Evaluate Your Priorities

What is the most important thing in your life? What are the commitments you’ve made that you can’t back out of? Figure out where your time is going and then figure out how to tweak your life to make all of your commitments work together. Priorities set the rhythm of your life. . . Once you know what you care most about, you can make a plan that keeps your commitments safe while protecting time for your writing.

J.J. Hanna

Pen, Pencil, or Crayon?

by Stephen R. Clark

All writing is not equal. Nor should it be. Just as we can use various tools to write with, such as a pencil, ballpoint, fountain pen, crayon, or marker, these can also describe different types of writing to fit different needs.

Elements that play into defining need include your audience, the action you want them to take, the medium you will use, your budget, the timing involved, and the consequence of your message.

Before you start writing, be clear about what type of writing you need so you can pick the right style.

Pencil it in

We’ve all “penciled the date in” when making appointments. This implies the meeting is a throw-away or very tentative. It may or may not happen and the consequence either way is light.

The same is true for “pencil copy.” This is writing that needs to be done “quick and dirty.” The message needs to be shared, but it isn’t vital to national or your security, so you don’t need to sweat the style. Just write the facts in plain good English and be done with it.

For instance, a reminder notice of a meeting that includes a brief agenda. You want people to show up on time, at the right place, and have something to say. All they need are the basics; the rest they’ll get and contribute at the meeting.

Ink it with a Bic

When you put ink to paper, it’s time to get a bit more serious. But maybe not too serious. The writing in an informal company newsletter needs to be well done, but it’s not great literature. The same is true for meeting minutes, church bulletins, and sale flyers.

Write in a conversational style and make sure your facts and quotes are accurate. The information needs to be fresh and timely, not weighted with endless detail and complex sentences.

Wake up & smell the marker

When it’s time to get attention and make an impression, bring out the big fat stinky bold black marker! Be audacious and gutsy. Write in broad strokes and use outlandish, exciting language. Just like they do in those tacky, but effective, carpet and auto dealership commercials.

If there’s a critical deadline your audience needs to respond by, or truly urgent information they need to take to heart, don’t be timid. Write bold, write big, make some noise, and maybe even raise a little stink, but without being offensive.

Pass the crayons

Are you writing about something fun, inventive, or playful? Then get out the crayons! Keep the tone light and colorful. Draw your audience into the fun. Make them see and feel the joy. Write to the senses.

Your company has had a record sales month and it’s time to celebrate. Don’t send out stodgy engraved invitations. Tell them to come and enjoy a steamy hot cup of cocoa with marshmallows and freshly baked glazed donuts! Give them a taste of what to expect. Whet their curiosity.

Let the fountain pens flow

Weighty topics and momentous events call for fine writing. Put on the evening gown or the tux and pull out your best gold-nibbed fountain pen.

When it’s a speech to contributors, a sermon for Sunday morning, a book for the ages, or an article detailing the ethical lapses of a company, it’s time to take time and carefully craft your message.

You need to be attentive to each word and shape every phrase and paragraph with painstaking precision.

Here is where voice is most critical in writing. Your message must resonate and be sound not only in its logic, but also in its tone. Be memorable, lyrical, and quotable.

So, whaddya need?

You’ve got a message that needs delivering. Who is it for? What do you want them to do? How are you sending it? How much time and money do you have? How truly enduring is your message?

Answering these questions will help you determine how to craft the final product. Who knows? You may need a marker headline with a crayon opening followed by a finely written body. Mixing styles is fine if it meets your need and connects with your audience. When that happens, it’s all good.

The Love of Language

submitted by Randy Petersen

This maverick Episcopal priest has been a favorite author of mine for many years. In a section on the love of language, Robert Farrar Capon wrote:

This is the era of talks, of reports, of analyses that are unbearable because the talkers and the writers are insufferably bad lovers. And, to throw a stone at my own trade, it is the era of sermons—words about the Word!—that have no taste at all, because the preachers do not see that words themselves are lovely.

An Offering of Uncles, 1967

Truth Be Told

by Randy Petersen

We have a truth crisis in our world today. I’m not the first person to notice that and I won’t be the last. Pontius Pilate’s question is ever before us, “What is truth?”

For Christian writers, it may come as a surprise that the most important discipline of our time is not theology or communication, or even political science, but epistemology—how people come to believe what they believe. This is the conflict playing out every day on social media and at family dinner tables. Perhaps we could manage honest disagreements, but this is trench warfare. Both sides are dug in.

