Five Mistakes I’ve Made in Writing

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I’ve been writing since the early 90s, though I didn’t get published until 2005. I’ve learned quite a bit about how to be a better writer since I first began. And with each new book, I’m still learning.

What follows are five pointers I’ve learned through mistakes. Incidentally, a mistake remains a mistake unless you learn from it. If you learn from it, it becomes a lesson. Thus learning from your mistakes transforms them from being blunders into builders.

If you are a writer of any sort (from blogs to books), you may find these of help.

1. Use exclamation points rarely if ever. I’m 100% Italian. So I’m a passionate person by nature. When I preach about the Lord Jesus Christ, I can get very passionate. In my earlier writing, I used exclamation points to communicate passion and emphasis. Last year I was talking to Francis Frangipane. I mentioned in passing that I used to use exclamation points profusely, and he said, “That’s funny; I recently noticed how often I used them in my earlier work.” He also happens to be full-blooded Italian.

The problem with exclamation points is that some people misinterpret them as communicating anger. Instead of passion, they interpret the author as being mad. In addition, too many exclamation points can be a distraction to the flow of thought.

For that reason, you’ll find very few exclamation points in my published work. Pagan Christianity contains more than my other volumes, but not nearly as many as my earlier work had. Barna and I didn’t want Pagan to read as a sterile, heady, boring history lesson. Instead, the book was written with the fervor of the prophets of old. And you cannot write a book like that without some emphasis. At least not if you want to see people impacted and changed by it.

So if you are a writer who is passionate, beware the exclamation point. Use them few and far between.

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Comments

  1. Drikus says

    I am not a writer but read this post over a year ago and the first point about exclamation points and being misunderstood really stood out to me.

    Since then I have made an concious effort to not use the “!” and found this can be applied to any platform email, FB, twitter and SMS.

    People are often misunderstood and the “!” does not help the communication process if passion is confused with anger and being mad.

    Maybe one day there will be a new symbol for passion and another one for anger and being mad.

    Thanks for all your practical and spiritual posts!

  2. Ron Smith says

    Frank,
    I am fairly new to your blog, your podcasts, and your books. I realize I have been waiting for them since I “entered the wilderness” in 1995. Anyone can tell when I am reading/listeng to Viola … repetition of the word “wow.” You are in my head, and I am not crazy. Both awesome things. I appreciate your spirit and your generosity as you share content. I especially appreciate how you interact with questions and criticism. That may be the greatest gift you give.

    God has turned on fresh fountains for me this past year,and things are finally looking green again. You are helping me see a way forward. Thanks.

  3. says

    Frank,
    The #5 caught my eye. I have a background in Academia and struggle to write without footnotes. All that talk about plagiarism and accuracy…and now I should learn to write without using footnotes. What’s your take on this? Are footnotes really a total NO-NO these days in (popular) Christian non-fiction? Are end notes then acceptable?
    Thank you for sharing the lessons you’ve learned. I truly appreciate your transparency. Blessings!

    • says

      Good question. I try to set an example for other authors and speakers to credit those they have received ideas from. Too many authors and speakers steal material from others without mentioning their sources. I don’t think this is right. It’s been done to me quite a bit, even from people I know. (One very well-known author who regularly hits the bestseller lists has taken a great deal from my work, but he’s never once mentioned one of my books in his work.) My attitude toward them is that if the idea is spreading and Christ is being lifted up, I rejoice. I stand with Paul in what he said in Philippians 1 on this. At the same time, I don’t think it’s good. We should give credit. For that reason, I’ve tried to set an example, thus I’m very careful to note my sources when I’ve gleaned something from someone else. Thus the reason why my books are filled with endnotes (or footnotes), acknowledgements, and bibliographies. It’s a matter of conscience.

  4. says

    Frank, I really enjoy your articles. Like yourself I am Italian and from NY, and exclamation points are something I use, A LOT. (Ron, resist the temptation to emphasize A LOT)
    I am also a writer too, great points.

    You always seem to share openly and I think that’s why your books are at the top of my reading list.

    (By the way – the last two have been read on Kindle on my cell phone. It’s pretty amazing how technology works. Those short sentences really make reading on a tiny cell phone that much more enjoyable)

    Keep it going!
    Ron

  5. says

    Thanks, Frank. I’ll use this advice when I get books published (though much of it comes naturally to me). However, I did inherit somewhat of a large vocabulary front dad.

    Personally, though, I always saw your exclamation points as passionate. Either that or portraying amusement, since many of the statements you used them on in the original version of Pagan were dripping with irony. haha.

  6. says

    Make sure that your reader can follow your thinking from paragraph to paragraph. Your 5 pointers will help readers to do this, but the clear flow of your line of thinking, your argument, your report, or your story will still depend a lot on how you put all of the factors of articulate written communication together. Interesting and clear copy comes from interesting clear thinking. An outline may help in this process, but an outline can also be a confusing list of ideas if they are not clearly organized for one’s reader. Don’t leave a lot of gaps for your readers to fill or expect him or her to jump back and forth from statement to statement to bring your thoughts into clear focus. I’ve read a lot of your material, and you do this very well.

