055 – Stop Settling for Superficial Writing

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Karen Ball and Erin Taylor Young Write from the Deep Podcast, Stop Settling for Superficial WritingAre you just skimming the surface of the story God’s given you to write? If so, you’re doing your readers a disservice. Unless your writing comes from the depths of who you are, of your own journey, it’ll lack power and resonance. Dig deep when you write, and your words will not just entertain, but change lives.

Last week we talked about how we need to stop settling for a superficial life. If you haven’t heard that episode, we encourage you to go listen. We live in a superficial world, and our brains are even getting re-wired for superficiality rather than depth of thought, and we’re drawn more and more into superficial online relationships. This is a perfect setup for superficial writing, because there’s no way to write well when you don’t even know who you are.

What is writing from the deep? 

It’s about our character steeped in God:

  • as we navigate the trials and joys of the publishing industry
  • as we follow God in obedience
  • as we create with God, not FOR God. (Because He doesn’t need us to accomplish His purposes.) Acts 17:24-25 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. Rather, He Himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”
  • as we serve our readers whoever they may be and no matter how many

Through all that, our character matters. We need to honor God and reflect Him in everything we do. That takes constantly, intentionally going deep with God and laying our foundation on His truth.

It’s also about how we dig deep into the topics and themes that we choose to write about.

How do we dig deep in our writing?

It starts with not being superficial ourselves. If we’re not avoiding superficiality in life, how can we avoid it in our writing?

Mine the depths of who you are:

Bob Hostetler quoted NY Times and USA Today bestselling author Rachel Hauck in a blog post, “Write who you are. You can never stop mining the depths of your heart, what you love and believe, your values and passions. I discover something new about myself with each book when I write who I am.”

Mining the depths of who you are happens by asking the hard questions, wrestling with God for the answers, and writing about what you discover through it.

  • Deep questions expose universal truths that touch readers because those truths apply to them as well.
  • In nonfiction, this kind of wrestling over questions is vital. People are asking hard questions, and we can’t give them pat answers.

Mine the depths of emotions on the page:

  • Writing with depth doesn’t shy away from the emotions.
  • Write authentically from your experiences. Don’t hold back!
  • Readers of both fiction and nonfiction want to feel, to experience. Not just the grief, or despair, but the triumph as well.

Practical tips for putting emotions into writing:

  • You are the first measuring stick as you’re writing. If you’re not feeling it, your reader won’t either.
  • If you’re writing nonfiction, don’t let yourself write from a “teacher” perspective, where you hold yourself back from the emotions. It’s not just your words readers need, but your heart.
  • In fiction, this is one area where it’s important to show, rather than tell. Don’t tell us your character is angry. That’s superficial. Paint a picture. SHOW the emotion and how it impacts those around them. Be an observer in your own life and in the lives of those around you. Draw on that to flesh out the emotions and relationships on the page. One specific example of this is with romance novels. You know how it just doesn’t ring true when you have the hero think the heroine is beautiful, and she thinks he’s gorgeous, and then suddenly they’re and love? There has to be more to it than just the physical attributes. What is it in a person that will draw your character? Is it their behavior, their laugh, the way they are with children or animals or the elderly? Dig deep so that it comes out as multi-faceted as love is in real life.
  • With nonfiction, if you realize you’re skimming the surface of how the topic or issue affects you, then dig deeper. Make a list of interactions or events, the things that not only made you aware of the topic but spurred you to write about it. Let your readers know your own struggle and your heart.

In fiction, let your characters either be or become deep, not superficial:

  • This means taking what we should be doing in real life—fostering deep relationships—and putting it into practice in our writing. You need to know your characters deeply.
  • Avoid stereotypes by knowing more than just the basics about your characters. Think of your characters as jewels with a lot of different facets to explore.
  • Let your characters do or think or feel the unexpected. So your villain is a serial killer, but what if he’s also a guy who loves kittens? And the way he chooses his victims is that he sees them being cruel to animals.
  • Nonfiction writers, you need to make sure you know your target readers. You need to know and understand them as well as we in fiction need to know and understand our characters.

In fiction, just as emotion and truths and characters in your books need to be deep, so does the conflict:

  • The driving force of conflict can’t be some misunderstanding that can be cleared up over a cup of coffee.
  • You must be willing to torture your characters. The harder, deeper, and more painful the journey for your characters, the more heroic they are when they conquer.
  • Donald Maas tells writers to make things bad, then make them worse, then make them even worse. Build on the conflict, deepen it as the story advances. Reveal it with the story, being strategic in how you unpack it so the reader will understand it and connect with the character.
  • Require sacrifice. The conflict has to cost something for your character. What hits them where they live? Put your characters in the position of having to make hard choices where they don’t have a good option. Make them have to give up things or people they care about.
  • Nonfiction writers, you can use all of this as well. Use strategic examples/illustrations that will draw emotion from your readers. Stories of you or those you know (or those who’ve shared their stories with you) written with fiction tools, so that you show emotion and impact.

The bottom line:

This is all just scratching the surface of deeper writing, not because we’re being superficial, but because this podcast would be hours long if we explored all the elements of it! What we wanted to do was just get you pointed in the right direction. Dig deep. Be vulnerable. Write from who you are and the real-life joys, delights, struggles, and trials. Remember the old saying, “Nothing is wasted in a writer’s life.” It’s all fodder for going deep in your writing. All you have to do is be willing to open up.

We want to hear from you!

How do you go deep in your own writing?


Writers, be warned! You can’t afford to be superficial.


  1. Linda says:

    Wrestling with questions. Those questions that don’t have easy answers are the ones that force me to write a little deeper and most of those questions can start with “what if?” I try to put myself in that characters position and feel the way they must be feeling. This requires some time “daydreaming ” I guess. The challenge seems to be not to rush this process. I struggle with that need to write a quality book when everything in the publishing world seems to move very fast.

    • Erin Taylor Young says:

      Those no-easy-answer questions are great for going deeper! And I think you’re so right about not rushing the process, Linda. We all write at the speed we write at. There’s no getting around that (and I’m speaking as a person who writes like a snail). But no matter how fast the publishing industry moves, or how slow WE move, we can hang on to the fact that God’s timing for us is ALWAYS perfect.

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