More than ever, journalists, writers, and editors have important roles to play in hunting for and laying out the truth. We need diligence to research it, wisdom to grasp it, skill to explain it, and courage to publish it. Temptations abound. Let me suggest several notable ones that afflict not only front-line journalists, but also those who process and present their findings.

The Scoop

Old news is no news. You want to beat the competition to the story, so you might run with a partial set of facts before the full truth of a matter has surfaced. You grab quotes from someone with less expertise because the real experts need more time to study the issue. Your analysis consists of snap judgments that ignore key complexities. You dumb down the story, but you get it out there first.

The Splash

“If it bleeds, it leads,” news editors used to say. So you’re tempted to tweak the facts to make a story more sensational. You amp up a story with far-fetched questions and sly innuendo. No outright lies, but the presentation splashes suspicion all over your subject. You succeed in attracting attention to a non-story, but at what cost?

The Spin

Nowadays every story has a spin. A ball game, a good deed, a store opening, a church picnic. You might think such stories are immune, but there is probably someone spinning each of those events right or left. (Why no potato salad this year? A protest against Idaho politics?) You will be tempted (and perhaps required) to spin your story in a way your audience will accept, confirming “truth” they already believe. But is it really the truth?

Ask the Journalists

An excellent article in last winter’s Wheaton magazine quoted several journalists connected with Wheaton College. “I came to the conclusion that the job of the journalist was to pursue truth,” said UPI veteran Wes Pippert. That might seem obvious to anyone who has studied journalism, but as we’ve seen, nowadays it’s not a sure thing.

When every cell phone is essentially a printing press, people have immense publishing power, even if they aren’t “prepared for the difficulties of sorting fact from fiction and understanding a range of ideological perspectives,” according to the Wheaton article’s author, Bethany Peterson.

Jeremy Weber of Christianity Today describes some of the journalistic temptations I’ve noted. “If that’s what gets eyeballs and shares, then you want to lean toward, of the possible framings, the more aggressive one, or of the possible headlines, the more hyperbolic one.” By contrast, he affirms the importance of “your commitment to truth and love of neighbor.”

In a time when the profession of journalism is often maligned, it’s refreshing to see Christians affirming their calling. “I try to tell the truth,” says Ruth Graham, a religion correspondent for The New York Times, “but also in a way that lets readers make up their own minds.”

For Sarah Pulliam Bailey, religion reporter for The Washington Post, it comes down to the Golden Rule—but that doesn’t mean refusing to say anything negative about anyone. “I want the truth,” she says. “I want someone to write a piece about the good, the bad, and the ugly about how we’re living life.”

All Truth

A philosophy professor of mine became known for the phrase “All truth is God’s truth.” As he saw it, we needn’t fear any academic pursuit, if we are indeed pursuing the truth. The same goes for the pursuit of truth in journalism. May we doggedly develop not only our nose for news, but also our nose for nonsense. Let’s sniff out unfounded claims, overspun stories, and illogical conclusions in our relentless passion for the truth.

Fear of the Blank Page

The mind has plenty of ways of preventing you from writing, and paralysing self-consciousness is a good one. The only thing to do is ignore it, and remember what Vincent van Gogh said in one of his letters about the painter’s fear of the blank canvas—the canvas, he said, is far more afraid of the painter.

— Philip Pullman, Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling

The Assembling of Introverted Writers

by Jeff Friend

If I told you that I’m an introvert, you might assume I avoid groups whenever possible. You would be correct. But I’ve learned the cold fact that there are times—whether at social occasions, business functions, or other types of situations—I have to engage in actual face-to-face conversations with strangers. I’m breaking into a cold sweat just thinking about it.

There is one exception to this phobia. I feel completely comfortable interacting with groups of writers.

Writing is a solitary function. Just me sitting at my desk pecking at a keyboard. Even my wife hesitates to enter my lair when I’m at work. To use a biblical phrase, we writers are a peculiar people.

But in a writer’s group, I am talking with people who actually understand the struggles, doubts, questions, and obstacles I face. Sure, my wife calmly listens when I rant about a writing challenge I’m having, but since she hasn’t personally experienced the travails of writing, she can only nod with empathy and give me a few encouraging words.  Alas, I trudge back to my desk and reenter my cocoon.

