Eliminate Weak Writing

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

In my February 16 post, Five (Plus One) Tips for Flawless Copy, I suggested not doing any copy editing until a first draft is completely written. Once you’ve got all your material and have checked all your facts, you’re ready to go through your manuscript more slowly and carefully, checking for basic punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes, but also looking for less obvious but common problems writers often trip over.

Hunt down and eliminate words or phrases that are. . .

Meaningless

Instead of “At this point in time,” say “now.” You can almost always delete these words: really, very, actually, suddenly, and currently.

I’ve started to reduce my use of the word “that” but be careful about omitting it completely. Sometimes the word  is necessary for the rhythm or logic of a sentence.

Redundant and superfluous (see what I did there?)

This should be, you know, blatantly obvious but, sadly, it isn’t. Avoid overstatements such as “catastrophic disaster,” “close proximity,” and “plan in advance.” Another cringe-worthy example is “free gift.” Isn’t a gift, by definition, free? All novels are fiction. All surprises are unexpected.

Also be careful when phrasing actions. For example, “He shrugged his shoulders” or “He nodded his head.” Only shoulders can shrug and only heads can nod.

Ambiguous

“Child killers should be locked up.” Are you talking about children who kill or people who kill children? Reading your work back to yourself s-l-o-w-l-y will help you catch phrasing that might be awkward or easily misinterpreted.

Lacklustre (particularly verbs)

In Words Fail Me, Patricia T. O’Connor writes: “Find an interesting verb and the rest of the sentence will practically take care of itself.” Avoid these:

  • Passive verbs – Instead of “That car was bought by Janice,” write “Janice bought that car.”
  • Equating verbs – Instead of “This action is a denial of human rights,” write “This action denies human rights.”
  • “Making” verbs – Instead of “That experience made me a stronger person,” write “That experience strengthened me.”
  • Verbs that need nouns – Instead of “He gained entrance,” write “He entered.”
  • Verbs that need adverbs – Instead of “He ran quickly,” write “He sprinted.”
  • Verbs that make dialogue awkward – It’s not a rule that you can’t replace “said” with a verb that encapsulates a character’s full response (for example: “I’m glad to hear that,” she smiled.) but don’t overdo it. Use “said” whenever possible because it fades into the background and doesn’t jar the reader.

Descriptive instead of declarative

Every writer has heard it: Show, don’t tell. Sometimes a reminder helps. Show a character’s emotions by his actions instead of telling the reader how he feels or relying on adjectives. Instead of “Roger was very, very angry,” say, “Roger slammed his palm onto the table. The coffee mug fell off the edge and shattered. He didn’t notice.”

Good writing is as much about the words you take out as the words you put in.

What are some other tips you’d add to this list? Please comment below!

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Point at Things

When you write, you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.

Steven Pinker

Step 1: Wonder at something.

Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you.

Point at things, say, “whoa,” and elaborate.

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

Five (Plus One) Tips for Flawless Copy

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

If you want to play the trombone professionally, you need to work at it. If you want to cut hair, make furniture, or sell insurance, you need to learn how.

Writing is a craft that, like any other, you must learn well and get better at. Yes, natural talent and creativity play a part, but if you want people to take your writing seriously, pursue excellence.

Here are my top tips for submitting a polished manuscript every time.

1. Get it on the page.

When you bake a cake, you dump all the ingredients in first. You don’t start to decorate the cake until it’s baked and cooled down.

In the same way, resist the urge to copy edit until after your piece is completely written. You may need to refine the content as you go, but don’t waste time correcting sentences or paragraphs you might later delete. (In fact, if you aren’t close to deadline, let your writing sit for a while. Putting some distance between yourself and what you just wrote can give you perspective.)

You can’t edit what you haven’t written, so put your first burst of energy into writing. Get it all down, as much as possible, even if it sounds lousy. Once it’s all on the page, you can start to clean it up.

