When Freelance Isn’t Your Day Job

by Holly Johnson

If you’ve ever been to a circus, or even just surfed the web, you’ve probably seen iconic images of tightrope walkers. Carrying a long balancing pole, they work against and with the laws of physics to conquer them.

On a much less dramatic scale, walking the line between full-time work and a freelance business can feel that way. With your nine-to-five on one side and your personal creative efforts on the other, how do you move smoothly between the two?

Define Your Goals

Establishing your reasons for taking on what is essentially a second job will help inform the way you approach it and manage it. Here are some questions to consider as a starting point:

  • Do you want to pursue an independent writing career?
  • Do you want to simply keep a side hustle?
  • Do you want to develop skills that could help you earn a promotion at work?

It’s also important to look at what other responsibilities are on your plate. How will you prioritize them?

  • Family?
  • Friends?
  • Additional activities and commitments outside of work?

Know Your Limits

Overestimating your capacity? Easy. Accurately evaluating your time and energy? Not so much. At the 2022 EPA convention in Colorado Springs, I chatted with a woman who works for a ministry full time, as I do. She also does freelance work. It was refreshing to be able to talk candidly about the challenges of juggling these dual roles. When you’re eager to excel in your job, but also want to be recognized in the freelance world, it’s so very easy to overextend. Last year, this new acquaintance had accepted too many projects, and she became overwhelmed and exhausted. For my part, there are times when “full time” is more than full time. And there are weeks when the sheer intensity of that week leaves my creative tank too drained for me to even write for myself. I have to be judicious and conservative about what freelance opportunities to pursue, and when to pursue them.

When you’re considering new assignments, collect as much detail up front as you can so that you can make an informed decision. As the adage goes, saying “Yes” to one thing means saying “No” to another. When you say “Yes” to extra work too often, you may soon find yourself saying “No” to social connections, sleep … even health. This have-it-all culture may tempt you to burn the proverbial candle at both ends, but at what price? Consider which projects are best suited for your long-term goals and your current obligations. Then choose wisely.

Be Intentional …

Look for creative ways to develop your skills in ways that can apply to both realms. Where could your freelance work intersect with your vocation?

For example, my current job, while not a purely editorial role, does land in the communications space. When the Evangelical Press Association convention schedule is posted and I see topics that clearly apply to my work, I talk with my supervisor about attending the event as my professional development opportunity for the year. Even though my employer doesn’t currently hold a membership with EPA, because I maintain my associate member status, I’ve been able to attend the convention several times as an employee and as an EPA freelancer.

On the flip side, if your vocation doesn’t dovetail with writers’ conferences in this way, you’ll need to be even more intentional about networking and landing freelance projects. Connecting with groups like Christian Freelance Writers Network and investing in professional membership opportunities can help build a strong foundation for that strategy.

Being intentional also means following up on freelance leads. If you have a regular assignment that hasn’t arrived in your inbox on time, check in with your contact to find out what’s up. If you talked with someone at a conference or other event, send a quick email to see if that project you discussed is still on the radar.

and Go with the Flow

There’s an element of trust that comes into play in the middle of your efforts toward equilibrium. Certainly, do your part to cultivate leads … to follow up … to pursue that other facet of your life. Just keep in mind that when you have a regular job, you are responsible to be “all there” so that you can meet your employer’s expectations first. Your work performance is part of your Christian testimony. As far it depends on you, make sure you’re honoring the Lord in that setting.

So be persistent — and patient. This isn’t only a balancing act; it’s also a work in progress. If you need to let go of some freelance opportunities in the short term, you need to also trust that God will open other doors down the road, when the time is right. Remember, He has a plan. He began a good work in you, and He’ll be faithful to complete it (Philippians 1:6).

By day, Holly Johnson works for Compassion International as a donor communications specialist. By night (well, some very select evenings and weekends), she painstakingly cultivates Vision43 Communications LLC. She has written and edited for a variety of organizations such as Focus on the Family, Christian Camp and Conference Association, USA Triathlon, and Compassion. Contact her at hollyjwriter@gmail.com.

Convention Highlights

While this blog isn’t an official publication of the Evangelical Press Association, most of our writers are EPA members. Several of us attended the 2022 convention in Colorado Springs this past April and we’d like to share some highlights with you. If you’re a freelancer, we hope you’ll consider joining EPA, too. Besides the annual convention (in Lancaster, PA, next year), we have monthly Zoom calls for discussing common challenges, sharing tips, and brainstorming ideas for improving working conditions for freelancers.

We asked two veteran and two newer freelancers to share something they learned at the convention and something they enjoyed. Here are their responses:

Chris Maxwell (veteran)

What I learned: Practical steps on improving podcasts, and more writing skills and opportunities. 

