Arleen Spenceley

Being Catholic Isn't An Excuse for Crap Writing: Lessons from a Journalist

writting If you've read my post about evangelization and cheese, you might not be surprised when I say that evangelistic efforts can't lack quality. Regardless of how true the Catholic faith is, if you can't communicate it effectively the truth will fall on deaf ears.

I'm not the greatest writer (shocker I know) and wanted some help in this area so I asked good friend Arleen Spencely to share some of her knowledge and experience as a writer, blogger, and journalist. Listen up!


Five Blogging Tips from a Journalist - Arleen Spenceley

Lots of what I know about blogging is what I learned in a newsroom – what I learned at the first desk on the left side of a Tampa Bay Times bureau, where on July 23, 2007, I marveled at the privilege of my new reality: “I can’t believe I work here.”

That day – my first as a Times staff writer – I was a college kid, now with Pulitzer Prize-winning colleagues, a press badge and a dream come true. That semester, the summer before I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in journalism, I discovered what I never expected I would:

You learn a lot more in newsrooms than in classrooms.

I wrote in Times newsrooms until December 2012, when, after five years on staff, I resigned to finish my master’s degree. I look back with gratitude, for great memories and a skill set I still use. What I learned in newsrooms, I’ve discovered, transfers seamlessly to blogs. Here are the four lessons I use most:

If you’re gonna write, you’ve got to read. And you’ve got to read good writing. At the paper, I’d spend 20 minutes browsing Times archives for stories by better writers than I before beginning to write my own. I’d read stories by Pulitzer winners and nominees, riveted by the result of their talent and experience. Then, I’d emulate it (or try). This also works when you blog (but don’t just read blogs! Read books, good newspapers, and/or magazines.)

Talk to strangers. We are surrounded by the people who surround us for a reason. We are also surrounded by good stories. One morning, I parked outside a Tampa bureau of the Times and crossed paths with a handful of young cyclists, circling the lot on bikes. My gut said “talk to them.” So, I did. As it turns out, the cyclists were siblings (among them, the drummer from rock band Anberlin) preparing to train for a 5k with their grandfather – the last one he intended to run, because knee pain pushed him to retire from running. It became one of the favorite stories I wrote – and I only wrote it because I talked to strangers.

Your senses are your friends. Whether what you write reads well might depend on whether you use them. Without senses, the 9/11 first responder you write about couldn't see through smoke. With senses, “Pulverized debris settled like dust on the city. (He) breathed it in. His mouth tasted like metal, but he worked.” Facts are fabulous, but details – which we find by using our senses, or borrowing the senses of the people about whom we write – are better. If you aren’t there to see, smell, hear, taste, or touch it, ask your story’s subject what they saw, smelled, heard, tasted, or felt.

Writer’s block doesn't exist. One afternoon in a newsroom, I buried my face with my hands and shook my head in front of a blank screen. A seasoned colleague noticed. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Writer’s block,” I said. “But writer’s block doesn't exist,” he said. If you’re a writer, you can write. When you feel like you can’t, it isn't because you can’t. It’s because you need more information. Gather it. Browse the web for blog fodder. Conduct a follow-up interview. Talk to strangers again. The ability you thought you lost will come back when you do.



Arleen Spenceley is a Roman Catholic writer who primarily writes about love, chastity, and sex, and wrote for the Tampa Bay Times for five years. She blogs at, tweets @ArleenSpenceley, and Facebooks (is that a word?) here. Click here to read the feature story about a 9/11 first responder she quoted above and wrote in 2011.

Imitate Christ: Love Requires Us to Take Blows [Guest Post]

What does Jesus' scourging, an old married Rabbi, and dragons have to do with relationships and marriage? This week I had the great privilege of writing for Arleen Spenceley's series "Relationship Tips".  Go give it a gander and be sure to check out some of Arleen's writings too, they are well worth your time.

"The only sword heavy enough to slay the dragon is the same sword Jesus used to defeat the soldiers that scourged him - total selfless love. Just as selfless love led Jesus to the pillar he was scourged on to defeat sin, and the cross on which he trampled death. In this sign, you too shall conquer.

Learn from Christ. The fallen imperfections of your lover are the saving scourges of your marriage. Only by enduring them with charity, humility, and patience will you win your bride, and at the same time yourself, from the clutches of the enemy. Defeat your lover’s dragons, so you can present him/her “without spot or wrinkle…that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:27)"

You can find the full article here.

God bless your holy marriages and relationships! +JMJ

[Interview] Arleen Spenceley Writes About Sex

Arleen Spenceley likes to talk about sex.  And as a Catholic young adult who is also a staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, she is very good at it.

I first came across Arleen's writing by way of a link to her blog, and the first thing I noticed was how disarmingly charming her writing is.  She reels you in with a story and a laugh and is the farthest thing from preachy.  But her work doesn't aim merely at making you laugh (which she does very well) but also at making you think.

Tampa is my home town, so when I found out that she writes for the Tampa Bay Times and is promoting chastity and the truth of Christ through the local news of my hometown, I was pumped to say the least - "You go Catholic writing girl you! Talk about that sex and how awesome chastity is!"

Arleen graciously agreed to answer some questions that have been on my mind ever since being exposed to her writing, and I think you will enjoy her answers.  The Catholic Church needs more evangelists like Arleen who are in the world but not of the world spreading the message of the Gospel with charm, wit and joy.

