Words of Wisdom

by William J. Petersen

When I was 20 years old, I decided to give freelance writing a try. Why not? I had been reading Sunday  school literature since I was six years old, and I understood that editors were crying out for children’s stories.

So I hastily compiled a list of six Sunday school papers aimed at kids 9 to 12 years old. Then I went to my typewriter (computers hadn’t been invented yet) and pounded out a story about a wanna-be baseball player named Herbie, who was afraid of getting hit by a baseball every time he came up to bat.

The story ended with Herbie coming up to bat in the last inning with the bases loaded. He got hit by a pitch to force in the winning run.

I decided to send the story to Scripture Press, because my church used Scripture Press materials. It was returned to me—rejected—within a week. I was disappointed, of course, and I thought the editor was stupid for turning down such a classic story for junior aged boys, but I had five other Sunday school papers on my list. If Scripture Press decided to turn down a classic, I would send it to one of their competitors!

I got my second rejection within a week, from the Free Methodists in Winona Lake, Indiana. So I sent my masterpiece to the Assemblies of   God in Springfield, Missouri—another rejection—and then on to the Nazarenes in Kansas City, and then to David C. Cook, at that time in Elgin, Illinois, and finally to a Baptist publisher.

Within six weeks, believe it or not, I had collected six rejection slips.

I was discouraged, yes, but I wasn’t quitting, though I had reached the end of my list. I thought of trying a few more denominational houses, but since I had written Herbie specifically  for the Scripture Press publication called My Counselor, I decided to give them a chance to redeem themselves. Maybe the  editor had a quarrel with the boss the first time. Or maybe he had an upset stomach, or maybe . . .

Well, within another ten days I received a letter from the editor of My Counselor. When I saw the envelope, I was sure it was another rejection.

I was wrong.

The editors had accepted “Herbie, the Ball-shy Wildcat”  for publication. It appeared in print the following year. And amazingly, every three   years during the next dozen years, the publication reprinted Herbie, and of course each time they sent me a little check as well ($15 for the first publication and $10 for each reprint).

Word of Wisdom Number One: It’s always too soon to quit.

Years later, when I was editorial director of a book publisher, a very discouraged lawyer and wannabe novelist submitted a manuscript that had been rejected 27 times. We accepted it and A Time to Kill  became a bestseller. Its author, John Grisham, became one of the best-known novelists of the past 50 years.

It’s always too soon to quit.

Branch Out

I’m not especially gifted in any particular area of writing. The flip-side of that is, I never knew what I couldn’t do until I tried. So I have tried a lot of different things: Gospel tracts, movie scripts, TV commercials, missionary biographies, Bible study curricula, quizzes, fiction, personality sketches, how-to’s, poetry, interviews, radio writing, daily devotionals, fund-raising letters, humor, writing for kids, you name it.

I am no Bible scholar, but I have written some very successful books on the lives of biblical characters, as well as curriculum for adult Bible study classes.

By trial and error I’ve learned that, despite my success with “Herbie,” I  don’t do fiction very well. But I’ve been trying to learn that craft, and managed to self-publish several unpublishable novels in my eighties.

While serving as a mentor for the Christian Writers Guild, I introduced students to all genres of writing. One writer was especially interested in fiction, but she had to go through the lessons on writing newspaper articles, how-to articles, devotionals and all kinds of things. She finally got the chance to develop her novel, but by then she’d had two non-fiction articles accepted by national publications and one magazine had invited her to do a regular column.

So you never know what doors the Lord might open for you.

Word of Wisdom Number Two: Take some risks. Branch out into new areas. Go outside your comfort zone. Don’t limit yourself to one writing genre.

Edit yourself

I’ll never forget Miss Fackler. She was my freshman writing teacher in college, and I was scared to death of her. No frog had ever  been dissected the way she cut apart my writing.

