Creating Content and Defining Terms

landscape.JPGFocus on people; focus on results, we tell ourselves. How do we communicate that the mission is accomplishing its goals? Stories and statistics. Stories prove we’re doing what we say we’re doing on an individual level. Statistics show that we’re accomplishing our goals on a broader level. The two work together.

Every one of us who writes for the Internet has to listen closely to the needs of our audience and then determine the types of content we can create to meet those needs. Those of us who write for nonprofits understand we define ourselves by the stories we tell, the people we profile and the events we write about.


What kinds of content can you create for your audience?

1. Story

Stories contain a likable main character who confronts a problem and solves it, requiring the main character to make a difficult decision, follow it up with hard work and become a better person in the end.

While stories resonate with our readers, they are difficult to write because the author has to show life change. Sometimes that change happens inside a person’s heart. That kind of change is harder to identify and write about. Frequently this happens when a person comes to Christ or starts to grow in their faith.

How do you show life-change? Ask your story subjects if they can give you an example. Whenever you can, write about their response to a difficult situation, demonstrating how they changed.


2. Personality Profile

This is a summary of a person’s life experiences, answering questions like: What do they do, and what experiences have led them to do it? It’s not a story because there is no problem to confront and solve, however, you will want to identify a common theme, think of it as your focus, to write about throughout the entire story.

It’s possible you will write about someone who participates in your work on a regular basis. Even though they might not have an obstacle to overcome, they show up week after week, accomplishing the goals of your mission.

You can show what a day in their lives might look like so people can imagine themselves stepping into the work you’re doing.


3. Biographical Summary

This, too, is a summary of a person’s life, only it’s more a listing of the facts as they happened. The writer doesn’t pick a theme to write about in every paragraph or present the main character as having a problem to confront and solve. Instead, it’s a telling of important life events, usually in chronological order.

Inexperienced writers might choose this format to help them gather all of the necessary facts. Once the facts are gathered and assembled, an experienced editor can help identify a focus that could allow the writer to create a personality profile.


4. Report

A report explains what happened and answers questions your readers might be asking. For example, what happened? When did it happen? Where did it happen? Who was there? How does it show our mission in action?

According to writing coach Roy Peter Clark, the difference between a story and a report is this: A report tells the facts of what happened. A story evokes an emotional response. A report shows scope on a large scale. 500 students came to our fall retreat. A story shows life-change in an individual. One of the students made a decision to trust Christ to forgive her sins.


5. Tribute

This is a summary of a person’s life events that includes quotes from four or five people who explain what this person means to them. This works well when you want to celebrate a birthday or an anniversary of a well-known person.


Each of these forms has its place on your website, in your emails and in your publications. Know what they are and understand the purpose they serve. If you are the editor, know the difference between each piece of content, and be clear with the writer exactly what you expect. If you are the writer, understand the differences between each piece of content, and ask questions to help you understand what your editor expects from you.


Because variety is the spice of life, consider varying the types of content you put in front of your readers. Know the difference between each one. Try each one out to see if it helps you accomplish your goals.

Focus: The Secret Behind Strong Writing



In an age of constant distraction, you can capture and keep your reader’s attention by organizing your text around one central idea.Think of it as your focus statement. Next time, you write, ask yourself these questions:

1. What is this piece really about? Decide the one piece of information you want your readers to remember when they finish your piece. Try stating it as an opinion so that you can tell stories, use statistics and present facts to illustrate your point.

2. What’s the most interesting part? If it’s interesting to you, it will interest your reader. After you decide, ask yourself what makes that part so interesting to you. If you are writing a topic or an experience you can relate to, allow your perspective to influence your text. None of us are truly objective. Maybe God picked you to write the piece because your experiences allow you to better understand the events and principles you are writing about.

3. What’s fresh about this topic? While there is nothing new under the sun, you can add fresh perspective to stories and topics that have already been covered. Most faith-based stories tell the same series of events over and over again. An unbeliever refuses to believe, has an experience and crosses the bridge to belief. What’s new and different about that? Personality. Family background. The events leading up to crossing the bridge to belief.

4. Can you be more specific? As you answer these questions, pick one main idea to center your piece around. State it as a sentence. Be as specific as possible.

Your focus statement is like the string that holds a strand of pearls together. Each pearl fits on the string because it is the same size, shape and color as the other pearls. In the same way, when you write, pick one main point and then choose details that reinforce that idea.

Warning: This is harder than you think it is.  Choosing one main idea means saying no to a dozen other ideas. It also means saying no to good information so that you can pick the best information. Great writing begins by making hard choices. You can’t tell the whole story. So, which part will you tell?

In the movie City Slickers, Curly, the cowboy, tells Mitch, the 9-5er, the secret to life is one thing. When Mitch asks what that one thing is, Curly tells him he has to figure it out for himself. In the same way, only you can figure out for yourself what your main point ought to be for each piece you write.

At a time when your readers are constantly distracted, you can make your work easier to read by organizing your ideas around one central thought. Pick one point, prove that point to your readers, and you will give them the gift of being able to remember what you have written.


Telling Stories




This week, Bethany is guest posting about the process of writing her story. Seems the more she thinks about it and then writes it, the more its meaning changes. What’s a writer to do? Keep writing stories. Here she writes about the value of continuing to tell our stories as their meaning evolves. You can read more at Bethany’s blog

In between classes, cooking, and everything else that comes with being a college student, I’ve been working with Susanna to get the book done. That’s part of the reason I’ve been so absent here. I have a head full of ideas of things to blog about, but it’s been more and more challenging to find the time or the mental clarity to make the words say what I want them to.