What I enjoyed: Location, conversations, each session I attended was wonderful, and seeing friends. 

Seana Scott (newer)

I learned some editing hacks for self-editing, was reminded about cultivating the creative life, and remembered that I am not alone in writing for ministry. I gleaned from creatives, enjoyed meeting new people, and had a little break from the daily grind of sitting in front of my computer at home. Definitely worth the investment.

Darrell Goematt (newer)

As a freelance photographer, I especially enjoyed the photo track of workshops taught by Gary Fong of Genesis Photo Agency. Gary expertly helped us understand what makes a substantive image that not only drives the story along but endures the test of time.

As a first-time attender, I really appreciated the intentional schedule breaks devoted to networking. The Sunday night round table hosted by Ann-Marget Hovsepian was highly conducive to meeting other freelancers and sharing ideas. Please schedule that again next year.

Ann-Margret Hovsepian (veteran)

I’ve been to well over a dozen of these conventions but I always come home with new ideas and tips. I especially want to remember these points: Never try to do creative thinking and critical thinking at the same time. Creative first, critical later. Also, be reader-centred when writing, focusing on the readers’ needs so they sense that you “get” them.

The fellowship at EPA conventions is wonderful. Over the last 15+ years, I have forged friendships that have had a great impact on my life—and not only on a professional level. I’ve grown as a human being, a Christian, a writer, an artist, and a businesswoman because of the connections I’ve made at EPA.

If you attended EPA this year, please add your own highlights in the comments section! If you didn’t, we hope to meet you in 2023.

We Need a New Name!

We’ve been loving the growth of this blog and the positive feedback we’ve received since launching it a couple of years ago. However, when some of us attended the Evangelical Press Association annual convention in early April, we started to notice that “Christian Freelance Writers Network blog,” while precise and descriptive, took a long time to say every time we wanted to point someone to this great resource.

That’s when we figured out it might be time to give this blog a shorter name. We’d love your input! If you’ve been following CFWN for a while, you probably have a good sense of what we’re all about and what we offer. What would you call this blog?

Please share your ideas in the comments below or send them to us by email (christianfwn@gmail.com). Thanks!

How to Recover from Creative Rejection

by Karen Stiller

“Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug,” has got to be one of the best lyrics from a Mary Chapin Carpenter song to which I have ever sung along poorly. It also sums up nicely the experience of being a creative person trying to find a place in the world for your work. Sometimes I’ve been the windshield (good), and I’ve certainly been the bug (splat, blech).

I had a bad bug moment this week when something did not unfold in my real writing life the way it unfolded in my imaginary, parallel writing life, where I had been busy accepting awards and retiring early.

I have a life-long habit of curling up into a ball on the couch for several long moments when all manner of things stink, so I did that, along with shedding  1/8 of a cup of tears. To my friends who cry: stop apologizing. If people didn’t want us to cry they shouldn’t have hugged us like that.

My first step to creative recovery is to allow myself these moments of feeling horrible. The length of time I feel bad about feeling bad lessens with every year and with each Brené Brown book I read. So, that’s my first tip: It’s okay to feel bad, and to feel it out loud. Whine for a little while, hopefully to a caring and tolerant friend. It hurts to make things people don’t want, or to just hear the words “No thank you,” or maybe worse, to hear nothing at all. Our surviving-disappointment muscles are required for art-making and art-sharing. Resiliency is essential, and although it’s tempting to think otherwise, denial is not part of resiliency. Feel bad so you can feel better.

Dig around in the glum and gloom: Don’t waste this icky time. You can learn valuable things from the rejection itself, like how could your art be better for this audience? Did you plan your Pulitzer-acceptance speech too soon? (Those ones are obvious). But what else can you learn from these feelings of desolation? What is the disappointment beneath the disappointment? And it might literally and only be that you wanted to be published somewhere and they said no. But it might also have to do with that moment in grade 3 that made you want to someday be the popular one. It’s okay big heart. Give your   somewhat-awful grade 3 self a tight hug. Say some reassuring things to way-back-then you.

I was texting an artist friend this week and shared my disappointment. He said that it happens to him a lot. This surprised me (which it shouldn’t have) because his work is so beautiful, which reminded me that we could talk about this more out loud. My friend shared he has learned to see these times as an opportunity to learn something from God. “Now when it happens, I tend to pay more attention to things around me,” he wrote. Yes, pay attention.

Take a break if you need one, with rewards. Take care of yourself for a beat or two. Watch what you want for as long as you want. Go out for a burger. Get a new hair cut. This is the moment for whatever little treat you allow yourself for when you’re splattered against the windshield. Licking our wounds and buying a new candle can take a moment or two, and that’s totally cool.

