The Coffee Shop Secret

Over the last few months, I’ve been focusing on making my new book sound conversational, and approachable. My publisher was pushing me toward this approach, mainly because of their concern for how the book would come across to unbelievers.

I appreciated this perspective, so I started to change my style. But when I first tried, my writing became wordy – it did sound like I was speaking, but that also diminished its literary quality.

Until I stumbled across a little exercise I’ve found incredibly valuable. So valuable, in fact, I’ve used it on every single page I’ve written: The Coffee Shop Secret.

The Coffee Shop Secret.

Imagine taking your writing – whatever it is – into a local coffee shop. It’s not Christian owned. It’s a Friday night, and 15-20 people are gathered round.

You need to say something valuable to them. They’ve given up their evening, when they could be out at a concert, or drinking a beer with buddies.

But no, they’re here, for you.

So, you sit on a stool, and you read aloud. It’s amazing – every single time I picture this scenario, and read my manuscript out loud, I find a hundred little things I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Each of this little tweaks are exactly what my manuscript needed to become both conversational and high-quality.

Why it Works.

I’ve been shocked by how helpful this little tactic has been for me. Here are just a few ways its helped me to transform my writing:

1. It’s eliminated my wordiness. It’s incredible how many unnecessary words I can use on a page compared to speech. When I picture that crowd at the coffee shop, I intuitively know they need sharp, poignant sentences that leave them on their toes.

2. It’s forced me to ground level. The people at the coffee shop don’t naturally care about my biblical material – at least, they THINK they don’t. So with every sentence, I need to convince them that they are interested, that what I have to say is crucial for their lives. That means I think more of their concerns, and am constantly forced to bring the text to ground level.

3. It’s brought out my personality. Sometimes I find myself in “professor” mode or “preacher” mode when I’m writing something I’m passionate about. But neither of these modes are really me. I’m laid back, and I have a sense of humor. When I picture the coffee-shop crowd, I picture them connecting with that side of me.

4. It’s forced me to use the word “I”. The word “I” is one of the most attention grabbing words in the English language. It’s personal. It’s vulnerable. It says that what you are writing matters to you, deeply. William Zinsser points out in his book “On Writing Well” that although we’ve been coached out of first-person in school, the non-academic world thrives in first-person. When I think about my coffee-shop friends, I know that type of language connects with them.



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Nicholas McDonald is a blogger, pastor, and author of the book "Faker: How to Be Real When You're Tempted to Fake it." He studied creative writing and communication at Oxford University and Olivet Nazerene University, and received his M.Div from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. He currently resides in Lexington, NC, with his wife and two boys, Caleb and Owen.

One Comment

  1. Good stuff. I agree that conversational speaking as a writing style is easy to listen to and for following thought and a plot. This post is something I need to keep near my computer. thanks.

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