***DISCLAIMER: I RECEIVED THIS BOOK FOR FREE FROM MOODY PUBLISHERS TO REVIEW***
Brandon J. O’Brien’s Writing For Life & Ministry: A Practical Guide to the Writing Process for Teachers & Preachers represents the third book I have reviewed for Moody Publishers this year. The book’s title is self-explanatory; it is a practical guide to the writing process that helps preachers and teachers in life and ministry. It is a bit of a “how-to” book. Moreover, one can gain the most from this book by engaging in all the writing exercises O’Brien presents in this book. I must admit I did not participate in all the writing exercises in this book. Nevertheless, I believe one can (spoiler alert) still gain some good value from this book. I explain that in this review.
In the introduction (officially chapter one), O’Brien states, “The purpose of this book is to help you become a better and more confident writer” (p. 8). His audience consists of anyone needing “help figuring out what to write about, who you are writing for, how to get started, and how to see a project through to the end…” (p. 8). O’Brien goes on to present what his book sections will do (pp. 9-10). It is a rather simple read. Moreover, it is a quick read; it is only 127 pages in length. Finally (looking ahead here to chapter three), O’Brien gives an important disclaimer that “you’ll only benefit from this material if you put in the work” (p. 30). I don’t think it would be fair to judge his book based on anything other than the criteria he has clearly presented. Therefore, I evaluate this book with O’Brien’s purpose, audience and disclaimer in mind.
In chapter two, O’Brien explains the differences and similarities between speaking and writing (pp. 15-20). Moreover, he begins the process of concluding most of his chapters with writing exercises for the reader to perform. As mentioned earlier, I did not partake in all the exercises. However, I did partake in the one that concluded chapter two. The exercise consisted of writing your bio in the third person. O’Brien does a real good job of equipping the reader with what to do for the exercises. I did not have to construct my bio without a foundation; O’Brien provides the necessary information to use to help in constructing the bio. This includes but is not limited to one’s name, current job, living situation, etc. (pp. 22-23).
Structurally after the first two chapters, O’Brien separates his book into two parts. Part one, spanning chapters three through seven, addresses the writer and the reader (pp. 27-58). Part two, spanning chapters eight through eighteen, focuses on the process of writing (pp. 59-118). The book concludes with sections on recommended resources on writing, resources for further reading, author acknowledgements and notes (pp. 119-125).
In chapter three, O’Brien explains the relationship between the reader and the writer (pp. 27-32). In chapter four, O’Brien states, “My first piece of writing advice is to write for yourself” (p. 33). I really appreciated that piece of advice. A little over three years ago, I launched a blog with a heavier-than-necessary emphasis on refuting false teachers in the visible church (Titus 1:9 is one of many verses I use to justify refuting false teachers in the visible church). I felt I was slaving away for people more than I was edifying myself. I did not take much time to do good, thorough, above-and-beyond research in most of my posts. I put much focus on just producing content. One can say I emphasized quantity over quality. While I felt I put out some good posts, some of my book reviews were rather lazy. I think that all combined to burn me out. After taking both an 18-month social media break and a 4-month break from writing, I re-launched my new blog. I put more emphasis on writing more sober posts than wanting to mainly refute people. One can say I took O’Brien’s advice unknowingly by writing for the sake of writing (p. 33). These days, I do write for myself. While I still refute false teachers on request (and the requests are few), I write for myself in an effort to better serve my neighbor. I also help myself in the process.
Before I move to chapter five, I want to highlight a quote I really liked (p. 34):
Think of time spent writing for yourself as time spent in a batting cage or at the driving range or practicing knife skills for cooking. It’s a chance to master the fundamentals and develop muscle memory so that when you go play a game of baseball or a round of golf or cook dinner for guests, you enjoy the experience more fully — and have more confidence — because you’re more comfortable with the basics. One reason people don’t write is because getting started is hard. Getting started becomes easier and easier when you write regularly, for the sake of writing, without the promise of publication or the pressure of a deadline.
Writing for myself more than others has taken pressure off of me. Moreover, I no longer feel as burdened to rush to finish a book I hope to write. While I have treated writing/reading/researching as my unofficial second job, I no longer set strict deadlines on myself. It has become perhaps the greatest second job anyone could want. I certainly enjoy all opportunities I get to be able to write.
Chapter five seemingly undoes the work of chapter four; chapter five places an emphasis on never writing only for one’s self (p. 43). Specifically, the chapter puts an emphasis on finding one’s ideal reader (pp. 42-46). Prior to reading this book, the concept of an ideal reader was foreign to me. I did participate in the exercise for identifying my ideal reader. I certainly have something to think about in future posts.
Chapter six addresses how to avoid alienating everyone else with one’s writing (pp. 47-52). Chapter seven, which concludes part one of this book, gives good advice on not taking writing lightly (pp. 53-56). I appreciated the fact O’Brien states to not approach writing casually (p. 55). I think I did that with my first blog. I certainly don’t do that with my current blog. As I have grown in my writing, I have placed emphasis on writing lengthy, thorough, long-form posts. I do this in an effort to not mischaracterize folk. While most of my posts are rather long (2,000-5,000 for book reviews and over 20,000 if I am refuting a false teacher in the visible church), I would hope they show I do not take writing casually.