Oh, I had been accustomed to seeing red marks on my papers, showing  me where I had misspelled a word or used the wrong punctuation. But she asked questions: Why did you say this? Is that the best word to use?  Do you really need that paragraph? Can’t you say this in fewer words?

I dreaded her favorite expression: Superfluous.

But before long, I was asking some of those questions myself before I turned in my paper. In the process, I learned the importance of self-editing.

Now writing and editing are two different skills. I doubt if Miss Fackler ever had anything published, but in her role as teacher, she was a fine editor. And she taught me both skills.

You will be a better writer if you learn to edit your own work effectively.

Don’t edit as you write. Get your first draft down on paper or on the computer, and then you can edit.

Sometimes it helps to wait a few days before editing. Then, does it still make sense? Can you outline it now? One of the first things I do in self-editing is to look at the verbs and eliminate all the forms of “to be” that I can, replacing those dead verbs with action verbs. Then I look at sentences beginning with “There” and “It.”

Then I look at word-length, sentence length, paragraph length. I look at “ly” adverbs, impersonal pronouns. Use Anglo-Saxon words, not Latin compounds, wherever possible.

These cautions might paralyze you during the writing process. Write freely. But then go back later and prune your work to make it stronger.

Word of Wisdom Number three: Learn to be self-critical, to be your own editor. When you write, be warmly involved in your story. When you edit, be coolly detached.

William J. Petersen, father of CFWN editor Randy Petersen, passed away in January, 2021, at the age of 91. An editor at Eternity Magazine for thirty years, he also authored more than twenty books. These were notes for a talk at a writer’s conference a few years ago.

On Being Original

The most original authors are not so because they advance what is new, but because they put what they have to say as if it had never been said before.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.

William Makepeace Thackeray

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

C.S. Lewis

A Writer Walks Into a Church…

by Stephen R. Clark

I believe some of the best writing in all Christendom can be found in churches. Especially in smaller churches. Yes, some of this will be found in the sermons pastors sweat out week after week—producing the equivalent word count of a novel every year.

But beyond the sermons, there are bulletins, Bible studies, blog posts, websites, devotionals, emails, announcements, curriculum, newsletters, and so much more being crafted regularly that exhibit some of the best writing a lot of people will ever be exposed to.

Frankly, a publisher would do well to aggressively scout these non-sermon church sources to find the better authors to write the books and articles they need. Just saying.

Some of these writers are you and me serving our churches with what we likely see as the big gift God has blessed us with.

But what about those complementary gifts and skills that we can also offer to our churches? Disciplined writers, like you, possess a plethora of talent that all churches need:

  • Administration. We know how to organize, set priorities, manage processes, and run a good meeting.
  • Knowledge. We generally know what’s happening in the evangelical world, possesses a broad knowledge of useful materials, can assess good studies to pursue, and are discerning of who are reliable authors and who to avoid.
  • Interactive. We know how to interview people and can customize studies for various groups.
  • Process. We understand the difference between pacing for speech and reading, can provide proofreading, edit material for clarity and conciseness, and bring the editorial process to bear.
  • Messaging. We can craft messages for various audiences, grasp what makes a good website, write blog posts and content, and establish branding.
  • Creativity. We are able to teach Sunday school classes, can create readings and liturgy elements, and can add the written word to creative arts efforts.
  • Visuals. Some of us are skilled in photography, audiovisual, videography, have an eye for design, and maybe even a little talent for graphics.
  • Technology. Most of us are reasonably competent with a variety of software and comfortable with computers.

There are probably more that you could add to this list.

As writers, we write to be read as well as get paid. We also enjoy a little recognition now and then. So work that brings in no income and where we are often completely invisible may be less than attractive. Yet it can be highly rewarding.

When you’re looking for a market for your writing and other skills, consider the market of your church. They need help and most are hungry for it.

Serving your church, bringing all of your gifts and talents to bear, is an excellent way to hone your craft as well as strengthen your spiritual muscles.

