Truth Be Told

by Randy Petersen

We have a truth crisis in our world today. I’m not the first person to notice that and I won’t be the last. Pontius Pilate’s question is ever before us, “What is truth?”

For Christian writers, it may come as a surprise that the most important discipline of our time is not theology or communication, or even political science, but epistemology—how people come to believe what they believe. This is the conflict playing out every day on social media and at family dinner tables. Perhaps we could manage honest disagreements, but this is trench warfare. Both sides are dug in.

More than ever, journalists, writers, and editors have important roles to play in hunting for and laying out the truth. We need diligence to research it, wisdom to grasp it, skill to explain it, and courage to publish it. Temptations abound. Let me suggest several notable ones that afflict not only front-line journalists, but also those who process and present their findings.

The Scoop

Old news is no news. You want to beat the competition to the story, so you might run with a partial set of facts before the full truth of a matter has surfaced. You grab quotes from someone with less expertise because the real experts need more time to study the issue. Your analysis consists of snap judgments that ignore key complexities. You dumb down the story, but you get it out there first.

The Splash

“If it bleeds, it leads,” news editors used to say. So you’re tempted to tweak the facts to make a story more sensational. You amp up a story with far-fetched questions and sly innuendo. No outright lies, but the presentation splashes suspicion all over your subject. You succeed in attracting attention to a non-story, but at what cost?

The Spin

Nowadays every story has a spin. A ball game, a good deed, a store opening, a church picnic. You might think such stories are immune, but there is probably someone spinning each of those events right or left. (Why no potato salad this year? A protest against Idaho politics?) You will be tempted (and perhaps required) to spin your story in a way your audience will accept, confirming “truth” they already believe. But is it really the truth?

Ask the Journalists

An excellent article in last winter’s Wheaton magazine quoted several journalists connected with Wheaton College. “I came to the conclusion that the job of the journalist was to pursue truth,” said UPI veteran Wes Pippert. That might seem obvious to anyone who has studied journalism, but as we’ve seen, nowadays it’s not a sure thing.

When every cell phone is essentially a printing press, people have immense publishing power, even if they aren’t “prepared for the difficulties of sorting fact from fiction and understanding a range of ideological perspectives,” according to the Wheaton article’s author, Bethany Peterson.

Jeremy Weber of Christianity Today describes some of the journalistic temptations I’ve noted. “If that’s what gets eyeballs and shares, then you want to lean toward, of the possible framings, the more aggressive one, or of the possible headlines, the more hyperbolic one.” By contrast, he affirms the importance of “your commitment to truth and love of neighbor.”

In a time when the profession of journalism is often maligned, it’s refreshing to see Christians affirming their calling. “I try to tell the truth,” says Ruth Graham, a religion correspondent for The New York Times, “but also in a way that lets readers make up their own minds.”

For Sarah Pulliam Bailey, religion reporter for The Washington Post, it comes down to the Golden Rule—but that doesn’t mean refusing to say anything negative about anyone. “I want the truth,” she says. “I want someone to write a piece about the good, the bad, and the ugly about how we’re living life.”

All Truth

A philosophy professor of mine became known for the phrase “All truth is God’s truth.” As he saw it, we needn’t fear any academic pursuit, if we are indeed pursuing the truth. The same goes for the pursuit of truth in journalism. May we doggedly develop not only our nose for news, but also our nose for nonsense. Let’s sniff out unfounded claims, overspun stories, and illogical conclusions in our relentless passion for the truth.

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.   

Freelancing 101

By Ann-Margret Hovsepian

Wouldn’t it be great if you could sit with your computer or pad of paper, write your stories, and then have them magically appear in print? And make money? Yes. Well. That might work in a fantasy novel, but we live in a non-fiction world that runs on contracts, deadlines, accounting, and—sorry, we cannot avoid it—taxes.

Although writing is a creative process, talent alone will not move you forward if you want to earn a living as a writer. You must start with administration and finish with marketing. Think of these two brackets as the bread and your creative work as the innards of your sandwich. Without the layers, you basically end up with salad. Here are some ways to make your first layer solid.

Partner with God

Before you do anything else, bathe your assignments in prayer. Ask God to give you discernment about what stories to write, to open doors for your story to get to where it needs to go, and to touch the hearts of those who read your story.

Quantify Your Goals

What do you want to write? Where do you want to see your work published? What steps will get you there? How long will it take? What will you let go of to make the time? It’s fine if you don’t know the answers to all these questions right away. Just do the first thing you know to do and that will lead you to the next step.

Manage Your Time

Figure out your routine. How many hours will you work per day or week? What time will you start and finish? Keep in mind that the time you spend on a project includes not only writing, but also reading, researching, brainstorming, and learning. Leave ample margin for revisions and unexpected setbacks. Make sure family and friends respect your work schedule.

