Posted in Thoughts, What I Do

What I Do: When I Don’t Know What to Do

Have you ever been pulled from a place of belonging into a phase of uncertainty? From a place of confidence in your skills to a moment of feeling as if you really have nothing to offer? What do you do in those moments?

Hold Loosely

Last week, a sermon illustration reminded me of the importance of holding everything so very loosely. Allowing God to give and take away for His glory. It was not a new concept. I’ve heard it time and time again – and tried to live by it diligently. Yet, while standing in the middle of a long stretch of time in which my confidence has been challenged again and again, God knew I needed the reminder to hold loosely to everything.

So, what do you do when you don’t know what to do? You hold loosely. Surrender. Trust.

Admittedly, I don’t do any of that easily. Especially when my confidence is being stripped. When I feel like I don’t really have a place. When it seems as if I’m not doing anything well – or that I’m outright failing.

But the Lord never promised it would come easily. In fact, He promised suffering. He promised struggle. He promised challenge.

And He promised Himself right in the middle of it.

He Does Best When I Can’t

I know this all seems much more spiritual than practical. Like it fits more in my Friday Faith Nugget post. But, in truth, it’s very practical. Because what I do – every single aspect of what I do – is riddled with insecurity. I never experience a day when I don’t feel like I am failing in at least one area of life – being a wife or a mom or a homeschooler or a pastor’s wife or a teacher or an editor or an employee or a whatever-else-I’m-doing-at-the-moment. Or all of the above.

Only when I hold it all loosely is the Holy Spirit capable of performing the jobs through me. And only then do I see success.

That makes “holding loosely” a very practical part of what I do. Even if it’s a part I forget regularly and have to be reminded of.

Hold loosely, my friend. Be ready to let Christ be the success, not you.

And be ready to remind me of this very thing tomorrow, because I’ll need it!

Posted in What I Do

What I Do: Reading Reviews

Last week I shared some tips for writing reviews. But, most people are more likely to read a review than to write one. Reviews helps us discover new products that might be useful to us. They help us make a decision on major purchases. And they help us discover whether or not a product lives up to its claims.

Unfortunately, not all reviews are reliable or useful. Here are some tips for finding the best and most reliable reviews.

Avoid the extremes.

Although there are honest one and five star reviews, those are also the most likely places for scam reviews. Someone paid to write a review will almost always give a five-star ranking. Someone determined to undermine a product or brand (yes, those people exist!) will go with the one-star. Most truly thoughtful reviewers will fall somewhere in between.
Seek details. If a review is rated low and begins with a comment about slow shipping or a damaged product, it is probably not going to be helpful or relevant. Also, if a reviewer either raves about or bashes a product without giving true context, it might be hard for you to apply those pros and cons to your own situation.

A caveat to this would be the reviewer who says that the product arrived damaged, but an assessment of the product was still possible. In fact, a review like that could be incredibly useful!

Look for experience.

How many ways was the product used? For how long? Is there information that is not in the product description? Does the review candidly respond to the product description? Or does every detail seem to simply mirror the description?

Consider the relevance of the review.

An example will actually work best to explain what I mean. A few months ago, I took to the Internet to search for a shoulder rest for my daughter’s violin. I found one with solid reviews, but there was one primary complaint: there were no instructions for mounting the shoulder rest. The shoulder rest received several one-star ratings for that one reason.

In all honesty, lack of instructions is not a bad reason for a product to receive a low rating in some cases. Users need to know how to use a product. In this case, however, other reviewers offered slightly more helpful input than those who just gave the product a low rating. These reviewers stated that, although a newbie might have issues, someone who had mounted a shoulder rest before would have no problems. Our conclusion? YouTube and knowledgeable friends were close at hand, so the negative was not relevant for us.

Bottom Line: Before you accept the reviewer conclusion, whether positive or negative, make sure his arguments are relevant to your unique needs.

Compare reviews.

The more reviews a product has, the easier it is to make a genuine assessment. Compare pros and cons. Consider voices and credibility. Often, good reviewers will evaluate other reviews and directly respond to common negatives and positives.

As a side note here, a low number of reviews doesn’t automatically mean a product is bad. If you are familiar with a product that has few reviews, consider that an invitation to write one! Other customers will be grateful. And, if your review is positive, so will the manufacturer. (This is especially true of authors. They will love you for your help!)

The ultimate advice for reading reviews is this: pay attention! With a little discernment and practice, it becomes quite easy to sort out the bad reviews from the good.

Posted in What I Do

What I Do: Writing a Review

According to my blog, I wrote my first review seven years ago this month. Wow. It’s quite incredible to think of all the doors that have opened because I started writing book reviews. Something I’ve learned along the way is that not all reviews are created equal. So what does it take to write a solid review?

Nuts and Bolts

The first thing to keep in mind is that a review is not an excuse to gush over or bash a product. Instead, it is to inform. With that in mind, there are a few practicals to consider before even looking at the content of your review.

Word Count

The ideal review length is 300-500 words. Setting a minimum goal of 300 words (or, if you are reviewing on a site like Amazon rather than on your blog, 150-200 is sufficient) makes you stop and truly think about a product that you might be tempted to review in two sentences.

On the other hand, a limit of 500 words keeps you from rambling and gushing. The review I intend to publish tomorrow currently stands at 835 words. So, part of the editing process will be to cut out the unnecessary wordiness and make it more manageable.

Note: There are some reviews that require more words. Be as concise as possible, but don’t be limited by self-imposed word counts in those situations.

Format

Use visual stimulation in your presentation. Bullet points, numbered lists, and headings are very useful!

Order is Everything

Whether this is a negative or positive review, try to both start and finish with a positive comment about the product. “This didn’t work for us, but ______ would find it useful,” makes for a great closing statement to a negative review.

