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.

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

The Tools of the Game

by Rachel Dawn Hayes

When my husband and I made the decision for me to leave my corporate job (and corporate salary) and start freelancing, I know he harbored skepticism. He has confessed that he thought I was angling for early retirement. Within a few weeks, however, he had a turnaround. What changed his mind? He’ll tell you himself that it was how I approached my writing like a real business. I set up accounting and time management systems and practiced a lot of self-discipline. To this day, he has actually never come home early to find me watching soap operas and eating bon-bons—not even as a part of my “creative process.”

Despite what we’ve learned from Jessica Fletcher, Carrie Bradshaw, and other writers from the screen, making a go of freelance writing as a full-time job leaves little time for solving mysteries, attending fashion shows, or sauntering into coffee shops mid-morning to shoot the breeze with the barista. The beauty of working for yourself is that you do have the flexibility for those things, but if you actually want to keep eating and pay your bills, you have to set yourself up as a business and behave like a professional.

There are a few practices I adopted and tools I utilized along the way that helped me. I’ll share a few in the areas of bookkeeping, time management, and business development.

Bookkeeping

Business Checking—For the cost of whatever your financial institution’s minimum deposit is (mine was $100) you can have an entirely separate account (and debit card) for all of your freelance-related expenses. While it’s nice to keep your writing income in one place, the best reason for doing this is keeping up with your expenses for tax preparation. If this account is tied to the bookkeeping app you use—all the better.

Bookkeeping Software—I use QuickBooks and have had a good experience. However, other free or lower-cost options include FreshBooks and Sage. Find one that fits your budget and make sure it can:

  • Produce and track professional invoices
  • Sync with bank account(s) and track expenses
  • Create and export reports such as Profit & Loss

Time Management

Time Tracking Apps—At first, I was tracking the time I spent on different projects in a Word document. Yes, Excel would have been the better option, but…writer. Then I discovered Toggl—a free time tracking app. Its intuitive and visually simple design makes quick work of setting up new projects and the built-in timer allows me to easily track my time and generate reports for projects I bill by the hour. I also use it to keep track of the time I spend on flat-fee projects, business development, and pet (read: unpaid) projects like my short-lived food and wine blog. So Toggl is my pick, but here’s a list of some paid versions with more bells and whistles, if you’re into that.

Schedule—I’m a morning person, and while I don’t understand you night owls AT ALL, to each his own. Make a schedule that works for your life and makes the most of your productive time. As long as coffee is involved, I prefer to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and work until noon. That’s when I’m at my best. After lunch I’m less brilliant, and by evening my 3-year-old could write better copy. Therefore, I’ve always had a schedule that was morning-loaded. The schedule you keep is not the thing—the thing is that you keep a schedule.

Business Development

The Query Hour—As client lists and workloads grow, business development is the area that is most often neglected, but it is so important to the continued flourishing of your freelance business. “I’m so busy! It doesn’t make sense to look for new work right now.” You don’t do business development because you need work now, you do it because you need work next month. I do my best—I’m certainly not perfect—to spend a fixed amount of time on business development every week. For me, that looks like brainstorming story ideas, researching publications and editors, writing and sending pitches, and sometimes working on my website. Whatever it is for you, make regular time for it and stick to it.

Join a Group—If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re already a member of the Evangelical Press Association. Great job! In addition to the national organizations, local groups are great because when we’re not in a pandemic you can often meet in person for great educational programming and networking opportunities. Join committees and show off your expertise a little—it often turns into paid work.

And of course, there’s a group for everything on Facebook and it’s a great place to get almost instantaneous feedback and connection. In your PJs. 

Reach Further

by Joyce K. Ellis

Ima Writer couldn’t wait to get to her former college roommate’s fortieth birthday party. She placed her gift in a white box, added sparkly tissue paper inside, then wrapped the box in a flowery gift wrap she knew Hope would love. When she got to the party, many of their friends had already arrived, and a dozen gifts piled high on the table next to the black-frosted “Over-the-Hill” cake. Ima slipped her gift among them.

Later, laughter erupted as Hope opened gag gifts, such as Metamucil, denture cleaner, and Depends. But lovely gifts, such as jewelry, framed mementos, and a favorite movie soundtrack CD drew oohs and ahs.

