Thank you

I want to take a moment to share some thoughts with my readers.

A year ago my book launched: 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You.

  • I knew it was too Christian to get wide play in the mass market.
  • I knew it was too self-critical to lure in readers seeking self-affirmation.
  • I figured it was too theological to get admired in our evangelical climate.
  • I figured a large Christian magazine would give it 2/5 stars (it got 3!).

And none of that matters.

None of it.

Because none of it dissuades me from writing the books I want to write. Theologically robust. Self-critical of the reader (and the author!). Exegetical. Journalistic. Investigative.

And here’s why it all works . . . YOU!!

YOU shared the book online and offline. You held it up from pulpits. You reviewed it. You bought cases to hand out to friends, care groups, and kids. You made it spread. You made it impossible to ignore. Major denominations and campus ministries promoted it at conferences and in journals. It got selected as the free audiobook of the month by christianaudio. The book is now licensed to 9 international publishers for translation.

And that’s because of you.

In the publishing market, plagued by its razor thin margins, many authors face tremendous pressure to cave to editors aiming at pop appetites. I don’t. I write the books I want to write, in complete freedom, because (1) I have a publisher that believes books should be better than what the mass market wants, and that authors are better when they fear God more than the market’s silence. And (2) I have readers who share my vision of God and vision of the world.

My promise to you: I refuse to become a professional author. I only write books when I must. Maybe one more, two, four — who knows? But I know I will never ask my busy wife to edit, or for you to read, any book not driven by an urgent need to share with you a necessary message yet unpublished.

So I continue plugging away. Writing as a deeply grateful author, looking back on an amazing year. The abundant grace God has given to me comes in many ways through you, and I don’t take it for granted. I look forward to the future, and want to thank you for your role in that future.

Gratefully,

Tony

The Writer’s Transition

One benchmark in a writer’s maturity is facing the harsh reality of his or her reader. It’s a really important moment, and for many writers this will not happen until college (or later). Good editors are especially valuable because they help an author come face-to-face with these unforgiving realities. But every writer must reach this point of maturity. What follows is a transcribed fragment from something said by the late David Foster Wallace, at the time a creative writing prof at Pomona College, speaking in San Francisco in 2004:

“This will sound really nasty, but when you’re teaching undergrads, they’re not generating literature. Most of them are coming out of a high school experience where they were taught a model of writing that is fundamentally expressive. That is: ‘We want you to write, therefore anything you write is good. It’s good because you did it.’

Well, I’m making it sound cruder than it is, but it’s a big problem, especially with bright undergraduates — shifting them from a mode of expressive writing, where every reader is your mom, to communicative writing where you assume a busy adult [reader you’re trying to reach] has her own interests and time commitments. How are you going to make it worth it for this person to read your stuff?

You can start talking about that as early as freshman comp.

My experience is that it’s a heavy headtrip to students, the terror of suddenly realizing: You know it’s not good just because I did it, and the reader isn’t automatically interested in what I’m interested in. And how, in fact, am I going to make this interesting? As a discipline it’s really, really interesting. . . .

There’s nothing wrong with self-conscious writing. The trick with students is to make them realize that the consciousness they’re conscious of is simultaneously less and more interesting than they think it is. The two lethal kinds of students are the paralyzed ones who think anything they could have thought up has no interest to anybody else. And then there’s the other side, who are literally unable to imagine a reader not being as entranced with their stuff as they are. Both types of students can make good writers after a few years, but they both require a delicate combination of bedside manner and boot in the a**.”

How I Research Books

I’m grateful for several recent emails from writers and pastors asking how I used research in writing 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. First, thanks for pointing out all the research. This new book is my most ambitious investigation to date, and hopefully a pattern I can use for future book projects on technology and media.

On my process, here are some quick thoughts for the interested in the form of a public email.

Once I have a serious idea for a book project, which is about every week, my process begins. (My wife said last night: “If I had a nickel for every time you bring me a new book idea . . . .”)

But about 95% of my book ideas die for some reason or another, many of the better ideas simply get turned into longform feature articles for DG.

Once I settle on a workable book idea (like smartphones), and after a three-month process of evaluation with my wife, friends, and publisher, I’ll begin by reading about 50 articles and studies (mostly non-Christian ones) to get a general sense of the broader cultural conversation on the topic. From this, and from a biblical worldview, I’ll pen a very basic outline for the book based around questions to answer and a central thesis. This becomes my book proposal.

Once I get the publisher’s thumbs up, I first inspect-read the ten best books in the field I can find, usually by non-Christians. After this point I’m ready to begin drafting paragraph seed-thoughts within 1st drafts of the chapters.

The book begins to grow organically.

In the next six months, my goal is to produce chapters with ~four detailed paragraphs, ~four related points of interest in seed form. Once these major paragraphs are all written for every chapter and the intro and outro, it goes out for initial review at the conceptual level. At this point my goal is to have a 6,000-word draft of major fragments.

Once I see cohesion in these seed paragraphs and I like the way the chapters are organized and structured, and based on early confirmation from others, then I can begin using these paragraphs to “hook” my present and future research discoveries. This is why I have to get seed paragraphs down asap. These paragraphs may move around in the book, but they comprise for me a framework matrix, a skeleton of ideas, for me to pin the bulk of my research work, which is yet to come.

My writing is always driven by curiosity. I want to learn, grow, and know things myself. And because I love to tackle massive problems and get my arms around as many tricky issues as possible, and to get myself in waters too deep for me, I cannot manage full-throttled research until this point. I must have a matrix of core ideas around me. Only now can the bulk of my research, the other 80%, ensue. Once the governor is taken off my research (because I now have places to pin relevant discoveries), those seed paragraphs grow quickly into subsections, with refinements to my own thinking, and with confirmation details (sources, texts) now getting applied to particular sentences as footnotes.

Those growing seed paragraphs will begin asking me questions, showing me gaps in my own thinking, they will help frame my interviews, and they will prove themselves in value simply by helping me decide what WILL NOT fit in the project.

At some point in the process, maybe half way through writing the first draft, I dedicate two weeks to reading Scripture cover-to-cover, merely looking for anything and everything related to my theme.

Again, it all grows organically, refinement happening all along. Meditation, writing, deleting, editing, refining, rewriting, rethinking, course-correcting — it’s all happening all along the process as I labor towards cohesion.

It’s amazing how much content you can net if you take your time to slowly read and think and watch for online articles. I must write books in my free time (weekends), so my projects cannot progress quickly. I’m confined to think of book projects in a three-year pace, which actually seems to be the right amount of time to thoroughly think through one significant issue to sufficient depth.

And since pastors often email me this research question, I should note that this same principle I use for chapters is useful for developing future sermons. I’ve heard Mike Bullmore encourage pastors to make folders for each sermon several months out ahead, and then keep your eye out for illustrations and points, and seed paragraph ideas you have, that you can intentionally file away for future use.

For me, creating an early framework by which you can process everything else you later encounter is vital to a large research project. And of course there’s no substitute for patience with a project. Don’t rush it, wait, watch, read, be clear in your mind what you’re looking for, discern what you read online, and know where to put things as you come across them in life.

I wish everyone could read the web with a three-year research project in view. It brings incredible clarity to your priorities.

This is a great question, thanks to everyone who emailed me.

Tony

PS: As for specific research sites, I really don’t have any secrets. JSTOR articles and The New York Times appear a lot in my research. Pew Research, too. Lots of books, many of them by non-Christians. Honestly, one of the greatest helps are my online followers who, once they know I’m working on a book project, will email me hundreds of related links and leads during the process.