“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 Randy Petersen
I have no words. For a writer, that’s a strange place to be. Maybe you’re feeling something similar.
This is no “writer’s block.” We know all about those cerebral deserts. Channel some bad Hemingway, laugh about it, and you can usually write your way out.
But there’s no laughing now. Just a deep sadness over injustice. Frustration that we have not changed things more. Despair over the human condition—fighting injustice with more injustice. Fear that I’ll write the wrong thing.
I cling to the belief that there is power in a word fitly spoken, or written. The pen should be mightier than the sword, shouldn’t it? But right now I’ve got nothing.
Except for you, my comrades in communication. Except for this.
Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.
A prophet gathered all of God’s requirements into this triptych (Micah 6:8), and it matches the current crisis well. Let’s start with humility. If only everybody would think as I think, we wouldn’t have these problems! Oops. When we start directing traffic, we’ll get run over.
Mercy is a huge word it takes a lifetime to understand and even longer to practice. Let me suggest that it operates best on a small scale, in your personal relationships. How can we invest our lives in the people we know, people who are just as imperfect as we are?
And in this time we’re all being confronted with matters of justice. This quickly gets into societal structures and systemic issues. Are we, intentionally or not, abetting injustice? What can we do about that?
We writers will not change the world, except when we do. We can carry on the work we’ve always done—nudging hearts, shining the light on truth, suggesting redemptive scenarios people might not have imagined yet. We’re just wordsmiths, and yet language might be the lever that budges the planet into a different orbit.
Listen to the Holy Spirit’s whispers. Invest in relationships. Investigate injustice, even if you don’t like what you find. And keep writing.
by Jen Taggart, guest contributor
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” said the German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to reflect in a Toastmasters International speech about how 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.
Cerebral palsy has caused me to grow in my empathy for those who are struggling and those who are simply different.
When I was on a trip with my youth group in New Jersey to repair houses after Hurricane Sandy, the owner of the house my team helped repair was a wheelchair user. I saw a little bit of myself in the owner. As a high school kid, this was the first time I remember helping another person with a disability. It caused me to reflect on moments when I felt helpless and had someone to help me. It was very empowering. I decided after that trip that I wanted to live a life of purpose and be someone who makes a difference in the world. My empathy for those who are struggling has driven me to do communications work for various nonprofits and ministries and take classes to become a grant writer for nonprofit organizations.
As a person with a visible disability, it is easy to feel judged and stereotyped, and this causes me to empathize with those who are different. I would never want to be completely defined by my disability. When I interview and write about people from different races, socioeconomic backgrounds, other disabilities and life circumstances, I try my best to let them tell their own life stories. I refuse to put people into boxes based on my own or my readers’ preconceptions. Each person is a unique individual created in the image of God.
2. Problem-Solving Skills
When you have a disability, you learn how to do things differently, whether using a J-Hook to open a can of soup or a toaster oven to bake cookies.
When you are a freelancer, you also learn to do things differently. Instead of going to an office, I use my older brother’s now-empty bedroom as an office. Sometimes I have trouble getting hold of one source for a journalism article, and need to contact another source, ask for the information via email, or glean it from somewhere else completely. Don’t even get me started on finding or creating photos, graphics, or videos to accompany my stories!
Many times, with cerebral palsy, I need to try multiple accommodations to see what works. As a freelancer, I’ve had to try many different options as well. I’ve tried journalism, digital marketing, proofreading and editing, and grant writing to see what I enjoy and can make a living doing. As a relatively new freelancer, I’m not ashamed to admit that I am still experimenting and exploring.
When you live with a disability, you have to have a sense of humor. If you’ve seen the movie “Toy Story,” you’ll remember The Claw. The Claw is the deity-like figure in the crane game at Pizza Planet that the plush space aliens worship. Ever since I was in elementary school, my brothers and I would call my right hand The Claw.
When you are a freelancer, you also need a sense of humor. Rejection emails, typos, missed deadlines can make you laugh or cry. Take life too seriously as a person with a disability, a freelancer, or anyone, and you’ll drive yourself insane.
Above all else, being a person with cerebral palsy and being a freelancer have both given me grit. My life does not follow an easy formula as a person with a disability, a freelancer or as a person living in a fallen world. There never seems to be a simple answer to my problems, or clear roadmap to reaching my goals. No matter what your own challenges are, I’m sure you feel the same way.
Still, as freelancers, we somehow always manage to use our God-given creativity to find a way forward.
Jen Taggart is a freelancer writer in Strongsville, Ohio, and an EPA associate member.
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,Alexander Pope, from “Sound and Sense”
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense:
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.
compiled by Ann Byle
Those new to working from home can learn much from those who have been doing so for years. In this post, freelance writers who are associate members of the Evangelical Press Association offer their best advice for those who have moved their work home. This is the first in what we hope will be a series of resources.
Set Up Shop
- Allocate space for work. Allocated space is a tax advantage for freelancers. For those temporarily working from home, a distinct work space allows you to “get” to work and to “leave” work at the end of the day.
