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.


Stories on a Plane


southwestPlease don’t sit here, I silently willed to the people passing by. It’s an almost full flight. I continued hoping that the travelers would keep moving toward the back of the plane, passing up the empty middle seat next to me.

“Mind if I sit here?” one shy traveler asked.

I looked up to see a man 10 in his mid-60s asking the question. He sat down, yielding the armrest to me, and smiled a playful grin. How could I not like him?

“So, what do you do?” I asked, thinking I might be able to start and finish the obligatory conversation, and move on to the book I was holding. He had no carry on luggage.

“I farm,” he said. “In Central Nebraska.”

And then he told me his story. He runs a family farm in Central Nebraska, approximately 30 fields that span 30 miles. From Kearney to Gibbon, much of it on rented land.

At first, he and his father farmed. Then he and his brother farmed. Now it’s him and his two sons. His grandsons have said they want to farm, too. Sure it’s hard, but they find ways to keep going.

His wife suffers from MS, a debilitating disease that shuts down muscle groups one by one. She’s had it almost 20 years. Five of her high school classmates were diagnosed with it and have passed away. She considers herself fortunate.

I’m leaning in. “How do you cope?” I asked.

Every morning he gets out of bed, fixes her breakfast and helps her get dressed before he heads off to farm. She reads a lot of books, he tells me. Including the Bible. Friends call her and grandchildren stop by after school to visit with her. She gets around in a wheelchair. She keeps a phone close by so that if she falls, she can call him and he can help her.

One day, after a faithful friend who calls every morning didn’t get an answer, the friend called her husband, the farmer who immediately went home and found his wife on the bathroom floor.

“Why didn’t you call me?” he asked.

“I knew you would be home soon,” she said.

Another day he came home and found her on the floor surrounded by grandchildren. She had fallen, and they couldn’t help her up. They made the best of it by playing cards together until he returned. They looked up and smiled at him as he entered the house.

I want to meet this woman, I thought to myself. She sounds wonderful.

Yes, it’s hard, he continued. She’s frustrated that she can’t do more for herself, but she refuses to give in to self-pity. “You can leave me,” she once said. “I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”

“No,” he said. “This is the life God has given us. We’ll find a way to make it work as best as we can.”

Children, grandchildren and a network of friends, including those from church, help him keep that promise to her. The plane descended toward the airport and the captain turned on the fasten seatbelt sign.

After thinking for a moment, he said, “I get up every morning and I know God is with me. That’s how I cope.”

The presence of God, that’s his secret. Friends and family help, but his faith is the glue that holds it all together. God never promised a pain free life, but he did promise his presence. “I will be with you always,” Christ said. “Even to the end of the age.”


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.

Five Ways to Utilize Pinterest as a Student Journalist

An African elephant photographed on Becca's favorite continent. Courtesy of Worldwide Challenge photography team
An African elephant photographed on Becca’s favorite continent. Courtesy of Worldwide Challenge photography team

So, my boss, Becky is having a baby, and the women I work with are planning a shower for her.

Recently, Becca Gonzales, one of the newest writers on our team and a graduate of The University of New Mexico, showed me how to find baby shower ideas on Pinterest. After we examined fun shower games and party favors, she showed me how to find writing advice and pin it to one of my boards. Now I’m hooked.

Below, Becca, who earned a degree in Multi-media Journalism with a Psych minor, describes five ways student journalists can use Pinterest to find ideas and organize their thoughts. Really, though, any writer can benefit from using these ideas.

You can find Becca here: here:


Pinterest is not just for aspiring Martha Stuarts any more.

Pinterest – a popular and unique social networking site – has gained traction since its founding in March 2010. The site allows users to choose “pins” from their favorite websites and photos, and organize their interests into categories. Popular categories include fashion, food and, of course, crafts.

But news publications have begun to create their own Pinterest accounts and the site is becoming more widely-utilized as a whole. Student journalists have long been encouraged to create professional Facebook and Twitter accounts for the sake of their future career. But these same students – whether their interests lie in breaking-news broadcast or magazine features – can learn from hopping onto this trend as well.

Here are five ways student journalists can make the most of their Pinterest account.

Follow the media

Like Twitter, and most other social networking sites, Pinterest is only truly valuable when you do not go it alone. Follow people, follow them widely and follow those most important and relevant to you. 