When serving your church, the pay and recognition, in worldly terms, are lacking. But the rewards are moth and rust resistant while living out the fullness of your calling as a writer and so much more

Aim for the Stars

Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world. And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things—childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves—that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.

Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

4 Essential Qualities for Writers

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

In this post and in this one, I shared several tips for submitting flawless copy. What we do as writers is obviously crucial. We must write with excellence, meet our deadlines, and keep learning. There are countless practical tips and guides for writers and most of them are fairly easy to understand and implement. Continue to hone your craft and never skimp on this.

However, it’s possible to do all the right things and to write perfectly but still not succeed as a writer. That’s because, unless it’s only a hobby, writing is more than a craft. Unlike diamond cutting or brain surgery or atom splitting, a writing career goes beyond sheer skill and requires the ability to communicate and connect with others. With very few exceptions—if any—writers cannot succeed on their own. We rely on editors, publishers, teachers, and our audience. And whenever a pursuit involves other people, it also involves our character, our personality, our attitudes, and even our approach to life in general. Building lasting relationships with editors is invaluable and, over the past 25 years of freelancing, I’ve pinpointed four qualities in particular that will make a writer a winner.

#1 – BE PROFESSIONAL

It doesn’t matter if you’ve been writing for six decades, six years, or six hours. You can still present yourself as a professional, the first step to being taken seriously. That doesn’t necessarily mean wearing a suit or carrying an expensive briefcase. You’ll probably mostly deal with publishers and editors by phone and email and not see them face to face. But your phone calls and emails should be handled with courtesy. Your emails should be written as perfectly as your manuscript. Follow the publisher’s lead in terms of how informal you are in your emails.

If you’re going to print business cards, make them good quality. If you’re not good at graphic design, err on the side of making your cards simple. This applies to your website, blog, Facebook page, and so on. Invest in learning—not only about writing, but also about marketing and social media, about finances, and about time management!

Be organized. Be reliable. When you have an assignment or project to work on, organize your time and stick to your writing schedule. Keep your work area tidy. Run a tight ship if you need to submit invoices and keep track of everything.

#2 – BE CREATIVE

Creativity has less to do with artistry or reinventing the wheel, and more to do with looking at things from different angles, solving problems, and presenting familiar concepts in fresh ways. Always follow your editor’s instructions, but don’t be afraid to ask, “What do you think about this idea I had? What if we approached it this way?” Even if your idea isn’t used, your editor will appreciate your initiative and creativity and will know that you care about the assignment beyond simply making a quick delivery and getting paid. Wow your editor by going beyond the assignment when you can. But don’t change the assignment—that’s not creative, it’s annoying.

Don’t wait for inspiration to hit you. Look for it all around you. Listen to people when they share stories. Read a lot. Observe nature. Write things down in a notebook or keep a file for ideas you don’t yet know what do with.

Don’t be afraid to diversify and to work on multiple projects, especially if you want to make a living writing. Not only does this ensure you have something to work on when one project finishes, but the creativity you apply to one project will help the other, and you will stretch yourself and grow as a writer. You may also discover a stream of work you hadn’t considered before. Be willing to try new things and don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is rarely fatal.

#3 – BE HUMBLE

First of all, be YOU when you write. Embrace your quirks and weaknesses and work with your strengths. This kind of honesty and vulnerability is appreciated by editors and readers. You may be the only person who can write what you’re writing the way you’re writing it. Don’t cross the line of oversharing inappropriately but don’t hide yourself either as that will stifle your creativity and make your work dry and less believable. If your editor can’t stomach your writing, your readers may never get the chance to.

Don’t patronize. Don’t preach. Don’t whine. And be willing to work hard. Remember WHY you are writing: to serve your readers and not to sell books or become famous. (Unless, of course, those are your motives, but that’s a whole other conversation.)

This ties in with being professional but it starts with the quality of humility: Be upfront about what you can or can’t do and notify your editor about any setbacks or possible delays immediately. Most editors are understanding and reasonable when they know you are doing your best.

