In seminary, I took a course that focused on the great devotional writings of Christian history. Some were from giants of Christian theology, such as Augustine. Others were written by people that I had never heard of before, nonetheless had never read. Having been raised in a Protestant tradition in the southern USA, Saint John of the Cross’ The Dark Night of the Soul was one such work. So I was surprised to see this helpful metaphor of transformation through the midst of trial. Here are some thoughts that can help you get through writers block and other dark times of your writing.
View tough times as a blessing.
Are you experiencing writers’ block? Are you just not motivated? Are you running up against a deadline? Sometimes those tough moments mean a breakthrough is just around the corner. But the point of going through difficulty may mean that you find a new thought, process, or discipline that you will develop in your writing or personal life. This change in perspective can help you embrace the hard times and look expectantly to how it will change you for the better.
Tough times take you back to the basics.
St. John of the Cross wrote of the basics of Christian disciplines, such as sacraments, daily Bible study, and prayer. For a writer, this is putting in the time to write daily. Make time on the calendar. Put it in your daily schedule. Write something, even if painful, until the words flow again. And perhaps you will find a brand new discipline that will inspire you. Start reading again. Read in your field but in other fields too. Allow yourself to read something purely fun and see if that inspires you toward writing again in your areas of study.
Trials bring purification.
Hopefully coming out the other side of a dark night means that your writing is more focused, more real, and more relevant to your reader. Especially if you are writing to inspire or encourage through sharing your personal story, the trials of your writing process will help your readers identify with you and learn from your experience.
Live with hope and expectancy in difficult times.
Christians live with the ultimate promise of being brought through the trial because of one’s remembering the person and work of Christ. For the writer, there is hope in the experience of having pulled through a time of writers block or low point in the writing process before. There is knowledge that the season of difficulty will pass and the newness of creativity will return. Living with that expectancy that better days are ahead will help you reach those better days faster.
Seek a relationship with those who are willing to mentor and guide you.
Jesus is the ultimate example for the Christian. Because of Jesus’ pain and suffering, he is called brother, a companion in life’s journey. There is no greater help for the writer perhaps than to find the companionship of another writer for brotherhood, insight, and encouragement during a dark time. Someone who has been there before can help in ways that no well meaning other could help. Plus, remember to help others in their time of need when you are on the other side!
Ask any editor. Punctuation mistakes hurt your writing. Take the time to get it right so that your writing is better received.
- How to use an apostrophe. This one was tough for me as a grade school student, so I know why people have trouble today. The issue revolves around the entire question of whether to use ‘s or s’ in cases of possessives. I used to draw the apostrophe almost on top of the s if I wasn’t sure, hoping the teacher would give me the benefit of the doubt since I was a well-behaved student! A singular possessive needs an ‘s and plural possessives need an s’. You may have to look up other uses of apostrophes to ensure proper use, but do not to leave it to chance!
- Overuse of semicolons. Resist the urge to keep combining sentences with a semicolon. If sentences are short and easily combined, it is OK to use a semicolon. If you are using a semicolon often to combine long, complex sentences, the reader is going to get bogged down in your reading. The semicolon is for occasional use only. Save your semicolons when you really need them to separate items in a series that use commas and can be confusing without the use of semicolons.
- Comma splices. Don’t force two sentences together with a comma in-between either. Make a concerted effort to read for a complete thought. If you pause to start the next thought, then you need to use a period.
- Missing the ? I don’t know why this is an easy mistake to miss, other than their being so many more periods that end sentences than there are question marks. But always look for your end punctuation. Questions deserve questions marks!
- Quotation marks and punctuation. This can be a difficult rule. A period or comma always goes inside the end quotation mark. Sometimes a question or exclamation mark can go outside the ending quotation–if the entire sentence asks a question or deserves the exclamation–not just the part in quotation. If only the quote needs a question or exclamation mark, then move the punctuation inside the end quotation mark.