That said the news media have begun to create Pinterest accounts themselves. The New York Times, CNN and Vogue magazine all have Pinterest accounts, as do many smaller news publications. Following these publications on Pinterest can allow you first access to any visuals which may accompany big stories or alert you to national trends that you may want to write about later. Following these publications, just like reading their stories, can help you learn how to be an efficient journalist as well, even on Pinterest.

Follow your audience

Any journalist knows that you, your editor and your boss primarily answer to one group of people – your audience. Newspapers were founded for the good of public information and discourse, and magazines write for their readers. If there is any group of people who will lead you to your audience’s interest and understanding of issues, it is your audience itself. So follow your audience.

Follow your friends, your peers, and the community of people you write for. This often can indicate trends in interests, pop culture and consumerism. Certain circulating quotes can point to prominent figures who your audience would like to know more about – so perhaps there is a profile awaiting. Likewise, travel boards can indicate places they would like to explore, even if from afar, and videos may point to issues worth discussing. Pinterest is the perfect place to locate public interest, as this was what the site was created for. Take advantage of this to speak to your readers. 

Get the word out 

Like Facebook and Twitter, Pinterest is a means of advertising your own stories and the stories of the publication you write for. Include an interesting graphic or photograph with your story (and if it is not your own, be sure to credit your source), and pin it! This can be especially helpful if you are writing on a subject that fits neatly into one of Pinterest’s popular categories, such as fashion or travel. 

However, even if your story does not fit into one of these categories, pinning it can be helpful. Utilizing hashtags, which are albeit less popular on Pinterest than on Twitter and Instagram, can help reach people who are not following you but are interested in the subject of your article. Even if your first couple of articles do not gain traction on Pinterest, putting your work and information out on as many platforms as possible is always beneficial. 

Collect your thoughts and ideas 

Whether you are a student journalist, or just the average Joe or Jane, Pinterest is a great means of simply categorizing your interests, thoughts and ideas. This can be especially helpful with thoughts and ideas pertaining to potential stories. Finding an interesting YouTube video, a blog on a hot topic or an intriguing website and pinning it to an “ideas” board may eventually lead you to a novel topic, subject or angle. This approach can produce outstanding evergreen features and make you aware of trends. And who doesn’t like a collection of interesting ideas for a dry week on the student paper? Using Pinterest the way most users do – to simply collect one’s thoughts and interests – is valuable as well. 

Collect inspiration and guidelines 

Similarly, collecting specific news inspiration and guidelines onto one board can be helpful as well. Media is ever-evolving, and there are people and websites doing interesting things which student journalists may want to stick in their pocket for later. Jonathan Harris’s projects with social media, Mariane Pearl’s collection of inspirational and investigative stories and essays and journalists with thoughts on media ethics, philosophy and theory are starting points in collecting media inspiration. Helpful guidelines to pin may include AP Style websites or the Media Law Resource Center. 

These are some of the several ways to utilize this social media network. Hop on the network, explore what else there is to see and pin away!

Is It a Good Idea?

Mountains in Kazakhstan (Photo by Tom Mills, Worldwide Challenge photographer)
Mountains in Kazakhstan (Photo by Tom Mills, Worldwide Challenge photographer)

Content comes from ideas. Sometimes it’s a story someone else tells. Other times it’s an opinion someone expresses. Still other times ideas come from reading what others have already written and then forming an opinion about it. But is it a good idea?

Here are 8 ways to assess a story idea.

1) Where did your idea come from?

If it came from reporting, it’s probably a stronger idea than one that just popped into your head. Did your reporting suggest a trend? Did it turn up a fascinating person? Did something puzzle or intrigue you?

2) Is the idea original?

3) Does the idea surprise you?

If not, how will it surprise your readers? Will they invest the time to read a story if they already know pretty much everything by reading the headline?

4) Does the idea have movement to it?

What’s movement? It’s change, motion, direction – something that’s new, something people are developing interest in, starting to talk about, or think about, or plan for.

5) Is there a story there?

6)Is there tension?

Tension comes with conflict, a problem to be overcome, a mystery to be solved. Tension is reading the first paragraph of a story and not knowing what the last paragraph is going to say.

7) Is the story true?

8) Do YOU like the story?

You’re going to be spending a lot of time working on this piece. Shouldn’t it be something you love doing? How can you expect your editors and readers to enjoy a story if you haven’t?

