“A Quotation Is a Handy Thing”

milne quotation quote

Last week, some friends and I ended up in conversation about blogging and writing. Like me, many of them have benefited from the opportunities of the tech age and have dug up long-buried passions in order to blog, write e-books, and contribute to online journals. But with these opportunities have come a whole slew of questions about how to write well.

Unfortunately, much of the broader conversation has trended toward answering questions about platform development and navigating the publishing industry. I say “unfortunately” because most of the Christian bloggers I know are not pursuing an elusive book contract or trying to be the next internet sensation. Most are like the majority of local church pastors I know. They want to serve people through their gifting. They want to communicate the hope of the gospel. They want to do good work.

So in order to help expand the conversation beyond platform building, I want to develop a recurring series that addresses questions that faith-based bloggers/writers often encounter. This series is not aimed at professional writers but to those of us typing away at our kitchen table, on an (unmade) bed, or at our lunchtime breaks. If you find yourself in that group, feel free to leave suggested topics and questions in the comment section below.

To get us started, here’s a question Megan Hill posed to a group of us this week:

Q: What principles/criteria do you use when deciding whether to quote another writer in your articles? Frequently, I find myself wanting to quote a valuable and truthful word from someone whose theology, life, or perspective I couldn’t wholeheartedly “amen.” Quoting them with a lengthy and often distracting caveat–”while I don’t agree with this writer on everything blah blah blah”–doesn’t seem completely satisfactory, but maybe it’s the way of wisdom. What do you do?

A. The church tradition that I grew up in had a strong commitment to separating from false teaching and worldliness. One way this worked itself out was that pastors, teachers, and writers rarely quoted other pastors, teachers, and writers outside our tradition. If they did, it was with massive caveats. Even the books in our church library (and then later in college) had a sticker pasted on the flyleaf to remind us that the content of said volume may or may not be in keeping with the views and values of our church. This background makes me sensitive to the question of who and what to quote in my own writing. On one hand, a quote is influential because it presents the author as a sort of “expert witness.”  But, then again, maybe we were over-thinking it. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1.  Recognize that no one is perfect. Don’t lull yourself into thinking that some writers are “safe” while others are not. This is a particular challenge for those us operating online—a world that is often driven by tribes and celebrity status. It’s just too easy to give certain authors a pass at the same time that we over-scrutinize those outside our own camp.
  2.  Consider whether the author of the quote is using the ideas and words in the same way that you are. For example, if I quote a Jehovah’s Witness speaking about Jesus as the Messiah, I’m pretty much guaranteed that she and I aren’t talking about the same thing. Closer to home, even orthodox Christians can have different understandings of the nature of faith, grace, and the kingdom. Make sure you mean the same thing.
  3.  Ask yourself why you are using a quote in the first place. There are many reasons writers use quotations, sometimes simply as a way to associate their own writing with the success of the author of the quote. But a common reason we use quotations is because we haven’t actually worked through the ideas ourselves yet. Like A. A. Milne said, “[A] quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business. (See what I did there?)
  4. When in doubt, quote a dead guy. More than likely, the truth that you “discovered” from a modern writer isn’t original with that writer. Those of us who are honest know that writing is primarily an exercise in borrowing ideas and repacking them for a specific audience. By quoting those who are long dead, you can side-step any current controversies that may distract from your core message.
  5.  Give honor to whom honor is due. If a certain author did open up a concept for you, perhaps in a way that no one else did, it would be wrong to not attribute it. Don’t let your fear of how others perceive him or her drive your choice of whether to quote or not. (Rabbit Trail: Don’t EVER write from fear.)
  6.  If you use a caveat, don’t let it undermine the flow of the text or the significance of the truth that you are trying to communicate. When the caveat overshadows your main point, it becomes the main point. And all the benefit gained from the actual quotation is lost. Instead, write with grace; briefly acknowledge the point of disagreement but devote the majority of your time and words to affirming the shared perspective.
  7.  Finally, remember that all truth is God’s truth. If a writer is communicating truth, it doesn’t belong to him; it belongs to God. And nothing he can do can make that truth any less true. In fact, the truth of God is so powerful that not even the father of lies himself can corrupt it.

Writing is often a perplexing activity. The hows and whos and whys are not always easily answered; at the same time, I believe that many of the challenges can be resolved by simply thinking more, working harder, and praying longer. In the end, regardless of who or what you choose to quote, don’t take the easy way out.

