One of America’s Premier Religion Writers, Jonathan Merritt, has just released his new book: Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing — And How We Can Revive Them.
It’s beautiful, thought-provoking, and even provocative. But the project that was supposed to take one year took almost five. The Write Brilliant Academy recently sat down with Jonathan to find out why. During our time together, he shared some rich lessons on writing that guarantee to make your next project better. Read on
Write Brilliant Academy: You originally planned to write this book in one year, but it took you nearly four. What took so much longer than you thought in the writing of the book?
Merritt: For one thing, the idea was far bigger than I anticipated. I simply could not do the topic justice in one year. I tend to take on more aggressive topics than I probably should. But in addition to this, I developed a chronic pain disorder in the middle of the project that shipwrecked my life, severely limited my work output, and wrecked me emotionally.
I write about this in my book, but there’s a lesson in it for writers. We have to learn to recognize and respond to our own limitations. If you have four children or if your parent is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or if you have to take on a second job to pay the rent, you’re not going to be able to write with the intensity that you might otherwise. And that’s okay. Whatever you can muster is enough.
I used to work 12- to 14-hour days, and I can’t do that anymore. An 8-hour day is about the best I can do most days. I have had to learn to look at my writerly self in the mirror each day and say, “All you can do today is enough.”
Write Brilliant Academy: You’ve done some deep and beautiful research on the meaning of words and language in Learning to Speak God From Scratch. What advice do you have for writers who want to do more thoughtful research?
Merritt: Usually when writers want to prove a big point, the reach for a poll. And there are plenty of these out there today to be harvested. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, In “Learning to Speak God from Scratch,” for example, I draw from a poll I commissioned with Barna Group of more than 1,000 Americans. But just pulling a poll is not enough to carry the point home.
I often say that, “Information is convincing, but inspiration is compelling.” You want both. So the quantitative research of polls and surveys should always be paired with quantitative research embodied in stories and anecdotes. The most compelling parts of my book are the stories of real human beings who are exhibiting the findings of my poll through their actual lives.
Write Brilliant Academy: For the second half of the book, you explore words like grace and spirit. How did you choose your words using the Write Brilliant strategy of an audience-focused, content-driven approach?
Merritt: I didn’t sit down and pick 19 words that I thought were interesting. Instead, I let most of these words choose me. My life led them to me. For example, the word pain is in the book. I certainly didn’t expect to write about that because I didn’t expect to develop a chronic pain disorder. But that was the story I lived and so that was the story I told.
I was not the slave to an arbitrary outline. But the audience was very important in the process too. Every chapter is written with the reader in mind. And there were many essays that were cut in editing because, even though I personally liked them, they did not serve my target audience. I snipped and clipped with my readers in mind. It was a painful process, but it produced a better book.
Write Brilliant Academy: Tell us about what you’re doing to market your book and which aspects of the marketing were your ideas and rested on your shoulders. What can an author today expect a publisher to do to promote their book?
Merritt: My marketing approach is summed up in two words: “Do everything.” I’m not relying on any single approach to sell the book. I’ve lined up a 16-week speaking tour. I pushed for an amazing publisher to help garner both Christian and mainstream media. I have called in favors with every friend I know. I’m paying out of pocket for a mailing to influencers who can help promote the book.
I’m doing a special podcast around the book. I’ve done a giveaway at jonathanmerritt.com of my favorite things to catch readers’ attention. I’ve got an amazing launch team of more than 200 superstars. And I’ve got a YouTube series coming out where I’m conducting man on the street interviews in time square. These days, you have to push in every way and see what sticks. There is no silver bullet.
Write Brilliant Academy: If you were to begin writing this book again today, how would you approach the writing different?
Merritt: I would have made it even more personal and even more practical. There is a lot of personal narrative in the book, but there were some struggles I experienced that I didn’t include in the book that I think might have given the book even more heart. And even though the book includes a super-practical appendix titled, “A How-To Guide for Seekers and Speakers” I often wonder if it could have been even more prescriptive. But I don’t let myself Monday-morning-quarterback too much. I did my best in this book, and I really believe it is my best book yet. No regrets.
Write Brilliant Academy: After writing this book, what’s the biggest piece of encouragement you have for writers?
Merritt: I’d tell young writer this: “If you’re struggling with demons and inner-critics, don’t worry. We all do.” When I was just starting out, I thought I would get past the discouragement and fear and anxiety if only I could publish an article with a big-time publication, if only I could write a book, if only I could land an interview on a coveted television show.
I’ve done all these things, but those struggles are still there. You don’t eliminate them; you just learn to manage them. So when you hear the discouraging whispers telling you that you’re not good enough or will never make it, know that you’re not alone.
If you haven’t ordered a copy of Learning to Speak God from Scratch, we encourage you to pick up a copy today. You’ll not only learn about this important topic but also learn firsthand from a maestro with words.
Click here to order the book today.
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