“Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.”Jane Yolen
by Ann-Margret Hovsepian
Writing is a craft and, like any other skill, we must learn it well and get better at it. Natural talent and creativity play a part, but if we want people to take our writing seriously and if we want to get published, we must also pursue excellence in our craft.
Note that excellence and perfection are not the same thing. They say (whoever “they” are) that perfect is the enemy of good. I agree. The burdensome drive to achieve perfection can prevent us from completing a task or project adequately well.
In many cases, doing a good job is all that is required of us, and is also acceptable because the completion of the task is more important than its quality. For example, if your daughter is running late for school and her hair is a mess, it makes more sense to pull it into a half-decent ponytail than to take the time to meticulously French braid it. If your boss needs the minutes of the last board meeting on his desk now, you may not want to choose that particular moment to make sure all the bullet points are perfectly lined up and that you aren’t missing any commas.
Genesis tells us that, for five days, God call His handiwork “good” but, when He created man and breathed life into him through his nostrils, He called it “very good.” What made the difference? Was it because humans are vastly superior to everything else God made? I believe it goes deeper than our mere physical form and function. The key distinction in the way God made Adam and Eve was this: He breathed life into them. He gave them not only bodies, but souls. Like God, in whose image we were created, we are spiritual beings.
I see this as a model for us to follow in whatever we do: our jobs, our ministries, our hobbies, our relationships. 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.” (Notice that God did not call His creation of man “perfect” but “very good.” Only He is perfect.)
The Bible gives us clues on how to pursue excellence:
- “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. . . Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:17 and 23).
- “If anyone speaks, he should speak as one conveying the words of God. If anyone serves, he should serve with the strength God supplies, so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11).
- “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Perfect may be the enemy of good, but very good is much better than good. This means I don’t have to kill myself trying to be the best but I am responsible for being my best. You and I have been entrusted with skills and talents we must be good stewards of.
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.”Tweet
Your first duty to the reader is to make sense. Everything else—eloquence, beautiful images, catchy phrases, melodic and rhythmic language—comes later, if at all. I’m all for artistry, but it’s better to write something homely and clear than something lovely and unintelligible.Paticia T. O’Connor, Words Fail Me (Harcourt Brace, 1999)
by Stephen R. Clark
Gene Fowler said, “Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Know the feeling?
Those of us who do it, love it, but writing is not without pain. Especially when the deadline is only hours away and the article you need to write is one of several items on your day’s plate. It’s one thing to be a writer, it’s another doing it. For many, writing well in a compressed period of time seems impossible. But you can write quickly and write well. Here are ten “its” that can help.
Know it. Good writing derives from clarity. Clarity comes from knowing what you’re writing about. What’s your purpose? What’s the point? What are you trying to prove? What’s the central idea?
Research it. Collect your facts and examples. Do your polls and interviews. Research thoroughly before you begin writing. Get what you need to address who, what, when, where, why, and how. Be sure to verify names, titles, and anything else you’ll need to include. Writer’s block is almost always due to inadequate research!
Organize it. Make a map connecting each piece of information. Make a simple or elaborate outline — whatever works for you. Write the headings on 3 x 5 cards and organize your research (clippings, notes, etc.) beside each card. Try using the AIDA structure: create Attention that engenders Interest that stirs Desire to take Action.
Write it. Quickly. Stack your research and start writing through the pile as fast as you can. Don’t worry about transitions or try to write perfectly the first time. Relax, have fun, and get something on paper. Just keep writing all the thoughts that occur as you work through your research, even if they are incomplete. If you’re blocked, do more research!
Leave it. Walk away. When you’ve exhausted your research and feel you’ve written yourself out, stop. Take a break. Let it cool off.
Clean it. Good writing is concise. Use no more and no fewer words than necessary. Cut the fluff. No matter how magical a phrase seems, cut it if it doesn’t fit the flow. Rewrite and rearrange your paragraphs. Often a buried paragraph makes the best lead. Double check your facts and attribute all your quotes.
End it. Say what you need to say and then stop! Stick to the point and don’t write past it.
Speak it. Read what you’ve written out loud and fix what doesn’t sound right. The ear hears what the eye misses. You will be amazed at how this dramatically improves the quality of your writing.
Release it. Know when to let it go. Stop tweaking it to death. You’re good at what you do so have confidence in what you’ve written. It’s good. You’ve done your best and it’s time to move on and do it all over again! Deadlines are forever.
Print it. And be proud! After all, you are a writer.
The verb is the word that gets things done. Without a verb, there’s nothing happening and you don’t really need a sentence at all. So when you go shopping for a verb, don’t be cheap. Splurge.
Because verbs are such dynamos, writers often take them for granted, concentrating their creativity on the nouns, adverbs, and adjectives. This is a big mistake. Find an interesting verb and the rest of the sentence will practically take care of itself.Patricia T. O’Connor, Words Fail Me (Harcourt Brace, 1999)
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even yourself.George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (an essay published in 1946)
Nice writing isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to have smooth and pretty language. You have to surprise the reader frequently, you can’t just be nice all the time. Provoke the reader. Astonish the reader. Writing that has no surprises is as bland as oatmeal. Surprise the reader with the unexpected verb or adjective. Use one startling adjective per page.
Anne Bernays, novelist
contributed by Randy Petersen
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
“What you want is practice, practice, practice. It doesn’t matter what we write (at least this is my view) at our age, so long as we write continually as well as we can. I feel that every time I write a page either of prose or of verse, with real effort, even if it’s thrown into the fire the next minute, I am so much further on.”C.S. Lewis
What will you write today?
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.