Run a Tight Ship

Few people enjoy paperwork, but developing and sticking to an efficient administrative system will mitigate headaches in the long run. Use downtimes (when you don’t feel like writing) to clear away paperwork. An easy-to-remember rule of thumb for keeping paperwork off your desk is the “FLAT” approach: File it, Let someone else do it, take Action, or Throw it away!

Keep detailed accounts. Learn about rates, rights, and income tax rules for freelancers. Keep all your business-related receipts. Invoice as soon as a job is finished.

Keep track of your assignments, too. Whether you use a planner, a wall calendar, a computer program or an app on your phone, mark deadlines as soon as you have a confirmed assignment. If your article requires interviews, set up those calls or meetings before you do anything else. Don’t assume that your subject’s schedule will coordinate with yours.

Be Professional

It doesn’t matter how brilliant your manuscript is if you are a nightmare to work with. Remember that your editor or publisher is your client, and the customer is always right (in theory, at least). Show humility and grace when your work is criticized or corrected, even if you have to disagree, and resolve to be teachable. Not only will this show good character and make you a pleasure to do business with, but you will actually learn things and get better at your craft!

Meet your deadlines. Call when you said you would. And never, ever get “under-promise and over-deliver” mixed up!

Collaboration: A Secret to Building a Successful Freelance Business

by Sandra Reimer

In June 2004, I was downsized from a job I loved as a Community Relations Coordinator for a non-profit organization. By August, I recovered from the shock of losing my job after a decade and began freelancing as a writer and editor. Like many new freelancers, I tried different types of projects to discover what I loved to do that produced great results and clients would pay me for. 

I continued writing for my former employer, and the executive director referred me to an industrial company that needed an employee newsletter. Another friend referred me to write a newsletter for a charity. I also transferred my public relations and professional writing skills into a new industry and represented authors as a publicist for a while. 

In that first year, my freelance earnings matched my previous part-time employment income—plus, I had the flexibility to be with my two young children, who were 4 and 8 at the time. Maybe freelancing wasn’t so bad. 

Balancing Freelance Responsibilities

But the last 16 years of freelancing has not all been chocolate and whip cream. I know the stress of being a small business owner. Constantly, you must balance doing the work, managing your business, and finding clients. Most freelancers love to share their creative skills with the world but finding enough clients to earn a sustainable income can be challenging. 

To find clients, freelance creators and communicators assemble a portfolio, put up a website, polish their LinkedIn profile and get active on social media—hoping people will find them. However, on the internet, they blend in with others who offer similar services at similar prices. Unless these freelancers find a way to stand out, sales trickle in at best. 

Faced with this situation, many freelancers turn to platforms such as Upwork, Fiverr, and Indeed where clients post projects and freelancers bid against each other to secure work. Clients often award projects to the lowest bidders or the top talent with the highest ratings. Apparently, only 10% of freelancers find work on these platforms. Plus, the platforms take up to 20% of your pay, and you don’t own the relationship with the client—they do. 

Another Way to Build a Successful Freelance Business

Early in my freelance career, I stumbled on another way to build a successful freelance business—collaborating with professionals with complementary skills. 

In the beginning, I tried doing the layout for the newsletters and annual reports I wrote. The results were mediocre at best. I understand design principles, but I was working outside my strengths. Then while producing an industrial company’s employee newsletter, I met an excellent graphic designer. Soon, I began collaborating with Audra on most of my print communication. The results were outstanding as I focused on my strength—compelling writing and she on hers—beautiful design. It was easier to get repeat business when my results were more professional. Plus, I could sell higher-value projects because I provided clients with complete solutions—not just writing and editing services. 

Over the years, I have collaborated with other specialists, including my husband, a front-end web designer. Together we secured higher-value projects, such as websites worth thousands of dollars. I did the marketing strategy and wrote the content, and he developed beautiful and user-friendly websites. I continued to work with Audra on print projects. As we combined our skills, clients benefitted from professional results and complete solutions.  

My husband and I earned a satisfying income that paid our mortgage and our two children’s needs, with enough to spare for vacations and other wants. After five years, my husband went back to a corporate job while I continued working with freelance specialists on communication projects. 

Then about three years ago, I began to wonder if I could help other freelance marketing and communication professionals multiply their impact and income through collaboration. To test this theory, I am running an experiment. I launched an online community to help Canadian freelance communicators and creators trade referrals, co-promote our work, and collaborate on higher-value projects while learning together and having fun.