Welcome

Well, after weeks of hinting at it, after telling you that things were in the works, after promising to let you see it soon, it’s finally done. Sometimes a Light has gotten a makeover. Like most home-improvement projects, it’s taken more time and more resources than I’d originally expected, but it is done. And I am so happy to show it to you.

So consider this an open house. Feel free to look around, poke in the nooks and crannies, and enjoy the revamped categories and search options. If you see something you like, share it with a friend or two. And while I can’t wait to get back to the actual work of writing, first, I’m going to take a few minutes to sit in a corner and drink a cup of (more than likely, lukewarm) tea while you look around.

Thanks for stopping by. Snacks and drinks are in the kitchen. And as always, be sure to let me know if you need anything.

Extreme Makeover: Blog Edition

Over the last several months, I’ve been packing and boxing up stuff. I’ve been sorting and repacking and then unpacking and sorting some more. But we’re not moving–at least my family isn’t. Instead, all this packing and sorting has been of the virtual kind as I’ve been working on a blog renovation. Think of it as “Extreme Makeover: Blog Edition.” (Unfortunately unlike on television, I didn’t get shipped off to Disney World while a team of experts demolished the site and rebuilt it.)

Still, I had the fantastic support of Heather, an IRL friend and tech guru, who did the bulk of the work and held my hand while she explained (for the fourth time) the difference between a widget and plugin. All things considered, it’s been pretty painless, and if you stop by next week, you’ll notice some significant changes. Most notably, you’ll actually be able to find things.

Those of you who have been with me from the beginning are probably familiar enough with my writing to know the kinds of things I write about; unfortunately those of you who have only recently discovered this little corner of the internet may feel a bit lost. The truth is that I’m terrible at organization. Papers, books, clothes, children. Everything ends up in one massive pile. (Now, ideas? I can organize ideas. In fact, writing for me is like a game of mental Tetris. Flip this idea. Turn it on its side. Drop. Slide. Flip again. Drop. Slide. Repeat.) But once those ideas actually become blog posts and I have to categorize them for future reference and even (*gasp*) find them again? Well, your guess is as good as mine.

Unfortunately that means that many of the posts that I’ve written over the last three years aren’t easy to access, and as a result, they’ve been lost to the nether reaches of the virtual universe. This all is about to change. Through the process of renovating Sometimes A Light something has happened that can only happens when you move the furniture, roll up the rugs, and pack your things into a moving van–I’ve found a lot of stuff that I’d lost.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to re-post some of my favorites. Some of you may recognize these “vintage” posts but for the rest of you, these posts will give you a bit more insight to the kinds of things that happen here. I’m excited for this fresh start. It also coincides with launching a Facebook author page–be sure to pop over there and check it out too. And one final bit of housekeeping: those of you who subscribe through an RSS feed will need to resubscribe once everything goes live. I’d hate to lose you in the move.

How to Review a Friend’s Book (and Still Be Friends)

 

French philoso3D-Book-Templatepher Blaise Pascal once wrote: “Few friendships would survive if each one knew what his friend says of him behind his back.” This is never more true than when you are reviewing a friend’s book.
Many of you know that my first book, Made for More, released from Moody Publishers back in April. When it did, I entered a complicated maze of friendship and work. I didn’t want to leverage my relationships in order to promote my book, and yet, the people most supportive of my writing were often those closest to me. Add to this the niggling doubt that I’d just made the greatest mistake of my life by actually putting my words out for public review. In the last two months, I’ve worried that no one was actually telling what they really thought or worse, that my friends felt caught–obligated to encourage me but struggling with their own sense of credibility. Because how honest can we really be about things like books and babies without risking our friendships?

And yet, I need your support. I need your help. Sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble and goodreads rely on readers’ reviews and give books with more and better reviews greater visibility. But since it’s frowned upon to pay people to review one’s book (kidding, not kidding), I have to ask you–my friends–to do it. Like I’ve already mentioned, this is not an easy thing for either of us. So I’ve devised a handy-dandy cheat sheet much like those automatic tip suggestions that mysteriously appear at the end of your bill. The following chart will help you navigate the relational complexities that come from reviewing a friend’s book. Just find the number of stars you want to give it and follow the row all the way to the right. (And of course, if all else fails, you can always use a pseudonym like “BookNerd0593″ or “UnicornLiterati.”)

More than anything, thank you for taking this journey with me. As readers, you have encouraged me that my writing was worth the time. As friends, you have encouraged me to keeping working even when it wasn’t.