Christmas Greetings from Our Team

We appreciate each reader who follows, reads, comments on, and shares our blog posts. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas in a few days, four of our writers would like to share some thoughts with you. Enjoy!

Christmas Drama

by Randy Petersen

For a decade and a half, I wrote a new Christmas drama for my church each year. I loved doing this, but it became a huge challenge to find an angle we hadn’t tried before. Allegory? Been there. A zany innkeeper? Yep. Time travel? Every which way.

An approach we began to use exclusively was the modern-world story in which characters encountered and internalized the Christmas story in some way. This was a challenge too, because I always wanted to avoid a hokey conversion scene. I found that incremental changes in a situation or relationship carried more power. Two estranged sisters beginning to talk again. A prodigal daughter with an illegitimate child being welcomed home for Christmas dinner.

As a Christian communicator, you’ve probably wrestled with this too, or something like it. The Greatest Story Ever Told has been told many times. We don’t need to improve on it, but we do need to bring it home. How does the miracle of Christmas apply to the Worst Year Ever Lived (at least in the 21st century)?

It’s an honor to share this assignment with you, my freelancing colleagues. So as we go through this season and into a new year, let our creativity flow, our imaginations bursting forth with innovation, our hearts brimming with empathy, our minds honed to extreme clarity. May the miracle of Christmas invigorate our language as we find new ways to bring glory to God in the Highest.

Treat Yourself to the Joy of Writing

by Ann Byle

The holiday season can wreak havoc on your writing schedule, what with all the present buying and wrapping, decorating, making food for special meals, and gathering with friends and family in person or virtually. On the other hand, it can be a lonely time for those whose family is gone or far away.

Whatever kind of season you experience, finding time and space to write can be an oasis of calm in a fraught season. Search out those half hours of time to calm your heart and mind and write a few paragraphs. If time is all you have, start a project you’ve only dreamt of so far. Treat yourself to the joy of writing this holiday season in small pieces or days at a time. Writing time is never wasted and is the best gift ever.

My plan? Write when I can amid lots of activity, write when I have no other choice except to go bonkers, and write with joy and intention. And look forward to Ordinary Time when things settle back down sometime in January. May joy and peace be your companions this holiday season.

The Message

by Stephen R. Clark                                                                                                                   

The season speaks to us, a secret signaled incessantly in blinking lights and garland flags of pine and tinsel. Green with hope and red with joy, the message turns our thoughts outside our own needs, desires, and wants.

Trees suddenly grow indoors, decorated with memories, bearing the fruits of love and time. Gilded and ribboned packages magically appear under these incongruous evergreens—expectations and dreams captured in cardboard boxes.

At night, the air aglow with star shine on the snow, whisps of angel songs drift white and pure straight into our hearts. We gather inside our homes around hearths ablaze, warmed by goodwill and God’s grace. On the mantle, the story of Christ’s birth is played out in a motionless menagerie, objects of simplicity and awe.

Through eyes of innocence, we look past the nascent Nativity, just beyond the horizon of the season, where the new year waits poised with promise. The Message of the season fells fear of the future as the immanence of Christ’s presence is again heralded by the world.

Childlike, we are reborn, our voices and souls caroling the Gift of the Ages, in whom we live, and move, and have our being. It’s Christmas. Emmanuel is come. Maranatha!

If You Were a Christmas Carol, Which One Would You Be?

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

As you listen to the same carols over and over (and over and over) again this season, try this: Ask yourself which titles best describe your life. What message does your life— and, by extension, your writing—send out to those who are listening? Here are several examples to get you started.

  • What Child Is This? — Is Jesus unknown to you? Are you seeking Him?
  • Do You Hear What I Hear? — Are you so intently focussed on what God is saying to you that you are eager for others to hear Him as well?
  • Come Thou Long Expected Jesus — Do you desire to be close to Jesus? Do you tell Him so?
  • Silent Night — Are you able to be quiet and reflective of God’s gift or is your holiday full of noise and activity?
  • How Great Our Joy — Does your relationship with Jesus fill your life with great joy?
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain — What’s the message you send out to people at Christmas? That you’re excited and stressed about all your festivities and preparations, or that the birth and life of Jesus is the best gift you’ve ever received?

