How to write words that move people

One of the most common things people share with me when they find out I’m an author is that they want to write a book. And I believe they should.

Not everyone will be published but having your thoughts, life lessons, and creative stories captured in a place outside your mind is good. I would treasure one page of wisdom written by my great-grandmother. But all her words died with her. And that makes me sad.

So, if you feel inspired to write – write.

If not a whole book, one page.

If not a whole page, one sentence.

After all, a book always starts with a sentence.

But if you do feel called to write a book, how does one do this? Where do you begin?

For me a book usually begins with paying attention to three things:

• A string of life lessons I’m learning with a common theme
• Conversations I have with others where they bring up this same theme
• A deep conviction that God wants me to park my brain and heart on this topic for a good long while

Then I put these initial thoughts about the theme of the book through a filter of questions:

• Is there an audience (beyond just my mom and my best friend) interested in this theme?
• What problems are these audience members having for which my book could be a possible solution?
• Do I have some fresh, unique, and reliable answers to share that meet the felt need of this group of people?
• Have I struggled enough with this theme to be authentically relatable as I write about it?
• Have I made enough progress in this area to handle the material in a responsible and biblical way?

I use these questions to help me hone the concept of my book. And it’s usually in this pondering and questioning of the concept of a possible book that 75% of my possible book ideas die. Because if I can’t make it work in the concept phase of a book, I won’t stay interested enough in this topic to write 60,000 words.

And heaven help the reader of a book whose author has lost interest in their own material 20,000 words in. Have you ever read a book that started off great but then started boring the mess out of you? Me too. It’s disappointing. And it’s usually because the author didn’t hone their concept enough before jumping into writing the book.

Once the concept is fully explored, it’s time to develop the content.

I start with the word count and chapter count. A typical non-fiction book for me is about 60,000 words. I personally like shorter chapters that are pretty consistent in length. So, if my chapters are going to be around 5,000 words… I will need 12 chapters.

As I look at what these 12 chapters will be, I draw a circle with 12 spokes coming out of it. In the circle I write the “focus sentence” of my book. A focus sentence is that one statement that encapsulates the value I want my reader to get from this message.

Note, I didn’t say that I write what the book is about. Nope. I write a sentence that reminds me exactly what my reader will get from this message. For example, for my book Unglued, my focus sentence was:

“This book will help a reader make imperfect progress with their reactions and therefore their relationships as they know with confidence how to better handle conflict.”

Then I start writing possible chapter ideas that stay very true to this pure focus. I use key words from my focus sentence to seed my chapter ideas and keep me “focused.”

So, based on the sentence I shared above, I will come up with some chapter ideas on IMPERFECT PROGRESS, REACTIONS, RELATIONSHIPS, EXTERNAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION IDEAS, and INTERNAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION IDEAS.

Then I start writing. With a sentence. And then another. And another.

And as I write these sentences that form chapters, that eventually form a book, I remember each sentence matters. It’s my responsibility to write sentences that are authentic and inspired and true and well crafted. Not English class perfect. More conversational. With threads of personality that clearly demonstrate a consistent voice my readers have come to expect from me.

These sentences, they matter. After all, it’s not often whole books that change people’s lives, but rather sentences tucked within chapters.

And at the end of the day, that’s why I sit at my computer and tap these keys for hours at a time. I love untangling thoughts that might possibly be used by God to help another.

It’s a process, this book-writing thing. It’s hard and messy and crazy time-consuming. But what a wondrous thing to have words that live on beyond us. Sentences that linger and continue to inspire. Yes, please.

By Lysa TerKeurst

Do you want to write sentences that will change someone’s life? Lysa and her Proverbs 31 Ministries team are launching a monthly membership training program called Compel: Words That Move People, to equip you to do just that. Click here to find out more information.

{Photo by Karen Neoh}
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  1. 1

    This was great abd came just when I needed ut! I hope one day to finish stringing my sentences tigether and be one of those ueer by God to help others through ny words. Thank you Lysa for sharing your process…

    • 2

      right..same here. i write now, even without a book in mind because the sentences God has poured out of me will bless others as much as they’ve blessed me. why wait? write. now!

  2. 3

    Lysa,

    It was refreshing to me to read that we don’t necessarily need to write a book in order to leave a legacy. One sentence that lives beyond us can be a treasure. I have all sorts of ideas swimming around in my head for books, so I really appreciate the concrete steps that you use in the process and the filters through which you run your ideas! Until I actually do write that book, I have compiled all my blog entries into an ongoing book that my children will be able to read and be reminded of my faith and my relationship with Christ, from which I draw my hope. As a writer, I truly appreciated your post today!
    Blessings,
    Bev

  3. 4

    i agree with bev! lovely to be reminded that putting your heart or faith or life experience into words can simply be a gift to someone else who has loved and learned from you.
    but also thank you lysa for sharing such a simple but effective process with us writers. –kris

  4. 5

    Thanks for giving us a window into your writing process. It’s so easy to become bogged down in the greater work, that I often need your reminder–start by laying down one sentence after another.