2. Relax your grip.

When you’re ready to edit, put aside any affection you have for your manuscript. Don’t keep a sentence or paragraph just because you think it’s brilliant or it took you hours to write. If it doesn’t fit in, take it out. Read your work with the eyes and ears of a stranger.

3. Fact-check.

Fact check and then double-check your fact-checking. Editors don’t like finding out they published wrong information. Save everyone embarrassment and frustration by checking numbers, geography, name spellings, titles, dates, and references.

4. Watch sentence and paragraph lengths.

The energy of a written piece is often directly related to the length of its sentences and paragraphs.  So if you’re dozing off while proofreading, consider those factors.

If a sentence takes up more than two lines of type, shorten it. It should not contain more than one idea. Express the central idea first. If necessary, use separate sentences to include other significant points. Same thing with paragraphs: Make your most important point at the beginning of the paragraph.

The traditional approach is one theme per paragraph. That’s generally a good idea but sometimes a new paragraph can emphasize a point in the previous one, it can indicate a change in time or place, or simply break up text that is getting too dense.

Paragraphs are visual punctuation. Your paragraphs should not look bigger than a hamburger. On average, look at 100 to 200 words, but sprinkle in shorter or longer ones as necessary, which helps avoid monotony and making the reader’s eyes glaze over. For example, opening and concluding paragraphs might be shorter, and topics that need serious and in-depth discussion might be longer.

5. Crosscheck before take-off.

Read through your story one last time while comparing it to the details laid out in your assignment or contract. Tie up loose ends, submit your manuscript to God and then submit it to your editor. (On time!)

Remember that these five tips won’t make up for copy that’s shoddy. I’ll talk about eliminating weak writing (that’s the “plus one” promised in the title) in my next post (on March 2).

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Perseverance

I do not think there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature.

– John D. Rockefeller

Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.

– Biz Stone, Twitter co-founder

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.

2 Peter 1:5-7

Sometimes You Have to Say No

by Randy Petersen

I couldn’t believe my good fortune. A major Christian publishing company was offering me thousands of dollars to write a curriculum series. I had done a good amount of curriculum before, but this rate was more than double what I usually received. Hallelujah! For a making-ends-meet freelancer, this was a gift from on high.

A speaker had created some video teaching sessions, and the company wanted me to create Bible study lessons around them. I was confident in my ability to do this, but there was one problem. When I read over the transcripts of the videos, I completely disagreed with what the speaker was saying.

This wasn’t a minor theological quibble. I had a major problem with the whole thing. It appeared he was pushing a particular political viewpoint and applying Scripture to it irresponsibly. I questioned whether churches should be spending their Bible study time on this propaganda. I certainly didn’t want to help make that happen.

So I called the editor and regretfully backed out of the project. And I threw out my list of all the things I was going to buy with that money.

You Get What You’re Paid for

Earlier in my career I had another job I considered high-paying at the time: a brochure for some Christian ministry. It only took me a few hours to write, though the payment was enough for a week of work. And just when I started to count my blessings, I got a call. They wanted a rewrite. Then another rewrite. Then another. I wasn’t quite getting what they wanted, though they weren’t quite sure what that was.

I ended up giving them that week of work, and then some.

A similar situation occurred this year, though in a much more positive vein. I got a huge project that was expected to take two months, though it paid enough for six. I loved this work, but it was hard. As we dug in, my editor, his boss, and I all realized that the task was far greater than expected. It actually took—you guessed it—six months.

From these and other experiences. I’ve drawn a basic principle of freelancing: You get what you’re paid for. That is, the actual work will expand to match the amount you’re paid.

Sure, there are exceptions, and those are sweet. But a good rule derives from that principle: Don’t take a job just for the money. If you have problems with the people you’ll be working for, the content you’re asked to create, or how it’s going to be used, don’t let money sway you. Pay attention to those problems.

Of course Jesus challenged us not to let money be our master, but in addition to that, I offer the Rule of Expanding Obligation. That high-paying assignment is likely to exact a payment from you—in terms of extra work, frazzled relationships, even lost sleep.

