Lifejackets

“As Christian writers, you and I have something in common—we have a high calling. We hold the lifejackets in a drowning world. It’s our job to shine light in the darkness, to hold out hope to those who are hurting, to bring beauty and sustenance to a starving society.”

Kate Motaung

contributed by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

Recipe for the Perfect Interview: 5 Easy Steps

My brownies are kind of famous. When people ask for my recipe, I laugh and tell them I use a box mix. Then I let them in on my secret: I literally count out the suggested 50 strokes when mixing, instead of stopping when the batter looks well stirred. This trick ensures a perfectly gooey texture.

Successful recipes—even those on a box—work because they’re tried and true. This principle has proven true in my writing, too. When someone I interview says, “That’s a great question!” they might as well have complimented my brownies. I grin and think: Nailed it! Strong interviews are the backbone of news reports, profiles, and feature articles, but the same skills are useful when researching for a novel and other types of stories.

Here’s my recipe for the perfect interview.

1. Gather everything you need.

First, set up the interview immediately. You may have a few weeks until deadline, but that doesn’t mean your subject is available throughout that timeframe. Leave room for last-minute rescheduling and follow-up questions. When scheduling the interview, mention how much time you anticipate needing (always overestimating in case the conversation runs long). Be clear about the purpose of the interview but do not send your questions in advance. Your subject should be able to think about the topic without rehearsing responses. Before you call or meet with the person you’re interviewing, do your research. Collecting biographical information ahead of time (personal and company websites are a good place to start) eliminates the need for unnecessary questions—and the risk of annoying your interviewee. Identify secondary sources of information, such as other people you can talk to. If your story is about a conflict or controversial topic, explore both sides of the issue.

2. Write every question you can think of. Then write some more.

Go through your questions and prioritize those pertaining to your topic. Ask off-topic questions only if they may shed light on the interviewee’s personality and add interest to the story. Ask a couple of these at the beginning and, if there’s time left over, at the end. Avoid questions that diverge from the topic with no purpose. Mine for interesting anecdotes and not only dry facts.

3. Be punctual. Be pleasant. Be professional.

Show up for the interview or make the phone call when you said you would. Be friendly but not overly familiar, and address the interviewee respectfully regardless of your personal views. If your subject says something you disagree with, don’t debate. Your job is to record what is being said, not to assert your own opinions. Be empathetic but not too chatty when reacting to your subject’s comments. Don’t make assumptions about the topic or the interviewee. Resist the temptation to write the story in your head before the interview is done. If there is a pause in the conversation, allow a few seconds of silence before jumping in with your next question. Some of the best quotes come after such pauses because the interviewee was processing what he or she just said.

4. Always end with “Is there anything I didn’t ask but you want to tell me about?”

. . . or some variation of this question. Nine times out of ten, I get excellent quotes when I ask this, especially if my interviewee is passionate about the topic. A freelancer I know even asks if the other person wants to ask her a question. This could give you additional clues on how to move your story forward.

5. Review your notes right away and follow up on anything that’s unclear.

Do this while the conversation is still fresh in both your minds. Don’t try to decipher your notes or guess what was meant. It’s better to ask than to publish something inaccurate or misleading.

Serve warm.

Sorry, wrong recipe!

Ann-Margret Hovsepian

Mosquitoes

“There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.”

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (Harper & Row, 1989), p. 15

contributed by Randy Petersen

How Upwork Can Revolutionize Your Freelance Career

It was a scene straight out of the hit show The Office, but without the jokes, laughs or humor. But just like that famous comedy series, it was full of awkward moments.

“Today’s your last day on the job,” my boss told me in a matter-of-fact tone.

The great company I had worked for was downsizing, and I was being booted off the Island of Full-Time Employment. For the next hour, I was in a fear-filled daze of regret. Those emotions soon turned to panic (about the future), excitement (about the possibilities), and confusion (about what to do next).

