10 Tricks to Take Your Writing to the Next Level

by Patti Townley-Covert

While waiting for the literary agent to speak, my hands shook and my heart raced with nervous anticipation. It was my first writer’s conference, and since first grade I’d wanted to be a writer. With a stern face he looked down at my article, then at me.

“You have no style.” My heart sank as I sighed, and my shoulders drooped. Mr. Stobbe’s words killed the dream.

Wait. What? He wasn’t finished. “You have no style, but you can learn.”

Our meeting that day changed my life. For the next decade I attended writer’s conferences, read recommended books, and wrote, revising one article more than 30 times. But before being published in a magazine, it won an award. Then, my articles started appearing in national and international magazines. After editing numerous books by clients, this past year I finally published my own.

The tricks I’ve learned have not only made my writing better, they also make it more fun. These tips can do the same for you. Here’s ten ways to elevate your craft.

  1. With your first draft, just write. Do not edit as you go. Trying to do both simultaneously forces the creative right side of your brain to wrestle with the analytical left side. The result is torture. So, let your creativity fly unhindered while expressing your thoughts.
  2. Then, go back and replace passive voice with active wherever possible. Sometimes we need the vagueness of passive, but active verbs grab a reader’s attention.
  3. “Show” don’t “tell.” Weak: “she is walking this way carrying a gun.” Stronger: “she sauntered closer, a loaded pistol in her right hand.” Play with those verbs (and nouns, too!) to engage a reader in the scene. Think of a rough draft the way an artist might pencil sketch an image. Then, go put the color in making your writing as vibrant as possible while shading the nuances. For me, that’s when the fun begins.
  4. Eliminate wordiness. Tighten your prose by removing unnecessary words. Wherever possible use one word instead of two or more.  
  5. Use contractions. Instead of “I have” or “she will” using “I’ve” or “she’ll” makes writing less stilted, more conversational.
  6. Avoid redundancy. If you use a word like “coffin,” don’t repeat it in the next sentence or even the next paragraph. A good thesaurus offers a variation like “casket” instead.
  7. Eliminate clichés. Instead of “she ran faster than a speeding bullet,” think of something fresh. “She ran faster than a roadrunner chased by Wile E. Coyote.”
  8. Vary sentence and paragraph length. Short sentences or paragraphs increase tension. Longer ones slow a story down.
  9. Eliminate “I” as much as possible. Revise sentences that start with it. It’s easy to say “I this,” and “I that.” But even if it’s your story, readers want to know what’s in it for them. Avoiding “I” whenever possible strengthens your message.
  10. Always keep your reader in mind. Identify who you’re writing for and meet that target audience right where they are.

My best tip for life and writers is to never stop learning. Reading books, attending conferences, joining critique groups, and experimenting with words make the writing life one that can take us places beyond our wildest dreams.

Award-winning freelance writer and editor Patti Townley-Covert is the author of The Windblown Girl: A Memoir about Self, Sexuality, and Social Issues. Concern for young adults trying to escape life’s pain infused this page-turner with a message relevant for today. Patti has written numerous articles for publications such as Life Beautiful, Facts and Trends, and Decision.

We’ve loved having so many of you follow our blog and hope that our posts have informed and inspired you. Our team is going through a bit of a busy time these days, and several of us are preparing to attend the Evangelical Press Association convention in mid-April, so thanks for being patient with us while we take a little break from posting.

You can look forward to more articles and tips when we pick up the blog again in late April. Until then, happy spring!

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.

Attribution Matters

by Carla Foote

Attribution is ascribing a work or remark to a particular person. With the popularity of pithy sayings on social media, it is tempting to quickly Google a list of quotes from a famous person, such as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., or even Jesus.

However, these quickly “sourced” quotes are not always accurate. Here I have placed “sourced” in quotation marks to show sarcasm. Careful sourcing involves finding the original speech, book or other setting for the actual words being quoted. Google “sourcing” can involve a few clicks to find another person who says that a quote is accurate, even if the sources are not reputable or research-based. Simply noticing that many people attribute a particular phrase to a famous person doesn’t mean that person actually made the statement. Volume isn’t veracity in sourcing.

There are several ways that sloppy attribution of quotes can go wrong: Either the person didn’t actually say what is being credited to them, or they might not have said it in the way that it is being used in the shortened version.

While the internet can contribute to questionable attribution, it also makes the words of famous people accessible for research. I can actually listen to the “I Have A Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963, to the people gathered for the March on Washington. Or I can read the text of Mahatma Gandhi’s “Quit India” speech from August 8, 1942.

The third Monday in January is a national holiday in the United States, honoring the January birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was a civil rights leader who played a significant role in the fight for racial equality in the U.S. He was assassinated in 1968. As a preacher and a national leader, his writings and speeches are extensive. Quotes from Dr. King are indeed inspirational. But in the midst of sharing inspiration, accurate attributions are important.

In 2019, on the holiday celebrating Dr. King, I saw two instances of a quotation that I was curious about. The idea sounded good, but I hadn’t seen it attributed to Dr. King before, so I decided to dig in a little and verify the accuracy of this attribution.