- Dash or hyphen? A dash is not the same as a hyphen. A hyphen is used to break words at the end of a line or in compound words such as great-grandmother. There are two kinds of dashes. An en dash (about the length of the letter n) is used for age and date ranges. An em dash (about the length of a letter m) is used to emphasize a phrase that is set apart. Most word processing programs convert two hyphens to an em dash. Check with your word processing program to be certain what keystrokes to use.
- Its or It’s – This one really has a simple fix, so it amazes me how often people miss it. If the word is a contraction for “it is,” meaning you can read “it is” and the phrase makes sense in the sentence, then use it’s. If “it is” does not work in the sentence, use its.
If you need help, find a good editing service like Edit911.
Tell Me A Story: Lessons From Parker Palmer That Can Transform Your Writing
I was still in graduate school when I attended my first American Academy of Religion (AAR) conference. I was not yet at the point of putting together a syllabus for any course but was still interested in attending sessions related to teaching religion. One course in particular introduced me to Parker Palmer and his philosophy of teaching. I still think of Parker Palmer every semester as I put together a syllabus and have used his teaching philosophy in every course I have taught. Palmer’s influence has several applications to writing as well.
The teacher (or writer) is the lesson.
If you want students or your readers to fully invest themselves in you, you must be transparent with them. Honesty is the primary factor in this type of openness. No one expects you to be flawless. They want to see your humanity as well. Share your life through your writing, and others will be more likely to connect with you, through both low points and successes.
The teacher (or writer) is on a journey with the student.
The goal is not for the teacher to talk nonstop, communicating information one way, filling the heads of the listener or reader. But how can a writer be on a journey with the readers? It is a matter of perspective! Write to share your vision, story, and passion and invite the reader to join in your journey together. This practice may be more prevalent in religion, where one investigates matters of faith and belief and calls out others to commit to faith. But no matter your subject, you are asking others to join with you in examining topics you care about.
The model for teaching is a conversation.
The same is true for writing. Open conversation with your reader. It is OK to challenge, confront, and even bring discomfort, but it is done in a way where everyone has a voice and seat at the table. Welcome feedback. Welcome questions. Welcome doubt and disbelief. Be open to new ideas and alternative theories. Teachers and writers who do so will build an audience and following much quicker than those who are distant and uninviting.
Provide a safe environment for an equal seat at the table.
The teacher sets the stage in his classroom, laying ground rules for conversation, confidentiality, and respect. A writer does the same thing through even through his word choice. Derogatory references and outdated euphemisms can kill a reader’s trust and willingness to invest in you or your writing.
Personal experiences provide the best entryway to conversation.
I borrowed a model from the professor I heard that day at the AAR. The first assignment I do every semester is to ask all my students to write a spiritual autobiography or about a key experience that shapes their spirituality. This assignment shows how each of us have opinions and thoughts about ultimate questions, even if we don’t have specific beliefs, and provides a current assessment. Teachers and writers should open themselves to sharing this same information in order to have students and readers take risks in sharing themselves. The result should be integral both to winning trust and taking the journey together through the pages of your book.
Researching Your Dissertation: Start With the Right Questions
1. Talk with your professors about areas of need or research gaps in your field.
Your professor may have a topic he is hoping that a student will research. This is an ideal situation because of the aid and encouragement he will naturally give you along the way. If you can agree upon a topic early in your program, you will, of course, want to take as many courses as possible with that professor to address topics related to your dissertation.
2. Ask your professor to connect you to likeminded professors.
Professors who think in likeminded ways, even if in another discipline, will help build your base of contacts and may serve on your dissertation committee later. They can also give you new models and paradigms for examining your work from a different perspective that will prove helpful.
3. Talk with fellow students about their projects.
Find the scope and sequence of those dissertations being written in your field. Decide where you fit in to the conversation. Identify the student who is most likeminded or has a related topic and connect with him from the beginning of your work.
4. Start with questions.
If you aren’t sure of your topic, or don’t have a professor who will help identify these gaps in the research, take note of the questions others are asking. Those questions will help you identify where the research gaps are and engage you in the conversation that exists in your field.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask your professor if you can focus an assignment toward your interests.
