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
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by Joyce K. Ellis
Sitting in a face-to-face conference appointment with a highly revered writer, I trembled as she silently read my devotional article. I clutched my notebook like a shield over my heart, awaiting her reaction.
“This is good,” she said. “I think it’s publishable. Tighten and polish and send it off.”
Ecstatic, I found refuge in a nearby restroom for a quick thank-You-Lord session. Then I realized I didn’t have a clue what she meant by “tighten and polish.” I’ve spent the rest of my career figuring that out.
With shrinking publisher budgets and reader attention spans, we can increase our publishing quotient if we learn to economize with words. Here are a few “cutting” reminders.
Begin with the big picture. What is the purpose of your nonfiction piece? Write, in one sentence, what it will say (not what it’s about). For example, not this: My article is about how we can strengthen our prayer lives. But something like this: We can strengthen our prayer lives by learning the art of worship, learning the importance of a pure heart, and learning the practice of praying without ceasing. By the way, those would make great subheads.
I call this an article-in-a-nutshell sentence. Does each sentence, paragraph, anecdote, quotation, and statistic support the article’s focus?
Similarly, write a book-in-a-nutshell sentence for your novel and each chapter. Is every action, dialogue exchange, and setting description essential to that scene’s purpose? If not, cut it. (But save it in another file. You may be dumpster-diving for ideas someday and find a way to recycle what you discarded.)
Once we shape the big picture, we can start hacking away at smaller pieces of “deadwood,” such as these redundancies:
- ecstatic with joy. Could we be ecstatic with sadness? Ecstatic is sufficient.
- down through the long centuries. All centuries consist of exactly one hundred years, none longer than another. Through the centuries will do.
- mischievous grin on her face. Where else would she be wearing it?
- She nodded yes, or he shook his head no.
When noting this last redundancy in workshops, I say, “Look at me.” I nod. “This means yes, right?” Then I shake my head. “This means no, right? So we don’t need the yes and no.”
Note: Axing a word here and there can leave room in our word count to develop our theme better.
Writing flows better with wise word choices. Often we use too many words, trying to ensure readers understand, and we wind up sounding like the Amplified Bible. That reference work provides unique insights, but it’s awkward to read.
So, painstakingly pick the best word. Here’s an example: Through Christ we experience the joy and delight of our salvation.
How much difference is there between joy and delight? When you find other multiple-choice synonyms, such as sins and transgressions or sadness and sorrow, in your writing, I hope you’ll hear my little bell-like voice in your head, chiming, “Pick one.”
Wordiness tires readers. Keep them engaged by streamlining expressions such as these:
Wordy: Diane inquired as to his reason for coming. [8 words]
Streamlined: Diane asked why he came.[5 words]
Wordy: Jesus often used stories as an effective means of making abstract truths understandable. [13 words]
Streamlined: Jesus often used stories to make abstract truths understandable. [9 words] Or …to clarify abstract truths. [8 words]
Wordy: We need to take time to reflect on what we read. As we do this, we will receive new insights into what God has to say to us. [28 words]
Streamlined: As we reflect on what we read, God will provide new insights. [12 words]
Note: If you want to emphasize taking time, you might retain that part. However, reflecting implies taking time.
Though I’m mathematically challenged, I believe we have saved twenty-three words in these few examples. That offers another sentence or two to develop an important point elsewhere. We don’t want to change the nuance, but such streamlining can enhance precision.
Restructure Prepositional Phrases
Prepositional phrases can also indicate places to simplify. For example, we wouldn’t write the favorite planet of Janet. We’d turn it into a possessive: Janet’s favorite planet.
But when a proper noun isn’t involved, we often miss an opportunity to write tight. Note these examples:
Original: opportunity for self-advancement
Restructured: self-advancement opportunity
Original: her address in London
Restructured: her London address
Original: tablets of stone
Restructured: stone tablets
Little by little, we whittle and whittle—tightening our writing.
Often we ease into a statement instead of hitting it dead on, even in fiction.
Wordy: Michael decided to get even with the bully.
The decision isn’t the important thing here, so we can delete that whole sentence. In context, we will know what Michael decided when we read what he did.
Better: Michael punched the bully in the stomach.
Watch for Trigger Words
Other expressions that slow the flow include these: one of the, there is/are/were, it’s interesting to note that…. I call them trigger words because they trigger a need for “surgery.”
Surgery candidate: One of the fears many of us experience as a reality in our lives is the fear of being alone.
Healthier: Many of us fear solitude.
Surgery candidate: There are many people who have never read the Bible through.
Healthier: Many people have never read the Bible through.
Surgery candidate: It is interesting to note that God didn’t rebuke Peter when he began to sink.