Hope saved Ima’s gift for last. Pawing through the sparkly paper, she stared. Silence. Then she managed, “Um…a magazine?…Uh…thanks.” More of a question than a statement.

“Hope,” Ima hurried to explain, “remember I told you I finally got published? Look, my article is on page 40. Ironic, eh?”

“Great.” Hope’s cheerfulness sounded forced. “When you told me on the phone you finally got published, I thought you meant a…a…book. But this is…um…nice.”

Truly, in our society, people may not respect you as a writer unless you have written a book—even if you’ve written hundreds of articles. And writers who produce magazine articles may feel they haven’t arrived until they see their names on a dust jacket.

Comparisons

Far from being inferior, article writing can actually maximize our ministry potential, extending our reach more than we could ever imagine. Compare:

Average sales of first book: fewer than 5,000 copies, likely out of print in a year or less.

Now consider the circulation numbers of this sampling of Christian magazines.[1] And remember, many copies are read by more than one person.

Did you hurry past those numbers? Read them again. Staggering!

The magazine market has shrunk considerably in recent years, and many print magazines have vanished or gone online. Still, a plethora of editors are still looking for a plethora (I do love that word) of good material. From freelancers. From freelancers who “get” that particular magazine’s style and audience. From freelancers who can bring a fresh voice while fitting in.

That’s why, in nonpandemic times, so many already-swamped editors take time away from work to serve as writers conference faculty. Even during COVID, they prioritize time for virtual appearances. They’re looking for dependable, skillful writers who have something worthwhile to say. The 2020 Christian Writers Market Guide includes almost a hundred pages of magazines looking for our work.

As a bonus, for writers tired of the word platform, article writing can stretch both time and dollars, often shortening the time between project completion and paycheck.

In addition to print and online magazines, of course, who can calculate the potential outreach of blogs and other online posts?

Bullet or Stalactite

Books and articles are both important, but I like to compare them this way: A book is like a bullet, a one-shot ministry opportunity. But articles are like stalactites—a steady dripping of hope into the hearts and minds of our target audience. And if we develop a good working relationship with an editor, we can often keep “dripping” into that audience for a long time.

Every article we publish is a precious, heart-to-heart present we can give to the Master we serve and to the readers we reach.

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10, italics mine).


[1] Sources: The 2020 Christian Writers Market Guide, The 2020 Evangelical Press Association Membership Directory, and the Guideposts website.

Dedicate to the Craft

Serious writing is not something you merely do if or when you can find the time. It’s not just for Sunday afternoons, or the occasional evening, or a few hours a week when you can give it some attention. Make the time, and make lots of it. Tackle the craft daily and dedicate a generous portion of your existence to honing your skills. You’re only going to get out of it what you put into it, and serious writing requires a lot of investment.

Chuck Sambuchino
(10 Tips for Writing, Writer’s Digest, August 2015)

Working from Home: Advice from the Experts

compiled by Ann Byle

Those new to working from home can learn much from those who have been doing so for years. In this post, freelance writers who are associate members of the Evangelical Press Association offer their best advice for those who have moved their work home. This is the first in what we hope will be a series of resources.

Set Up Shop

  • Allocate space for work. Allocated space is a tax advantage for freelancers. For those temporarily working from home, a distinct work space allows you to “get” to work and to “leave” work at the end of the day.
  • Work space can be an unused bedroom, a table facing a window, the end of a hallway, the little-used dining room table. Make sure there is a nearby wall plug, writing utensils, note paper, task lighting, and a storage tray/box.
  • If you must share work space, designate specific hours for each person and a place (drawer or box) for each person’s work-related materials.

Manage Your Time

  • Create structure for your days with regular start and end times, break times, and lunchtimes. Answer work emails only during work hours. Avoid erratic work hours or all-hours workdays. When work is done, walk away.
  • Limit the number of personal phone calls and appointments during your work day, or “herd” them into breaktimes.
  • Educate family and pets to respect your work schedule and space. No interruptions during calls; work space is not Lego/craft/fort space. Crate the dog, shut the door, put on headphones if necessary.
  • Create a to-do list every day and cross off what you have accomplished. These acts help you remember tasks and see what you’ve done.
  • Work for several hours, then take a break. Nobody can work six hours straight.
  • Be flexible. Working early in the morning or later in the afternoon or evening can give you family time in the middle of the day when it is most needed.

