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The Top 7 things I learned at a Collegeville Institute Writer's Workshop

Last month I had the privilege of attending a week long Collegeville Institute writer's workshop entitled, A Broader Public: Writing for the Online Audience. Even though I have written books, opeds, blog posts and lots of sermons, I had never taken a course on writing before. So I was excited to better understand what I've been doing all these years.

Here are my top seven takeaways (in no particular order):

7. Do something in your writing that is difficult for you - For me 'difficult' meant being more critical toward my chosen topic. Far too often I tend to take a more positive perspective on what I write - naming God's goodness in the world while playing down the 'yeah/but' parts. When a CrossFit article I pre-wrote for the retreat got workshopped, I realized that leaving the 'yeah/but' parts out took all of the conflict, tension, and urgency out of my piece ("nothing happened!"). One of my co-participant's commented, "I totally disagree with what you've just read. What about all of the macho, vanity, trash-talking parts of Crossfit?" What I was trying to say got lost in what I didn't say. When I pitched a significantly improved version of the piece to Religious News Service (RNS) a week later, the RNS editor continued to push me in the same direction. He sent me three negative articles on CrossFit that he wanted me to address in revision. Lesson learned! If I want want to effectively name God's goodness in the world, I need to fully name where things are falling short.

6. Be yourself - "I don't believe you!" I have to admit it was a bit hard hearing those words after my first critique. Based on my first draft the workshop leader thought I was saying going to CrossFit was just as good as going to church. Which isn't at all what I was trying to say. But I hadn't communicated clearly; in part because of point 7 above but also because of how I veiled my pastoral identity. In my first draft I didn't mention that I was a pastor until the third paragraph. By the end of the piece I was way too preachy. Instead of just being myself throughout the piece - a trained religious leader with a learned spiritual perspective on what I was observing - I hid my identity. My article read like a bait and switch. In a later workshop session, one of the leaders told the class to write for the general public, but to not take out the religion! "Just be who you are and talk about what you know. You have an expertise that the public is interested in."

5. Editors want to publish good articles - As a writer who has made his share of unsuccessful pitches these words felt like a breath of fresh air. As the editors of Religion Dispatches, workshop leaders Evan and Lisa needed what writers were pitching them. Of course they did. The key is getting an editor's attention. To that end we learned how to pitch in a way that would capture their attention - to be concise, read a publication before hitting send, reference where your topic has already been written about in their publication, and include the phrase, "Others have written about this topic in this way, but I'm writing about this in this (new) way". Writer's need to be aware of the politics of the organization they are submitting to, to avoid low hanging fruit, to start with a compelling sentence that captures the thesis of their piece, to use the headline of the piece in their subject line, to put the referral's name (if you have one) in the subject line. It's important to provide relevant credentials (for yourself), to include the article in the body of the email along with attaching it, and include the line "I can have a draft to you by this date" in your letter. It should include a personal bio at bottom of the letter; telling them if you are pitching it to others, and you should know that silence means no and no means try again, and finally writers should never forgetting what every editor wants; a novel take on something that will be reasonably well written by someone who knows what they’re talking about.

4. Find one thing to write about and run with it - This came up several times during our critiques. Different writers would present an unfocussed piece and one of the workshop leaders would ask a probing question about a particularly confusing point. The writer would respond with a clear and concise explanation of what they were trying to say. The workshop leader would then say, "Write that! Throw the rest of the piece away and write that!". Write about the one thing that tugged on your emotions and got you to think about an article in the first place. Don't stray too far from that initial impetus/idea. Go deep with it (and not too broad). This lesson was huge for me; a great growth opportunity for a guy who often goes too broad.

3. Know that when you write for the general public people can walk away! - I suppose this is true in all writing contexts but I've never experienced anyone walk out of church or a classroom where I was speaking. So the pressure to keep your reader interested is on! For my CrossFit piece, I had to change my opening line. I created a stronger narrative thread and worked on upping the newness of what I was trying to say; trying to "unseat people’s ideas about a thing”, Keep the tension strong. Be timely. (And don't ever write an aspirational piece - i.e. "This would make the world a better place". It won't get published!)

2. You can write in a different style and take on a difference voice - In one of our sessions, we talked about different writing styles with an eye to helping us define what's called the Classic style (Clear and Simple as the Truth, Thomas and Turner, Princeton, 2011).

The Classic style is like a one on one conversation - you talking to a peer or companion - where you wish to persuade them of something, but not overtly. You want to gently point something out; sharing the result of your own engagement of a problem with someone outside of your silo. The Classic style is not;

  • The Plain Style - where common truths are affirmed in conversation… “We all know this already…" In Classic style the writer knows the truth.

  • The Reflexive style - where you raise doubts about what you are doing… “Who am I to be saying…” or hedging your ideas in any other way.

  • The Practical style - which is all about there being a problem to be solved; i.e. the writer's job is to meet the reader’s need… to impart information.

  • The Contemplative style - which stresses interpretation.

  • The Romantic style - which is about the writer, as a kind of mirror, with writing as an act of creation that reveals the self (author).

  • The Prophetic style - where the writer is a channel for normally inaccessible truth.

  • The Oratorical style -which is aiming for the audience’s ear, usually a group of people… people with a need; a problem.

So in response to an assignment to write something in the Classic style, I wrote a piece based on a conversation I'd had the previous day with a potter who was working in a studio on the university campus. I'd talked to him about how his awareness of where his hands were in space (as he threw a pot) led me to ponder how perfectly God moves in space. Then we talked about what it would be like to experience God via his spatial aptitude. Attempting to capture the classic style, I wrote in a way I'd never written before. The process felt alive and freeing and new! It left me wanting to try other styles as well. I had no idea I could do this... take on a different style or voice.

1. Let your love shine through! - After reading my potter's piece to the group, one of the leaders asked what I felt as I wrote it. I said, "love". The next day that same leader told me that my response led her to think that she wanted to follow me in that.

There's an ancient Latin phrase, Ubi Amor, Ibi Oculus - where there is love there is seeing. What is a writer other than one who sees? What would it mean for writers to love more as they see and engage all that is happening in our world? Writers are made in the image of a God who loves.

Thinking back on that amazing Collegeville workshop, some of the most beautiful moments happened when love showed up. A couple of writers wrote and read pieces where they worked through a difficult societal issue in conversation with their more conservative parents. The love they had for those they disagreed with changed the whole tenor of their writing. There was a bond within which the debate played out; an unbreakable commitment to community. That bond led to a grace that enabled genuine communication (which made me think that the societal challenges we're now facing should to be written about in this way!). Then there was the love that changed another author's frustration toward a refugee neighbor's worldview. And lastly the love that was expressed on our final night as we had a time of sharing; allowing us to name the story God had written in each of us.

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