If it’s a task that brings you joy, wonderful! Throw yourself into it, even if it takes longer than you expect. But if the paycheck is the most enticing thing about the assignment, beware. You pay for what you’re paid for.

Keep Office Hours

I have found that unless I make myself some office hours and stick to them—8.30 to 11 A.M. and 1 to 3 P.M.—I don’t do any writing. I pick some wild flowers and arrange them, wash the dog, and make a cake, and then it’s too late to start this morning. So I read another chapter of the book I started last night and go swimming. Morning is really the time your mind is clearest, I remember being told. There’s no sense in trying to start writing in the afternoon. So I’ll write tomorrow. I really will.

But I wouldn’t if I didn’t have my office hours. If I can’t think of anything to write about, I just sit in front of the typewriter and brood.

― Louise Rich Dickinson

Where’s the Freedom in Freelancing?

by Lori Arnold

For the better part of a year, workers across the country—and the globe—have discovered a little secret that freelance writers have known for years: It is possible to work from home and earn an income. It’s possible to not just survive, but to also thrive.

When COVID-19 restrictions forced most Americans to work from home last spring to accommodate stay-at-home orders, many scrambled to create workspaces in bedrooms, dining rooms, closets and sheds. They struggled to establish boundaries even as their children began distance learning. (For a terrific resource on working in your jammies, check out this e-book, The Joy of Working at Home, by four Evangelical Press Association freelancers.)

But those of us who are established freelance writers were already well entrenched, thanks to laptops and the Internet. We’ve managed to cut the employment cord by using cell phones, Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangout for interviews. We publish with InDesign and QuarkXPress, and keep all the details straight with Trello and Redbooth. Each of these advances has completely revolutionized the act of gathering and telling stories.

I often marvel at the opportunities to practice my craft. There’s never been a better time to be a freelance writer—technically speaking—and I was well positioned to meet the shelter-in-place demands to stay at home without interrupting the income stream.

Except . . . I live in California.

In January 2020, two months before coronavirus infiltrated our vocabulary, California implemented a new law aimed at so-called “gig” workers. Gig is a clever and broad-based moniker for independent workers. Think of musicians who hire out for entertainment gigs.

In essence, the new law removes the free from freelancer as the government seeks to control the who and how of our work. The new reality is: There is no freedom in freelancing.

The nexus for AB5 was a 2018 state Supreme Court ruling requiring employers meet a three-prong test to use independent contractors. Another factor was complaints of unfair labor conditions, most notably by drivers for ridesharing giants Uber and Lyft.

Convinced that all California freelancers needed saving, San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a former union organizer, seized the opportunity to create legislation designed to coax employers into making independent contractors part-time employees by placing significant restrictions on their use. The bill, however, went well beyond transportation services. It impacted videographers, writers, photographers, interpreters, truck drivers, janitors, health care professionals (but not doctors), health aides, performers, and landscape architects. There are special carve-outs for accountants, attorneys, real estate agents, and dozens of other specialized occupations.

Because of the broadness of the bill and its random caps, it’s deeply flawed. California freelance writers, for instance, were suddenly limited to 35 articles per publication annually. In an October 2019 business article for The Hollywood Reporter, Gonzalez addressed the restrictions impacting journalists.

“Was it a little arbitrary? Yeah. Writing bills with numbers like that are a little bit arbitrary,” she confessed to reporter Katie Kilkenny.

The problem with her plan is that news outlets are using independent contractors for a reason. With declining ad revenues and circulation, they can’t afford the cost of salaries and benefits for employees.

The plan backfired.

Although the bill applies only to California businesses, some companies outside the state, fearful of violating the law, also blacklisted freelancers, saying it’s too cumbersome to track the story counts. The fine is steep, $5,000 to $25,000 per infraction. Additionally, according to the Orange County Register, employers can be forced to retroactively cover payroll taxes, overtime pay and other costs.