Pop back up again. The only failed writer is the one who gave up too soon. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I know that for sure. So, just as you murmured to yourself softly in that reassuring tone you use when things go bad, now you shift gears and tell yourself a little sternly to stop being a big baby and to start making stuff again. Be like those inflatable clown toys. They get punched in their puffy red vinyl noses and they pop right back up again. We need to be like that. (And if you want to watch a video of a couple who went for a walk and ended up punching inflatable clowns click here, but be sure to come back).

Bless other artists. Do something good for other people in your craft. If you’re envying someone who is enjoying success that you are not currently enjoying (this is normal and also not talked about enough), congratulate them, pray for more good things to come their way, and share something online that they created that you love. This practice will help you not be mean when you’re 90. Also, it will become a joyful habit that you can do anytime at all.

If there is someone who needs encouragement, reach out to them and give them the gift of “I see you,” or an offer to help. Is there a door you can open for them? Please, open it. There is an actual discipline to door-opening. You decide to do it. Be a door-opener. Be an artist’s artist and a writer’s writer and a potter’s potter. It was the One who made everything, after all, who taught that it’s more blessed to give than receive. Giving is simply good, but it’s also a way to pull ourselves back together again (post-windshield). On a very practical level it yanks our heads out of our own bellybuttons and reminds us the world is made more beautiful with love and art and light and pretty tiny things, and that we get to be a part of that work.

Now, go listen to wise Mary and start to feel better. That’s what I’m about to do.

Karen Stiller (www.karenstiller.com) is the author of The Minister’s Wife: a memoir of faith, doubt, loneliness, friendship and more (Tyndale House, 2020); a freelance writer and a senior editor of Faith Today magazine. Her work has appeared in The Walrus, Reader’s Digest, and many other publications. She is co-author of Craft, Cost & Call: How to Build a Life as a Christian Writer (2019) along with other books about the Church in Canada and the world. She lives in Ottawa.

Put Away the Phone

by Carla Foote

I was out on a late afternoon walk in a park near my home, after spending most of the day in front of my computer working on client projects. I had my phone in my pocket, but I didn’t feel the vibrating buzz and missed a call from a client. When I happened to look at my phone 10 minutes later, I faced a decision. Should I listen to the voicemail right away and respond to the client or continue walking and deal with the message in half an hour when I returned home?

There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer to this dilemma, based on the information provided in this anecdote. A timely response to a client request is based on schedule and context.

If I am on an editorial deadline and awaiting a response by the end of the day to move forward with a project, then responding immediately is important. If the reason the client is calling is because they happen to have time late in the day to respond to earlier requests for general information, then it may not be a pressing issue.

A few months ago, as I was assessing my work style and workload, I realized that I was giving too much brain space to one client. I value that client and enjoy the work I am contracted to do for them. However, I also found that I was included in many notifications that were peripheral to my responsibilities. Since I care about quality and client relationships, I was paying attention to all the notifications. But they didn’t impact the work I was doing; they just distracted my time and attention from more important things.

So, I decided I needed to set some boundaries on my work availability and energy. Since I have a good relationship with this client that I have cultivated over a number of years, I had a conversation with my key contact person. I told her I was committed to continuing to provide excellent service to them on my assigned projects. I also said I was going to be setting some boundaries on how quickly I would respond to them when I was between assignments or due dates. And I mentioned that if I was taking a whole weekday offline in the middle of a project, I would let them know a few days in advance so they wouldn’t be expecting a response. My boundary seemed reasonable, especially because sometimes my emails to them sit unanswered for a day or two while they are busy with meetings and other projects. Side note: Not participating in too many meetings is my favorite thing about freelance work!

Carla at Kenosha Pass in Colorado, about an hour from Denver

Now, when I am out walking, sometimes I just leave my phone at home. Sometimes I bring it along because of a family need, or because I might want to take a picture of some flowers or trees. But I don’t always feel compelled to answer calls and emails immediately.

I am still providing good service to my clients—and giving my mind some healthy breaks.

Sometimes I am offline for a whole weekday to take full advantage of the perks of freelance life—usually taking a hike in the foothills outside of Denver. Flexibility is the true benefit of the freelance life. I work hard when I am working for a client. And I need to periodically to unplug and take a break. This rhythm actually improves my work, health and satisfaction with life.

Carla Foote is a freelance editor and writer based in Denver, Colorado. She is on the board of Magazine Training International and a member of the Evangelical Press Association. You can connect with her at fineprintedit.com.

The Assembling of Introverted Writers

by Jeff Friend

If I told you that I’m an introvert, you might assume I avoid groups whenever possible. You would be correct. But I’ve learned the cold fact that there are times—whether at social occasions, business functions, or other types of situations—I have to engage in actual face-to-face conversations with strangers. I’m breaking into a cold sweat just thinking about it.

