Dealing with Down Time

by Randy Petersen

“How are you?” someone asks.

“Busy!” I reply without thinking.

That now-reflexive response draws empathy and often camaraderie. People nod and groan. Everyone is working hard.

But what should I say during down times, when I’m not busy? We all go through periods when the publishing cycles turn against us, when our favorite editors all go on vacation, when our inboxes contain only spam. Even more important, what should I do in these dry seasons?

The Bible talks about “redeeming the time” (Ephesians 5:16 KJV). Most modern translation rephrase that as “Make the most of every opportunity,” or something similar. Not a bad paraphrase, but Paul used a business term with the word agora (marketplace) tucked inside. In a literal sense, this is saying, “Buy your time back from the market and use it for good.”

Isn’t that what we’re talking about? As a freelancer, you market your time, but at this point no one’s buying. How will you “buy it back” and use it in a positive way? Here are some ideas.

Don’t Lose Hope

You may be tempted to mope because no one wants your wares. You might worry about your career. But reread Ecclesiastes 3 and note that there are seasons for everything. Seasons to work feverishly on deadline and seasons to slow down.

Plant Some Seeds

There is “a time to plant and a time to harvest,” says Ecclesiastes 3:2. Maybe this is a time to invest in relationships with editors or potential co-authors. Float some ideas that aren’t yet at proposal stage, and see if any seeds take root.

Think Like an Editor

If you were the editor-in-chief of a Christian magazine, what sort of articles would you be looking for? Do some play-acting. Imagine yourself at the helm of one of the publications you pitch to. Then map out the next few issues as you’d like to see them. What topics should be covered? What stories demand attention? What tone would you like to set? Then return to your own persona and look at the Table of Contents you’ve just created. Is there anything the real editor might be interested in, anything you could write?

Fix Up Your Space (and Your Tech)

Maybe this is the time to make the guest room your office, or to get a proper desk chair that won’t give you backaches. Maybe you should reevaluate your hardware or software.  You never have time when you’re in the thick of things, but now that your schedule has thinned out, maybe you can discover some better ergonomics.

Learn Something and Write About It

You’ve always wanted to learn biblical Greek. Or understand computers. Or read the top ten novels of the last century. Or figure out Twitter. You were also too busy, but now you’re not. So go for it, but also write about it as you do. Thousands of others can learn from your learning process.

Grow Your Soul

Memorize a chapter of the Bible. Practice various forms of prayer. Listen to great music, or make music yourself. Wander through an art museum, or make some art yourself. Gather wise sayings from your ten closest friends and family members. Do a task at your church that no one else wants to do.

Take a Strategy Day

Make it a personal retreat. Find a room, preferably with a whiteboard, at your church or a local library. Invite a “consultant” to join you for part of the time—someone who knows you and will help you think logically. (It was my sister who helped me storyboard a career plan at a crucial time.) Map out your plan for the next four months, twelve months, two years, in getting work, doing work, lining up regular projects, and improving your own ability. Let your vision soar, but then bring it down to specific action steps.

Down time can be growth time for you and your business. As the “time-redeeming” passage goes on to say, “Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do” (Ephesians 5:17 NLT).

Thin Ice and Rabbit Trails

by Stephen R. Clark

Have you ever been in a lively discussion when you realize that you’ve talked past what you know on the topic? Or else you took a conversational wrong turn with no clue how to get back to the main topic?

You’re on conversational thin ice or lost on a rabbit trail . . . and in good company with the Peanuts gang!

These same things happen in writing. When imagination or material runs thin, the temptation is to resort to embellishing with unnecessary words and repetition of ideas, or to wander off on a loosely related tangent.

To pad or divert: That becomes the question! Neither is a good choice.

In the song “The Book Report,” from the musical You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown*, the Peanuts gang is assigned a 100-word report on Peter Rabbit. Each chooses a different and legitimate approach for their report, but all get tripped up by some form of padding or diverting.

Opinion & Commentary

Lucy begins, “Peter Rabbit is this stupid book about this stupid rabbit who steals vegetables from other peoples’ gardens . . .” She counts 17 words. “Hmm. 83 to go.” She continues with a long and pointless list of vegetables, stopping now and then to count the words.

Lucy started what could have been a solid critique and opinion piece. Her opinion is valid, but now she needs to substantiate it and articulate her reasons for finding the book “stupid.”

What’s Lucy’s problem? Her focus is on the word count and not on the words or the content. Plus, she probably hasn’t bothered to assess why she thinks the book is stupid.