Healthier: God didn’t rebuke Peter when he began to sink. (Let the reader decide whether it’s interesting or not.)
Clean Up Qualifiers
We can slash most qualifying words, such as these: very, slightly, almost, nearly, just, really, and seem to.
Ridiculous example: I just want you to know that I really don’t like to see so many qualifiers in your writing. They seem to be very distracting and almost always make meslightly nauseated.
Cleaned up: Eliminate nonessential qualifiers. They’re distracting, even sickening.
Qualifiers have a place in our language. But cut the nonessential ones.
Go on a Which Hunt
Use your manuscript search capability to find the word which (also who, whom, that)in your piece. Often they can go bye-bye:
- conversations which are replete with stories [delete which are]
- people whom we have known [delete whom]
- Teenagers don’t enjoy the same activities that they did when they were younger. [delete that].
The more we read good writing, carefully edit our own work, and get peer critiques, the more ways we’ll learn to tighten and polish our writing.
Want to communicate clearly and hold reader attention? Eliminate nonessentials.
This blog post is adapted from Joyce’s book Write with Excellence 201: A lighthearted guide to the serious matter of writing well—for Christian writers, editors, and students.
Creativity is often a matter of seeing things from a new perspective. Look around your home/workspace and imagine you’re an explorer hiking over that mountain of folders on your kitchen table, or imagine what that fly is thinking as it ambles across your keyboard. Take a microscopic view of your surroundings and see what interesting things come to mind.Randy Petersen, The Joy of Working at Home
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.
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.
- Produce and track professional invoices
- Sync with bank account(s) and track expenses
- Create and export reports such as Profit & Loss
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.
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.
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed. . . You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.Stephen King, On Writing
by Randy Petersen
About a year ago I attended the reading of a new play. It was a rather small affair—just three actors, three other friends, and the playwright.
I was the playwright.
While I hoped for affirmation, I needed information. Does the piece hold their interest for its full ninety minutes? Does it lag? Have I unreeled the plot in a pleasant way, providing the right amount of detail when it’s needed? Do they seem to care about the characters? Do they laugh at the jokes? Do they gasp at the surprises? Is there suspense?
A playwriting professor of mine once said that, during play readings, he watches people’s butts—not in a perverse way, but to see if they’re restless, squirming. This tells him what parts of his play need editing. People will always say they like your play, but their butts don’t lie.
Yet there’s always a conversation after a play reading, whether there are seven in the room or seventy. The questions and comments in that time can be very helpful. Or not. The best comments are “I statements.” The worst are along the lines of “Here’s how you should fix your play.”
For instance, one of the actors in my play reading felt her character didn’t have enough reason to go to the place where the climactic scene occurred. She was worried about her husband’s safety, but why? In the script, I hadn’t given her enough reason to worry, and so it seemed contrived. I found it enormously helpful to know that the actor didn’t have what she needed for that big scene.
On the other hand, a couple of others suggested adding a new scene that would clearly show how crazy another character was. I thanked them and jotted down the idea, but I have no intention of doing it. I don’t want that character to come across as “clearly crazy.” In fact, their suggestion pushed me in the opposite direction. It let me know I needed to shore up the reasonable ambiguity of that character.
I’ve attended other readings where the questioners just wanted to display their own brilliance. This happens rather often. I remember one such feedback session where a college kid was going on and on about how the playwright should have told the story—a nationally produced playwright, by the way, whose meekness in that moment was earning some kind of eternal reward. Everyone in the room recognized that this kid was just trying to impress his date, who sat cringing beside him.
What We Need
And that brings me to the point of this musing. All writers need feedback. But we also need to be wise in choosing which responders to heed. Ignore the ones who just want to seem smart. Look for those who understand what you’re trying to do and will help you do that. You might even need to train them a bit—don’t rewrite it for me; do tell me how it affected you; don’t be nice at the expense of honesty; do tell me what parts of the piece didn’t make sense.
If you’re dealing with friends or relatives, you’ll probably need to give them explicit permission to be critical—and then respond graciously to their criticism.
What do you need most from the feedback you seek? Affirmation or information? If it’s info you need, then get it and use it—as you see fit. You don’t need to please others by taking their suggestions. Learn what you can from their responses, but then recraft the piece you want to write.
Compete with yourself, not others. Invariably, when we compare ourselves to others, we rarely measure up. So change up this equation and compete with yourself. Define a personal best and see if you can surpass it. Early in my career as a staff writer for a daily newspaper, I needed to learn how to write and report as fast as possible. By competing with myself, I found that I could achieve a rate of one thousand words of original content in sixty minutes—a personal best. I impressed myself!Tim Morgan, The Joy of Working at Home
by Ann-Margret Hovsepian
A lion used to prowl about a field in which four oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them.
At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four.
