4 Things Beth Moore Taught Me About Writing
By nearly every measure, Beth Moore is a powerhouse in our evangelical world. She’s prolific and popular, with dozens of books and Bible studies earning her spots on bestseller lists. She’s spoken at hundreds of conferences and hosts a weekly TV show.
She’s Beth Moore.
When someone has that level of success (not to mention her perfect Texas hair), we’re bound to wonder if she could really be as wise and wonderful as she seems. So I was skeptical but hopeful as I stepped into the sold-out writers conference, Lit, hosted by her Living Proof Ministries a few weeks ago.
The 59-year-old author launched the new event as a way to reach a group she saw being underutilized in the church and in need of encouragement: women in their 20s and 30s who are writers, teachers, and speakers. She gathered a dozen women who she has mentored through that stage to help instruct the 800 women in attendance. I was one of them, and here’s what I learned.
1. Each idea has a shelf life.
Moore compares the longevity of an idea to a train on tracks. The first stop is social media. Sometimes you’re riled up about something that demands an immediate response, so you fire off a tweet or Facebook post, and that’s that. But social media might fuel your passion, and the resulting discussion grows the idea into a blog post. If the idea still has more facets to explore, that blog post could develop into a sermon or session at a speaking engagement. Finally, when ideas continue to gain steam through social media, online articles, and teachings, they turn into longer-form projects like books or Bible studies.
Some ideas shouldn’t find their way past social media, few books could—or should—be distilled to a single tweet, and many ideas are best served by sermons or blog posts. The trick, as Moore said, is having the discernment to know how far to go with an idea. The concept itself, the surrounding discussion, and the writer’s own competence to address it play a factor.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott seconds this advice for fiction writers: “If you find that you start a number of stories or pieces that you don't even bother finishing, that you lose interest or faith in them along the way, it may be that there is nothing at their center about which you care passionately.”
When I started writing a book on singleness, I wanted a whole chapter on blind dates. I’ve had a horrible string of blind dates, 15 or so in a row, yet when it came time to write about them, I realized blind dates made for witty tweets and Facebook posts but fell flat as a book chapter. So I was forced to “kill my darlings,” as Stephen King says, and my book is better for it. Cultivating the self-awareness to assess your own ideas is crucial.
2. You should know more than you’re writing.
Lest anyone doubt Beth Moore’s research, she brought out huge 4- and 5-inch binders filled with material and stacked them on a table on stage. One of them contained over 400 pages of background information and was turned into a 150-page book. Another became a 100-page workbook. Another, a 4-session video class. Moore argued that as a writer, you have an obligation to know far more than you’re sharing. You should know all around your topic, not just your topic, so when you’re pressed, you’ve thought through things carefully.
My brother, now working on his PhD in Old Testament, has shared similar advice. He encourages pastors to pursue an MDiv because even if that level of education isn’t required for employment, it’s useful for service. He calls it the educator’s gap: “To communicate a basic fact through education, you need to have mastery of that fact, which requires a higher level of knowledge. To teach Algebra I, you need to know Algebra II. To teach Algebra II, you need to have mastery over Calculus. If pastors are tasked with teaching doctrine and theology, then there needs to be a level of mastery that’s higher than what they communicate and expect from those whom they teach.”
Even if you’ll never be an expert in a particular field, you have a responsibility to your readers to be thoroughly educated in what you’re discussing, whether it’s a sermon on peace or a book on singleness. I learned that Jessica Simpson and Selena Gomez wore promise rings and the Christian relationship manifesto I Kissed Dating Goodbye sold 1.2 million copies. These facts will never show up in my book, but they inform my writing on the fallout of purity culture. In short, knowing more about my topic helped me talk about it less—and better.
3. Seek out feedback—or it will find you.
Moore structured the conference to highlight the benefits of mentorship. For those of us in the younger generation, such relationships require us to listen and consider outside opinions, though it can be easier to dismiss them as outdated or out of touch. Seeking mentorship means laying down my pride and picking up a pen to take notes.
Her advice: Find people who build on your ideas, people who make them better and make you better. Find those who count your success as their own. Seek feedback that improves your work, even if it knocks your pride, and find people who are willing to give the kind of feedback that hurts at first.
The most sensitive chapters in my upcoming book deal with singleness and sexuality. This portion I initially sent to a handful of people who would read with care and kindness but also with a keen eye. Limiting the criticism to people I trust allowed me to hear their feedback without getting defensive or prideful. Their notes ultimately forced me to cut paragraphs, clarify sentences, and sharpen my message.
It is humbling asking for help, but I’d rather ask for it from those who I’m confident will give it from a place of good will rather than those who will provide it, without my prompting, from a place of ignorance or insecurity. May we proactively seek out mentors who give good advice, even when we don’t like it.
4. Know your place and be brave enough to take it.
In her TEDWomen Talk, Sheryl Sandberg describes the dearth of women at the top. Of 190 heads of state, 9 are women. Of all the non-profits, only 20 percent are headed up by women. The evangelical sector is even less promising. The male-dominated lists of evangelical influencers lead us to assume that the Christian world only has room for a few, exceptional women to teach and lead. Perhaps that’s why we see others as competition; becoming a prominent woman in American evangelicalism seems like a zero-sum game.
In her writing, Ann Voskamp rejects this idea: “Girls can rival each other, but real women revive each other, girls can impale each other, but real women empower each other. Girls can compare each other, but real women champion each other.” Ultimately, Moore and Voskamp, both with their words and their friendship, are pointing toward the shine principle: If you shine, I shine. In discussing this idea, Kate Shellnutt writes, “It’s not enough to simply resist seeing other women as a threat and want to see them succeed. We also serve each other well when we seek relationship out of genuine admiration (not mere flattery or our own ambition).”
Moore’s close friendships with other successful women also make her an important model. Not many women will see book sales or packed conferences like Moore’s or like Christine Caine’s or Priscilla Shirer’s. During one session, they told the attendees that the odds are only a handful of us would ever receive a traditional publishing deal, and the rest of us, if that’s what we wanted, would be disappointed. So, we either needed to work hard to be one of the handful or change our expectations. Either way, no matter which camp I fall in, I hope I continue to celebrate the good done for the kingdom with every book deal, article, design, and program from friends and fellow women, because when they shine, I shine.
Before writing my book, I thought the hardest part would be actually writing the book—sitting down and getting the whole thing out. But those months flew by, and I loved the process. I sat on the idea for so long that it was more cathartic than painful, something Moore described at the conference. In fact, the “afterbirth” of writing is proving much more difficult for me. The book is written, hooray! But now comes the post-writing frenzy of finalizing the product and planning promotion.
As I continue to work on my first book, I’m grateful for the female writers out there modeling the art of being an author today. Beyond the craft of writing, a successful and God-honoring career requires a way of handling yourself and building relationships with others. Regardless of if I ever become a big name or write a bestseller, I hope I can reflect a bit of the long-learned wisdom and heart of Beth Moore in my work—and learn some of my own lessons on the way.