Be Kind to Yourself

  • Family events, sick pets, unproductive days happen. Start over tomorrow.

To download a printable sheet with these tips, click here, and please share this post with colleagues and friends who are struggling to adapt to working from home.

 

In the Margin: Adventures in Freelance Scheduling

by Randy Petersen

I scurried across the Wheaton College quad, rushing to a play rehearsal in the spring of my sophomore year. An old friend was approaching from the other direction, someone I’d known well as a freshman but hadn’t seen for a while.

“Great to see you, man,” I launched without breaking stride. “How are you?”

I was expecting a quick “Fine,” as we both hurried on our ways, but he slowed up and said, “Not too good.” Clearly he needed to talk.

So I stopped, and we talked, and the chapel clock rang out the hour as I stood there and listened. My frantic race across campus had stopped cold, but I was confident that God wanted me right here, being there for my old friend.

Wise Ways

I got to rehearsal fifteen minutes late. My cast-mates were finishing their warmups under the wise and caring eyes of the director, Jim Young. Head of the theater department, Jim was one of the greatest saints I’ve ever known.

“Sorry I’m late,” I told him, “but I think you might approve. I saw an old friend who needed to talk, and I sensed that God had brought our paths together in that moment. I decided it was best to stay there and be a friend to him, even if it made me late.”

Jim saw my sincerity, I think. This was not just a sophomoric excuse. What’s more, it fit with what he was always teaching us, in theater and in our faith—paying attention to others, living fully in each moment, being open to God’s leading. He wasn’t mad, though he might have been a bit bemused that I was using his own ethos to justify my tardiness to his rehearsal.

Calmly he replied, “Perhaps next time you could leave earlier, to allow time for anyone God brings into your path.”

Stop and read that sentence again, because there’s wisdom in it that I’m still unpacking.

Yes, live in the moment. Yes, listen for God’s guidance. Yes, stop and help people along the way. But if God has cast you in a play, get to rehearsals on time. If God has given you a writing assignment, meet that deadline. Create margin in your schedule so you can keep in step with the whims of the Spirit and still get your work done.

Lord Willing

There’s a pertinent example in the book of James, though I’ve been misreading it for most of my life. The author chides those who confidently announce, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.”

This has led many of us to an almost superstitious reluctance to talk about future plans without appending the words Lord willing. As James says, “How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow?” (James 4:13-14 NLT).

Only recently did I notice the words stay there a year. This is not about going to a barbecue on Saturday. It’s a long-term business venture. This means uprooting your life, going to a different city, and working there for a year. And why? To make money.

From the text of this epistle, we know that the original recipients included some wealthy business owners. James urges them to care for the needy, pay their workers well, and not expect special treatment. We get the idea that these folks made decisions based on money. Profits meant more than prophets. (Hey, see what I did there?)

James suggests a different priority: “What you ought to say is, ‘If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that’” (v. 15).

Freelancers often make decisions based on profitability, at least in part. Will I get paid enough to make this job worth my while? That’s a reasonable consideration. But James invites us to add another checkpoint. What does the Lord want?

Many of us have done work for free, or for minimal pay, because we felt that God wanted us to. And I imagine others share my experience of saying yes to a high-paying project—a no-brainer from a profit standpoint—and regretting it later. We should have asked that second question.

Micro and Macro

Now let’s pull this whole thing together.

As Christian writers, going about our work and our lives, we might think in terms of micro-guidance and macro-guidance. If we are asking what the Lord wants when we take on assignments, that’s macro-guidance. We can confidently say we’re on a mission from God. So when an interruption comes on deadline day—say, a friend we haven’t seen for a while—we can have the discipline to say, “I’m already working on what the Lord wants, so let me call you back tomorrow.”

Better yet, we can tap into the wisdom of my theater professor and build some margin into our schedules. That might allow us to follow the micro-guidance of some minor interruptions while still being macro-guided to meet the deadline.

Addendum: I wrote this piece shortly before the Coronacrisis hit, and I realize that many people’s lives have changed drastically. Perhaps you have more “margin” than you want. Yet you’re still making micro-decisions every day, though these may be quite different from your previous daily decisions. Let me suggest this might be a good time to work through the balance of micro-guidance and macro-guidance. How is God using these daily decisions to shape your future life and career?