This is one of the many short but thought-provoking fables by the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop I read as a child. It is also the source of the oft-quoted, but rarely attributed, phrase: “United we stand, divided we fall.” The fable is only 90 words long, but it sure packs a punch!
Everybody loves a good story. From the brief to the epic, fictional or true-to-life, historical or modern, there is something compelling about a well-told tale, especially if we can identify a moral in the story that we can apply to our lives. We are drawn to fables, fairy tales, legends, and parables because we’re all searching for answers to life’s questions and dilemmas, but we generally don’t want those answers given to us in the form of a sermon or lecture. Like medicine going down more easily with a spoonful of sugar, life lessons seem more palatable when they’re in the form of a story.
The Bible is not only an historical account dating back to pre-creation, but it is also a treasure trove of stories and parables that still serve a purpose. Parables, we should note, are not the same as anecdotes—they are fictional examples and not true accounts. Unlike fables, which generally feature non-human characters, they are always about hypothetical but realistic human situations. When Jesus, a master storyteller, used parables to teach spiritual lessons, he usually began with phrases such as, “There was a man…,” “A certain ruler…,” or “The kingdom of heaven is like…”
Sometimes his point came across clearly. At other times, it seemed he wanted to provoke his disciples to ask questions and dig deeper. Mind you, Jesus wasn’t the first person in the Bible to use parables. For example, in 1 Samuel 12, when King David committed a series of grievous sins, God sent the prophet Nathan to him, and Nathan used a parable—a story about a rich man who stole and killed a poor man’s lamb—to bring the king to repentance. About 120 words (in the Contemporary English Version) is all it took to get David to confess, because those words became a mirror in front of his face.
That is the power of a good story. Not only does it get the message across in a simple and relatable way, but it also makes the point stick because stories are easy to remember, especially if they stir up emotions.
Despite the vastly different genres of stories that exist today, whether we write fiction or non-fiction, the most effective ones share three key elements: characters, conflict, and resolution. From the account of Daniel in the lion’s den, to the 10th-century fairy tale about Little Red Riding Hood, to the latest episode of our favorite television show, we pay attention because we empathize with the characters and we want to see them have a happy ending.
The more we know and understand Scripture, the better we can tap into the power of story. This is true when we’re sharing our testimony of faith or explaining Scripture to others, and it’s also true when we’re writing a feature article or book.
Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that—but you are the only you.Neil Gaiman
by Randy Petersen
A story lurks in every sentence.
See what I did there? You probably have a dramatic image flashing in your mind right now—the story crouching under the staircase, ready to pounce.
I’ve been reading a book that is alternately confounding me, challenging me, and dazzling me. It’s deep stuff, rooted in the study of language, its nature, and its origins. I can make sense of every third sentence, which I then have to read three times—and then it blows my mind.
The book suggests that human language is built on story—more specifically, what it calls parable. We find and express meaning as we throw one observation alongside a separate context. Our brains do this so naturally, we don’t even recognize it. When I write, for instance, that “language is built on story,” I’m throwing that philological principle alongside a tale of construction. Somewhere inside my brain, and yours, there are hardhats and backhoes and cement trucks with their spinning payload pouring a story-foundation for everything else we say.
There are two directions I want to go with this. (And you may already be recognizing a story of travel in those words—perhaps I’m stopped at a traffic light with the GPS saying “turn right” and my friend in the passenger seat pointing left. Travel is a common story-thread in language. How often have you written a piece that “doesn’t go anywhere” or “ends up” where you didn’t expect?)
You might already be traveling in my first direction. I say foundation and parable, and you’re thinking about Jesus’ mini-story of houses built on rock and sand (Matthew 7:24-27). A life built on the firm foundation of Jesus’ teaching will withstand storms. So . . . how did Jesus teach? Often with stories. So if human language is built on a foundation of story (as my mind-blowing book asserts), and Jesus asks me to build my life on his own story-based teaching, can I build my writing on that foundation? Is there some way the divine story can inhabit my vocabulary, my syntax, my subject matter?
I’m not just saying, “Use nice words.” And I’m not suggesting that we ensure our writing aligns with theological principles. Quite the opposite. I’m suggesting that there are action-stories at the heart of our faith, and at the foundation of our lives. As language merchants, we can import the action of those stories—in all their vagaries, scandals, and contradictions—into our modern communication.
Not sure exactly how to do that, though.
My second point is simply a writing tip. Find the stories in your sentences. Language wants to be active, dramatic. Treat ideas like people. Don’t just say what they are. Find out what they do. The resulting metaphors and mini-parables will energize your writing at a granular level.
I wasn’t going to tell you the name of the book, because then you’d buy it and blame me when it baffled you. But if you have the patience, it’s The Literary Mind by Mark Turner. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.