How did you become a staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times and what about writing makes you most passionate?

Believe it or not, the short answer to part one of this question is fried chicken. Here's the long answer: In high school, I worked as a cashier at Popeyes Chicken (where we do good 'bayou'!). One afternoon, a customer came to the counter, and he looked totally familiar. I remembered while I took his order that he was a local paper's publisher, and recently, he had given a talk to my school newspaper's staff. I told him I was going to be a journalist. He told me he needed writers and gave me his card. That high school kids could write for a paper hadn't dawned on me 'til that day. I was so excited by the opportunity, so, I called him and left a voicemail. No response. So I sent an email. No response. I never did hear back. Bummed, I brought it up to my school newspaper's sponsor, who suggested I call an editor at the other local paper. So I did. A couple days letter, I met face to face with an editor at the Times. A few days after that, he gave me my first assignment as a Times correspondent. I wrote as a correspondent for the second half of my senior year of high school through the summer before I graduated with my bachelor's degree in journalism. In the spring of 2007, I applied for a staff position and after a short series of interviews, I joined the staff in July the same year.

In answer to part two of this question, while I am passionate about writing, I think I write because I'm passionate. And I love grammar.

Some of your articles published in the Tampa Bay Times include "Why I'm Still a Virgin," "Why I quit facebook, twitter and texting" and "It's time to reshape our beauty standards." For, you've written "What it's like to be Catholic in a Protestant world." You write a lot about sex, relationships and the drawbacks of a generation saturated by social media.

What has been your experience expressing such strong Catholic values in the Tampa Bay Times, and what kind of feedback do you receive when you write?

All the essays you've listed are actually among the ones I've loved writing most. While I also write feature stories, opinion is my preference. As a Roman Catholic Christian, I can't not infuse what I write with my faith and every time I do it, it's absolutely exhilirating. When I wake up on a Sunday and remember that well over 400,000 people are at their breakfast tables eating their waffles and reading about why I'm saving sex for marriage, I'm humbled and amazed and grateful for the privilege.

The feedback is always overwhelmingly positive. Especially when I write about sex (twice for the Times since 2009), I get a lot of notes and calls from people who are Christians - Catholic and Protestant - who are encouraged, or want to encourage me, or who are compelled to share their own stories with me. I've actually been moved to tears by some of it, like the lovely voicemail I got from a 90 year old man, who's been married for 70 years to his 90 year old wife. Both were virgins at their wedding. It's responses like his that make the bad feedback bearable (i.e., "You're a virgin because you're probably not a hot babe." and "Who gives a #&$! why you've never been laid?").

In your opinion, how is engaging local news media outlets a good way of engaging the culture and bringing a Catholic presence to mainstream media?

Depending on the publication, you're really handed an incredibly large platform on a figurative silver platter. I remember the day my first Times story appeared in print. While I drove to school that morning, I saw the Times wrapped in plastic at the ends of all the driveways. It was so surreal to know that I, some random person, got to tell a story to all these people I don't even know. While that story wasn't earth shattering (it was about an amateur country music club), I realized that whatever I wrote would be hand delivered to the culture. So when the opportunities began arise to write essays about my lifestyle (which is profoundly part of my faith in Jesus Christ as a Roman Catholic Christian), I couldn't imagine a better way to engage the culture and bring a Catholic presence to the mainstream media.

I'm wondering how many other good Catholic writers are doing what you do, and why there aren't more Catholic writers out there speaking up in secular newspapers. What's your take on this as someone who does it on a regular basis?

This is a really good question. I'm stumped! There are plenty of practicing Catholics and plenty of newspaper writers, but my guess is that "practicing Catholic who writes for a newspaper" is such a specific niche that we really are just that few and far between.

How can Catholics go about engaging their local news either online or in print?

So many ways! When your church or ministry hosts an event that's open to the public, send a press release about it to your local paper. If something's happening at church that might be a story, pitch the idea to a reporter. (And give us at least a couple weeks' notice.) Write letters to the editor (lots of papers will print them!) when an opportunity arises to explain or clarify what the church teaches. Leave comments on stories online that model the kind of life Christ leads us to live.

How can readers support good writers such as yourself who write for the newspapers they read?

Pray for us! Share what we write with your families and friends, your students, your ministries. Facebook, Google+ and tweet the heck out of our stories. And send us feedback. I can't speak for every writer, but I always appreciate knowing how what I write impacts the people who read it.

What is your advice to budding Catholic writers who are trying to develop their writing skills in order to engage the culture and take part in the New Evangelization?

If you can write, write more. The more you write, the better you'll get. Start a blog. Ask writer friends to proof-read and criticize your work. And read. Read stuff written by good writers. Sometimes, before I write, I pull up my paper's archives and read features by a couple colleagues who are a Pulitzer Prize nominee and winner, respectively. It inspires me, and gives me something to emulate. The better we write, the more likely readers will read what we write to the end. And when what we write is part of the New Evangelization, we absolutely want them to want to finish reading it. _________________________________________________________________________

So get to work!  Support good writers in your local newspaper, start writing, and start engaging the local news and spreading the Gospel!

You can find Arleen and all her published writing at where she also blogs regularly.  And be sure to go support her by giving her a LIKE on her facebook page.

These are a few of my favorite pieces by Arleen:

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