There is one exception to this phobia. I feel completely comfortable interacting with groups of writers.

Writing is a solitary function. Just me sitting at my desk pecking at a keyboard. Even my wife hesitates to enter my lair when I’m at work. To use a biblical phrase, we writers are a peculiar people.

But in a writer’s group, I am talking with people who actually understand the struggles, doubts, questions, and obstacles I face. Sure, my wife calmly listens when I rant about a writing challenge I’m having, but since she hasn’t personally experienced the travails of writing, she can only nod with empathy and give me a few encouraging words.  Alas, I trudge back to my desk and reenter my cocoon.

From a professional perspective, a writer’s group gives me the creativity, encouragement, and knowledge necessary for me to grow and succeed in my craft. I’ve discovered that a writer’s group is also vital for the camaraderie (and sanity) that can only be found among people who are traveling the same road you are.  We can share and celebrate our successes, comfort each other when our paths get bumpy, exchange tips and information, discuss markets and many other topics, and give a heartfelt “I know how you feel” to pick us up.

In-person meetings are probably the most beneficial (did I just say that?), but virtual meetings have opened up greater opportunities. Now, instead of meeting with only a few local writers, we can talk with people around the world and learn about other regions, cultures, and better ways to communicate with audiences in ways we could only imagine before.    

Aside from the professional aspects of a writer’s group, the personal benefits are equally valuable. As an introvert, the interaction helps me to reach outside of my comfort zone and become more sociable, and boost my spiritual life as well. The Bible tells us to “forsake not the assembling of yourselves.” I think that applies to assembling as writers as well as coming together with other believers at church or special events.

Do I still get the heebie-jeebies when I’m getting ready for a meeting? Absolutely, whether virtual or in-person. But it’s getting better. I know that God gifted me to be a writer, and I need to develop and use that gift to the best of my abilities. Being with other writers is part of the “iron sharpens iron” process, so even if it makes me uncomfortable, I’ll just take a deep breath and move forward to fulfill my calling.

As a freelance writer for over 30 years, Jeff Friend has published hundreds of articles in dozens of print and digital publications. He is an EPA Higher Goals recipient and the author of the book Staying Focused When Life Gets Blurry. Jeff has co-authored or edited several other books, and he was a staff writer and editor for a daily newspaper.   

Words of Wisdom

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.

Branch Out

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.

Edit yourself

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.

A Writer Walks Into a Church…

by Stephen R. Clark

I believe some of the best writing in all Christendom can be found in churches. Especially in smaller churches. Yes, some of this will be found in the sermons pastors sweat out week after week—producing the equivalent word count of a novel every year.

But beyond the sermons, there are bulletins, Bible studies, blog posts, websites, devotionals, emails, announcements, curriculum, newsletters, and so much more being crafted regularly that exhibit some of the best writing a lot of people will ever be exposed to.

Frankly, a publisher would do well to aggressively scout these non-sermon church sources to find the better authors to write the books and articles they need. Just saying.

Some of these writers are you and me serving our churches with what we likely see as the big gift God has blessed us with.

But what about those complementary gifts and skills that we can also offer to our churches? Disciplined writers, like you, possess a plethora of talent that all churches need:

  • Administration. We know how to organize, set priorities, manage processes, and run a good meeting.
  • Knowledge. We generally know what’s happening in the evangelical world, possesses a broad knowledge of useful materials, can assess good studies to pursue, and are discerning of who are reliable authors and who to avoid.
  • Interactive. We know how to interview people and can customize studies for various groups.
  • Process. We understand the difference between pacing for speech and reading, can provide proofreading, edit material for clarity and conciseness, and bring the editorial process to bear.
  • Messaging. We can craft messages for various audiences, grasp what makes a good website, write blog posts and content, and establish branding.
  • Creativity. We are able to teach Sunday school classes, can create readings and liturgy elements, and can add the written word to creative arts efforts.
  • Visuals. Some of us are skilled in photography, audiovisual, videography, have an eye for design, and maybe even a little talent for graphics.
  • Technology. Most of us are reasonably competent with a variety of software and comfortable with computers.

There are probably more that you could add to this list.

As writers, we write to be read as well as get paid. We also enjoy a little recognition now and then. So work that brings in no income and where we are often completely invisible may be less than attractive. Yet it can be highly rewarding.

When you’re looking for a market for your writing and other skills, consider the market of your church. They need help and most are hungry for it.

Serving your church, bringing all of your gifts and talents to bear, is an excellent way to hone your craft as well as strengthen your spiritual muscles.

When serving your church, the pay and recognition, in worldly terms, are lacking. But the rewards are moth and rust resistant while living out the fullness of your calling as a writer and so much more