  5. 6

    There are life events that feel like they happen in sentences, in my mind. This was such a helpful peek into the writing process – whether that’s in journal, blog, or book form. Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to learn from you, Lysa; and begin to weave some of these ideas into our own writings.

  6. 7

    “After all, a book always starts with a sentence.” I love looking at it from that perspective! Thank you for sharing your wisdom today.

  7. 8

    Lysa, WOW! Thank you for this wonderful opportunity…I just signed up for Compel: Words That Move People…how exciting!…I especially like the Creativity Forum…I wrote a blog post which includes some practical strategies for increasing creativity at this link… http://bethwillismiller.blogspot.com/2009/09/imagine.html

  8. 9
    Joanne Peterson says:

    This got me thinking about the comment of wishing she had thoughts from her great grandmother but they all died with her. I may not write a book, but I didn’t fully realize the importance of keeping a journal until I recently put together a genogram going back five generations for a class I was taking. So many of the people who had been in their 90′s and knew the family stories have died and with them the family stories. Even remembrances of my grandmother who would now be WELL over 100, many of the people are in their late 70′s and the stories are being forgotten because of parkinsons disease and the older siblings have died and the younger siblings did not know. The genogram made me hungry to learn as much as I could about both sides of the family, their spiritual heritage, coming over from the old country and the hardships they endured, home life, etc. I then realized the impact of how their experiences coming down through the generations impacted my experiences. I saw the patterns and saw where there was good things to keep and sin to be broken. This post cements keeping track for my children and grandchildren for their hunger to know and their experience heritage.

    This just now made me realize how in just one generation not knowing Jesus from being lacking in diligence teaching our children by living example, and expounding the faithfulness of God and His true Character. The men and women who wrote the Word led by the Spirit were compelled to write as well as the saints through the ages compelled to write and translate the Word and preserve the Word so we have it today in our own language.

    Not exactly in the same vein as Lisa, but by the same thought the compelling to write for the benefit for those who come after the writing for the building up of the body by what is written.

  9. 10
    Suzanne says:

    Your sentence .. “I would treasure one page of wisdom written by my great-grandmother. But all her words died with her. And that makes me sad.” … Has lit a spark in me this morning, I want to leave behind words for my great-grandkids!
    I started journaling a few months after I got saved (May 30th 2007) I’ve pondered the fact that Elizabeth, my six year old grand-daughter, might see my words, but this is the first time I’ve even thought about the generations beyond her and I… How cool is that!
    Thank you for your inspiration, Lysa. I absolutely LOVED “What Happens When Women Say Yes To God” and the OBS P31 just did, and I am in currently the middle of “Unglued” it is wonderful, I can so relate to every word!!
    Thank you for all your “words” <3
    Suzanne

  10. 11

    Reading about your process in going from book concept to chapters is helpful to me as I work on my first book.

  11. 12
    Lynn Morrissey says:

    Lysa, I”ve always loved reading your well-focused, inspiring, and authentic books. What you say here reminds me of what Florence Littauer taught us years ago: “Do you have something to say, and does anyone need to hear it?” Answering these questions is a win-win, and often leads to a good book or a good talk–something with authentic meat that others can eat that will produce spiritual growth and life-changing results. Your books have been that for me–food for the soul that have changed my life, and I thank you!
    Love
    Lynn

  12. 13
    Amanda N. says:

    Thanks Lysa for your advice! I have been trying to write a personal essay for a job application for several weeks now and I have the worst writer’s block. Your advice reminded me I need to go back to the basics: idea mapping. I particularly appreciated how you keep yourself focused on your future readers throughout your writing process.

    Blessings,

    Amanda

  13. 14
    Mary Ellen Shedron says:

    I just love how God’s cheering me on with His project! Several years ago He gave me the subject of a book. Circumstances weren’t such at the time that I could pursue writing and He knew that.
    Later, circumstances changed. Illness forced me from my career and now I’m “retired” with free time. God challenged me to write a book on that special subject and brought into focus a Guideposts contest in which I could enter my newly written manuscript. Tight deadline. Lots of words. God help me!
    And he is.
    A few days ago, a wonderful friend who careers as a life/business coach, published five tips to get moving on writing a book. Yep, I clipped her column and it’s in my visual range at my computer screen. Today, I see this article pop up in my email.
    Yes, I will meet the deadline. Yes, I will enter the contest. If I win, awesome! If I don’t win, I figure I still won because my manuscript is complete and God will then lead me to a publisher.
    Thanks God. You are more than amazing.

