by Ryan Murphy
Murphy shows how to transform a mundane prayer letter into something exciting and engaging.
The cliché “A picture’s worth a thousand words” is mostly true when it comes to writing prayer letters and emails. Pictures do transport supporters into your world and help them understand some of the people and places. However, pictures also have their limitations. They can be two-dimensional representations of a world so foreign to your supporters that they essentially create more distance between you and your support base, instead of less. There is a way, however, to allow your words to outdistance any mileage you could get from a picture.
Writing prayer letters can be one of the most frustrating, daunting, and futile tasks of a missionary’s life. Think about it. You have a few hundred words to communicate months of ministry work. You live in a world with strange customs and foreign people. Your audience is one that ranges from 8-year-old boys to 80-year-old women. And to top it off, you may only get your readers’ attention for a few lines. Lose them early and the whole letter (or email) may end up in the wastebasket.
As an English teacher at a school for missionary children in Kenya, I grade hundreds of essays and short stories every year, pushing and prodding students toward good writing. The same rules apply for good writing in whatever form it takes: poetry, novels, even prayer letters. Here are five rules that can bring interest and excitement to your next prayer letter:
1. Word pictures. One of my main rules of writing is “show, don’t tell.” Every detail you use deserves the best possible description. Don’t say the man’s feet were “ugly”; show them to be “as dry and cracked as the parched earth over which he had walked every day of his fifty-nine years.” Don’t say the meeting was “good” or “productive”; describe how the “conversation continued long after the plastic plates and soda bottles were empty.” It may seem like this is a waste of words when you are already crunched for space, but one well-described scene will be more effective in touching your readers’ hearts than an entire paragraph of facts and information. Small but powerful details will make your world come alive to supporters.
2. Vivid characters. Jesus’ primary teaching device was parables which often featured people. The prodigal son, the widow who gave her mite, the unforgiving debtor, the man throwing a banquet—all are characters who live today in the minds of Christians worldwide. With each of these vivid characters was a lesson that lives on today. Pastors sometimes rave on and on about “shoulds” and “oughts” in their sermons; however, when they begin to tell a story, ears perk up. As readers, we latch on to stories as well. Sharing with supporters an individual life of a person to whom you are ministering can be a window into the work you are doing. My wife and I feature a different student in every letter. We try to include facts, personality traits, and their parents’ ministry (to show how we connect to the work of other “frontline” missionaries). A few well-chosen details (not a lot of biographical data) can make a person so real to your readers that they will ask you about a person by name on your next home assignment.
3. Appealing design. My friend teaches graphic design at our school. I stopped in to see him one night as he was printing out his latest prayer letter. The variety of pictures caught my eye—African animals and family members—but the text did not. The body of the paper was a 12-paragraph letter, single-spaced, with 10-point font. I read through a few lines and was bored—something I never expected from a talented graphic designer. He simply didn’t apply the basic rules of good design to prayer letter design. The media truly is the message today. The way your letter looks can turn a reader off. You can lose them at “Hello.” Endless paragraphs and tiny fonts may enable you to say all you want to say; however, to your readers it will feel like reading the Magna Carta. To find good models for your letters, look at magazines and Internet websites. You will see sidebars, charts, and inserts. If your letters are aesthetically pleasing, you may get your supporters to actually read them.
4. Less is more. On any given day, I get a few prayer letters via the Internet. By simply looking at the name, I can usually decide whether I’ll peruse it or not. Some people write novellas about their mission work, and while I may love these people and pray for them, I don’t have time to read a thousand words about essentially the same thing that happened last month (especially if it’s one thousand words that lack quality description and are poorly designed on the page!). Perhaps this means I’m shallow, a bad friend, and an unsupportive fellow missionary; however, if we are honest we wouldn’t expect the hundreds of people on our support team to read something we ourselves wouldn’t be interested in reading. If you think your mom might like all the information, then write a letter to your mom. You can even use that raw material to create a support letter for the masses. Just be sure and edit it down to a few hundred words before clicking “send” or “print.” Sometimes less is more.
5. Find your voice. My favorite assignment in my tenth grade English class is the “persona” project. Over the course of one term, my students write a short story each week about a single character. As I help the sophomores brainstorm creative ideas, I tell them that the plot doesn’t matter as much as the writing style. A great writer can tell a riveting tale about a cockroach crawling across the floor; a poor writer can bore you about being chased by a lion. One of the pitfalls missionaries fall into when writing letters is that they lose their voice and empty their writing of any unique style. Why? Consider your audience: senior citizens and elementary school students, non-Christians and staunch conservatives, men and women, close friends and distant family. It’s hard to write a letter that communicates to everyone, and in attempting to do so, you may write a letter that communicates to no one. Just as every human has a voice, every writer has a voice. Your voice may have gotten lost during your school days amidst the essays and research papers. But you still have a style, a thumbprint, a voice, that’s unique to you. Don’t be afraid to break grammar rules. Don’t worry about using peculiar references or metaphors. Try to write like you would speak.
Sometimes there is nothing we can do to get our readers’ interest, and that’s okay. I got a rare phone call from my friend one day, and as I began talking about a specific work project for which we had been raising funds (and which I had written a half dozen prayer letters about), he was clueless. He had no idea what the project was. I asked the obvious question “Have you been getting our prayer letters?” and he sheepishly said he had but admitted he hadn’t read them closely. We cannot make people read our letters, but we can make it hard not to.
When we have done everything possible to write an authentic, creative, personal, visually-appealing, concise prayer letter, we have done our job. And if you can look at this part of your job as a missionary more like a creative writing assignment, perhaps it won’t make your fingers curl up and die every time you sit down at a keyboard.
Ryan Murphy teaches English at Rift Valley Academy, a boarding school for missionary kids in rural Kenya. He wrote All That You Can’t Leave Behind: A Rookie Missionary’s Life in Africa, published in 2007 by Father’s Press.
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