This Christmas, just as these songs proclaim the good news of Jesus’ birth, may our lives of joy, peace, and love do the same.

Prime the Pump

“Ultimately, you have to sit down and start to write. And even if all you do is type out “I can’t write this morning; I can’t write this morning; oh, bother, I can’t write this morning,” that will sometimes prime the pump and get it started.”

Madeleine L’Engle, Madeleine L’Engle Herself (2001)

Five “I”s for Finding Stories

by Chris Maxwell

Debbie and I smiled at friends as we walked out of the church. We enjoyed the conversations in the cool November air. One of our friends informed us that the pecans falling from trees beside the church were ours if we wanted them. So, we began picking up pecans. My mind imagined a pie. Debbie’s mind focused on gifts for family.

Things changed quickly. As we worked, Debbie said, “What’s that?” She was watching what looked like a squirrel competing with us for the pecans. The more we looked, the larger the animal appeared to be. I walked closer as the creature climbed a pecan tree. If that was a squirrel, it was bigger than any I had seen in my years of disliking squirrels stealing food from our bird feeders.

I got close. Very close. The animal sat on the tree limb as we stared at each other. It didn’t have a mobile device. I did—I used it to take pictures, search the web, and ask a friend to come back to tell me what type of squirrel we had seen.

Our new friend? A fox squirrel. I posted pictures on social media. We all had pecans; I had a story.

Where are the stories?

Writers often struggle to find stories. Before we type nouns and verbs, before we reveal illustrations and key points, we search for stories. But where are they? In our hurry to find quality stories that have the potential to reach an audience, where do we spot them?

Stories are everywhere. Nearby. Far away. As writers, our job—and our privilege—is to notice them, craft them, present them. The stories are all around us, though we often miss the fox squirrel desperately chasing our pecans.

One place to trace stories is through IMAGES. We live in an image-driven world, so images shouldn’t be hard to detect. They stare back from our screens and devices. They rush through videos crafted to keep our attention. They sit in paper for those of us who still enjoy magazines.

We don’t always need to be staring at a screen. Look out the window. See the clouds as they ride through the sky. Pictures convey actions, feelings, experiences. See them. Stay there. Stare there. Stories are waiting.

Another way to discover stories is through IMAGINATION. Our brains can serve as tour guides into realms we will never visit. Mentally, we can go there. Listen for sounds. Look. Breathe. Hear the bird chirping? What is that smell? Roses? Do you see them? Who needs a rose from you? What is their story?

I have written for one company for three decades. They assign fictional stories as devotionals. So, I let the brain begin its tasks. Regions of my brain artistically reveal scenes. Nonfictional conversations merge with unreal narratives. Knowledge and encounters manifest as bizarre blends of actions. Stories emerge. They have been waiting there all along. We must give them time to wonder, to adjust, to merge, to mingle.

In my book Pause with Jesus I didn’t just read and study the stories. I imagined being in the stories. In the story, you need to write this week, imagine. Give yourself time to imagine.

INTERVIEWS also help us transform life experiences into stories. Engaging in conversations to begin crafting stories can be thrilling opportunities. They can also be intimidating. Choose to see the positive side. Ask open-ended questions. Listen well—remembering we have one mouth, but two eyes and two ears. Search for stories behind the stories.

I recently wrote an article about someone’s pain and grief. The original plan changed as I interviewed this person. The editor and I knew enough of their story to interest us, but we didn’t know the deeper part of the story that would appeal to a larger audience. One of their answers took me into streets I didn’t expect to travel. Those roads revealed portions I didn’t know existed.