  • TIP #1: When writing opinion or commentary, think first! Know why you believe or feel the way you do. Research a bit to gather material to support your view.
  • TIP #2: When writing to a specified word count, instead of writing up to the count, write past it and then edit. Write until you have nothing left to say, then cut, trim, and rewrite to fit.

Comparing & Contrasting

Schroeder flounders, decides to compare and contrast, then gets diverted big time! “The name of the book about which this book report is about is Peter Rabbit which is about this rabbit. I found it very . . . I liked the part where . . . It was a . . . It reminded me of Robin Hood! And the part where Little John jumped from the rock to the Sheriff of Nottingham’s back. And then Robin and everyone swung from the trees, in a sudden surprise attack.”

Instead of taking elements of each story and explaining how they were similar or different by comparing and contrasting, Schroeder shares one scene about Robin Hood. The point was to provide further insight into the story of Peter Rabbit.

  • TIP #3: When comparing and contrasting, your main subject needs to be your main focus. Always point back to and make sure that your examples support your main focus.

Analysis & Exposition

Linus attempts to go deep, but it’s clearly a stretch: “In examining a book such as Peter Rabbit, it is important that the superficial characteristics of its deceptively simple plot should not be allowed to blind the reader to the more substantial fabric of its deeper motivations . . .”

  • TIP #4: Analysis and exposition aims to peel back the layers of your subject, rendering a complex topic more accessible. Why didn’t this work for Linus? The story was relatively simple to begin with. His method, while valid, wasn’t appropriate for the material.

Summary

All three failed to make any connection between the story and life, or practical application. In other words, showing why what they had to say was important to me and you. They also really didn’t seem to understand their subject! As is typical with book reports, too often the books being reported on have either not been read at all or read only in part.

  • TIP #5: Connect with your audience. Offer a practical application whenever possible.
  • TIP #6: Know something! You just can’t write about what you don’t know.

So how does Charlie Brown deal with the problem? The way many of us do: procrastination! “If I start writing now, when I’m not really rested, it could upset my thinking, which is no good at all. I’ll get a fresh start tomorrow, and it’s not due till Wednesday, so I’ll have all of Tuesday, unless something should happen.”

How can you avoid these pitfalls when writing? Know your material and be clear on what you want to say. Stay on track and on topic. Say what you want to say, then stop. Don’t over-complicate the simple or over-simplify the complicated. If you’re unsure about something, do more research. Never stray from the truth. And don’t procrastinate! The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll be done.

* Lyrics for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown were written by Clark Gesner

Delaying Disgust

I never correct anything and I never go back to what I have written, except to the foot of the last page to see where I have got to. If you once look back, you are lost. How could you have written this drivel? How could you have used “terrible” six times on one page? And so forth.

If you interrupt the writing of fast narrative with too much introspection and self-criticism, you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain. By following my formula, you write 2,000 words a day and you aren’t disgusted with them until the book is finished, which will be in about six weeks.

Ian Fleming, How to Write a Thriller

Convention Highlights

While this blog isn’t an official publication of the Evangelical Press Association, most of our writers are EPA members. Several of us attended the 2022 convention in Colorado Springs this past April and we’d like to share some highlights with you. If you’re a freelancer, we hope you’ll consider joining EPA, too. Besides the annual convention (in Lancaster, PA, next year), we have monthly Zoom calls for discussing common challenges, sharing tips, and brainstorming ideas for improving working conditions for freelancers.

We asked two veteran and two newer freelancers to share something they learned at the convention and something they enjoyed. Here are their responses:

Chris Maxwell (veteran)

What I learned: Practical steps on improving podcasts, and more writing skills and opportunities. 

What I enjoyed: Location, conversations, each session I attended was wonderful, and seeing friends. 

Seana Scott (newer)

I learned some editing hacks for self-editing, was reminded about cultivating the creative life, and remembered that I am not alone in writing for ministry. I gleaned from creatives, enjoyed meeting new people, and had a little break from the daily grind of sitting in front of my computer at home. Definitely worth the investment.

Darrell Goematt (newer)

As a freelance photographer, I especially enjoyed the photo track of workshops taught by Gary Fong of Genesis Photo Agency. Gary expertly helped us understand what makes a substantive image that not only drives the story along but endures the test of time.

As a first-time attender, I really appreciated the intentional schedule breaks devoted to networking. The Sunday night round table hosted by Ann-Marget Hovsepian was highly conducive to meeting other freelancers and sharing ideas. Please schedule that again next year.

Ann-Margret Hovsepian (veteran)

I’ve been to well over a dozen of these conventions but I always come home with new ideas and tips. I especially want to remember these points: Never try to do creative thinking and critical thinking at the same time. Creative first, critical later. Also, be reader-centred when writing, focusing on the readers’ needs so they sense that you “get” them.

