It’s Not What You Write, But How You Write It

Have you ever come across an article that made your skin crawl—with its unfair judgements, its black-and-white way of thinking, or its sweeping generalizations about a complex topic?

Have you ever realized, quite suddenly, that the author of the article was you?

I have.

Several months ago I was reading through some old articles on my site and I stumbled across something I wrote several years ago. I was only about three sentences in when I got that sinking feeling you get when you suddenly realize your dress is tucked into your tights, or your fly is open.

I was exposed.

The article was irritating, arrogant, unfair, and just plain lazily written.

Here’s the thing. What I was saying wasn’t necessarily wrong. I was engaged at the time and talking about how the transition from being single to being married can be really hard. I was listing all the ways it was hard: I was transitioning friendships, moving to a new place, combining finances with my husband, etc.

write

But rather than leading with vulnerability and telling my story, I did what many people do when they’re feeling afraid and want to gain a sense of safety:

I categorized, sorted, judged and made things black-and-white that are, for the most part, grey.

Rather than talking about my fear, I told people what they “should” do and what they “shouldn’t do”. I wrote about what the transition “should” look like. I made it sound like I had it all figured out. Meanwhile, I wasn’t even married yet.

Who did I think I was? Who made me the expert on the subject?

I can see now my feigned certainty was a coping mechanism, so I can have grace for myself in that.

But I can also learn from my immaturity and choose to write in a different way next time—not from a place of fear (which leads to control and manipulation) but from a place of love.

I can choose to write in a way that honors my own experience but that also honors experiences of others—some experiences I know or understand and others I’ve not been able to conceptualize yet.

I can be careful with generalizations, gentle with suggestions and gracious with grey-areas.

My words do a beautiful job of reflecting the uniqueness of my particular space in time, and at times they transcend, but never because I force them. Only when they are received as such.

Writing is, in many ways, like a relationship.

Speaking of which, one of the best pieces of advice I received when I was getting ready to get married came from one of my favorite people in the world—who rarely, if ever, uses the word “should”.

His advice was this: It’s not what you say, but how you say it.

Familiar, right?

As a writer, moving forward, I’m trying to think less about what I’m saying and more about how I’m saying it. In the end, honestly, it’s better for me, better for my readers, and cultivates a healthier relationship.

29 comments on “It’s Not What You Write, But How You Write It

  1. Ally, I agree with the concept of your first post mostly, but I disagree with this post.
    Should is not a bad word. You shouldn’t cheat. You shouldn’t kidnap. You shouldn’t sleep around. You should study for tests. You should make an effort to resolve things in a marriage during more difficult times. Etc, etc.

    Nothing wrong with should or shouldn’t. One CAN be arrogant or bossy using those words, but that doesn’t mean the words are bad.

  2. Love your honesty here Ally.
    I have found that my friends telling me off, or telling me what I “SHOULD” is never effective. But when my sisters in Christ ask me questions and help me discover the answers for myself? I love that. I also try to do this with others. Listen first, ask questions and openly discuss.

    When a person wants to do things the right way, they will be open to the hard questions and will probably end up with the right answer.

    • Micaela — My dad has always told me that “people who seek truth will find it.” I love that. I like to see myself as a seeker of truth, and I’m learning to have grace for myself in the process, even if it means landing in some weird places.

  3. You are still young and your perpsectives on many things will likely change over the years. It may well be that you didn’t do nearly as much “damage” as you suspect. Regardless, it takes a big person to publicly admit they think they were wrong on something, and you have shown humility and growing maturity. Don’t be too hard on yourself! This comes with having a public forum.

  4. Ally, I admire & respect you for having the courage to write this piece! It’s really quite refreshing. One of my little cliches to live by: People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. I’m not sure how that exactly translates to the blogosphere, but I know it greatly helps me in engaging others. Especially when engaging those who alert my “you should…” bell. Proverbs speaks of listening first so as not to end up a fool. I don’t wanna act a fool. I just wanna act like Jesus. Thanks for reminding me of His heart.

    • Keri — love those thoughts. That Proverbs reference is perfect, and that cliche is cliche for a reason, don’t you think? A good reminder that there is room for advice, but it’s usually after a LOT of listening and love has taken place. Advice is best received in the context of relationship.
      Thanks for reading and sharing.

  5. I absolutely love the way you went back and honestly evaluated the words you shared with others at the time and discovered your growth as a person through it. So many times we want to have the mindset that our past is behind us that if we see an old post that makes us cringe we dismiss it with a curt “well, I’m not like that any longer” and don’t stop to see how we can further grow from that moment.
    Well written, well said…well done.

    • Thanks Jason. I want to be the kind of person who is always willing to look at where I’ve come from, and where I’m going, and allow it to inform my decisions in the moment. I’ve not always been good at it in the past, but the Lord is teaching me.
      I appreciate your comment. Thanks for reading and speaking up.

  6. I understood what you meant, I recall reading that piece and it actually made sense, about having boundaries… I also agree that God gives us freedom, and our decision should be made based on godly wisdom, not a set of guidelines… there is also a freedom in having boundaries, protecting that which we value most… however, when we give people the freedom, we can see what’s really in their hearts, and hopefully they can see that as well… Having said that, I really believe that personally, it’s ok to have some “thou shall” and “thou shall not” in our lives… there is a world of difference between freedom and lawlessness, where there is no restraint… the difference is called love… if my freedom to eat meat causes another to stumble, or hurts them, or offends them, then I’m not walking in love… how much more so in a relationship such as marriage…
    Thanks for sharing with such vulnerability and passion… we are all works in progress, and we all see in part, but we grow when we bring all our gifts together…

    • Georgio –Thank you for your words. I think you weren’t the only reader who found that post helpful. Like I said, I did have perspective to offer, I just didn’t like my attitude in offering it.
      It just goes to show you how God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. Even a post that I write in arrogance, he can redeem to help people set better boundaries, etc.