Ghostwriting book projects taught me deeper ways to find stories in the interviews. My role as a pastoral counselor has helped me in this; those I am interviewing are not only providing information. They are telling stories they desperately need to tell. I must listen. Then I must write.

A fourth way to find our fox squirrels around all the leaves and pecans is through INTERRUPTIONS. Welcome interruptions.

When a dog barked, her high volume interrupted my planned thoughts. I struggled to get my mind back on track, but the bark continued playing in my head. It turned into a story—not about disliking dogs, not about the cause of a bark being hunger or hurt, not about frustration. The interruption became a story about grief—remembering a friend’s dog that died. The interruption became a story about how life is bursting with disruptions. Though annoying, they can teach us lessons. Though disturbing, that can distract us into a track for a story we otherwise would have never found.

Some of my best received blog entrees and stories originated with interruptions. Though we need to distance ourselves from distractions when writing, we shouldn’t always push aside that news alert. We shouldn’t always shake our heads amid commotion. We should sneak in and find a story.

Another way we can find stories is through INTERSECTIONS. Junctures of life barrage us with stories. We cross with age. We shift with grief. We turn during times of career change or health change or financial change or political change or international change or emotional change. We aren’t alone on those intersections. Others travel there. Others are stopped there, seeking solutions. My friend writing about his wife’s death—he has a story from that intersection. My friend writing about his move to a foreign land for mission work—he has a story from that intersection.

Good stories need intriguing take-aways. Those found in the intersections of life bring those to types of stories to us. Though uncomfortable at times, these intersections might be your most stimulating stories. Notice them. Write them.

I can still remember the first time I attended an Evangelical Press Association convention. I sat at a lunch with an editor who knew of my writing because of curriculum I had written. He listened to my ideas for his magazine. He was nice, but I could tell none of my concepts thrilled him. Our conversation continued as we told personal stories. When he found out my brother-in-law was a major league catcher, his facial expression changed. He asked me to write about that. I did—using images, imagination, interviews, interruptions, and intersections. It became their cover story. It was my first of many articles with them.

Let these five trails aid you in finding a few pecans. Let them also help you notice the fox squirrels of life. Those are the stories. Look at them. Stare as they glare back. Sit with them. Study, observe, and learn from their climbs and jumps. Notice their belligerent pursuit of pecans, their stillness when seeking to convince you they’re not there at all.

Readers are waiting to see a fox squirrel as they eat a few pecans. Craft your story to take them there.

Chris Maxwell served 19 years as lead pastor in Orlando, Florida, after five years of youth ministry. He’s now in his 15th year as Campus Pastor and Director of Spiritual Life at Emmanuel College. He speaks in churches, conventions, and schools, and is the author of ten books, including Pause With Jesus, Underwater, and a slow and sudden God: 40 years of wonder. His latest book is his 2nd collection of poems—embracing now: pain, joy, healing, living.

Keep Your Reservoir Full

It takes a heap of living to make a writer. It doesn’t necessarily have to be physical action, either. It may be the lives other people have lived, close to you. But a steady flow of happenings, motives, emotions must pass through your mind into your subconscious, and must enter in a continuous stream to supply that certain something that lets you make stories real to the reader.

The important thing to remember is that your ability to write is like your bank account—you must keep putting in to have something there to take out.

Jane Littell, Writer’s Digest (May 1940)

Highlight Reel

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

A couple of years ago, this blog was just a gleam in our eye (which sometimes made me wonder if I needed to clean my glasses yet again) so it’s exciting to look back over the last year of activity on the Christian Freelance Writers Network blog. We weren’t sure whether it would take off and now we’ve already got material lined up for our readers for the next few months, so we’re not even close to running out of posts to share with you!

Some of you are new to this blog, so you may have missed the earlier posts. Today, to celebrate CFWN’s first anniversary, I’m going to highlight several posts you shouldn’t miss (or might want to revisit). Click on the titles to read the posts.