The quote is: If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.

When I first read the quote, I have to admit that it sounded a bit like Mother Teresa to me. But that was based just on style, not any research. A quick Google search revealed several instances attributing this quote to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (one in a speech by the President of an Ivy League University). But a number of attributions were to Napoleon Hill, a new name to me.

So who actually said this first?

In the 1928 book, The Law of Success in Sixteen Lessons, Napoleon Hill said, “If you cannot do great things yourself, remember that you may do small things in a great way.” I found the actual book online and saw this quote on page 113.

It is possible that Dr. King quoted this phrase at some time during his many speeches and sermons. I did not do exhaustive research on all of his speeches and writing. Wikiquote is not a perfectly reliable source, however, it does catalog many specific quotes and their sources from books and speeches. Working backwards from Wikiquote, it is possible to find the actual source document for attribution. Searching the Wikiquote page for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not reveal the “small things” quote. But Wikiquote is not exhaustive.

Another good source of attributions is LibQuotes.com, whose motto is “Don’t quote it if you can’t source it.” In searching their site, they reference the “small things” quote as coming from Napoleon Hill. That’s how I found the name of Napoleon Hill’s book, and a few more clicks lead me to the actual text. Each quote on the website includes an “i” icon for more information and points to the original source. A writer or editor can then pursue the source document for verification.

Perhaps this work seems tedious, but attribution matters. And since the famous historical figures have plenty of strong, well-sourced material to choose from, if you want an inspirational meme for social media, pick something that is traceable to a reliable source!

Of course, beyond the issue of accuracy, there are a flurry of memes for particular holidays and events. In addition to considering the source for a quote, consider the context and your own voice. Are you pulling together a meme to join popular trends? Or is it core to your work and voice? But perhaps that’s another topic for a blog—to meme or not to meme?

In my research for this article, I found some interesting sources and articles on attribution and quotations.

  • Libquotes.com is a great site for finding sourced quotes. Start here when you are seeking attribution, or even just inspiration.
  • The Anatomy of a Fake Quotation – This article shows how on social media an introductory comment and a quote can start out as accurate, but when the words are reposted and blended together, the result can be inaccurate and spread quickly. 
  • 9 famous quotes that people get wrong – This is a humorous list of contexts that are often omitted when a short quote is pulled from a famous source. My disclaimer is that I am sharing this link but I did not research each of the particular examples given, although I am familiar with several of them.

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.

Snow on Snow

by Randy Petersen

One of the most beautiful Christmas carols is kind of a downer. The first stanza of “In the Bleak Mid-winter” paints a vivid picture of the cold, hard world that Jesus enters.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

As a writer, I love the bold simplicity of “snow on snow, snow on snow.” That is exactly how snow falls, isn’t it? “Water like a stone” is the common phenomenon of freezing, but here it’s a life-giving substance turned lifeless. With the most basic words, the poet puts us in a bleak world.

Christina Rossetti was already a well-known poet when she wrote this for an American magazine in 1872. (Nice to know, for this blog, that she was a “Christian Freelance Writer,” like us.) Her parents, emigres from Italy, had hobnobbed with England’s literati, until her father took sick. The family then struggled financially. Despite her own health problems—including a nervous breakdown at age 14—Christina was a prodigious poet in her teens. She regained the attention of the arts crowd, eventually publishing several books of poetry.

So, while she had some success, she also experienced a few “bleak mid-winters” along the way.

At this point, the fact-checkers among us are crying out, “But it wasn’t mid-winter! The fact that shepherds were tending their flocks by night suggests the spring season, before Passover. In the foothills of Judea at that time, there would be no snow on snow, snow on snow!”

Right. And the Bible never mentions a stable (just a manger) and the word for “inn” probably refers to the guest room in a house, so there was no innkeeper, and we don’t know how many magi showed up—maybe two, maybe twelve. Every December, we quibble with the Christmas story as it has been told through the centuries. Every generation seems to add a detail to fill out the biblical story. Early on, the magi got names and ethnic identities. One of the earliest English dramas we have, from medieval times, is “The Second Shepherds’ Play,” a clever farce about doubt and devotion. Later we got Good King Wenceslas, Santa, Rudolph, the Little Drummer Boy, an angel named Clarence, and poor Grandma getting run over.

Snow on snow. Snow on snow.

Despite our quibbles, Rossetti’s lyrics do what preachers have always done, applying essential truth to the current culture. It’s what poets do too. So maybe it wasn’t snowing on the shepherds, maybe it wasn’t a frozen world—physically. But is there any better way to describe humanity’s need for a Savior, then or now?

After the first stanza, the “bleak mid-winter” thaws out. Slowly. Gently. Rossetti keeps contrasting the angel throngs in heaven with the simple scene on earth, a mother cradling her child, kissing him. The water, once hard as stone, begins to trickle, bringing life to a needy world.

And the final verse brings it home, simply but powerfully.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

2021 Christmas Gift Guide

For those of you starting to panic because Christmas is just a few weeks away and you don’t have all your shopping done yet, here’s some help. Three of our CFWN team members have compiled a list of great books to check out, including one each of their own. We hope at least a couple of these will end up in your shopping cart—whether as gifts for loved ones or a treat for yourself!