Credit to Product Source

If you received a product in exchange for review, remember to include a statement such as this at the end of your review: “This product was sent to me by COMPANY NAME in exchange for my honest review.”

Content

Now you’re ready to start building content! Here are some tips (in no certain order – you can build your review your way!).

My Story

Set the stage by sharing in just a few sentences how this product fits into your family. That is relevant to the reader, as it shows readers how your family differs from theirs. But they don’t need all the fine details. Keep it brief!

Pros & Cons

Find at least one con about a product you love. Putting this thought into the review builds your credibility and indicates that you’re not a paid reviewer. Of course, you also should find at least one positive about a product you greatly dislike, in addition to the “this would be useful for” statement mentioned earlier.

In fact, whether this is a positive or negative review, ending with a recommendation statement makes closing comments a cinch!

Just the Facts

When it’s all said and done, however, the facts are what people are looking for. Be helpful. What would you want to know about this product that you can’t find through other sources? Does the product actually live up to the company’s claims? Are there additional pieces of information a customer would like to have before buying? This is the meat of your review around which the rest is built.

Clean-Up Time

Finally, don’t forget the edit! Walk away for five minutes, or even a day, and then come back to reread. Does it make sense? Are there spelling or grammar errors? You don’t have to be a grammar Nazi or an editor to make sure your review is well-written. Just pay attention. It makes all the difference!

Posted in Thoughts, Thoughts from Life, What I Do

What I Do: Just Start!

One of the most intimidating aspects of writing is the blank screen. That cursor flashes, just waiting for words to flow. Inspiration. Thought. But what if nothing comes?

I think that’s the way it goes with much of life. We have a task before us, but we don’t always know where to start. My natural tendency is to wait until inspiration strikes – or I’m out of time. I hate working tight up against a deadline, but I often find myself doing just that because the inspiration just has not struck.

How much better it is to just go ahead and do something.

I’ve learned a few things through my years of writing (and tackling other projects) – tips that help get started. I confess that I’m not always diligent to follow these tips, but I’m getting better. Whatever your task may be, perhaps these tips I’ve learned from writing will help when you’re tempted to await slow-arriving inspiration.

Start with a Question

Whatever the task, one specific question always seems to help: What is my goal? In writing, if I have a sense of direction, I can usually hammer down the details more readily. Just tapping out the purpose of my article helps formulate a flow in my mind.

The same is true of many other tasks and projects. We often wander aimlessly if we don’t have a specific goals.

A more specific question is also sometimes useful – one that directly pertains to what you intend to say or do. In writing, I often use a question as my opening sentence, then attempt to answer it through the course of an article. Sometimes the question stays and sometimes it is replaced with a more declarative opening. Either way, the question provides a framework in which the rest of the article can develop.

Start in the Middle

Have you ever noticed that a project often ends very differently than it starts? We plunge in to the task, confidently plowing ahead. Suddenly, something shifts. Perhaps we hit a snag in the plan. Or maybe we discover more depth. As a result, the starting point no longer encompasses the task ahead.

If a clear goal has been established and the task ahead does not require a starting-point foundation, beginning in the middle can be very helpful. In writing, it allows me to get to the meat of what I’m trying to say. Once I have the meat, it is much easier to go back and introduce the article.

Start Somewhere and Do Something

Ultimately, starting is really the key. Whether I start at the beginning, in the middle, or even at the end, I must start. Whether I attack the easiest portions of the task to get into a groove or dive right into the hardest tasks to get them out of the way, I must do something.

It’s easy to put off a task because we thing that we don’t know where to start or what to do. But, the truth is that we just don’t want to think. It’s easier to put something off than to devote brain power to diving in. Or perhaps we are afraid that we’re not really up to the task. What if we fail? As long as we don’t start, we won’t fail.

But we won’t succeed, either.

Even if the results of my first effort end up in the trash can, they always serve a purpose. They get me going. Active. Moving. And that, my friends, is the key.

Whatever stands before you, may I encourage you to just start? It’s worth the effort.

Posted in What I Do

What I Do

Obviously, I have been hit and miss when it comes to my writing. It’s not just that I’m not getting around to writing. I love to write. And when I write regularly for my own enjoyment, the writing I do for deadlines and publications comes so much more naturally. So, it’s not a chore that I’m avoiding.

It’s just that everything else I do tends to get in the way!

Enjoyment & Necessity Intertwined

That truth has made me realize something. I rarely write about what I do. I write about the spiritual lessons I learn through parenting, but I don’t write about parenting. I share thoughts that come from being a pastor’s wife, but I don’t write about ministry. I use skills that I have learned as a managing editor (hopefully I’ll be able to apply that to “prettifying” my blog soon, too!), but I never write about the amazing opportunities my job has affording me. Oh, and that little thing called homeschooling that helped me get my job in the first place? I don’t really write about that, either.

We cannot separate what we do from who we are and what we love. Even when we have jobs we really do not enjoy – jobs that do not fulfill us – they are still a very integral part of our lives. We cannot compartmentalize the different aspects of our lives and still be the full, thriving human beings God created us to be. Instead, we will gripe and complain because the things that are necessary keep us from the things we love.

What if we were to instead realize that the necessary helps shape and mold us to more greatly enjoy what we love?

My Plan

On Monday I mentioned making goals – guidelines, of sorts, that will help direct how I structure my year. Actively shaping each week to allow for regular writing fits into the goal-setting, and one of my specific plans is to find some way to write about what I do every single week. Maybe I can share something I’ve learned. Or a funny story. Or a struggle. Or an insight. I’m not sure how it will flesh out. But, I’m looking forward to finding out!