In no particular order…

The Best Way to Be Creative (It Involves Coffee) by Anita K. Palmer

As writers we tend to work in isolation. An original idea, though, most often does not come in a lightbulb moment. No “eureka!” Good ideas need a community.

5 Tips to Enrich Your Pitch by Randy Petersen

Is our breadth keeping us from finding a successful niche? Is our desire to be everything to everyone keeping us from being anything to anyone?

Three Essential Qualities by Jen Taggart

Having cerebral palsy has helped me to develop empathy, problem-solving skills, and humor. These three qualities are essential for anyone to have, especially a freelancer.

Pursue Excellence, Not Perfection by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

When we breathe God into the things we create and produce—when we do what we do with love and humility and generosity—we raise them from the level of “good” to “very good.”

5 Questions to Ask Before You Challenge Your Editor by Michael Foust

Imagine, for a moment, that your story is a triage unit, and you’re determining which patients need the most help.

Is Writing a Spiritual Gift? by Joyce K. Ellis

Just as some pastor-teachers use their gift in large congregations, others at racetracks, and others in children’s work, some of us use ours in print.

Ten “Its” for Writing Well by Stephen R. Clark

For many, writing well in a compressed period of time seems impossible. But you can write quickly and write well. 

Thank you for following our blog! We’d love it if you shared it with your writing friends, students, and groups.

P.S. To find more writing and freelancing tips, use the “Categories” or “Past Posts” lists on the right to access our archives.

Word Play

by Randy Petersen

My first job out of college was editing prayer letters for a mission agency. I admired the missionaries who penned these epistles, but most of them weren’t writers.

During one lazy afternoon at my desk, I tried an experiment. Taking a letter that was badly overwritten, I applied all the Strunk & White guidelines. No passives. Verbs over nouns. Few adjectives. Short sentences. I managed to cut the verbiage in half.

While it was better than the rambling document I started with, it seemed stark, robotic.

I tried again, this time going halfway on those improvement measures.  I allowed some verbs of being and passive constructions. The best modifiers got to stay. If compound sentences tumbled down in an orderly manner, I looked the other way.

This turned out to be the best version of the day.

Learning to Read

Eight years later, I got a freelance job editing books for a literacy project. The publisher gave me two rules: no word more than two syllables and no sentence more than fourteen words. This seemed arbitrary to me, especially the syllables. I could use rhythm, which seems difficult for a novice reader, but not harmonica, which could be easily sounded out. Yet those were the rules and they paid me to follow them.

Despite my initial objections, I found it a great training experience. Through this project, I honed my ability to write simply and clearly. I recommend it as an exercise for you. Could you take a paragraph you’ve written and rewrite it with these two rules? Is the result better or worse? I’m not suggesting this is the way to write everything, but it might give you the ability to tighten your style when you need to.

An Editor’s Wisdom

Let me fast-forward a few more years to an extremely helpful interaction with an editor—though I wasn’t too crazy about it at the time. The editor, whose name was Tim (one of the few details I recall about the incident), asked me for a rewrite of something, and I was initially shocked. My pride kicked in. A professional writer for more than a decade, I had developed a crisp style that many editors liked. It wasn’t weighed down with academic ostentation or religious jargon. And I had learned a lot from that literacy project: compact words in tight sentences.

Tim dared to tell me that my writing was punchy. Noun-verb. Noun-verb. One short sentence after another. I had prided myself on a punchy style—more journalistic than devotional, I thought—but Tim was right. Punchy prose makes readers feel that they’re getting punched. It’s not enjoyable to read.

“Change it up,” Tim said. “Vary your rhythm. A long sentence can be clear if its ideas are in order. And the variation can create a pleasant reading experience.”

The Adams Family

One more stop on this journey of discovery.  Today. I’m working on a project now, creating a collection of material quoted from American Christians of the last four centuries. It’s a fascinating study in styles of communication and how they’ve changed. In general, writers of the past were far more verbose than their modern counterparts. I can’t rewrite these quotations, but I can cut them off when they start to wander. (Ellipses are such wonderful tools!)

