25
Feb
2015
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Advice to a new writer of devotionals

I believe writing devotionals may be part of my soon-to-be-seriously-begun writing ministry. Have you any helpful tips as I start? I’m retiring at the end of March and although I will be a lay pastor, I will finally be able to give serious time to writing. I’ve read your CWR notes and love them!

Photo: "Bible time," Brett Jordan, flickr

Photo: “Bible time,” Brett Jordan, flickr

Hello and thanks for asking! I love, love, love writing Bible reading notes. As I prepare, I read and dream and research and wonder and pray, and then I get down to the writing. Often time seems suspended and I exclaim, “Wow, I love this, Lord!” But I say this acknowledging that not everyone has this experience when crafting devotionals. This kind of writing is my sweet spot; it’s part of how I’ve been made and who I am. And I’ve been writing devotionals since 2008. I haven’t counted up how many I’ve written for some time, but I’m guessing 400 or 500. So please don’t feel bad if you don’t experience the sense of sheer joy in your writing. It may come.

You asked for some tips as you dive in; here you go.

Make your words (characters) count.

“If I had more time, I’d make this shorter.” Writers of devotionals – Bible reading notes – don’t have the luxury of space. Usually the text is limited to around 300 words, so the content needs to matter. A publisher I’m currently writing for designates character (with spaces) counts, so there’s no fudging. You know, like those hyphenated words that only count as one word in a word count (The writer-who-likes-to-cheat Amy? Nope.) Write your first draft and then prune, prune, prune. Employ strong verbs – the passive voice eats up your word count. Delete adjectives and adverbs. And so on. (A read through of the classic Strunk & White can be enlightening before you dive in.)

 

Gather your thoughts.

In the weeks before your deadline, read through the text you’ve been assigned (or that you’ve chosen) prayerfully, asking God to reveal what he wants you to write. Start a “thoughts” file on your computer/device where you can jot down notes and illustrations that occur to you. Writers train themselves to notice details – it’s as if while we’re experiencing a near car accident, we’re also taking notes on what we were thinking when the car in front of us stopped, the hue of the sky and how the light hit our eyes, the pounding feeling in our chest when our foot reflexively hit the brakes and the car stopped just in time, and the “Thank you, Lord” prayer we exhaled. (Do stop the car before you note these down.)

 

Photo: Savio Sebastian, flickr

Photo: Savio Sebastian, flickr

Submit yourself to the text.

I love writing notes that are assigned to me – such as the series I’m going through on my blog on Hosea, or the series on verse by verse of Psalm 18 (start from the bottom of the links). We so often skip over the hard bits in the Bible, and so writing on a chunk of Scripture in a series can be an effective way to avoid this.

But I also mean in submitting ourselves to the text that we seek not to read what we want to read in the Bible, but what God has put there. Do some research and find out the context. Don’t just jump to handy conclusions. Ask God’s Holy Spirit to reveal the meaning. Leading to…

 

Research.

When I first started writing Bible reading notes, I spent a week or more reading and taking notes on various Bible commentaries. In one sense I needed the help because I hadn’t engaged with the Bible at that level before. (Those of you who preach regularly will have the benefit of this close engagement.) But in another sense I found myself crippled to form my own opinion. In doing so much background reading, I was in danger of merely parroting back the ideas in the commentaries. I had to put my notes aside for several days so that I wasn’t stealing the content of others in what I wrote. (Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun, and we unconsciously share the wisdom of others all the time – along with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.)

 

A lovely letter from a reader who sent me a Thanksgiving card for many years.

A lovely letter from a reader who sent me a Thanksgiving card for many years.

Journey with the reader.

This probably doesn’t need stating, but you as the writer are a fellow pilgrim, and in the writing of Bible reading notes, you’re often sharing what you’re learning even as you write. So put on the cloak of humility, because wow it’s so amazing to get paid to submerge ourselves in the Bible and to share what we’re gleaning with others!

 

Yes, you can use the classic formula.