Editors’ note: Many of our readers may benefit from a group like this. If you’re interested in CoLaborNation, click here

Sandra Reimer is a communication strategist who helps world-changing businesses and non-profits tell their stories. She collaborates with other freelance professionals to produce compelling print and digital communication that sells clients’ products and services. Her fundraising letters and proposals have helped non-profit clients raise millions of dollars to fuel their missions. Prior to freelancing, Sandra was a Community Relations and Volunteer Coordinator for a non-profit. As a social entrepreneur, Sandra cares about the earth, earthlings, and earning.

Are You Ever Really Finished?

A good book has no ending.

– Robert Frost

There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.

– Frank Herbert

A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.

– Italo Calvino

Art is never finished, only abandoned.

– Leonardo da Vinci

How do you know when it’s time to let go of your manuscript or project? Do you feel pressured to tie things up or are you able to trust the conclusion to your audience? Please share your thoughts below.

Which Work Is Which?

by Randy Petersen

In my early days as a freelancer, I would try to keep a tally of how much money I earned each day. If I had a 2,000 word article to write for $200, and I wrote 500 words one day, that was $50 to my credit. I set up certain goals for each week and each month.

It wasn’t a bad way to ensure that I was actually making a living as a writer, but over the years I’ve learned to see my work differently.

Let’s say I start a week with a dozen important work-related things to do. Just how important are they? As I plan my days, it might help to ask certain questions that define the efforts in different ways.

Is this work I’m getting paid for? This is the simplest category, and naturally it would get a high priority.

Do I need to do this in order to get work in the future? If you spend all your time on work-in-hand, you may finish it and have nothing to do. Proposals, polishing a resume, tinkering with your website, even schmoozing with editors—all of this is valuable work that may keep the workload steady.

Does this task help me learn a new skill or subject that will help me with future work? Many of us old-timers need a crash course in modern technology. It’s hard to invest precious work-time learning about websites or social media, but that’s probably a great investment.

Does this help me organize my work? Various tools are available to help with, say, billing, communication, presentation, or research. Each one requires some time to learn, and some time to transition from an old way of doing things.

Am I building community with colleagues? It’s hard to quantify the value of networking, but it could be huge—in terms of connections made, work acquired, or expertise shared. (By the way, that’s what I’m doing right now. It’s what the CFWN is all about.)

Am I donating this work to a church or charity? You might choose to exclude this from your normal “working hours,” but it’s important to consider your volunteer work in the total account of what you do.

Is this creative work that feeds my soul? I write plays. Maybe you compose songs or poetry, or you might have a novel in the works. A privileged few make money from these artistic endeavors. The rest of us find other satisfaction in it. If this is not income-producing, it’s wise to carve out some “off hours” to do it. But don’t squeeze it out of your schedule entirely. You need this type of writing to refresh the writing you do for money.

So what?

If you love to schedule things, you might map out a week with time for all these things. In a 40-hour work week, it’s not unreasonable to spend only 20-25 hours on paid work. The rest of that time is not wasted—it’s invested in your freelance career.

This should also inform the way we estimate work time and charge for our services. Maybe you could get this 50-hour job done in one week—if you neglected all these other things necessary for your business and sanity. But more reasonably, you should take two weeks for that, and get paid accordingly. Like lawyers and doctors, you need a billable rate that supports your whole business and not just the time you spend composing copy.

In my early years of freelancing, I’d often feel frustrated at the end of a day. “I’ve been working hard for hours, but my calculations show I’ve only earned a pittance.”  Granted, freelance writing is not the most lucrative profession, especially when you’re just starting out, but understanding the different types of work might help you think and talk about it differently. And that might help you develop a more well-rounded sense of your whole business.

Five (Plus One) Tips for Flawless Copy

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

If you want to play the trombone professionally, you need to work at it. If you want to cut hair, make furniture, or sell insurance, you need to learn how.

Writing is a craft that, like any other, you must learn well and get better at. Yes, natural talent and creativity play a part, but if you want people to take your writing seriously, pursue excellence.

Here are my top tips for submitting a polished manuscript every time.

1. Get it on the page.

When you bake a cake, you dump all the ingredients in first. You don’t start to decorate the cake until it’s baked and cooled down.

In the same way, resist the urge to copy edit until after your piece is completely written. You may need to refine the content as you go, but don’t waste time correcting sentences or paragraphs you might later delete. (In fact, if you aren’t close to deadline, let your writing sit for a while. Putting some distance between yourself and what you just wrote can give you perspective.)

You can’t edit what you haven’t written, so put your first burst of energy into writing. Get it all down, as much as possible, even if it sounds lousy. Once it’s all on the page, you can start to clean it up.

2. Relax your grip.

When you’re ready to edit, put aside any affection you have for your manuscript. Don’t keep a sentence or paragraph just because you think it’s brilliant or it took you hours to write. If it doesn’t fit in, take it out. Read your work with the eyes and ears of a stranger.

