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)”

Heinlein’s Rules for Writers

Rule One: You Must Write
Rule Two: You Must Finish What Your Start
Rule Three: You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order
Rule Four: You Must Put Your Story on the Market
Rule Five: You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold

Robert A. Heinlein

submitted by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

5 Questions to Ask Before Challenging Your Editor

by Michael Foust

For most of my journalistic career, I have see-sawed back and forth between the role of editor and writer. I began my career as a writer, then served as a newspaper editor, then switched jobs to become a writer again, then switched jobs once again to become an editor. And now, I’m back to being just a writer.

This means I’ve experienced both sides of the give-and-take that occurs between editors and writers. I’ve sat at an editor’s desk when a clueless writer submitted a supposedly perfect masterpiece. And I’ve sat on my writer’s couch at home, stewing that an incompetent editor turned my masterpiece into a heap of unreadable trash.

So no matter which side of the fence you find yourself, I feel your pain. This column, though, is for writers.

Over the years as a journalist/writer, I’ve developed the following five questions that I always ask myself before challenging my editor.

1. Are They Right?  

Scripture tells us that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Humility serves any career well, but especially within the field of writing, in which you have a gatekeeper—the editor—who can become either a good friend or a thorn in your side. I’ve written thousands of stories during my life, and I have yet to pen one that didn’t have an error in the first draft.

You’re not infallible, and your copy isn’t inerrant. Maybe, just maybe, your editor is right.

2. What Can I Learn?

To be humble is to be teachable. Think of your editor as a college professor who is giving you free lessons. More than likely, they know something you don’t.

My first editor taught me to use quotes sparingly. My second editor improved my transitions and headlines. My third editor taught me the significance of keywords for social media.

Unless a kindergartener is editing your copy, you likely can learn a thing or two.

3. Is It Worth It?

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

Are your editor’s changes tantamount to a person with a minor cut that can be ignored? (They changed “said” to “says.”) Or are the changes equivalent to a deep wound that requires surgery? (You wrote “Bob shot Jim,” but they changed it to “Jim shot Bob.”)

By my experience, most editorial changes are like minor cuts that can be ignored. Rarely does an editor make a change so severe that it impacts the story’s intended meaning. Besides, editors often improve the story. Guess what? The reader won’t ever know—and you’ll get the credit.

4. What Might Happen?

If you gain a reputation as a constant complainer, you may forgo future writing opportunities with that publisher, who might look for a different writer who is more manageable. Are you are willing to cut those ties? If not, it might be best to swallow your pride in order to build a relationship. Then, after you’ve written additional stories and gained the editor’s trust, you can speak up more often.

As the old maxim goes: Pick your battles wisely.

5. Are You Being Charitable?

Perhaps you’ve decided this battle indeed is a “hill upon which to die”—or at least one that can’t be ignored.

If so, write your email carefully. Be charitable in your wording. Sprinkle compliments in with your concerns. (“Great job editing this.”) Avoid sarcasm. Begin your sentences with phrases like, “I may be wrong but …”—thus indicating you are bringing an item to their attention they may have overlooked. That way, you don’t come across as haughty, and they’re able to hear your opinion.

Finally, proofread your email before hitting “send.” You don’t want misspellings and typos in an email that’s complaining about shoddy editing.

5 Tips to Enrich Your Pitch

Freelance writers face a strategic challenge as we seek to develop our business. Consultants and marketing gurus tell us to specialize. Get known for one thing you do well. Sell that service. Let everyone know that if they want that thing—you’re the one to hire.

The problem is that, as a matter of survival, we have always had to take on varied projects. Our diversification allows us to take on many different jobs. Should we ignore our ability to write devotionals, Bible studies, culture reviews, or youth pieces in order to focus on, say, interviews?

Another factor: Many of us are genuinely interested in those many things. Our brains are wired for multi-tasking. In some cases, that’s why we’re freelancers. If we had to do only one type of writing, we’d get bored fast.

But could the consultants be right? 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?

I’d suggest a “both-and” approach.

  1. Whittle down to your best thing.

What type of writing do you enjoy most? What subjects do you know the most about? What readers do you connect with? What assignments have you received the most compliments on?

Many freelancers would have a list of ten different subjects/styles/audiences in answer to those questions. It might help to think in terms of samples. If you were asked to provide one published piece to prove your skill as a writer, what would it be? Could this help you zero in on a specialty?

If you have a list of ten possible specialties, begin the painful process of cutting it to three. Console yourself with this thought: You’re not abandoning the others; you’re just choosing your headline. You’re a shopkeeper selecting the merchandise to display in the front window. You can still sell the other stuff, but you want to present a captivating display around one theme.

  1. Study the market. Fill the gaps.

Do online searches. Talk to editors. Read some of your target publications. You’re looking for demand and supply. What types of writing and subject matter do publishers want? And what writers are currently filling those needs?

Perk up when an editor says, “What we really need is this.” And, frankly, if you see a subpar piece in a target publication, it may indicate a gap in the supply. Perhaps you could provide an upgrade in their capacity for that type of writing.

  1. Find a quality you specialize in, in addition to a genre.

What do editors want? If you don’t know this already, ask them. They want clean copy they can edit quickly. They want clear prose with a little imagination but not too much. They want deadline-meeters.

It’s possible you could sell your services completely on these terms: “I can write whatever you need. Clearly. Quickly. Correctly.” But it’s still helpful if you can create a link in editor’s minds between a particular subject and your name.

  1. Group your specialties. Broaden your pitch.

If you’re the world expert on Habakkuk, good luck. You might want to broaden your focus a bit. Old Testament prophets? Go broader. How about “applying biblical insights to modern issues”?

If your top three subjects are church history, missions, and pastoral leadership, you could possibly combine them into “the growth of the Christian faith around the world, in history and today.” Creative combination may help you hit several sweet spots and still craft a unique identity. When it stops making sense, you’ve stretched too far.

  1. Rethink your website strategy.

Many of us, myself included, have websites that are all about us. And why not? We are asking people to hire us to write for them. Shouldn’t we try to impress them with who we are? Essentially these websites are elaborate business cards, and they’re effective in making introductions.

But marketing experts are now telling us to turn the focus on our customers. What do they want that we can offer? Oh, eventually we get to trumpet our own value, but we start by identifying our clients’ need and then pitching the ways we can meet it. To do that, we need a site that doesn’t just introduce us; it markets us.

And to market ourselves well, we need to zoom in on the one thing we do better than anyone else. Establish that link in an editor’s mind, and you will get work. Later in the conversation—perhaps deeper into your website—you can add the et cetera. “Oh, yes, I also do this, this, and this. Check out my samples.” But streamline your pitch to your specialty.

A Story

A year ago, when I was an editor, I asked a writer what sorts of things he wrote. This writer—I’ll call him “Michael Foust” because, well, that’s his name—went through a litany of the subjects that we all share. But there was one specialty I heard and remembered—he did movie reviews. A few months later, our blog needed articles on some new films being released. I thought of Michael, and he delivered some great pieces. Somewhere in that process, he sent us an email pitching some other subjects he could tackle, and we signed him up for at least one of those, too.

In his case, it helped to specialize, but it didn’t mean abandoning the other things he liked to write. Maybe that can work for the rest of us, too.

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