Devotionals often start with an arresting anecdote, which links to the biblical text that the writer delves into, which leads to the application. So that would be

Illustration
Text
Application

Being one who likes to buck the rules, I like to vary things up, sometimes diving straight into the text, for instance. But I do seek to add an application for each reading – after all, we do want to be living under the wisdom of God’s word.

 

Weave in biblical text.

I love to fold into my reflections various verses from Scripture. I don’t seek to do this slavishly, for that would make it feel forced, but often in the prayer section at the end of the devotional, a verse will stand out to me as suitable for prayer and reflection. (I don’t have the mind of NicTheVic who can name chapter and verse when it comes to Scripture. I have fragments and pieces stored in various levels of my brain, so I find the search facility at BibleGateway a fantastic resource for bringing them to the fore.) Reminding the readers of the great sweep of Scripture can be helpful too, depending on what you’re addressing.

 

Pray.

This is the most important element of writing devotionals. Pray before you start; pray while you’re writing; pray while you’re rewriting; pray when you send off your work to your editor. We trust that God will inspire us with his word; we yearn for him to bring just the right encouragement for the broken-hearted, the lonely widower, the overwhelmed parent. We oftentimes write a year in advance, so we can’t control the outcome or the effect of what we write. Which makes the sometimes miraculous meetings between devotionals and the reader’s experience so humbling (as I wrote in a blog about some notes that God used during an earthquake in New Zealand).

I can’t explain how sometimes an illustration will pop into my head when I’m writing. Oftentimes I approach the text without seemingly a clue of where I’ll go with it in terms of the illustration and application. But as with so many creative pursuits of collaborating with God, we take the first step and he helps us to continue. As with the Israelites wandering through the desert who had enough food for the day, he provides just enough inspiration for the devotional we’re writing.

 

A "wow this is humbling" letter for me.

A “wow this is humbling” letter.

Try to develop a thick skin.

The first publication I wrote for had an exacting readership. Any theological matter I addressed could be questioned; any uninformed opinion taken to task. I came to dread the letters from readers, for they pointed out where I was lacking. But the readers’ letters made me welcome my editor’s comments all the more, for she knew her readership and was careful to massage my text into a more acceptable format (without asking me to budge on key theological matters). I always took the time to reply to these readers (asking God to let a humble response come through), for they had taken the time to write to me.

Then I wrote a series on being a pilgrim in a foreign land. Bulky packages from the publisher started to pop through my letterbox, and amazingly, this time the readers wrote with their stories of feeling in exile! The publisher said they had never had such a big response in terms of feedback. I heard from other Americans living in the UK or those with connections to other countries. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude at this response, made all the sweeter by my long history of not-so-easy reader letters.

 

I hope this is helpful; do let me know how you get on. And thanks for your kind words about the CWR notes. I’m humbled when people find my writing helpful or inspiring. Praise God!

4 Responses

  1. Barbara Schultz

    Thanks, Amy. That was all very helpful and exciting, even with a quick read through! I will read through it again and again, even more when I start writing. You are so gracious in sharing your experience and your wisdom. God bless you!

  2. This is helpful, Amy, thanks. I’m writing some Bible reading notes at the moment, and the thing I struggle with is trying to say anything of value in so few words – I’ve got about 170 in the body of these notes, with 40 more for a suggested response. In a passage rich with themes, ideas, insights etc how on earth am I meant to convey anything useful?!

    That’s an unanswerable question, I guess, but here’s an answerable one – how much do you/should one ‘tell’ or teach the reader, and how much should one try to ask searching questions and trust God/the text to do the rest? Perhaps it varies by publication, but I find that a challenging balance (not to mention that you want to feed those who have been believers for decades without leaving the newbies in the dust…)!

    It’s certainly a challenging form (but I’m loving the challenge!).

    1. Jennie, such good questions you’re raising. It is like walking a tightrope on the asking of provocative questions, and yes, that depends partly on the publication in terms of how much you wrap up loose ends. People also vary on how much they like an approach led by illustrations, and how much more on the meaty-exegetical side of things. Editors are great to bat things back and forth with – hope you find just the right balance on that rope and you feel the exhilaration and wind in your hair!

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