3. Fact-check.

Fact check and then double-check your fact-checking. Editors don’t like finding out they published wrong information. Save everyone embarrassment and frustration by checking numbers, geography, name spellings, titles, dates, and references.

4. Watch sentence and paragraph lengths.

The energy of a written piece is often directly related to the length of its sentences and paragraphs.  So if you’re dozing off while proofreading, consider those factors.

If a sentence takes up more than two lines of type, shorten it. It should not contain more than one idea. Express the central idea first. If necessary, use separate sentences to include other significant points. Same thing with paragraphs: Make your most important point at the beginning of the paragraph.

The traditional approach is one theme per paragraph. That’s generally a good idea but sometimes a new paragraph can emphasize a point in the previous one, it can indicate a change in time or place, or simply break up text that is getting too dense.

Paragraphs are visual punctuation. Your paragraphs should not look bigger than a hamburger. On average, look at 100 to 200 words, but sprinkle in shorter or longer ones as necessary, which helps avoid monotony and making the reader’s eyes glaze over. For example, opening and concluding paragraphs might be shorter, and topics that need serious and in-depth discussion might be longer.

5. Crosscheck before take-off.

Read through your story one last time while comparing it to the details laid out in your assignment or contract. Tie up loose ends, submit your manuscript to God and then submit it to your editor. (On time!)

Remember that these five tips won’t make up for copy that’s shoddy. I’ll talk about eliminating weak writing (that’s the “plus one” promised in the title) in my next post (on March 2).

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Perseverance

I do not think there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature.

– John D. Rockefeller

Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.

– Biz Stone, Twitter co-founder

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.

2 Peter 1:5-7

Sometimes You Have to Say No

by Randy Petersen

I couldn’t believe my good fortune. A major Christian publishing company was offering me thousands of dollars to write a curriculum series. I had done a good amount of curriculum before, but this rate was more than double what I usually received. Hallelujah! For a making-ends-meet freelancer, this was a gift from on high.

A speaker had created some video teaching sessions, and the company wanted me to create Bible study lessons around them. I was confident in my ability to do this, but there was one problem. When I read over the transcripts of the videos, I completely disagreed with what the speaker was saying.

This wasn’t a minor theological quibble. I had a major problem with the whole thing. It appeared he was pushing a particular political viewpoint and applying Scripture to it irresponsibly. I questioned whether churches should be spending their Bible study time on this propaganda. I certainly didn’t want to help make that happen.

So I called the editor and regretfully backed out of the project. And I threw out my list of all the things I was going to buy with that money.

You Get What You’re Paid for

Earlier in my career I had another job I considered high-paying at the time: a brochure for some Christian ministry. It only took me a few hours to write, though the payment was enough for a week of work. And just when I started to count my blessings, I got a call. They wanted a rewrite. Then another rewrite. Then another. I wasn’t quite getting what they wanted, though they weren’t quite sure what that was.

I ended up giving them that week of work, and then some.

A similar situation occurred this year, though in a much more positive vein. I got a huge project that was expected to take two months, though it paid enough for six. I loved this work, but it was hard. As we dug in, my editor, his boss, and I all realized that the task was far greater than expected. It actually took—you guessed it—six months.

From these and other experiences. I’ve drawn a basic principle of freelancing: You get what you’re paid for. That is, the actual work will expand to match the amount you’re paid.

Sure, there are exceptions, and those are sweet. But a good rule derives from that principle: Don’t take a job just for the money. If you have problems with the people you’ll be working for, the content you’re asked to create, or how it’s going to be used, don’t let money sway you. Pay attention to those problems.

Of course Jesus challenged us not to let money be our master, but in addition to that, I offer the Rule of Expanding Obligation. That high-paying assignment is likely to exact a payment from you—in terms of extra work, frazzled relationships, even lost sleep.

If it’s a task that brings you joy, wonderful! Throw yourself into it, even if it takes longer than you expect. But if the paycheck is the most enticing thing about the assignment, beware. You pay for what you’re paid for.

Keep Office Hours

I have found that unless I make myself some office hours and stick to them—8.30 to 11 A.M. and 1 to 3 P.M.—I don’t do any writing. I pick some wild flowers and arrange them, wash the dog, and make a cake, and then it’s too late to start this morning. So I read another chapter of the book I started last night and go swimming. Morning is really the time your mind is clearest, I remember being told. There’s no sense in trying to start writing in the afternoon. So I’ll write tomorrow. I really will.

But I wouldn’t if I didn’t have my office hours. If I can’t think of anything to write about, I just sit in front of the typewriter and brood.

― Louise Rich Dickinson