeat over and over—theme beads that help unify the look.

Blaise Pascal, philosopher and mathematician (1623-1662), once noted, “Words differently arranged have different meanings, and meanings differently arranged have a different effect.” I have found that words strung together carefully and wisely produce beautiful written pieces that please readers. And some even come up to me and say, “That’s beautiful. Where you get it?”

*Lederer, Richard. The Miracle of Language. New York: Pocket Books, 1991

This is my final post—for now. I have enjoyed sharing with you, women of the harvest! Feel free to ask me (via WOTH editor, Cindy) for editing assistance on occasional, short articles. I would love to continue helping you improve your writing skills, if and when I have time.
With love in Christ, Carol Brinneman

[Editor's Note: This is Carol's final post. Wow! What a run she has had--I have personally enjoyed and learned from her expertise and beautiful prose. This post, "Choosing Words," is as lovely as the designer necklace I've been eyeing at the Neiman-Marcus jewelry counter for months. Thank you, Carol!]

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How Ideas Can Grow into Articles--Carol Brinneman

Do you aspire to write an article but are not sure how to get started? Many of the articles published in Women of the Harvest onlineMagazine are called “inspirational essays” or “personal experiences” (PEs). This is the kind of writing I usually do when I have time to freelance.

Where do I get ideas? They come from experiences from my past—years ago or even yesterday. As I look back at my life, significant days, people, answers to prayers, or struggles come quickly to mind. I also get seed ideas when I’m in a quiet, relaxed, and receptive mood: as I read the Scriptures, books or articles, take a quiet walk, sit listening to a sermon, or even while taking a shower!

Even a single quote or a fascinating fact can get me thinking. An idea must intrigue me, excite me, and offer the possibility to expand on scriptural truths, apply to Christian living, and encourage readers. I look for fresh, new perspectives. Working cross-culturally affords hundreds of new takes on life.

When an idea does come, I have learned, the hard way, to write it down immediately in as much detail as possible. If I don’t, it can evaporate quickly and just will not come back. I have even gotten up from bed before midnight to store away an “embryo” article in my files.

Sometimes I am “in the zone,” and ideas come often, especially when I am not over-busy with other work. It’s very exciting to finish a piece that I feel good about. But sometimes weeks go by with few “revelations”; because I trust the Lord to use me as he wishes, I try not to let dry times discourage me. He keeps reminding me that my writing is a gift for his glory, not for bolstering my self-esteem.

Sometimes I can see clearly right away how an article will develop. But usually I need to do some homework first.

I open up a new document on my computer and write down the seed experience, idea, or quote and then brainstorm, pulling up any related idea, experience, or quote I can think of. Then I search the Bible (digitally) for any verses that might apply to the theme, and add those to my “worksheet.” Next, I search a thesaurus (online) for related vocabulary words and idioms that can enrich the piece, and I list those. I go to my (computer and hard-copy) files where I have saved interesting bits, articles, quotes (thousands of them over the years) and see if any might work into the article.

The next step is to wait on God, pray about the piece, and also let my subconscious, and my conscious mind, work on it for up to a few days. Finally, I go ahead and write.

First, I often put down a theme sentence—what I want the piece to say. It will keep me on track as I write.

I shuffle my raw data into a rough outline. Then I dive in and write the article as it comes to me. It is always amazing how I end up saying things I never thought of until I actually start to write. The Holy Spirit is faithful to help when I ask him for guidance.

Once the article is finished, I let it sit at least 24 hours before I read it through again and rewrite, giving special attention to the lead. I keep rewriting it once a day, for sometimes up to a couple weeks, until I feel I can do no better.

I ask my husband, who knows the Bible well, to be my first reader. Since I often deal with Scripture, I want to be doubly sure I have not committed heresy!

Then I send the article to one or more writer friends for their feedback.

For an example of one of my inspirational essays, see: http://carol.ncbrinneman.com/home/obedience/trash-disposal

If you feel called to write, ask God for inspiration and help. Then get down to the discipline of writing daily, building your skills, … and rewriting. It’s thrilling to sense the Lord working with you and through you as you create articles for him.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Writer's Groups--Literal and Virtual---Carol Brinneman

In November 2007 a couple men working at the mission center where I live were eager to start a writer’s group. Long story short, I seemed to be the only one with experience and time (well, I really didn’t have time) to facilitate it. We started out with little idea of exactly what to do.

We met at my home for two hours every other Thursday at lunch time. Desperate at first, I grabbed my copy of On Writing Well by Zinsser, read a chapter out loud, and we discussed it. I later shared articles from The Christian Communicator and Writer’s Digest magazines.

As both men had already begun writing novels, I offered to line edit, teaching them principles of good writing at the same time. Since I rarely read novels myself, I hopped to it, learning more about fiction techniques.

Another woman, a Christian friend of mine and a former newspaper reporter, joined and brought her expertise to the mix.