  14. 15

    Poet’s blunder
    is lost forever,
    when thoughts are written in the mind
    then disappear.
    …words that seem to flow so smoothly,
    lost and gone forever, yet so very dear
    crippled, fallen by the waste side
    all erased away
    just because I decided to write
    on this blog today. ~joyce
    __________________

    She came in and sat in the pew next to me in church_ with her gray hair put up so nicely in a bun, her pleasant smile, her pink dress with lace around the collar and her Bible in her hands. So faithful to come every Sunday and I complained just to wake up so early then having to rush to get ready, so I wouldn’t be late. Her husband had passed away and her children had moved off, yet she did not get discouraged. And as she open her Bible I could see where she had marked the pages and written on them little notes on the sides and across the top. I could see where she wrote pray for my son who is in the army or this is my favorite Bible verse. She showed me where the Lord was teaching her things and she underlined verses that reminded her to be forgiving and love others.
    She didn’t need a hymn book, for she knew the songs by heart. At the end of the service I watched as she folded her wrinkled hands in prayer…praying, Lord lead someone to Jesus today. I prayed also, Lord, help me have a heart for You and when I get older, help me to be faithful, loving and kind like my friend who sat in the pew next to me in church. ~joyce

    Yes, I love to write! Even when it does not make sense. So maybe, someone will read this and get so small something from it.

  15. 16

    This post is fantastic! As an aspiring writer this article clearly helps identify a way to outline my thoughts and idea. Thank you :)

  16. 17

    I am going to print this article and adhere to the concepts presented. Writing has always been enjoyable to me and since I’ve retired I have started a book. The thoughts and dreams combine to create sentences that can achieve the goal of a novel that can touch the lives and hearts of readers. Thanks for such an informative and inspired directive for me to follow as I continue to write each day.

  17. 18

    Thanks for sharing a bit of your writers’ wisdom and process with us. I look forward to looking at your Compel program. Blessings on your new ministry!

  18. 19

    Hi Lysa! Thank you for this wonderful post! I read it at the most perfect time. I’m almost done with my book, just proofreading it before printing. What started as an idea and was later confirmed as a God-sized dream that God has planted in my heart, will soon be out to bless many families. I’m so excited to make a difference through it.

    http://mommytg.blogspot.com/p/breastfeeding-journey-worth-taking.html

    Continue to inspire through your words!

  19. 20

    With those who have already commented, may I say thank you for clearly explaining those first steps toward getting a book written. You advice will be beneficial for all who desire to write!

  20. 21

    There is also joy in writing words with hope that God will use them to help someone and you never know how or when He is going to do that in a devotion, a blog post, a letter, a book…maybe even a journal left behind.

  21. 22

    “It’s my responsibility to write sentences that are authentic and inspired and true and well crafted.” Lysa

    After just finishing up leading a study (Women Who Say Yes to God) with a group of women who ranged from 25 to 70 years in age – we ALL agree, this is what YOU do so well.

    Thanks for letting God use you in amazing ways… We are grateful.

    I love the “working with the end in mind” example you use in this post… Mindy

    Mindy

  22. 23
    alisha says:

    I believe that God has been speaking to me. Lately I have been feeling a tug to connect those thoughts that rattle around in my skull with pen and paper. Not sure what he has in sort for this old gal but I am willing to hang on for the ride. Your post is great timing in my world. Thanks Lysa!

  23. 24

    This is one of the most helpful things I’ve seen in ages, Lysa. Thank you so much.

  24. 25

    ” I would treasure one page of wisdom written by my great-grandmother. But all her words died with her. And that makes me sad.”

    Wow. That hit me hard. Thank you very much for the encouraging words and practical wisdom about writing, Lysa. May God bless you more as He blesses others through you.

  25. 26

    Hi. Thanks for the article. I’ve written a few books, have been prophesied that they will be published one day, but am having trouble with that part. I’m a writer by nature and training, but I am having trouble having them published. Two questions, do you use a book template or just Microsoft Word (or something similar), and do you have a suggestion as to where to begin looking for publishers? Thank you and God bless You, Shari

  26. 27
    Beth Williams says:

    I don’t intent to write a book, but I do take notes at conferences, from webinars, etc. and keep them so I can review them over and over.

    Thanks for the ideas. I’m sure people will relate and use these to write their books.

  27. 28

    Great information. I teach Bible studies and write for women’s retreats. I have people all the time ask me for a book on the information that I am teaching. Your information in this post is GREAT! Thanks so much.

  28. 29
    Jacqueline Watson says:

    This article spoke to me the things God put in my spirit to do; and that is to write. It is a confirmation of the process I must take. I have experienced the oneness of the spirit of God that permeates in the hearts of his people; causing us to speak and write the words of truth and life. I am encouraged. Peace and Blessings

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