Be teachable and open to feedback and correction. Even if you are sure your editor is wrong, discuss the problem with civility and graciousness. Don’t be stubborn because, truly, editors usually know better. If you don’t understand an assignment or correction, just ask. Guessing about it may end up wasting a lot of time—yours and the editor’s—if you guess wrong.

#4 – BE IRRESISTABLE

The first three qualities will already put you ahead of the game. But it never hurts to add a pretty bow to a gift or delicious frosting to a cake. Here are a few suggestions of how to do that as a writer:

  1. Underpromise and overdeliver–not the other way around.
  2. Get better and better with each assignment. Don’t slack off just because you’ve developed a good rapport with an editor. You can perhaps be more casual but NEVER less professional.
  3. Treat your editor like a human being. Be gracious and caring, recognizing that he or she may be under a lot of pressure and you’re not the only writer in the pipeline. Editors get tired and sick and have families and lives, too.
  4. Be joyful in your work. Put your heart into it and love what you’re doing. . .otherwise maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.
  5. Build community. Writers are known to be introverts. It’s fine if you want to work in solitude or if you’re not very social. But, as we said before, writers must serve their readers, and that means you must be prepared for a certain level of engagement with them. The more you do this, the more likely it is the reach of your writing will grow, especially if your readers learn they can trust you.

To recap, every writer should be professional yet creative, humble yet irresistible. If you focus on developing these qualities as you also work on improving your craft, there is no reason you shouldn’t do well as a writer. Have fun!

Don’t Lose Your First Love (for Writing)

Those who have been writing for a while may feel like the honeymoon is over, particularly when dealing with multiple rewrites or struggling to meet a deadline. Just as we are to guard our hearts against losing our first love for the Lord in our spiritual journey, the same principle may apply to our first love for writing… The best advice may be: “Do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:5).

Melony Teague, As the Ink Flows, p. 56

Collaboration: A Secret to Building a Successful Freelance Business

by Sandra Reimer

In June 2004, I was downsized from a job I loved as a Community Relations Coordinator for a non-profit organization. By August, I recovered from the shock of losing my job after a decade and began freelancing as a writer and editor. Like many new freelancers, I tried different types of projects to discover what I loved to do that produced great results and clients would pay me for. 

I continued writing for my former employer, and the executive director referred me to an industrial company that needed an employee newsletter. Another friend referred me to write a newsletter for a charity. I also transferred my public relations and professional writing skills into a new industry and represented authors as a publicist for a while. 

In that first year, my freelance earnings matched my previous part-time employment income—plus, I had the flexibility to be with my two young children, who were 4 and 8 at the time. Maybe freelancing wasn’t so bad. 

Balancing Freelance Responsibilities

But the last 16 years of freelancing has not all been chocolate and whip cream. I know the stress of being a small business owner. Constantly, you must balance doing the work, managing your business, and finding clients. Most freelancers love to share their creative skills with the world but finding enough clients to earn a sustainable income can be challenging. 

To find clients, freelance creators and communicators assemble a portfolio, put up a website, polish their LinkedIn profile and get active on social media—hoping people will find them. However, on the internet, they blend in with others who offer similar services at similar prices. Unless these freelancers find a way to stand out, sales trickle in at best. 

Faced with this situation, many freelancers turn to platforms such as Upwork, Fiverr, and Indeed where clients post projects and freelancers bid against each other to secure work. Clients often award projects to the lowest bidders or the top talent with the highest ratings. Apparently, only 10% of freelancers find work on these platforms. Plus, the platforms take up to 20% of your pay, and you don’t own the relationship with the client—they do. 

Another Way to Build a Successful Freelance Business

Early in my freelance career, I stumbled on another way to build a successful freelance business—collaborating with professionals with complementary skills. 