This is an excerpt from page 118 of INSIDE REPORTING. It first appeared in Amanda Bennett’s “TESTING YOUR IDEAS” article. Bennet originally listed 10 ideas, INSIDE REPORTING cut the list to 8 ideas:

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.

Writing for Digital Platforms

platform-archesAre You Asking the Right Questions?

What’s a digital platform? It’s anyplace online where you might publish your content. Because each platform is different, the guidelines to write for each platform are different. However, there are three questions you can ask, regardless of the platform?

1. What is the most interesting part of this content?

Start with the startling statement, the quick story, or a question that will grab your reader’s attention. Use concrete nouns and verbs. Summarize your main point.

Internet readers make split-second decisions about whether or not they will stay on your page to read the piece you wrote. Make your headline and your first sentence count.

2. What content will your readers find on your website that they won’t find anywhere else on the web? 

No need to repeat content that can be found other places. If you are writing for Cru platforms, include stories about people whose lives are changing because of the work your team is doing. Add content that demonstrates your particular ministry’s most important values.

3. What are you giving them that adds value to their lives?

Plan times of the year where your audience can join you for an event you are hosting in their community. Invite them to take mission trips with your disciples.

Add some Cru basics like articles about how to experience God’s love and forgiveness and how to be filled with the Holy Spirit. You can find content at under the training tab. Update the content by rewriting it in your own words and adding your own examples.

So, how are you doing? 

Check the last piece of content you posted. What’s the most interesting part? Did you lead with it? How does that content uniquely express your ministry’s faith and values?

Structure vs. Creativity

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhich is better: Using a tried and true structure of writing, or creatively branching out and writing as you think? Every writer needs to do a little bit of both. It’s like this.

The sun rises every day at a predetermined time. Any weather site can tell you when that event will take place. Boring. Where’s the creativity in that?

It’s in the details. A sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean looks vastly different than a sunrise over the Rocky Mountains. Layer in shades of orange, rose and purple, add a little cloud cover or a clear blue sky, spice it up with some white sugar sand and colors bouncing off the water, and you have the makings of a very creative sunrise. Good news. No two are ever alike.

Every person has a skeleton. Same number of bones in the same place on each one of us. You can’t see your skeleton, but it’s there, giving you the structure you need to stand up, walk around and live life. Can you imagine trying to get dressed or eat breakfast without a skeleton to hold you up? But, if everyone has the same skeleton, where’s the originality in that? It’s in the details like eye color, hair color, body shape, clothing and height.

In your writing, embrace both structure and creativity. Use structure to bring order to your work. Take a few minutes to plan what you will write, whether you do it mentally, on paper or on the screen. Then, when you write, use details to add creativity to your work, making it uniquely yours.

Sentence Starters

Charity Races at



Vary your sentence structure. How many of us have heard that from our high school English teachers? But what did they mean?

Make your writing more interesting by finding fresh ways to start your sentences. Try these six ideas.


1-Question–Most sentences follow the standard subject/ verb construction. Think of it as your go-to method of writing. It’s a fine way to construct a sentence, unless you use it too many in a row. Mix things up by switching the subject and verb so that your sentence becomes a question.

2-Preposition–Start your sentence with a prepositional phrase. Open an new tab, and search online for preposition lists to help yourself decide which preposition to use when you begin your sentence.

3-ly (adverb)–describe how the action happened and make it seem more immediate by starting your sentence with an adverb that ends in -ly.

4-ing–start this sentence with a verb that ends with an –ing. But make sure you follow this simple rule: whatever is doing the -inging, probably the sentence subject, must follow the comma after the -ing phrase that starts the sentence. Pick two actions happening at the same time.

For example: Running down the hall, the boy tripped when the principal stepped out in front of him.

The boy tripped so he follows the initial -ing phrase.

NOT: Running down the hall, the principal stepped out in front of the boy who tripped.

The principal didn’t do the running, so if he follows the -ing phrase, the reader gets confused. word–These are words that start adverbial phrases, a phrase designed to explain how the action happened. You can choose from any of the following words: when, where, while, as, since, if, although, because.

6-VSS very short sentence. This sentence contains two to five words. It must also contain a subject and a verb.

For example: I came. I saw. I conquered. Each sentence has a subject and a verb.

NOT: Wow! (This doesn’t work because Wow is not a subject or a verb).

Use each sentence opener no more than once in each paragraph. Try to include as many different sentence starters as you can.


Adapted from Institute for Excellence in Writing, used with permission.

copyright Writing for Life 2014

“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.