  7. Seth says

    I have had a desire to start writing more lately so these tips are very helpful. When I was in school my English teacher said there were underwriters and overwriters. She suggested I was an over writer which I completely agree. One thing I would like to learn is how to say the same thing with fewer words getting to the point quicker without all of the noise. Any help there would be appreciated. Perhaps that happens in the revising and editing stages.

    • says

      Seth: True. The key to writing is to RE-WRITE. To eliminate clutter and unnecessary words constantly. And only use words that really work for you or (in some cases) paint a powerful image. Again, the key to writing strongly is to RE-WRITE, and RE-WRITE, then RE-WRITE some more.

  8. Dave Q says

    Thanks Frank. These are really helpful tips. I am always thinking about improving my writing style for my blog and this will help.

  9. says

    Note to all: All my pre-2005 self-published work has been revised, edited, and published under the new titles on the above website. Some of it is free on the web in the form of eBooks and articles. To be honest, the self-published stuff wasn’t very good compared to the new editions.

  10. says

    Frank there are a number of your books published prior to 2005 aren’t there? How to Start a House Church is one, but others as well right? Am I missing something?

    • says

      Hi Neil: The books that preceded “The Untold Story of the New Testament Church” (2005) were all self-published and unedited. Everything from 2005 on has been published by accredited Christian publishing houses. The complete list is here: http://www.ptmin.org/books

      Nice to see you stop at the blog. :-) Hope all is well.

  11. Kat says

    Bro Frank,
    You described my writing flaws perfectly. My mind always goes right to TAS when I consider long sentences. I do adore the writings of TAS, but I must say the brother could have thrown in a period more often. I must also say that it matters not, because the Light in his words are far too beautiful to be touched by such a flaw as too long a sentence. I suppose, if we make errors, then rectify the problem or write such a beautiful statement that no one would notice, or even care about any writing flaw.
    Thank you for your valid advice.

    I have an editor, which also helps. :-)

  12. Nathan says

    That’s hilarious I just had English 90 in college and my teacher suggested that I didn’t use as many exclamation points. What can I say enthusiasm captures an audience!!!!!!! Thanks for the tips (TC Ball). Tip I heard a Tiippp.

  13. says

    Good pointers, Frank. I agree that those long (British) sentences are a bit irritating. I suppose that reading Paul your whole life will do that to you. I would add that your intended audience should determine your word usage. I’m a teacher and I say that it doesn’t hurt for someone to have to look up a word every now and then. Learning can be cool. ;-)

  14. says

    Thank you Frank… this was very helpful. I am definitely the EXCLAMATION POINT QUEEN, known by my facebook friends as the WOOT! WOOT! girl…. which I always use to express my radical passion and excitment about everything. I do plan to publish many works one day,and I also blog regularly, so I will be more cautious not to over exclaim things and risk being misunderstood.

  15. says

    Write about what you are passionate about; otherwise you will get discouraged by lack of publishing success. If you write organically, from the life of God in you; you will continue to write regardless of the apparent results or outcomes.

  16. mark says

    I absolutely am of the same mind with your incredible post today on writing etiquette, regarding the excessive use of the exclamation point and especially that long sentences and superfluous vernacular tend to make comprehension of the written word more difficult as I have found with various authors’ books that I have read over the years, which might be enjoyable despite the hindrances but make for a tediously arduous reading in my humble experience!!!!!!

    Yes, I had to use a thesaurus for that. All joking aside, this is great advice and I appreciate it. I’ll have to reconsider my use of the exclamation point. (See, I just resisted.) In high school, we had a program that measured the equivalent grade level of our writing. We had to learn how to modify our sentence length and vocabulary to fit a certain reading level. It has always stuck with me.

    I don’t remember what program we were using, but here is how to check yourself in MS Word. Once you turn the feature on, click the spell checker and go through all the suggestions. After it’s done, a box will appear with the stats.

    http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/word-help/test-your-document-s-readability-HP010148506.aspx

  17. says

    Outline! (And I say that out of passion, not anger.) I often tell writers that I spend as much time plotting as I do writing. Work out all the “holes” before you set serious pen to paper. The more detailed your outline, the easier your writing will come and the faster and more succinct you will be.

    That said, don’t use outlining as an excuse to not start writing. Once your basic, detailed outline is strong, start writing and don’t stop until you’ve finished. You can tweak both the outline and your writing along the way.

    Then, FINISH your work. It’s very easy to never quite get started or never quite finish. Just start and then get it done. You can always revise later. The important part is getting it down.

  18. Rose says

    Spell-check and grammar are my big ones, Frank. Even in blogs or posts. If I accidentally miss a typo and go back to re-read after hitting submit, I’m truly troubled that my post contains that typo. I’ve even read published books with typos and they’re gone over with a fine tooth comb.

    Thanks for the tips. Very helpful!!!! <- Just kidding about the exclamation marks.

  19. says

    Great post Frank. Fleesch’s The Classic Guide to Better Writing has been helpful to me as well. I appreciate your second point most. I, too, tend to write in sentences too long. On the other hand, my wife is the queen of exclamation marks! Of course, we all love her for it. But your point is well taken. :0)

  20. says

    Comma usage. Yes, the use of commas can sometimes make or break a thought. I’ve only been writing for a short time, but I’ve learned that over accesive commas can destroy a sentence. On the other hand a lack of commas can do the same. I find myself having to get rid of commas. lol

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