 

10 Tips for Dealing with Distractions

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

If they gave out gold medals for procrastination, I’d have a display case full of them.

When you’ve freelanced fulltime as long as I have—nearly a quarter of a century—you learn and develop many useful skills. Nobody plans to get good at procrastinating but. . . hold on, my phone just buzzed. Sweet! Someone from church just forwarded a recording of the group that sang yesterday. They were so good! Oops, that reminds me that I forgot to email my friend that document I’d promised her. It’ll just take a second.

Good. That’s done. Wait, let me just get some water. . .

You may have heard the joke about how writing is 5 percent talent and 95 percent avoiding distractions. It can certainly feel that way. What can you do to shift those numbers and improve your focus?

  1. Identify your distractions so you can anticipate them and have a game plan.
    • Are you a perfectionist? Just start somewhere. You can edit later.
    • Are family or friends vying for your attention? Let the people close to you know that you need some undisturbed time for an hour or two or five.
    • Do you think of constant connectedness (online) as normal? Do you feel like work and family and life pull you from the Internet instead of the other way around? Decide ahead of time how much time to spend online.
    • Are you stressed about unmet obligations? Schedule those tasks to make sure they get done (and to reassure yourself they will get done).
  1. Start early. Give yourself the advantage by getting some work done before the first distraction comes along.
  2. Make sure you’re rested, comfortable, hydrated and fed (but not stuffed) so you can settle into your writing without interrupting yourself.
  3. Aim for privacy and silence. I don’t recommend working in a café unless people-watching is part of your research. If you don’t already have a home office, carve out a corner of your home as your writing nook—or go to a library. Don’t listen to music, or keep it soft and not too varied.
  4. Sign off all social media, close your email program, and turn off your phone, resisting the urge to check it. It’s a rabbit hole you will not easily or quickly climb out of. Emergencies should be the only exception.
  5. Simplify the assignment by breaking it down into smaller tasks. Tackle the hardest part first. Productivity experts talk about “eating the frog,” that is, doing the difficult thing rather than wasting time dreading it. And if you have to eat two frogs, they say, eat the uglier one first. (Ugh!)
  6. Take breaks. Pay attention to how tired you are, if you’re starting to hunch over, if you’re slowing down, if your eyes are feeling dry. Take five or ten minutes to stretch and refresh yourself and then keep going. Do not open Facebook!
  7. Keep your workspace organized so you don’t waste time looking for things. If you need reference books or notebooks while you work on your article or book, get those out ahead of time, and move anything unrelated out of the way.
  8. Reward yourself. There’s nothing wrong with giving yourself an incentive. You may decide that for every hour you write, or for every 2,000 words, or for every chapter, you will treat yourself to something. It could be a snack or money you put in a piggy bank. Or perhaps the completion of your project earns you a movie night. Make it fun but realistic.
  9. Keep a running distractions page in a notebook or Word document. I recently spotted this trick somewhere so I haven’t tried it yet, but it makes sense. As you’re working, if you remember something that needs your attention, scribble it on a notepad or quickly switch tabs on your computer and add it to a separate document you can refer to later.

If you try all these techniques and still find yourself distracted and restless, stop and ask why. Are you tired? Sick? Afraid of failure? Lacking passion for your project? Take time to deal with what’s bothering you, pray, and ask someone else for help if necessary. Go for a walk, or work on a hobby to regroup and refocus. The time you spend recalibrating is less wasteful than sitting in front of your computer feeling uninspired and writing nothing.

We can’t eliminate all distractions, but having a game plan and sticking to it can mitigate their effect.

The Best Way to Be Creative (it involves coffee)

by Anita K. Palmer

As writers we’re diligent not to plagiarize. It’s a clear no-no. But what about ideas? When is it okay to copy an idea and “adapt” it for our own purpose? Is it a compliment, stealing, or a smart move?

I regularly listen to the NPR show/podcast TED Radio Hour. Host Guy Raz, who is leaving after seven wonderful years, is airing his favorite shows as he says goodbye. In today’s broadcast, “What Is Original?” from 2014, Raz interviewed thinkers who have given TED talks on the subject of invention and creativity. Their answers were fascinating. (Listen for yourself at https://bit.ly/30WXNdR.)

