Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.Stephen King
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
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.
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.
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.
The most original authors are not so because they advance what is new, but because they put what they have to say as if it had never been said before.Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.William Makepeace Thackeray
Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.C.S. Lewis
by Ann-Margret Hovsepian
In my February 16 post, Five (Plus One) Tips for Flawless Copy, I suggested not doing any copy editing until a first draft is completely written. Once you’ve got all your material and have checked all your facts, you’re ready to go through your manuscript more slowly and carefully, checking for basic punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes, but also looking for less obvious but common problems writers often trip over.
Hunt down and eliminate words or phrases that are. . .
Instead of “At this point in time,” say “now.” You can almost always delete these words: really, very, actually, suddenly, and currently.
I’ve started to reduce my use of the word “that” but be careful about omitting it completely. Sometimes the word is necessary for the rhythm or logic of a sentence.
Redundant and superfluous (see what I did there?)
This should be, you know, blatantly obvious but, sadly, it isn’t. Avoid overstatements such as “catastrophic disaster,” “close proximity,” and “plan in advance.” Another cringe-worthy example is “free gift.” Isn’t a gift, by definition, free? All novels are fiction. All surprises are unexpected.
Also be careful when phrasing actions. For example, “He shrugged his shoulders” or “He nodded his head.” Only shoulders can shrug and only heads can nod.
“Child killers should be locked up.” Are you talking about children who kill or people who kill children? Reading your work back to yourself s-l-o-w-l-y will help you catch phrasing that might be awkward or easily misinterpreted.
Lacklustre (particularly verbs)
In Words Fail Me, Patricia T. O’Connor writes: “Find an interesting verb and the rest of the sentence will practically take care of itself.” Avoid these:
- Passive verbs – Instead of “That car was bought by Janice,” write “Janice bought that car.”
- Equating verbs – Instead of “This action is a denial of human rights,” write “This action denies human rights.”
- “Making” verbs – Instead of “That experience made me a stronger person,” write “That experience strengthened me.”
- Verbs that need nouns – Instead of “He gained entrance,” write “He entered.”
- Verbs that need adverbs – Instead of “He ran quickly,” write “He sprinted.”
- Verbs that make dialogue awkward – It’s not a rule that you can’t replace “said” with a verb that encapsulates a character’s full response (for example: “I’m glad to hear that,” she smiled.) but don’t overdo it. Use “said” whenever possible because it fades into the background and doesn’t jar the reader.
Descriptive instead of declarative
Every writer has heard it: Show, don’t tell. Sometimes a reminder helps. Show a character’s emotions by his actions instead of telling the reader how he feels or relying on adjectives. Instead of “Roger was very, very angry,” say, “Roger slammed his palm onto the table. The coffee mug fell off the edge and shattered. He didn’t notice.”
Good writing is as much about the words you take out as the words you put in.
What are some other tips you’d add to this list? Please comment below!
When you write, you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.Steven Pinker
Step 1: Wonder at something.
Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you.
Point at things, say, “whoa,” and elaborate.Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist
by Ann-Margret Hovsepian
If you want to play the trombone professionally, you need to work at it. If you want to cut hair, make furniture, or sell insurance, you need to learn how.
Writing is a craft that, like any other, you must learn well and get better at. Yes, natural talent and creativity play a part, but if you want people to take your writing seriously, pursue excellence.
Here are my top tips for submitting a polished manuscript every time.
1. Get it on the page.
When you bake a cake, you dump all the ingredients in first. You don’t start to decorate the cake until it’s baked and cooled down.
In the same way, resist the urge to copy edit until after your piece is completely written. You may need to refine the content as you go, but don’t waste time correcting sentences or paragraphs you might later delete. (In fact, if you aren’t close to deadline, let your writing sit for a while. Putting some distance between yourself and what you just wrote can give you perspective.)
You can’t edit what you haven’t written, so put your first burst of energy into writing. Get it all down, as much as possible, even if it sounds lousy. Once it’s all on the page, you can start to clean it up.
2. Relax your grip.
When you’re ready to edit, put aside any affection you have for your manuscript. Don’t keep a sentence or paragraph just because you think it’s brilliant or it took you hours to write. If it doesn’t fit in, take it out. Read your work with the eyes and ears of a stranger.
Fact check and then double-check your fact-checking. Editors don’t like finding out they published wrong information. Save everyone embarrassment and frustration by checking numbers, geography, name spellings, titles, dates, and references.
4. Watch sentence and paragraph lengths.
The energy of a written piece is often directly related to the length of its sentences and paragraphs. So if you’re dozing off while proofreading, consider those factors.
If a sentence takes up more than two lines of type, shorten it. It should not contain more than one idea. Express the central idea first. If necessary, use separate sentences to include other significant points. Same thing with paragraphs: Make your most important point at the beginning of the paragraph.
The traditional approach is one theme per paragraph. That’s generally a good idea but sometimes a new paragraph can emphasize a point in the previous one, it can indicate a change in time or place, or simply break up text that is getting too dense.
Paragraphs are visual punctuation. Your paragraphs should not look bigger than a hamburger. On average, look at 100 to 200 words, but sprinkle in shorter or longer ones as necessary, which helps avoid monotony and making the reader’s eyes glaze over. For example, opening and concluding paragraphs might be shorter, and topics that need serious and in-depth discussion might be longer.
5. Crosscheck before take-off.
Read through your story one last time while comparing it to the details laid out in your assignment or contract. Tie up loose ends, submit your manuscript to God and then submit it to your editor. (On time!)
Remember that these five tips won’t make up for copy that’s shoddy. I’ll talk about eliminating weak writing (that’s the “plus one” promised in the title) in my next post (on March 2).
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.
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.
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.