In the beginning, I tried doing the layout for the newsletters and annual reports I wrote. The results were mediocre at best. I understand design principles, but I was working outside my strengths. Then while producing an industrial company’s employee newsletter, I met an excellent graphic designer. Soon, I began collaborating with Audra on most of my print communication. The results were outstanding as I focused on my strength—compelling writing and she on hers—beautiful design. It was easier to get repeat business when my results were more professional. Plus, I could sell higher-value projects because I provided clients with complete solutions—not just writing and editing services. 

Over the years, I have collaborated with other specialists, including my husband, a front-end web designer. Together we secured higher-value projects, such as websites worth thousands of dollars. I did the marketing strategy and wrote the content, and he developed beautiful and user-friendly websites. I continued to work with Audra on print projects. As we combined our skills, clients benefitted from professional results and complete solutions.  

My husband and I earned a satisfying income that paid our mortgage and our two children’s needs, with enough to spare for vacations and other wants. After five years, my husband went back to a corporate job while I continued working with freelance specialists on communication projects. 

Then about three years ago, I began to wonder if I could help other freelance marketing and communication professionals multiply their impact and income through collaboration. To test this theory, I am running an experiment. I launched an online community to help Canadian freelance communicators and creators trade referrals, co-promote our work, and collaborate on higher-value projects while learning together and having fun.

Editors’ note: Many of our readers may benefit from a group like this. If you’re interested in CoLaborNation, click here

Sandra Reimer is a communication strategist who helps world-changing businesses and non-profits tell their stories. She collaborates with other freelance professionals to produce compelling print and digital communication that sells clients’ products and services. Her fundraising letters and proposals have helped non-profit clients raise millions of dollars to fuel their missions. Prior to freelancing, Sandra was a Community Relations and Volunteer Coordinator for a non-profit. As a social entrepreneur, Sandra cares about the earth, earthlings, and earning.

Are You Ever Really Finished?

A good book has no ending.

– Robert Frost

There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.

– Frank Herbert

A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.

– Italo Calvino

Art is never finished, only abandoned.

– Leonardo da Vinci

How do you know when it’s time to let go of your manuscript or project? Do you feel pressured to tie things up or are you able to trust the conclusion to your audience? Please share your thoughts below.

Fearless Writing

by Stephen R. Clark

A friend from church recently shared a meme bearing a quote from Salman Rushdie: “A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.”

My friend said, “This is you!”

I took it as a compliment, but also as a bit of a challenge. A challenge I confront regularly as a Christian writer.

Several months ago, one of my grandnieces, Ellian Chalfant—an exceptional writer and a student at Gordon College—blogged about last summer’s racial unrest, explaining, “I’ve struggled to find the words to say. I know that as a writer, Christian, and human being I’m called to speak up for my brothers and sisters facing heartbreaking injustices in this country.”

Her bold acknowledgement that, as a Christian writer and fellow human being, she is “called to speak up” kind of smacked me upside of my face.

And then the meme my friend shared got the other cheek.

Why?

Because sometimes writing can be a source of fear and trembling for the writer. Especially when it comes to potentially explosive topics like racial injustice, social ills, sin in general, and so on.

The challenge is related to the caution in Proverbs 29:25—“Fearing people is a dangerous trap” (NLT).

While I get encouragement from readers, I also get pushback. Sometimes the pushback is a little harsh, and sometimes it comes from surprising sources. So, negative reaction is one part of the “fearing people” thing.

Another is sourced in my own heart, the fear generated from the man I am as shaped by a multitude of forces over time. I fear being wrong, making a mistake, looking stupid.

Nearly every time I metaphorically pick up my pen, I wrestle with the thought, “Who am I to write about this? What do I know? There are many others far more qualified than me!”

Writing is a process of exposure. When a writer writes he lays open his heart, reveals what he really thinks about something, and becomes very vulnerable.

And yet, as writers knowing this, we are still compelled to write.

Let me qualify that a bit more. As Christian writers, fellow sojourners on this earth, gifted by the Holy Spirit with a different way of seeing and the skill to share that insight, we are still compelled to write.