Raz’s premise is that every invention, song, piece of art, or idea is built on something that came before. So that pretty much answers the initial question. “Nope. Nothing is original.” He didn’t bring up Ecclesiastes but he could have:

“Nothing under the sun is truly new. Sometimes people say, ‘Here is something new!’ But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new” (1:9-10 NLT).

Stealing from a Samurai

One guest, Kirby Ferguson, had given a TED Talk called “Everything Is a Remix.” In it he played songs that Bob Dylan, one of the most influential singer-songwriters of our time, knowingly appropriated for his own melodies. According to Ferguson, Dylan was doing what folk musicians had always done. What people had always done.

“I think human beings aren’t really capable of coming up with something from nowhere,” Ferguson said. “Like, I think we just do not do that. We build out of materials. We use tools to make things. That’s what we do.”

Ferguson went on to show how George Lucas stole from a filmmaker of samurai films in the 1950s and 60s he admired named Akira Kurosawa. Think of how the Jedi dress; consider the shape of Darth Vader’s helmet. There’s even dialogue in the Star Wars films lifted from the Japanese movies.

That led Raz to ask, where’s the line? What’s copying and what’s building on something that came before? Ferguson replied that the line is between how much you “borrow” and what you do with it.

“So if you take a large chunk of it, to me that is where you’re being derivative. You’re being unoriginal,” said Ferguson. “I think you need to be transforming the things that you copy. You need to be recontextualizing them. . . . You need to be, you know, transforming and combining those elements in exciting ways.”

No Solitary Geniuses

Ferguson next talked about Steve Jobs—ever heard of him?—who announced in 2007 a new technology called multi-touch. Then he ran a tape of a guy named Jeff Han—ever heard of him?—speaking in 2006 about the same technology and saying it wasn’t new: people had been playing with it since the 1980s.

But here’s the thing: The multi-touch patents that Apple filed were for the small parts they had arranged in their own way. And then they went on remixing elements—touchscreen technology, GPS, the internet. And while there were at it, they they changed the world.

This isn’t the story of one genius inventing one amazing thing all by himself, is it? The individualistic narrative is easier to understand and repeat than the incredibly complex process over time involving multiple dreamers and inventors and leaders, culminating in a brilliant new thing.

Where Innovation Happens

What’s this got to do with freelance writers?

Raz interviewed another thinker, Steven Johnson. His TED Talk was called “Where Good Ideas Come From,” which is also the title of a book he published.

Johnson told the story of an 18th century British fellow named Joseph Priestley. He was friends with American founders like Benjamin Franklin. Priestley made huge breakthroughs in science, especially chemistry (for example, he was the first person to realize that plants were creating oxygen). Then he would share them with his friends. They’d talk together for hours, mashing up ideas, challenging one another.

From this, Johnson moved into a final thought, and it’s going to lead to my point, I promise. It has to do with something we’re all familiar with: the coffeehouse.

Did you know that coffee had a big role in the birth of the Enlightenment? Up to this point, water wasn’t safe to drink. So all day long, people drank ale and wine. You basically had a civilization of drunks. Think about that for a moment.

That is, until the rise of the coffeehouse.

“And then you switched from a depressant to a stimulant,” said Johnson. “You would have better ideas. It’s not an accident that a great flowering of innovation happened as England switched to tea and coffee.”

But Johnson wants us to note where this was happening. The coffeehouse. A public gathering spot. “It was a space where people would get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise. And an astonishing number of innovations from this period have a coffeehouse somewhere in their story.”

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.

“More often than not,” said Johnson, “[ideas are] cobbled together from whatever parts happened to be around nearby. We take ideas from other people, from people we’ve learned from, from people we run into in the coffeeshop. And we stitch them together into new forms, and we create something new. That’s really where innovation happens.”

So, there you have it. There is nothing truly original in this world, just like the writer of Ecclesiastes said. But we get to “borrow” and remix all the melodies and dialogues and discoveries and images of our culture and come up with our own creations.

But not alone. So turn off your laptop. Get out of your office. Grab a fellow writer or four and go have coffee. Set up a regular gathering with other creative folks. Together, let’s change the world.

Continue reading “The Best Way to Be Creative (it involves coffee)”