Things I Wish I Had Known in School

When I was in seventh grade, I had to write my first research paper.

Back then, we were only expected to write a summary — a restatement of facts in our own words.  Most of the paper should be citations.  Though our teachers didn’t put it this way, they really meant we shouldn’t put much original thought into it.  Just the facts, please; no opinions need apply.

We had to select at least 5 sources.  Back then, it consisted of books, magazines, newspapers, and similar reference materials.  There was no such thing as the Internet, and what little of it existed was difficult to access and poorly cataloged.

With our sources in hand, we had to write each idea, fact, figure, etc. that we might use on a separate index card.  Somehow, this was supposed to help us organize our thoughts — except that we were never instructed how.  Beyond turning them in on a milestone date, I had no clue what to do with them.

Which left me with a crap ton of useless index cards.  What was the point?  Maybe some people figured it out, but I sure didn’t.  And I’m not the only one — I asked my wife and she drew a blank, too.  She hated those pointless index cards just as much as I did, and no one in her class figured out what to do with them.

Now that I’ve taken the time to study how the greats organize their fiction, I found a useful parallel in Syd Field’s book Screenwriting.

Before writing a screenplay, Field writes a scene summary on an index card for each scene, tacking them to a bulletin board in the order he thinks is best.  This way, we can see a summary of the entire work before investing months or years writing it.

If something isn’t right, we can trash it.  Or we can rearrange the index cards to see how the story reads in a different order.  We can see the aerial view of the work before doing the heavy lifting.

See the connection?

For the research paper, lay those “pointless” index cards out in the order you want to discuss them.  You can see how they will read in a different order quickly and easily just by rearranging them (as we did with the scenes above).  This will give you a nice visual aid to write or revise your outline with, and will make citations quick and easy (because you color coded the cards, right?).

I use this technique in both fiction and nonfiction.  Let me take the time to explain, as well as plug some great free software.

In my religion and philosophy blog, I often have to answer comments or opposing blog posts.  I use a computerized index card program called Text Block Writer to do a variation of the technique described above in order to answer especially lengthy comments or blog posts.  That way, I can sort it a few different ways and see what makes the most impact (or sense).

My novel writing software of choice, yWriter, does the index card thing but without the corkboard texture and index card graphics (as you see in Scrivener).

And, of course, script writing software CeltX has a built-in index card feature to help write screenplays and comic book scripts, as well as novels (but I don’t really care much for the novel writing capability yet).

I wish that the power of the index card was something I had known all along instead of a recent discovery!  I probably would have become a much stronger writer more quickly.  But, at least I know now; and, through the magic of my blog, you dear reader can learn the lesson too.  Hopefully earlier in life than I did.

I Hate Topic Sentences

I read a lot on how to improve my writing skills., because I love to write and I want to be a professional writer.  I want to publish works of Christian philosophy, as well as mainstream fiction and screenplays.  I need to know how to improve my writing if I’m going to actually sell it.  Not that I’m bad; I think I’m pretty darn good.  I just want to be better!

I believe writing is part gift from God, part skill.  The gift that the Lord has given you can be built on and refined.  So, if writing skill was on a scale of 1 to 100 (with 100 being the best possible writer, and 1 being my brother-in-law Chris), and if God has blessed you in his eternal decree with a 22, then you are not stuck there.  You can develop to a 30.  Or a 45.  Or even a 79 or maybe even a 90!

It takes work.  It takes time.  And if you are willing (as I am) to invest some of both, then you can improve your writing skills as I have.

To that end, I read books like The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White or On Writing Well by William Zinsser.  And I read books specific to style, like Screenplay by Syd Field or (more recently) The Novelist’s Essential Guide to Creating Plot by J. Madison Davis.

I’m also new to the idea of syndicating writing, which I’m doing with free e-zine articles on sites like GoArticles or ArticleBase.  That has increased traffic at Josiah Concept Ministries by quite a bit–when I started I had an Alexa traffic rating of around 7.8 million, which I built to 753,861 in a few months.  Quite an increase, going from an average of 20 hits per day to 100+ with regularity!

Since I’m new to that style of marketing, I subscribed to a free e-zine on how to write for e-zines.  Yes, I know that’s a bit like buying a DVD explaining how to hook up a DVD player, but it has worked quite well for me.

One thing that is common to the technical books on writing and the how-to e-zine in discussing paragraphs is that they should have a topic sentence that summarizes the paragraph, detail sentences that support the topic sentence, and a concluding sentence that restates the topic sentence.

Each and every paragraph.