A few others joined and left—some in short order—once they saw how “dedicated” we were about getting some serious writing done. They either did not have the time to commit to it or just lost interest. So far, we have invited only people of like background, so that we have the freedom to talk about mission topics. We have four women and two men now, an optimal number, so everyone gets needed attention. I am amazed at how, as a group of reasonably intelligent people, we are able to help each other, no matter our specialties. And yet, I cannot imagine a writer’s group without at least one person who serves as expert.

Soon after we started, our group began sharing writing projects via e-mail. Much of the critiquing and editing pass back and forth digitally, using Word’s reviewing feature. However, sometimes we use class time to edit together as an exercise, especially on short pieces. Some people give general, sweeping evaluations, while others are good at nitpicking.

I have sometimes given homework assignments to motivate members to write more, and sometimes they carry through, if they have time and energy. We also share links to information or interesting stories about writing. It’s impossible to talk about writing without discussing books, so we do note various authors’ styles. Lately, I have decided to introduce some writing practice during the session, using prompts or quiz-type exercises.

In January 2008, “Ann” called me via Skype from South Asia. She knew of me because she served as our mission’s approver for articles mentioning her geographical area. Interested in writing, she had lots of questions. I invited her to join the group as a “virtual” member. I would tape the sessions and e-mail them to her. (I use a Panasonic RR-US395, a nifty, tiny digital recorder, and I’m careful to divide the session into 30-minute “folders” so the recording will not exceed the e-mail capacity limit.) Ann participated fully in our group, mainly via e-mail responses and sharing in editing and critiquing. Now while on furlough in the U.S., she joins us via (audio) Skype. It’s almost as good as her being here in person. The only drawback for the group is that we tend to get fixated on the mic and forget to look at each other.

From what I read and hear, about anything works for a writer’s group. Some groups are extremely disciplined and focused on getting each other’s articles, poems, or novels published. Others are less demanding. One group I know of, mainly young mothers, get together for two hours on Sunday afternoons just to have some quiet time to write!

One local writer’s club I have attended at a bookstore in a nearby city has about 60 in attendance, once a month. A published author speaks, or is interviewed, or a panel shares. Most members meet regularly in smaller critique groups. Writing contests are offered, and winners read their creations at the next meeting. In addition, the club organizes writing workshops (for a fee) on various topics. Club membership costs $30 per year.

Writing groups provide encouragement, instruction, and friendship. My hope is that God will provide every missionary writer-in-training with such a group—literal or virtual.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Missionary Newsletters: Top 10 Pet Peeves--Carol Brinneman

Many missionaries cut their creative writing teeth on newsletters. A friend of mine, who helps people improve their letters, had no trouble coming up with this pithy pet-peeves list. Yes, she wrote in a slightly snarky, spirited mood, but consider her advice and take a fresh look at your own letters. Are you boring your readers? Or delighting them with crisp, compelling accounts of what God is doing in your ministry and life?

1. Excuses
My first pet peeve: newsletters that say, “We’re sorry we haven’t written in a while because we’ve been so busy.” Everybody is busy; that excuse is worthless. You just know that any newsletter that starts that way is going to be boring!

2. Generic newsletters
Newsletters that could apply to just about any other colleague or couple. If you can delete your name, and the letter still works for someone else, it is boring!

3. Vague job descriptions
Newsletters that don’t tell exactly what you do. Someone should be able to pick up your newsletter for the first time and understand clearly what your ministry is about. Vague newsletters are boring!

4. Lists
People who use their newsletters to prove they have been busy. You don’t have to write long lists about every little thing you’ve done in the past three months. Just pick one or two and elaborate. Supporters will assume that one good story is representative of your overall ministry. Lists are boring!

5. Long, drawn-out stories
A good story should fill about half to one page, and add a great photo or two. Don’t spend half a page explaining about the story you are going to tell; just tell it! Long, detailed stories can be boring!

6. Weather forecasts
“Spring is in the air. The leaves are beautiful this time of year.” Don’t tell people what they already know. Instead, write a detailed description of rainy season and how it affects your life, how the heat makes you melt, how dark winter days can depress you, or how you wonder over a Saharan sandstorm. But plain ol’ weather reports are boring!

7. Vacation highlights
Don’t tell people you need financial support and then in the same newsletter say that you took the kids to Disney World during your support-raising trip. If you can afford Disney, your support isn’t all that bad. Either skip it, or be sure to mention that someone paid your way as a special gift. Your vacation highlights are boring!

8. Exploits of grown children
Newsletters that devote half the text (or more) to exploits of grown children or grandchildren who have nothing at all to do with your ministry. Many of your supporters and friends may not care that “Fred” was recently appointed a marketing VP. That’s potentially boring!

9. Bad, blurry photos
Photos that are blurry or taken from too far away. If you look like a blob on the page, it’s a bad photo! Don’t you know you can crop, enlarge, or enhance photos to make them great? Also, black and white photos (unless superb) seem more and more outdated for missionary newsletters. Use color photos. Black and white is boring! Bad, blurry photos are boring!

10. Cheap paper
Spend a couple bucks more to buy a 24 lb., bright white; your pictures and words won’t bleed through to the other side. Flimsy newsletters are boring!

Let’s delight our supporters with high-quality newsletters. Let’s work at stamping out boredom!


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