The Personal Cost

For me, practically, I reached that 35-story limit with my (then) biggest client in April and I was kept from contributing to them until January 2021. The clock starts over in the new year.

It is particularly irksome that the state has decided freelancers are not wise enough to determine the best professional pathway for their families. One lawmaker, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, went so far as to dismiss journalists’ concerns about AB5 by saying they were upset because their “lollipop” was taken from them. (I would argue that, before the state got involved, it was more like “Good & Plenty.”)

While I thrived in corporate work settings for three decades, working for myself allows me the flexibility I need to help with an aging parent, to spend coveted date days with my semi-retired husband, and to maintain my health by spending precious hours each week at the YMCA pool.

But there’s good news. The reaction from the journalism community in California was swift. Bending to pressure, Assemblywoman Gonzalez authored a fixer bill to remove that cap, one of several tweaks to the ill-conceived AB5.

The new fix for writers, AB 2257, passed through the legislature this summer and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it into law as an urgency measure on Sept. 4, meaning it went into effect immediately. Unfortunately, my client remains skittish and has yet to approve my return to their freelance roster.

National Push in the Works

Why does this matter to freelance writers in America’s other 49 states?

California has long been known as a bellwether state—legislation here usually sweeps across the country. Several other states, including New York, New Jersey, and Illinois, are already considering similar laws.

In February, Congress passed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, mostly along party lines. H.R. 2474 is a multi-faceted bill that stifles independent contractors while also dismantling right-to-work protections by forcing all employees to fund union activities through dues. The bill got stalled in a Senate committee, but in September Joe Biden tweeted his support.

In an article just weeks before the Nov. 3 election, CNBC reported freelancers nationwide were widely concerned about their livelihoods in light of H.R. 2474. In a February piece for Forbes, Erik Sherman warned the union-sponsored bill was actually hurting the workers they were seeking to protect.

The saving grace for Christian freelancers is that we serve a miracle-making God, one who is bigger and more powerful than government. As is his way, as soon as the state closed one door, God opened another for me through a national ministry that showed great compassion as they waded through the murky elements of AB5. Although it took more than six weeks to maneuver through their legal department, they ultimately decided to take a chance on me. Ponder that. They pursued me in spite of the government-mandated obstacles.

And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

2 Corinthians 9:8

Lori Arnold is a national, award-winning journalist who spent 30-plus years as a writer-editor for both a daily community newspaper and at the Christian Examiner. She owns StoryLori Media and her work’s been published by Christian Headlines, Cru Inner City, EPA Liaison, LifeWay, Teachers of Vision and Metro Voice.


			

Your 2021 Writing Goal: Stop Waiting!

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

E.B. White

If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.

C.S. Lewis

If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done.

Ecclesiastes 11:4 (The Living Bible)

Epiphany: A bright thought & the real end of Christmas

by Stephen R. Clark

Christmas is greeted by many with excitement, by others with anxiety. Potential stressors include being thrown together with relatives that grate, dealing with the drudge of shopping, or just enduring non-stop Christmas music.

But whether you love or loathe Christmas, nearly everyone wants to know when it’s over.

Oh, you thought December 26 was it? Nope. The official last day of Christmas is traditionally January 6, which is called Epiphany.

However, the word and the day, Epiphany, hold a variety of nuanced meanings.

A light bulb called “Eureka!”

One of the meanings of epiphany is “a shining forth.”  The word initially referred to divine manifestations. However, over time, it also came to mean “a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something.”

Frank Maier, a journalist, once wrote that he “experienced an epiphany, a spiritual flash that would change the way I viewed myself.” Irish novelist James Joyce is credited with first using the term this way in his novel Stephen Hero, which was a precursor to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He also used the term in Ulysses,where Stephen Dedalus muses, “Remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria?”

For Joyce and others who use the word in this sense, it points to those often unanticipated and startling moments when something suddenly crashes into our consciousness with intense clarity. You know, those light-bulb-over-the-head moments. As J. K. Rowling explains, “There’s nothing better [than] when something comes and hits you and you think ‘YES’!”