From a professional perspective, a writer’s group gives me the creativity, encouragement, and knowledge necessary for me to grow and succeed in my craft. I’ve discovered that a writer’s group is also vital for the camaraderie (and sanity) that can only be found among people who are traveling the same road you are.  We can share and celebrate our successes, comfort each other when our paths get bumpy, exchange tips and information, discuss markets and many other topics, and give a heartfelt “I know how you feel” to pick us up.

In-person meetings are probably the most beneficial (did I just say that?), but virtual meetings have opened up greater opportunities. Now, instead of meeting with only a few local writers, we can talk with people around the world and learn about other regions, cultures, and better ways to communicate with audiences in ways we could only imagine before.    

Aside from the professional aspects of a writer’s group, the personal benefits are equally valuable. As an introvert, the interaction helps me to reach outside of my comfort zone and become more sociable, and boost my spiritual life as well. The Bible tells us to “forsake not the assembling of yourselves.” I think that applies to assembling as writers as well as coming together with other believers at church or special events.

Do I still get the heebie-jeebies when I’m getting ready for a meeting? Absolutely, whether virtual or in-person. But it’s getting better. I know that God gifted me to be a writer, and I need to develop and use that gift to the best of my abilities. Being with other writers is part of the “iron sharpens iron” process, so even if it makes me uncomfortable, I’ll just take a deep breath and move forward to fulfill my calling.

As a freelance writer for over 30 years, Jeff Friend has published hundreds of articles in dozens of print and digital publications. He is an EPA Higher Goals recipient and the author of the book Staying Focused When Life Gets Blurry. Jeff has co-authored or edited several other books, and he was a staff writer and editor for a daily newspaper.   

Freelancing 101

By Ann-Margret Hovsepian

Wouldn’t it be great if you could sit with your computer or pad of paper, write your stories, and then have them magically appear in print? And make money? Yes. Well. That might work in a fantasy novel, but we live in a non-fiction world that runs on contracts, deadlines, accounting, and—sorry, we cannot avoid it—taxes.

Although writing is a creative process, talent alone will not move you forward if you want to earn a living as a writer. You must start with administration and finish with marketing. Think of these two brackets as the bread and your creative work as the innards of your sandwich. Without the layers, you basically end up with salad. Here are some ways to make your first layer solid.

Partner with God

Before you do anything else, bathe your assignments in prayer. Ask God to give you discernment about what stories to write, to open doors for your story to get to where it needs to go, and to touch the hearts of those who read your story.

Quantify Your Goals

What do you want to write? Where do you want to see your work published? What steps will get you there? How long will it take? What will you let go of to make the time? It’s fine if you don’t know the answers to all these questions right away. Just do the first thing you know to do and that will lead you to the next step.

Manage Your Time

Figure out your routine. How many hours will you work per day or week? What time will you start and finish? Keep in mind that the time you spend on a project includes not only writing, but also reading, researching, brainstorming, and learning. Leave ample margin for revisions and unexpected setbacks. Make sure family and friends respect your work schedule.

Run a Tight Ship

Few people enjoy paperwork, but developing and sticking to an efficient administrative system will mitigate headaches in the long run. Use downtimes (when you don’t feel like writing) to clear away paperwork. An easy-to-remember rule of thumb for keeping paperwork off your desk is the “FLAT” approach: File it, Let someone else do it, take Action, or Throw it away!

Keep detailed accounts. Learn about rates, rights, and income tax rules for freelancers. Keep all your business-related receipts. Invoice as soon as a job is finished.

Keep track of your assignments, too. Whether you use a planner, a wall calendar, a computer program or an app on your phone, mark deadlines as soon as you have a confirmed assignment. If your article requires interviews, set up those calls or meetings before you do anything else. Don’t assume that your subject’s schedule will coordinate with yours.

Be Professional

It doesn’t matter how brilliant your manuscript is if you are a nightmare to work with. Remember that your editor or publisher is your client, and the customer is always right (in theory, at least). Show humility and grace when your work is criticized or corrected, even if you have to disagree, and resolve to be teachable. Not only will this show good character and make you a pleasure to do business with, but you will actually learn things and get better at your craft!

Meet your deadlines. Call when you said you would. And never, ever get “under-promise and over-deliver” mixed up!

Stop

The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day. . . you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.

Ernest Hemingway

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.