But my overwhelming impression about previous generations of wordsmiths is that they loved to write. Abigail Adams took five sentences to tell her husband what I could edit down to one, but clearly she was having a great time finding different ways to make her point. For her, and for many in past centuries, writing was not merely a conduit for ideas; it was a sport, an art, a pastime. Writing was their YouTube.

So maybe it’s okay to use a five-dollar word once in a while—for the fun of it. Maybe a run-on sentence could reflect something delightful about my state of mind. Maybe there’s a pleasing rhythm in a well-turned sentence. Maybe I can forget the rules once in a while and just play.

Fly a Little

The brilliant Joyce Ellis wrote a great piece in this space recently urging us to tighten up on verbal constructions that are redundant or unnecessarily wordy. She is absolutely right. Tight language keeps the reader’s energy with you, and it can free up space elsewhere in your writing (especially if you’re on a word count).

But good writing is not always short writing. Sometimes you need to spread your wings and fly. Have fun with it, and bring your readers along. Let your sentences be as long as they need to be, as we celebrate our delight in this gift of language.

Habits that Lead to Sales

Write every day whether you feel like it or not. Keep a journal and [an] idea notebook. Write to editors and writers that you admire and share your ideas. Take them to lunch if you can. Attend their workshops and writers’ seminars. . . Most of all, write. Write. Write. Write as if your legacy would be a book.

Michael Ray Smith, FeatureWriting.Net: Timeless Feature Story Ideas in an Online World

Write Tight

by Joyce K. Ellis

Sitting in a face-to-face conference appointment with a highly revered writer, I trembled as she silently read my devotional article. I clutched my notebook like a shield over my heart, awaiting her reaction.

“This is good,” she said. “I think it’s publishable. Tighten and polish and send it off.”

Ecstatic, I found refuge in a nearby restroom for a quick thank-You-Lord session. Then I realized I didn’t have a clue what she meant by “tighten and polish.” I’ve spent the rest of my career figuring that out.

With shrinking publisher budgets and reader attention spans, we can increase our publishing quotient if we learn to economize with words. Here are a few “cutting” reminders.

Stay Focused

Begin with the big picture. What is the purpose of your nonfiction piece? Write, in one sentence, what it will say (not what it’s about). For example, not this: My article is about how we can strengthen our prayer lives. But something like this: We can strengthen our prayer lives by learning the art of worship, learning the importance of a pure heart, and learning the practice of praying without ceasing. By the way, those would make great subheads.

I call this an article-in-a-nutshell sentence. Does each sentence, paragraph, anecdote, quotation, and statistic support the article’s focus?

Similarly, write a book-in-a-nutshell sentence for your novel and each chapter. Is every action, dialogue exchange, and setting description essential to that scene’s purpose? If not, cut it. (But save it in another file. You may be dumpster-diving for ideas someday and find a way to recycle what you discarded.)

Eliminate Redundancy

Once we shape the big picture, we can start hacking away at smaller pieces of “deadwood,” such as these redundancies:

  • ecstatic with joy. Could we be ecstatic with sadness? Ecstatic is sufficient.
  • down through the long centuries. All centuries consist of exactly one hundred years, none longer than another. Through the centuries will do.
  • mischievous grin on her face. Where else would she be wearing it?
  • She nodded yes, or he shook his head no.

When noting this last redundancy in workshops, I say, “Look at me.” I nod. “This means yes, right?” Then I shake my head. “This means no, right? So we don’t need the yes and no.”

Note: Axing a word here and there can leave room in our word count to develop our theme better.  

Pick One

Writing flows better with wise word choices. Often we use too many words, trying to ensure readers understand, and we wind up sounding like the Amplified Bible. That reference work provides unique insights, but it’s awkward to read.

So, painstakingly pick the best word. Here’s an example: Through Christ we experience the joy and delight of our salvation.