For writers, epiphanies are coveted and eagerly sought after. As we craft an article or devotional, we hunger and thirst for the perfect “Aha!” image, phrase, or metaphor. That magic thing that will tie our words together, end our piece with a bang, and make our readers go, “Wow! This is an epiphany for me!”

On the thirteenth day of Christmas – Epiphany!

I had a tiny epiphany a few years ago when it dawned on me that I had managed to get through the entire Christmas season without once hearing “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me….” Amazing, eh?

The song traverses the full 12 days of Christmas, accumulating a plethora of laying hens, leaping lords, golden rings, calling birds, and a zoo’s worth of other livestock. Unfortunately, our culture only gifts on the 25th. A real disappointment when I was a kid.

Epiphany, January 6, actually marks the true end of Christmas. The 12th day of Christmas is the day before Epiphany.

Some people leave their Christmas tree up until Epiphany, when, traditionally, it is supposed to be taken down and burned, or at least recycled.

All those other gifts accumulated from your “true love”? They can now be returned, put to work, shooed away, auctioned on eBay, or eaten.

We Three Kings a caroling

Epiphany is also known as Three Kings Day (or Festival of the Three Kings, or Adoration of the Magi). Viewed as the traditional day when the three wise men (magi) visited the baby Jesus, it also celebrates the Christmas star that guided them.

For some, Three Kings Day is as big or bigger than Christmas and involves even more gift-giving and great holiday food. In Bavaria, there is said to be a custom called “Star Singers,” where, from New Year’s through January 6, children dress as the three kings and go door to door caroling while holding up a large star. They are greeted at each home with money or treats, the money usually being given to charities.

According to The Christian Sourcebook (Ballantine, 1986), “Epiphany began in the Eastern Orthodox Church—perhaps as early as the third century—and originally was a celebration of Christ’s birth. In the fourth century, however, December 25 was declared Christmas, and Epiphany took on its current significance. Although Epiphany falls on January 6th, it is often observed on the first Sunday after the New Year.”

As I mentioned, the word epiphany derives from the Greek word for “appearance” or “manifestation” or “a shining forth.” So it makes sense that the Christian feast day by this name celebrates the revelation (theophany) of God incarnate as Jesus Christ. It is an acknowledgement of Emmanuel, God with us.

2020—what a long, strange trip you’ve been

So here we are, Epiphany 2021, fresh into another new year. In some respects, it feels good to say goodbye and good riddance to 2020, the year of COVID-19, massive wild fires, endless hurricanes, political madness, and so much more wackiness. It’s been a nauseating roller coaster of a year. Here’s hoping the new year brings less stress!

Still, the start of a new year is always a time of anticipating what adventure this way comes. What epiphanies lie ahead? What new insights will be gained?

In his book, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, Christian Wiman says, “Nature poets can’t walk across the backyard without tripping over an epiphany.” I believe the same could be said for Christian writers as we live out our faith, experiencing the woes and wows of this world. Nothing is a wasted moment; all moments are seeds of epiphanies that will yield new insights into the holy.

For Christian writers, now is a good time to reflect and process on what’s passed before. To glean the goodness of God that’s there and leave last year’s tares behind. As we lean into our spiritual journey, we can be sources of epiphanies for our readers.

As John Milton wrote, “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”

Lean into grace and gratitude and let Christ’s truth shine out from all you write.

I pray this year will be filled with awe-inspiring epiphanies as you continue to faithfully practice your God-given—and essential—craft of holy wordsmithing.

No Need for Telling

In a profile I wrote of Christian musician Phil Keaggy, I could have told readers his mother was kind and loving. Instead, I briefly related something he shared in our interview: She warmed his pajamas on the radiator every night before he dressed for bed. That little detail showed her loving heart and kindness. No need for telling.

Joyce K. Ellis, Write with Excellence