- Work space can be an unused bedroom, a table facing a window, the end of a hallway, the little-used dining room table. Make sure there is a nearby wall plug, writing utensils, note paper, task lighting, and a storage tray/box.
- If you must share work space, designate specific hours for each person and a place (drawer or box) for each person’s work-related materials.
Manage Your Time
- Create structure for your days with regular start and end times, break times, and lunchtimes. Answer work emails only during work hours. Avoid erratic work hours or all-hours workdays. When work is done, walk away.
- Limit the number of personal phone calls and appointments during your work day, or “herd” them into breaktimes.
- Educate family and pets to respect your work schedule and space. No interruptions during calls; work space is not Lego/craft/fort space. Crate the dog, shut the door, put on headphones if necessary.
- Create a to-do list every day and cross off what you have accomplished. These acts help you remember tasks and see what you’ve done.
- Work for several hours, then take a break. Nobody can work six hours straight.
- Be flexible. Working early in the morning or later in the afternoon or evening can give you family time in the middle of the day when it is most needed.
Be Kind to Yourself
- Family events, sick pets, unproductive days happen. Start over tomorrow.
To download a printable sheet with these tips, click here, and please share this post with colleagues and friends who are struggling to adapt to working from home.
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)
by Randy Petersen
I scurried across the Wheaton College quad, rushing to a play rehearsal in the spring of my sophomore year. An old friend was approaching from the other direction, someone I’d known well as a freshman but hadn’t seen for a while.
“Great to see you, man,” I launched without breaking stride. “How are you?”
I was expecting a quick “Fine,” as we both hurried on our ways, but he slowed up and said, “Not too good.” Clearly he needed to talk.
So I stopped, and we talked, and the chapel clock rang out the hour as I stood there and listened. My frantic race across campus had stopped cold, but I was confident that God wanted me right here, being there for my old friend.
I got to rehearsal fifteen minutes late. My cast-mates were finishing their warmups under the wise and caring eyes of the director, Jim Young. Head of the theater department, Jim was one of the greatest saints I’ve ever known.
“Sorry I’m late,” I told him, “but I think you might approve. I saw an old friend who needed to talk, and I sensed that God had brought our paths together in that moment. I decided it was best to stay there and be a friend to him, even if it made me late.”
Jim saw my sincerity, I think. This was not just a sophomoric excuse. What’s more, it fit with what he was always teaching us, in theater and in our faith—paying attention to others, living fully in each moment, being open to God’s leading. He wasn’t mad, though he might have been a bit bemused that I was using his own ethos to justify my tardiness to his rehearsal.
Calmly he replied, “Perhaps next time you could leave earlier, to allow time for anyone God brings into your path.”
Stop and read that sentence again, because there’s wisdom in it that I’m still unpacking.
Yes, live in the moment. Yes, listen for God’s guidance. Yes, stop and help people along the way. But if God has cast you in a play, get to rehearsals on time. If God has given you a writing assignment, meet that deadline. Create margin in your schedule so you can keep in step with the whims of the Spirit and still get your work done.
There’s a pertinent example in the book of James, though I’ve been misreading it for most of my life. The author chides those who confidently announce, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.”
This has led many of us to an almost superstitious reluctance to talk about future plans without appending the words Lord willing. As James says, “How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow?” (James 4:13-14 NLT).
Only recently did I notice the words stay there a year. This is not about going to a barbecue on Saturday. It’s a long-term business venture. This means uprooting your life, going to a different city, and working there for a year. And why? To make money.
From the text of this epistle, we know that the original recipients included some wealthy business owners. James urges them to care for the needy, pay their workers well, and not expect special treatment. We get the idea that these folks made decisions based on money. Profits meant more than prophets. (Hey, see what I did there?)
James suggests a different priority: “What you ought to say is, ‘If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that’” (v. 15).
Freelancers often make decisions based on profitability, at least in part. Will I get paid enough to make this job worth my while? That’s a reasonable consideration. But James invites us to add another checkpoint. What does the Lord want?
Many of us have done work for free, or for minimal pay, because we felt that God wanted us to. And I imagine others share my experience of saying yes to a high-paying project—a no-brainer from a profit standpoint—and regretting it later. We should have asked that second question.
Micro and Macro
Now let’s pull this whole thing together.
As Christian writers, going about our work and our lives, we might think in terms of micro-guidance and macro-guidance. If we are asking what the Lord wants when we take on assignments, that’s macro-guidance. We can confidently say we’re on a mission from God. So when an interruption comes on deadline day—say, a friend we haven’t seen for a while—we can have the discipline to say, “I’m already working on what the Lord wants, so let me call you back tomorrow.”
Better yet, we can tap into the wisdom of my theater professor and build some margin into our schedules. That might allow us to follow the micro-guidance of some minor interruptions while still being macro-guided to meet the deadline.
Addendum: I wrote this piece shortly before the Coronacrisis hit, and I realize that many people’s lives have changed drastically. Perhaps you have more “margin” than you want. Yet you’re still making micro-decisions every day, though these may be quite different from your previous daily decisions. Let me suggest this might be a good time to work through the balance of micro-guidance and macro-guidance. How is God using these daily decisions to shape your future life and career?