For example, request to do a project in a different way in order to meet some of your research needs. Professors like for you to connect with the subject matter of their course and often will be impressed with your vision how to integrate a course into your work.
6. Compile a bibliography as you go.
This will serve not only as a bibliography for your dissertation but also likely your resource list for comprehensive exams. Keep this research close at hand throughout your course work. This bibliography can be foundational for your literature review as well. Having the major books of your research reviewed ahead of time can take one of the biggest chunks of time out of your dissertation writing.
7. Have a clear vision moving forward.
Go ahead and write your abstract or thesis statement so that it will not only guide your research and writing but also your course selection and thinking toward your dissertation and dissertation editing.
8. Take advantage of opportunities to present your research at professional meetings.
There is no greater way to get to know your work and bring focus to it than to teach or present to others. The comments and critique will most certainly prove helpful as you write and develop the direction your writing will take.
9. Work with each professor.
This is the beginning and end of successful class work as well as dissertation writing. Good relationships make working together easier. This will benefit you not only as a student but also later when you are officially a peer! Be sure to follow their advice if they feel that you need to hire a dissertation editor.
Defense or Defensive? How to Prepare and What to Avoid at Your Dissertation Defense
It has been 7 years now, but I still remember my dissertation defense like it was yesterday. I had almost three months between the end of writing my dissertation, performing very detailed dissertation editing, and when I defended it. There was plenty of time to think … and to worry! Here are some do’s and don’ts I learned that I hope will, in turn, benefit you.
- Put down your dissertation for a designated period of time, at least a week or two. Step away from it. Spend time with family or friends. Take a vacation. Attend your favorite sporting event or fine art performance. Then come back to it and read it again with as fresh a pair of eyes as possible. Look for honest areas of strength and weakness.
- Have another fresh pair of eyes read your dissertation. Ask her not only to look for weaknesses but obvious questions that come to mind: Why did you decide to go into this direction and not another? Why didn’t you do this? What could have done better? These are all helpful questions that you may be asked at your defense. Seek the help of a dissertation editing service if you feel you need one.
- Think of responses to questions that professors may ask. You may go as far as prepare notes, outlines, and scripts to answer these questions. This will give you the basis for a response in your defense.
- Identify and think about what a next logical research project would be. I know you are tired and don’t want to think of what’s next. But every study has its limitations and has to bracket some questions. Think about what Volume 2 of your study would be!
- Attend other defenses to see what yours might be like. Talk with your major professor about what she envisions the defense to be like, what questions folks may ask, and other information she is willing to reveal.
- Be confident that your professors have a lot invested in the time and energy they spent with you along the way. The defense is also a time of celebration and accomplishment!
- Don’t let your fears get the best of you. You will be anxious. You will have worries, but don’t focus on them. Focus on your preparation and actively working toward your oral examination.
- Don’t assume you know what is going to be asked. Professors will surprise you. Be ready to say, “I don’t know!” to some questions even after all your research and writing. In the same way, be willing to ask for clarification if questions seem vague or you need clarification. That’s always OK and can give you more time to formulate your answer.
- Don’t hesitate to ask someone to take you through a practice defense, whether other students, a trusted professor, or your spouse. Ask them to practice all the questions you have prepared and some you have not!
- Don’t be defensive. Professors will ask tough questions. Some may disagree with your findings and methods of research. Some will critique aspects of your writing. Be able to separate your work from your person. This is difficult to do when you have poured your life and soul into a dissertation, but it will show that you know how to have a scholarly debate and take critique constructively.
- Don’t be afraid to show emotion. Your passion for your dissertation should show as well as your ability to thoughtfully discuss the topic at times without emotion. But your work becomes a big part of your life. Professors like to see someone who truly cares about his work but also who has the ability to talk about it in a scholarly manner.
- Don’t be afraid to invite your family, friends, and fellow students to your defense. You will amaze most people at your depth of knowledge and ability to discuss topics beyond the everyday conversations most people have. They will want to be part of this important event and celebrate with you! Plus you may just need some honest feedback and debriefing.