Books We Loved

Stephen: For me a favorite book is memorable, leaving a deep impression. Both content and the quality of writing are important. A Carnival of Losses: Notes on Nearing Ninety by Donald Hall checks all the boxes. It’s a companion to his book Essays After Eighty. Hall was a poet, but in his later years poetry did not come easily to him, so he pivoted to the essay. His essays are poignant and the writing is lyrical. As a writer, you will be exposed to the topic of aging from a unique perspective, and you will experience stunningly good writing.

Randy: This year I got hooked on a series of murder mysteries by my friend John Duckworth. Some of you may know him from his years as an editor at Focus on the Family and David C. Cook. He has always been the funniest person on the planet, and now he has brought his misanthropic wit to a new genre. In Murder Most Annoying, his crime-solver is Carolyn Neville, a book editor who has a knack for getting in the middle of murder investigations. She struggles with her faith, her weight, and her attitude. But with a quirky sidekick (a junior editor), a vain boss, and an assortment of suspects, she always gets to the truth.

Ann-Margret: Sometimes I buy books that interest me and then they sit on a shelf for years. One book that took me a long time to finally pick up was Jesus—Safe, Tender, Extreme by Adrian Plass. As I read it, I knew that I was reading it just when I needed to. It’s a beautiful, poignant, intimate book about knowing Jesus. Plass shares with honesty and humor his own imperfect journey of faith, which is so much more effective than an expertly crafted sermon.

Books for Writers

Stephen: There are endless books on the craft of writing. Most of us probably own the better ones. But there’s one you may have missed since it has “Catholic” in the title and focuses on that least favored genre, poetry. It’s The Catholic Writer Today & Other Essays by Dana Giaoa, a poet, critic, and essayist. He’s best known for his 1991 Atlantic Monthly essay “Can Poetry Matter?” In this book he writes about beauty, faith, art, and writing as worship. You will encounter fascinating bios of a handful of poets and others, and learn about the craft of poetry as you learn of their lives. A favorite quote is, “We necessarily bring the whole of our hairy and heavy humanity to worship.” Isn’t the same true for writers and their writing?

Randy: A deep-thinking Christian, Martin Schleske is a best-selling author in Germany, and his prose translates splendidly into English. He’s also a professional violin maker. Luthier is the proper term for that—one of many things I’ve learned in his book The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty. Schleske takes us to a forest where he finds the ideal wood for a new instrument. He describes the painstaking process of carving, treating, and assembling the wood into a violin that’s beautiful to see and hear. He weaves in personal stories as well. And all along the way, he finds spiritual insights in his work. Deservedly, this book was honored in Christianity Today’s Book of the Year Awards. Besides its unique subject and profound observations, the book is a lovely artifact, beautifully designed and printed. Artistic thoughts about the artistic creation of an artistic instrument, presented in an artistic form. A great gift for a creative writer you know.

Ann-Margret: I’m an illustrator as well as a writer, and I have many other creative hobbies. I suspect most writers express their creativity in more than one way, whether that’s through music, photography, sewing, woodworking, or some other craft. A Book That Takes Its Time: An Unhurried Adventure in Creative Mindfulness by Irene Smit and Astrid van der Hulst, the editors of Flow magazine, is the perfect gift for the creative person on your gift list. It’s packed with interesting insights, cheerful art in full color, pull-out activities, and more.

Books by Us

Stephen: Fading is my third and best collection of poetry. A memoir of sorts, the style is in the vein of Billy Collins and Luci Shaw with a dash of Rod McKuen’s best stuff. One reviewer wrote, “Imbued with the wisdom and patience of age, [this] is a tender reflection on the strange wonders and sadness of life. Overall, the emotional breadth of these poems is impressive.” Another said, “The mix of whimsical and profound subjects causes the reader to be amused some times and to be provoked other times.” I promise you will laugh, you will cry, you will understand every poem, and see yourself in many.

Randy: The One Year Book of Women in Christian History (with Robin Shreeves). Have you ever written a year-long, page-a-day book? Writing 365 of anything is a challenge. Add historical research and the need for a devotional touch, and—let’s just say we earned every penny on this one. And I’m biased, but I think it’s good. Here you’ll meet hundreds of women who changed the history of the church and the world. You’ll read their stories, within the context of their times, and you’ll note how God has worked with all sorts of people—and still does. I’m tempted to say this is a great gift for any Christian woman, but I believe men benefit from it, too. I know I have. And we tried hard to avoid churchy language, so I imagine a non-Christian history buff would learn a lot as well.

Ann-Margret: Having the opportunity to illustrate and write a devotional coloring book, possibly the first book on the market to combine those two genres, was a surprise in itself. Having it then sit on the Christian bestsellers list for three consecutive months confirmed for me that Restore My Soul: A Coloring Book Devotional Journey makes an excellent gift for just about anyone. Forty devotions are accompanied by detailed full-page illustrations that readers can color in while meditating on the text.

If you buy any of these books, please remember to write reviews for the authors, especially if you liked the books!