Writing for Dummies

In the last few weeks, Chris Bigelow and I have been putting the finishing touches on MORMONISM FOR DUMMIES, which is part of the ubiquitous yellow-and-black Dummies series. It’s been a serious challenge to write a book like this, which aims to present the faith in an accessible, entertaining format whille remaining reverent about sacred topics and also discussing some of the most common criticisms of the faith.

In preparing the book, I’ve read all of the other introductions out there, as well as books on various aspects of LDS history and doctrine. This has been a voyage of self-discovery in many ways, as I learned a few details about my religion that I never knew and was challenged to reflect on some elements in greater depth. For example, I thought it would be relatively easy to write the section on the Holy Ghost, only to find fascinating gaps in LDS doctrine about the topic: we know a great deal about how the Spirit functions, and the role it can play in our lives, but comparatively little about its origins and nature. There are numerous statements from church leaders that seem to contradict one another on this point, as well as folk beliefs that some people regard as doctrine. So the challenge of writing about that in a Dummies book is to present complex issues that don’t necessarily have hard-and-fast answers in a quick, accessible digest version. Oy vey, but it can give you a headache.

What do you say, for example, about race and African Americans in the Church when you have two pages to do so? (We went over the page limit on that one.) How do you present the reader’s digest version of polygamy? Do you discuss the fact that there are several different versions of the First Vision, or go with the one we use now for the sake of simplicity? And most of all, how do you present your tremendous love for an institution and its teachings while also trying to see them from the perspective of an outsider?

Co-writing started out as an accident and has turned out to be an amazing blessing. Chris and I both share the same literary agent, who suggested that we do this book together. We’ve found that our skills and backgrounds complement each other very well. Chris is a sixth-generation Saint who served a mission, used to work at the Ensign, and lives in Provo. I’m a religion scholar, trained historian, and a convert to the Church who lives in the “mission field.” (It has been surprising, actually, how much we’ve learned about the cultural differences between Mormons in Utah and elsewhere.) Chris is also way funny, which is important for the Dummies style, and I’m really not, despite many hours spent watching The Daily Show.

Doing this book has been a great journey and a valuable one. I love teaching others about what we believe. A couple of weeks ago, for example, my Starbucks-jacked assistant came into my office and asked, “Why don’t Mormons drink coffee?” I loved nothing more than teaching him about the Word of Wisdom and explaining why I no longer engage in my former morning cuppa joe. Ultimately, I hope that the book will be able to build those kinds of bridges. When it comes out in February, I hope you’ll let us know if it succeeds, and also tell us what you’d like us to do differently, as it’s likely that there will eventually be a second edition. (I guess I’m getting hooked on the outstanding and thoughtful feedback I’m seeing on this site.)

I’ll be back on Monday — have a lovely weekend.

13 comments for “Writing for Dummies

  1. October 8, 2004 at 12:47 pm

    Any mentions of the Bloggernacle in this book? :)

  2. October 8, 2004 at 1:27 pm

    I like the two author idea (especially the two of you, it sounds like a good team). I must admit that I am intrigued by such an undertaking. Perhaps you could share a little more on the history of how all this came to be.

  3. Kevin Barney
    October 8, 2004 at 2:57 pm

    I too am curious about the genesis of this writing assignment. I’m looking forward to the results (I loved your Buffy book).

    Have you looked at the Idiot’s Guide to Mormonism? Care to offer your take on the competition? (I’ve just browsed it at the store, so I have no opinion.)

  4. Bryce I
    October 8, 2004 at 3:07 pm

    There are many reasons for missionaries going out in twos and threes. I think your post has illuminated some of them.

  5. Karen
    October 8, 2004 at 3:08 pm

    Jana, I’m really glad you are doing this book, and think it is really necessary to have faithful voices speaking in non-Deseret Book kind of forums. I have a good friend, returned missionary, dating a non-member man. He has been curious about the church, but hesitant to get all his information from her. She caught him reading the Idiot’s guide to Mormonism. In her shoes, I think I would be relieved to find a friend using that as a source. Although true objectivity is probably impossible, and probably a frustrating part of your writing experience, I think it’s important to make the attempt.

  6. sid
    October 8, 2004 at 10:11 pm

    Jana – this kind of a book is sorely needed, and thanks to you and Chris for writing it. BTW, when can we expect it to be on sale?

  7. October 9, 2004 at 1:01 am

    Does the book assume a a Christian background? I served a mission in Japan, where we were lucky to finish 1/3 or 1/2 a discussion at each meeting due to the lack of knowledge of Christianity on the part of our investigators.

    In any case, I will be purchasing a copy. This is exciting!

  8. October 9, 2004 at 11:50 am

    Derek, I couldn’t help noticing that your name links to a blog. Should this be another new Bloggernacle addition?


  9. gst
    October 9, 2004 at 8:15 pm

    The title of your post has a funny double meaning.

  10. October 10, 2004 at 6:02 pm

    Danithew, I really don’t write much about Mormonism, so I don’t think my weblog is bloggernacle-worthy. Also, I think I’m just as likely to condemn as praise, so it might be dangerous. Thanks anyway!

  11. Charles
    October 12, 2004 at 1:33 pm

    Jana –
    It sounds like you are well into the construction of this book, but I would caution you against many controversial issues. The purpose of these books is often to inform an uniformed reader. People familiar with the church and especially those who participate in this blog and others are well informed about the history of the church and various positions it frequently takes, sometimes appearing to reverse itself at times. Trying to explain this to an audience that does not already have a knowlege founded in the churches doctrine is likely to cause more flack and fodder against us than truely enriching those who are seeking to understand us.

    Imagine reading a book about a group of people you know little about and the book’s intent is to educate you but it is riddled with examples where all the people do not agree or that “doctrine” is often erased and rewritten. Trying to address these concerns is more of a sophmoric or junior level discussion than a freshman class.

    Just something to keep in mind when deciding what to include and how in depth you should go on some issues.

  12. Chris Bigelow
    October 13, 2004 at 11:45 am

    I’m Jana’s Dummies coauthor, and I agree with everything she said except that she’s not funny. If you count up the funny headlines and turns of phrase in the book, I bet over half are hers.

    It gets published this February. We’re finishing up the drafting this week, and then we have five weeks of intensive rewriting, and I’m curious to see what the end result will be. It will be interesting just to read the book straight through for the first time, since we’ve been working chapter by chapter in a scattershot approach. But the book is designed as a modular reference, not something most people will sit down and read straight thru.

    As far as the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Mormonism, our competition, I have to admit that the few times I’ve dipped into it, I haven’t been very impressed, mainly because it seems really superficial in a lot of spots. But I’m sure some people will think we didn’t stay superficial ENOUGH in spots.

  13. Jeannette
    January 18, 2005 at 2:23 pm

    I’m awaiting the publication of MORMONISM FOR DUMMIES with some interest: I’m hoping it will be as good a presentation of the LDS faith as CATHOLICISM FOR DUMMIES is of Catholic Christianity. Similar to Chris Bigelow’s observation about THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO MORMONISM, I found THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO CATHOLICISM sadly lacking in accurate information, finding several outright errors just flipping through it at the bookstore. This experience, of course, makes me suspicious of the Mormon title in the same series.

    I think that the combined writing talents of a “cradle” Mormon and a convert may give a clearer presentation of the LDS religion for the general reader. I am looking forward to purchasing a copy of MORMONISM FOR DUMMIES to give me a good, reliable–if general–overview of the Mormon faith to increase my understanding of its adherents.

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