Boring!

My paragraphs have a topics and supporting details, and each expands only a single point.  But, they don’t have a clear topic sentence, several details with transitions between (First, …; Second, …; Next ….; etc.), with a concluding sentence that restates the original topic sentence.  I try to keep my writing more flowing and interesting than that.

I think every writer does.

And, as you’ve undoubtedly noticed, many of my paragraphs are one sentence.  I did that purposely in this post to highlight the absurdity of making every paragraph fit to the structure I described.  Moreover, single-sentence paragraphs work well with the style of writing that e-zines need — journalistic.  Most newspaper and magazine articles use one or two sentence paragraphs to keep the piece flowing quickly.  Often, there’s no need to expand something if a single sentence can cover it.

So, why do the how-to books and e-zines cover the “ideal paragraph” in a way few writers actually write?  Because that’s how an ideal paragraph is structured: introduction, detail expansion, wrap-up.  Or, beginning, middle, end.  Same way an article is structured!

You have to know the rules before you can try to break them.  That’s part of building the writing skill that God gave you.  So the how-tos teach you the rules.  Then, you (the writer) get to decide how (or if) to break them.

An example from fiction might do.  John Gardner’s first James Bond adventure, License Renewed, was a straight James Bond story.  It featured a villain, Anton Murik, who sought to cause a horrid disaster for his own gain.  There was a girl who knew too much, Mary Jane Mashkin, who slept with Bond and gave him the information he needed, later dying for it.  A sultry love interest, Lavender Peacock, who got to sleep with Bond next, finish out the story and have sex with him in the final scene.  A burly sidekick, Caber, who was immune to pain and Bond had to fight while the world begins to burn — which is high drama, since Caber had bested Bond in each of their last meetings.  And of course, two car chases, gadgets, the self-introduction “My name is Bond. James Bond,” and the ordering of a “vodka martini, shaken, not stirred” from a disinterested bartender.

Everything that happens in every 007 movie.

Gardner started changing things up in For Special Services, with the “Bond girl” being old friend Felix’s daughter (so Bond didn’t sleep with her, for fear of betraying his friend; unfortunately, the daughter had long dreamed of sex with Bond).  The villain was a female and the sidekick was originally thought to be the villain (which means The World is Not Enough was far behind the novels).

Gardner started with a straight 007 formula story, License Renewed, to learn the ropes before he started mixing things up in For Special Services.  That’s why how-to books and articles teach you the standard paragraph format first.  When you know the rules, then you can break them.

Seminary Decisions

I need to obtain my bachelor’s degree before I can even think about entering a seminary, so this entry pondering a future seminary is rather premature. I had been considering Winebrenner, which is local (Findlay, OH). Even thought it’s a forty-five minute drive, the information packet I had looked at said that I’d only need to attend class one night per week. So that would be doable.

Denver Seminary has a M.Div program with a concentration in philosophy of religion, which would be ideal considering that I want a bachelor’s in philosophy. However, they don’t have a 100% online program at this time, so they’re out. I’m not moving to Denver just to attend seminary.

I was, however, seriously considering Liberty Theological Seminary prior to the debacle with Ergun Caner. Once I started hearing about his dishonesty and misrepresentation regarding his past, I became much less enthusiastic about this option.

Today, I have finally decided that Liberty is not an option for me. A Liberty student’s blog had this to say:

We also discussed the various approaches to apologetics. I do not agree with the presuppositional view. This approach is often known as the Limited Atonement approach. Believes that Christ only died for the elect, and that only the elect can understand the evidence. They must first agree on certain presuppositions before the Gospel can be effectively presented. (source)

She’s in Dr. Caner’s Theology 101 class, and this information came from day one. Presuppositional apologetics has nothing to do with the Limited Atonement or who can understand evidence. An apologist utilizing this approach assumes that the Bible is the revealed Word of God as a matter of course, and argues from there. This is how the apostles witnessed (in every instance of their preaching, neither the existence of God nor the authority of Scripture are up for grabs).

Most apologetics today is evidential; that is, first we prove that a God can exist and that he would reveal himself to mankind in some way. Then we establish the authority of Scripture and go from there.
 Dr. Caner’s remarks about presuppositional apologetics reveal his anti-Reformed stance. I refuse to believe that he is just that ignorant about apologetics.

The anti-Reformed bias has nothing to do with my elimination of Liberty as a potential candidate for a seminary. The dishonesty of its leader and the teaching of complete falsehoods to advance an agenda are the reasons I will not be attending Liberty University.