The fellowship at EPA conventions is wonderful. Over the last 15+ years, I have forged friendships that have had a great impact on my life—and not only on a professional level. I’ve grown as a human being, a Christian, a writer, an artist, and a businesswoman because of the connections I’ve made at EPA.

If you attended EPA this year, please add your own highlights in the comments section! If you didn’t, we hope to meet you in 2023.

We Need a New Name!

We’ve been loving the growth of this blog and the positive feedback we’ve received since launching it a couple of years ago. However, when some of us attended the Evangelical Press Association annual convention in early April, we started to notice that “Christian Freelance Writers Network blog,” while precise and descriptive, took a long time to say every time we wanted to point someone to this great resource.

That’s when we figured out it might be time to give this blog a shorter name. We’d love your input! If you’ve been following CFWN for a while, you probably have a good sense of what we’re all about and what we offer. What would you call this blog?

Please share your ideas in the comments below or send them to us by email (christianfwn@gmail.com). Thanks!

10 Tricks to Take Your Writing to the Next Level

by Patti Townley-Covert

While waiting for the literary agent to speak, my hands shook and my heart raced with nervous anticipation. It was my first writer’s conference, and since first grade I’d wanted to be a writer. With a stern face he looked down at my article, then at me.

“You have no style.” My heart sank as I sighed, and my shoulders drooped. Mr. Stobbe’s words killed the dream.

Wait. What? He wasn’t finished. “You have no style, but you can learn.”

Our meeting that day changed my life. For the next decade I attended writer’s conferences, read recommended books, and wrote, revising one article more than 30 times. But before being published in a magazine, it won an award. Then, my articles started appearing in national and international magazines. After editing numerous books by clients, this past year I finally published my own.

The tricks I’ve learned have not only made my writing better, they also make it more fun. These tips can do the same for you. Here’s ten ways to elevate your craft.

  1. With your first draft, just write. Do not edit as you go. Trying to do both simultaneously forces the creative right side of your brain to wrestle with the analytical left side. The result is torture. So, let your creativity fly unhindered while expressing your thoughts.
  2. Then, go back and replace passive voice with active wherever possible. Sometimes we need the vagueness of passive, but active verbs grab a reader’s attention.
  3. “Show” don’t “tell.” Weak: “she is walking this way carrying a gun.” Stronger: “she sauntered closer, a loaded pistol in her right hand.” Play with those verbs (and nouns, too!) to engage a reader in the scene. Think of a rough draft the way an artist might pencil sketch an image. Then, go put the color in making your writing as vibrant as possible while shading the nuances. For me, that’s when the fun begins.
  4. Eliminate wordiness. Tighten your prose by removing unnecessary words. Wherever possible use one word instead of two or more.  
  5. Use contractions. Instead of “I have” or “she will” using “I’ve” or “she’ll” makes writing less stilted, more conversational.
  6. Avoid redundancy. If you use a word like “coffin,” don’t repeat it in the next sentence or even the next paragraph. A good thesaurus offers a variation like “casket” instead.
  7. Eliminate clichés. Instead of “she ran faster than a speeding bullet,” think of something fresh. “She ran faster than a roadrunner chased by Wile E. Coyote.”
  8. Vary sentence and paragraph length. Short sentences or paragraphs increase tension. Longer ones slow a story down.
  9. Eliminate “I” as much as possible. Revise sentences that start with it. It’s easy to say “I this,” and “I that.” But even if it’s your story, readers want to know what’s in it for them. Avoiding “I” whenever possible strengthens your message.
  10. Always keep your reader in mind. Identify who you’re writing for and meet that target audience right where they are.

My best tip for life and writers is to never stop learning. Reading books, attending conferences, joining critique groups, and experimenting with words make the writing life one that can take us places beyond our wildest dreams.

Award-winning freelance writer and editor Patti Townley-Covert is the author of The Windblown Girl: A Memoir about Self, Sexuality, and Social Issues. Concern for young adults trying to escape life’s pain infused this page-turner with a message relevant for today. Patti has written numerous articles for publications such as Life Beautiful, Facts and Trends, and Decision.

We’ve loved having so many of you follow our blog and hope that our posts have informed and inspired you. Our team is going through a bit of a busy time these days, and several of us are preparing to attend the Evangelical Press Association convention in mid-April, so thanks for being patient with us while we take a little break from posting.

You can look forward to more articles and tips when we pick up the blog again in late April. Until then, happy spring!