How much difference is there between joy and delight? When you find other multiple-choice synonyms, such as sins and transgressions or sadness and sorrow, in your writing, I hope you’ll hear my little bell-like voice in your head, chiming, “Pick one.”

Streamline

Wordiness tires readers. Keep them engaged by streamlining expressions such as these:

Wordy: Diane inquired as to his reason for coming. [8 words]

Streamlined: Diane asked why he came.[5 words]

Wordy: Jesus often used stories as an effective means of making abstract truths understandable. [13 words]

Streamlined: Jesus often used stories to make abstract truths understandable. [9 words] Or …to clarify abstract truths. [8 words]

Wordy: We need to take time to reflect on what we read. As we do this, we will receive new insights into what God has to say to us. [28 words]

Streamlined: As we reflect on what we read, God will provide new insights. [12 words]

Note: If you want to emphasize taking time, you might retain that part. However, reflecting implies taking time.

Though I’m mathematically challenged, I believe we have saved twenty-three words in these few examples. That offers another sentence or two to develop an important point elsewhere. We don’t want to change the nuance, but such streamlining can enhance precision.

Restructure Prepositional Phrases

Prepositional phrases can also indicate places to simplify. For example, we wouldn’t write the favorite planet of Janet. We’d turn it into a possessive: Janet’s favorite planet.

But when a proper noun isn’t involved, we often miss an opportunity to write tight. Note these examples:

Original: opportunity for self-advancement

Restructured: self-advancement opportunity

Original: her address in London

Restructured: her London address

Original: tablets of stone

Restructured: stone tablets

Little by little, we whittle and whittle—tightening our writing.

Write Lean

Often we ease into a statement instead of hitting it dead on, even in fiction.

Wordy: Michael decided to get even with the bully.

The decision isn’t the important thing here, so we can delete that whole sentence. In context, we will know what Michael decided when we read what he did.

Better: Michael punched the bully in the stomach.

Watch for Trigger Words

Other expressions that slow the flow include these: one of the, there is/are/were, it’s interesting to note that…. I call them trigger words because they trigger a need for “surgery.”

Surgery candidate: One of the fears many of us experience as a reality in our lives is the fear of being alone.

Healthier: Many of us fear solitude.

Surgery candidate: There are many people who have never read the Bible through.

Healthier: Many people have never read the Bible through.

Surgery candidate: It is interesting to note that God didn’t rebuke Peter when he began to sink.

Healthier: God didn’t rebuke Peter when he began to sink. (Let the reader decide whether it’s interesting or not.)

Clean Up Qualifiers

We can slash most qualifying words, such as these: very, slightly, almost, nearly, just, really, and seem to.

Ridiculous example: I just want you to know that I really don’t like to see so many qualifiers in your writing. They seem to be very distracting and almost always make meslightly nauseated.

Cleaned up: Eliminate nonessential qualifiers. They’re distracting, even sickening.

Qualifiers have a place in our language. But cut the nonessential ones.

Go on a Which Hunt

Use your manuscript search capability to find the word which (also who, whom, that)in your piece. Often they can go bye-bye:

  • conversations which are replete with stories [delete which are]
  • people whom we have known [delete whom]
  • Teenagers don’t enjoy the same activities that they did when they were younger. [delete that].

The more we read good writing, carefully edit our own work, and get peer critiques, the more ways we’ll learn to tighten and polish our writing.

Want to communicate clearly and hold reader attention? Eliminate nonessentials.

This blog post is adapted from Joyce’s book Write with Excellence 201: A lighthearted guide to the serious matter of writing well—for Christian writers, editors, and students.

Look Around and Imagine

Creativity is often a matter of seeing things from a new perspective. Look around your home/workspace and imagine you’re an explorer hiking over that mountain of folders on your kitchen table, or imagine what that fly is thinking as it ambles across your keyboard. Take a microscopic view of your surroundings and see what interesting things come to mind.

Randy Petersen, The Joy of Working at Home