      I’m so glad that you found the first post helpful, as well as this one. It’s my pleasure to share my story here. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  7. Don’t be so hard on yourself. God definitely used that article in my life, especially in that season of my life. When I read your blog post about boundaries, it was actually a convicting article in terms of my own personal life and i knew it was something i needed to do to make sure i had healthy relationships… or at least have a hard talk with a friend, where that relationship no longer was just platonic. God is funny like that because currently I am in this season of always pleading to God about …what SHOULD i do? I want my “complicated opposite sex relationship to be neatly packaged that i could just box feelings away or move on or go somewhere. However, I think like you shared in this blog post is that. that’s not the point. like you stated.

    • Glo — thank you for your grace. I’m glad that you found the first post helpful. You’re right that there was some wisdom in the post, it was just packaged in arrogance.
      Like I said to Georgio (above) “It just goes to show you how God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. Even a post that I write in arrogance, he can redeem to help people set better boundaries, etc.”

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I’m glad you’re a part of this community.

  8. This post was right up my ally. I’ve been dealing with an opposite sex friendship post break up for a year now and it is the most difficult relationship I have in my life right now or really ever. Using the lessons I’ve learn, and I learn more everyday, If I could write at all I’d write a book, I’m trying to treat my ex better but other women who come into my life better as well. I’ve been wrestling with how to appropriately have friendships with women for sometime now. Now that I’m more God centered and now me centered its easier but I don’t want to fall into this pattern of should and shouldn’t and neglect what could be really awesome and meaningful friendships. Boundaries are great, shoulds and shouldn’ts are annoying. There is a difference.I appreciate this post and your honesty. I too have had to move from “should” to having an honest relationship. Its really tough but it will be worth it, hopefully. 🙂

    • John — you make a really important point here: opposite sex friendships are complicated. There can be no rule book that would help you navigate them perfectly, without ever hurting anyone or getting hurt yourself. They’re just plain complicated.
      It’s less about following the rules, and more about being in relationship with Jesus — trusting that He’ll teach you to make good decisions along the way.

  9. I don’t know about others, but I certainly felt that I was being told I wasn’t doing G-d’s will because I didn’t agree with you. It literally made me stop reading your blog and the only reason I heard about this post is because my sister kept following your blog.
    It’s a very dangerous thing to use G-d in the same sentence as should. I’m pretty sure that, as a writer myself, I do this as well. The problem is that when a vulnerable reader comes across something about G-d and then there’s that dreaded word, “should”; the emphasis becomes less about getting a laundry list of things to make life better and more about doing what G-d told us to do (even if G-d never said a darn thing about it). Though we may not realize it, we are teachers, and thus we should be very careful about what we say (James 3:1).

    • James — wow, I’m so sorry if I hurt you with the old post. I didn’t mean to, but it sounds like I did if it made you quit reading my blog altogether.
      I always welcome disagreements in the comments. We don’t always have to agree. In fact, if we do always agree, we’re never really growing and learning, we’re just standing around in a circle high-fiving each other.

      That said, in the future, if I say something that you think is out of line, I’d be happy to have you share your story with me in the comments.

      I’m glad to have you back in this space.

  10. The old post may have worded a bit strongly, but speaking as someone who got burned–more than once–by having close friendships with guys without having honest discussions about what was really going on, I think it was good wisdom. Conversations like that are so difficult, but important, to have.It felt like a raw, urgent attempt to save others from the hurt you were experiencing–and for good reason. Cause it sucks.

    • Thank you Brianna for your words, and your grace. I’m sorry that you got burned by having close friendships with guys, without boundaries. I know how that feels. You’re right, it sucks. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  11. Hi Allison,Thank you so much for sharing this…it blessed me.
    I just recently had to let go of some friends, one actually having been a very important relationship in my life, because that person didn’t know the boundary lines when it came to us dating. It was a relationship I never saw ending after years of knowing each other, but, it’s comforting to know that my relationship with God is steadfast. The decision to finally let go wasn’t easy at first and it’s one of those achy feelings sometimes, but I know and trust it is for the best. I couldn’t have come across this entry including your old blog post at a better time. We are indeed works in progress as well. God Bless.

    • Samantha — I’m so glad it was helpful for you. Thank you for sharing a little bit of your story here. Yes, we are works in progress, thank goodness. I’m happy to hear that you’re finding freedom in setting good boundaries in relationships, despite the pain it sometimes causes. I know all too well.

  12. In many ways, Prodigal Magazine and your writing has changed my life by teaching this very lesson. We can preach to an empty room, or we can share our story and open our hearts to one another. Brene Brown says the two most powerful words are “me too.” Every time I sit down at a keyboard, I try to remember that.

    Thank you for your honesty and vulnerability!

    • Hi Allison,

      First, you are a remarkable writer. I love the way your words seem to flow like melted butter on a warm biscuit.

      I’ve been there. I’ve read over my past writing–particularly when I was new in a my faith–and the level of self-righteousness and arrogance that seeps through the page is just embarrassing. I wonder if that’s part of the process–realizing you don’t know it all. It’s brought me to a place of humility and is growing me in my gift.

      Anyway, thank you for always sharing your beautiful words with the world.

      SH.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

13 + 16 =