I’m finding it hard to know how to tell my stories when I’m in a place of such constant change. I always thought that if I studied and learned enough, I would reach a place of understanding that would never change.

We’re in the midst of writing the story of my year in the dress. With each chapter, the way I see that year is shifting. The way I feel about it now isn’t the same way as I felt about it when we started writing, which was different from how I felt about it when I was wearing the dress.

Sometimes, I wonder if I should wait to tell this story until I’m sure of it and what it actually meant. It terrifies me, because ten years from now, the way I see that year will have changed again. They’ll probably change between the time we finish writing and the time the book is actually published.
But maybe that’s part of telling stories.Maybe it’s not my job to tell you what the story means.
Maybe all I need to do is tell it.Stories are important, and I still think they’re worth telling. I know that this one is worth telling. So if I’m not here, know that it’s because I’m writing and wrestling with this story. In the meantime, in the midst of everything that’s changing, there’s still stories I want to share here.
I can’t say what they mean, but I can offer them to you. Maybe together, we’ll discover that we’re not alone.

The Secret

Doug with Kathleen and David and Katherine
Doug with Kathleen and David and Katherine

On August 31, my brother-in-law, Doug Rhine, went home to be with the Lord. During the memorial service, his friends described him as smart, funny, humble, and patient, but the word kind won the day. You can read the tribute I wrote about him here:

“But what was Doug’s secret?” the pastor asked. Having attended previous memorial services, I expected the pastor to tell us that Doug had trusted Jesus’ death on the cross to pay for his sins. I was wrong.

Instead, he told a story about Doug when he was 12 years old, headed down a path to destruction, knowing he was powerless to change his thoughts or his behavior. Attending confirmation classes, Doug learned that he could be filled with the Holy Spirit. In fact, during the confirmation service, the bishop would come and lay his hands on the heads of each student so they could be filled with Holy Spirit and experience His power to change their lives.

Doug, being the smart guy he was, reasoned that he didn’t have to wait for the bishop to lay hands on his head. Instead, that night before he went to bed, Doug prayed and asked the Holy Spirit to fill him. From that moment on, Doug;s life changed. He became kinder and more thoughtful. He spent the rest of his life living out of (or into) that decision.

When we write, especially if we intend to inspire our audience, taking time to ask God to fill us with His Spirit can be our secret, too.

“But I’m Not a Writer…,” she said.

colored pencils
Photo courtesy of


I hear this refrain frequently. And my reply is the same every time.

If you understand and practice the process, you can become a better writer.

Most of us think we bring a big idea with us, sit down at a computer, and bang out something brilliant in 30 minutes or less. When that doesn’t happen, we immediately conclude we can’t write, at least not very well.

Think about applying that method to building a house, or baking a cake, or playing a sport. None of  us would attempt to do those things without first planning and practicing.

Writing is a five-step process. If you work the steps, your writing will improve. I can guarantee it because I’ve watched it happen for other people.

The Writing Process:

1. Gather: Collect all of the information you will need to write your piece from start to finish.

2. Sort: Look through all of your information and ask yourself, “What is this really about?” Write down (or type) your answer in a sentence or two. Can you be more specific. This is the hardest part of the writing process. Get this right, and the rest won’t seem so difficult. Out of all the information you gathered, choose the pieces that best illustrate what you are writing about.

3. Organize: Order the pieces you have chosen into a format that makes sense to your reader. You will always understand your own writing because you wrote it. The true test of clarity comes when your writing makes sense to your audience. By ordering your thoughts in a logical progression, you  aid your readers as they seek to understand our message.

4. Write: Now that you’ve done the hard work of gathering, sorting and organizing, it’s time to write. Start at the beginning, end at the end. Read it out loud when you’re done. Ask someone else to read it.

5. Rewrite: Learn how skillfully using just five parts of speech can energize your writing. Explore six different ways to start a sentence that doesn’t begin with your subject. Consider integrating a bevy of tips and tricks into your writing repertoire.

But what about creativity? Isn’t all that structure stuff too confining? Can’t I just express myself? Let’s explore those thoughts together in the coming days and see what we can learn from each other.

I am a Writer. Always Have Been


Photo courtesy of



It’s possible that I knew it instinctively during second grade after writing a book report in which I refused to give away the ending story I had summarized. But no one ever knows anything of any lasting value when they are eight. So, probably, the moment of truth came in sixth grade.  I blame my English teacher. She gave a homework assignment to write a patriotic essay for Memorial Day. Something about why I’m glad I’m an American.

Having lots of homework in other subjects that night, I sat at my desk and wrote longhand the first thoughts that came to mind. Words become sentences, and sentences became paragraphs, and paragraphs became the essay that I turned in during class the next day. Not my best work, but it was done. And I moved on.

Then the nagging thoughts started. “I could have written about… I could improve that piece if… It wouldn’t be that much work to…” I spent the rest of the school day cogitating on how to improve my essay instead of paying attention during subjects like math and science.

That night, having substantially less homework, I recreated the entire piece for my benefit, because I knew I could. Much better.  The next day, I humbly handed the newer version to my English teacher and politely asked if it could replace the old one. Shocked that any student would rewrite any assignment for any reason, she gladly accepted my work, and, once again, I thought I was done.

A week later, she announced to the class that she had picked three outstanding essays to be read out loud at a school-wide assembly. She chose mine, the one I had rewritten, as one of the winners. When I stood on the playground, in front of the entire school, reading my essay into the microphone, I knew, at that moment, that I was then and would forever more be a writer.