Chapter eight essentially represents the introductory chapter of part two of this book. While part one emphasized the writer and the reader, part two focuses on more of the practicals of writing. Chapter eight introduces the reader to the stages of brainstorming, researching and outlining (p. 60). Those three topics represent the names of chapters nine, ten and eleven, respectively (pp. 63-84). I appreciated the information in chapter ten; its information on the most helpful contributions of writing reminded me of the same stuff I learned in the excellent communications classes I attended at CSU Stanislaus.
Chapter twelve introduced to me the concept of one’s best thirty minutes (pp. 85-88). It is apparently tantamount to the “tight 5” or “tight 10” stand-up routine employed by comedians (p. 85). One’s best thirty minutes of writing is basically the presentation a writer gives all the time. I suppose my best thirty minutes is when I include the Gospel presentation in my blog posts. This starts with the understanding that people (like you and me) have been born dead in trespasses and sins. Ephesians 2:1-10 explains (NASB):
2 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
The Bible is clear that people are born dead in trespasses and sins (2:1-3). God’s being rich in mercy makes one alive in Christ (2:4). Furthermore, it is by grace through faith that one is saved (2:5-9). It is not based on works (2:9).
If you do not believe what Ephesians 2:1-10 states, I would ask you please look at the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17. Have you ever told a lie? Have you ever stolen something, even if it was small? Have you ever used God’s name in vain? Jesus said that whoever looks upon a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery in the heart (Matthew 5:27-28). Jesus also said that if you ever get angry at someone, you’ve committed murder in the heart (Matthew 5:21-26). Just the mere thoughts of adultery and murder make you guilty of the very acts themselves.
Please understand that it only takes one murder to be a murderer, one lie to be a liar and so forth. David said in Psalm 51:5 that he was conceived in sin. Genesis 6:5 states that every intent of the thoughts of man’s heart is only evil continually. Clearly, man has a sin problem. Romans 3:23 states that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Man is in big trouble with God because of his sin. This is more amplified by the fact that perfection is the standard (Matthew 5:48).
Now, some people try to justify their sin by trying to balance it out with the good deeds that they have done. However, if you were to try that in a court of law, the judge would throw the book at you. A good judge would not accept a bribe. He would cast you off into jail. God likewise will not accept a bribe, for there is no partiality with Him (Deuteronomy 10:17; Ephesians 6:9).
Thankfully, Jesus came to solve the sin problem over 2000 years ago (Isaiah 53:1-12). You and I broke the law. Jesus paid the fine (Matthew 26:14-28:20). This means that the judge can do what’s legally right in dismissing your case. He can say, “This person has broken the law, but someone has paid his fine. He’s out of here.” This is good news.
There are two things a person must do. He must repent. This means to turn from his sin (Mark 1:16; Luke 24:36-49; 2 Timothy 2:19-26; Acts 17:30-31). He must also put his trust in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31, 17:30-31; Romans 4:1-25, 10:1-17; Galatians 3:1-14; John 6:26-29). These gifts of repentance and faith are granted by God (Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 2:22-26). If you repent and put your trust in the Savior Jesus Christ, He will forgive you of your sins and grant you everlasting life (John 6:47). Oh may you know His mercy and grace today if you have never repented and put your trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.
Chapter thirteen addresses the concept of the written draft (pp. 89-94). Chapter fourteen explores what constitutes a good day of writing (pp. 95-98). Chapter fifteen addresses the revising process (pp. 99-104). One takeaway I grabbed from that chapter was the concept of summarizing each paragraph of a composition in one sentence each (p. 101). Those sentences then become an outline. I have never tried that with any of my posts. I think that practice can be of extreme benefit to my posts that exceed 20,000 words.
Chapter sixteen is titled, “Delete Most of The Words” (p. 105). Given my stating earlier that I write some long posts, I cringed when I saw that title. Thankfully, the principles in that title were not foreign to me; I learned much of them in college. One of the principles I did not learn in college was the principle involving eliminating religious jargon (p. 107). I smiled when O’Brien called the phrases “pour into”, “lean into”, “love on”, “marinate in”, and “do life with” meaningless (p. 107). I hear those phrases often from the seeker-driven movement. I would explain what I really feel about those phrases, but doing so would violate the principle of eliminating jargon (nails on a chalkboard, anyone?).
Chapter seventeen is titled, “Get the Rest of Your Body Involved” (p. 109). O’Brien’s emphasis here is reading words aloud in an effort to find those words that may need to be deleted from a page (pp. 109-110). O’Brien states that when his family and friends can tell him that they can “hear” him saying the words as they read his writing, it is good news (p. 110). I do read aloud when I read. However, I have not done this practice when writing. This is another practice that I believe is worth employing.
Chapter eighteen officially concludes the “chapter” portion of this book. He gives four things the reader should do (pp. 113-115):
Develop writing habits (consistency over frequency)
Read more (emphasis on reading broadly to expand creative vision and vocabulary)
Start sharing your work (doesn’t require publishing)
Start thinking about publishing (have sober expectations about it)
As mentioned earlier, the “post-chapters” part of this book features O’Brien’s recommended resources on writing and books for further reading (pp. 119-122). Apparently O’Brien keeps six resources “always” on his desk (pp. 119-120). Besides my Bible and a dictionary, I do not have anything. I did appreciate O’Brien’s warning about the adult language in one of his recommended resources (said resource being Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft).
I liked this book. O’Brien gives very simple, sober and practical information on helping one become a better and more confident writer. I know I can apply some of the points he mentioned in this book. I also appreciate his informing the reader about the proper expectations to have overall. I think anyone who wants to be a better writer will benefit from O’Brien’s work. I think he certainly accomplished what he wanted to do with this work.