A series of questions raced through my mind: Should I dive back into the full-time work world—the island I had always called home? Or should I give freelancing a shot, and boldly cross the employment ocean to live on the Island of Freelance Work? Heck, I didn’t even know if there was life on that island.

I chose the latter option, but then faced an even bigger question: How do I find potential employers? And how do they find me?

What I desperately needed was an eHarmony-type website that matched employers with potential employees. You know: a website that lets employers list a job and lets me list my profile. And if we “like” one another, then they’ll hire me.

Thankfully, several websites like that do exist, and Upwork.com—the one I used—remains one of the more popular ones.

Formerly known as Elance-oDesk, Upwork calls itself the largest freelancing website, with millions of jobs posted on the platform each year. I don’t doubt it. That’s because Upwork was designed for freelancers in dozens of computer-related fields, including marketing, computer programming and graphic design. And, of course, in writing and editing.

With millions of jobs and more than 1 million users, you must be patient (you likely won’t be hired the first week or even month) and wise (you have to use the proper keywords to find what you want).

My keywords were “Christian,” “Christian editor,” and “Christian writer,” and I searched for them multiple times each day. Unfortunately, Upwork does not have an email notification function, although the platform does have a useful app.

Upwork is like the construction world. You bid on jobs.

It offers a free plan and a “Freelancer Plus” arrangement that costs $14.99 per month. That’s more than they charged when I began using it, but the Plus plan does include several useful perks (among them: You can see the high and low bids before you place your own bid).

The goal with Upwork is to find your niche and to build your profile and score (100 percent is the highest). To do that, you might have to do a few small jobs for less-than-desirable rates. (For example, I wrote a 150-word ad for a friendly client thanks to a $20 bid, and he gave me high marks.) That rating helped get the attention of a client a few weeks later who had a more enjoyable and better-paying job.

For most freelancers, Upwork jobs won’t be the only source of revenue. But Upwork can be a path to finding work you didn’t know existed—and perhaps to connect you with clients that will have even more jobs down the road.

Perhaps you will find that perfect match. And pretty soon, you will discover there is life on the Island of Freelance Work.

Michael Foust

The Search for the Perfect Coffee Shop

Sometimes a writer needs to get away, but where?

My longing for a coffee shop has little to do with caffeine. I am an addict, but not an aficionado. Folger’s is just fine for me, and I make my own each morning. What I want is a place—a table where I can spread out a little, a bit of natural light, and a dim buzz of activity that I can ignore.

South Jersey—the region where I live and write—has many fine attractions. For instance, I’m five minutes away from an authentic Revolutionary War battleground. I’ve never been there, but if I ever feel the need to visit an authentic Revolutionary War battleground, five minutes, I’m there. In the opposite direction, there’s a mall. This mall is so popular, they built four other malls around it. We are thoroughly malled up.

Yet in all that commercial potential, there is not a decent coffee shop.

I’ve tried libraries. No coffee, but they do have, you know, books. My problem is that there isn’t enough buzz. I like knowing that human communication is going on around me, even if I’m not in on it. As a writer, I want to keep my finger on the pulse of society. The library doesn’t have much of a pulse.

We have more diners than we need in South Jersey, and there are times when I have sought solace at a diner when I grew weary of the search for a coffee shop. Diners do serve coffee, and they have tables. Their waitstaff also displays a unique charm. They generally call me “Hon,” an endearment I don’t receive at the library. Still, I need more.

For years I hated Starbucks, on principle. Their overpriced coffee was one thing, but it was probably their steady drive toward world domination that bothered me most. I still laugh when I remember a joke I heard years ago from Conan O’Brien. “It is now illegal to open a Starbuck’s inside another Starbuck’s.” And yet now I find that Starbuck’s is usually my best option. Coffee. Tables. Buzz. The only problem is that the nearest one is twenty minutes away, and that’s twenty minutes I could be spending at home complaining about the lack of coffee shops.

So if you have entrepreneurial skill, come on over to South Jersey. There’s a wide open market for the perfect coffee shop. And a cool battlefield. Or so I hear.

Randy Petersen