I put the question of fear to a group of fellow Christian freelancers. One, Ann-Margret Hovsepian, offered this guidance: “What helps me a lot is the conviction that my job is to serve my readers and not necessarily to please them. If I’m being faithful and obedient to God in using my talents for his glory and pleasure, how readers respond to my writing is none of my business. That doesn’t mean I don’t care what they think, but I cannot worry about it.”

Good answer. Although I assure you, I can worry and do care! Even though I probably shouldn’t. At least not a lot, anyway.

Right around when I posted the question, I participated in a webinar by author Alan Noble on what Christian writing should be. He offered these three principles: (1) God calls us to desire the good of our reader; (2) The Truth exists, and it is beautiful and good and worth fighting for; (3) Hope.

It was startling how closely what he said tracked with what both Ellian and Ann-Margret shared. Perhaps God was trying to tell me something.

For writers like me, the “dangerous trap” of Proverbs 29:25 is to fear writing, to freeze up, to hold back. Yet that verse concludes, “. . . trusting the Lord means safety.”

Jesus was a great instigator of strong reactions. It even got him killed. Yet, we are called to be like Jesus, to bear the image of God, to be a voice in the wilderness. For better or for worse.

I would argue that, most of the time, what we write leads to the better.

Randy Petersen, reflecting on the same unrest as Ellian, wrote this in a blog post:

“We writers will not change the world, except when we do. We can carry on the work we’ve always done—nudging hearts, shining the light on truth, suggesting redemptive scenarios people might not have imagined yet. We’re just wordsmiths, and yet language might be the lever that budges the planet into a different orbit.”

Alan Noble concluded his webinar with this summary: “If your work is truly for the good of your readers, have no shame in sharing it. You are not your writing. Expression is not the point. Your reputation and image are not the point. The good of your reader is the point.”

And then he tacked on this gem from T. S. Eliot, “Take no thought of the harvest, but only of proper sowing.”

So, here we are, Christians and writers. God has called us to write to his glory. To care for the good of the reader. When we write what the Holy Spirit lays on our hearts and minds, it is up to the Holy Spirit to impact the reader. It’s our job to share truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. To hone this gift and ensure that what we write is indeed “proper sowing.”

In his book, Scary Close, Donald Miller shared that when he was becoming too careful as a writer, he developed this manifesto:

  • I am willing to sound dumb.
  • I am willing to be wrong.
  • I am willing to be passionate about something that isn’t perceived as cool.
  • I am willing to express a theory.
  • I am willing to admit I’m afraid.
  • I’m willing to contradict something I’ve said before.
  • I’m willing to have a knee-jerk reaction, even a wrong one.
  • I’m willing to apologize.
  • I’m perfectly willing to be perfectly human.

These are wise words to live by, to write by. Besides, as Aristotle is alleged to have warned, “There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”

As Christian writers, saying nothing just isn’t an option. As we write, we can do so in the certainty that, as Ann-Margret pointed out, if we are being faithful and obedient to God in using our talents for His glory and pleasure, then, as Proverbs promises, we are safe.

To paraphrase Paul, let us write on toward the goal of serving our readers to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14).

Ignore This Advice

Ignore all lists of writing tips. Including this one. And including this tip. Or at least take them with a big pinch of salt. I have never met two writers who work exactly the same way: One of the hardest, but ultimately most rewarding, things about writing is that you have to work out for yourself who and what you are as a writer, and how you yourself work best. When you’re starting out, it’s very easy to see a piece of advice by [insert your favourite author here] and think, If s/he writes like this, I must do it that way too. That can be unhelpful, and instead I think that every time you hear a writing tip, you have to decide whether it means something to you, resonates with you, or whether it sounds like the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard. It’s your book, you need to learn to write it your way. Now please ignore this advice.

Marcus Sedgwick, at the 2016 Cheltenham Literature Festival