In a profile I wrote of Christian musician Phil Keaggy, I could have told readers his mother was kind and loving. Instead, I briefly related something he shared in our interview: She warmed his pajamas on the radiator every night before he dressed for bed. That little detail showed her loving heart and kindness. No need for telling.Joyce K. Ellis, Write with Excellence
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.
by Joyce K. Ellis
Ima Writer couldn’t wait to get to her former college roommate’s fortieth birthday party. She placed her gift in a white box, added sparkly tissue paper inside, then wrapped the box in a flowery gift wrap she knew Hope would love. When she got to the party, many of their friends had already arrived, and a dozen gifts piled high on the table next to the black-frosted “Over-the-Hill” cake. Ima slipped her gift among them.
Later, laughter erupted as Hope opened gag gifts, such as Metamucil, denture cleaner, and Depends. But lovely gifts, such as jewelry, framed mementos, and a favorite movie soundtrack CD drew oohs and ahs.
Hope saved Ima’s gift for last. Pawing through the sparkly paper, she stared. Silence. Then she managed, “Um…a magazine?…Uh…thanks.” More of a question than a statement.
“Hope,” Ima hurried to explain, “remember I told you I finally got published? Look, my article is on page 40. Ironic, eh?”
“Great.” Hope’s cheerfulness sounded forced. “When you told me on the phone you finally got published, I thought you meant a…a…book. But this is…um…nice.”
Truly, in our society, people may not respect you as a writer unless you have written a book—even if you’ve written hundreds of articles. And writers who produce magazine articles may feel they haven’t arrived until they see their names on a dust jacket.
Far from being inferior, article writing can actually maximize our ministry potential, extending our reach more than we could ever imagine. Compare:
Average sales of first book: fewer than 5,000 copies, likely out of print in a year or less.
Now consider the circulation numbers of this sampling of Christian magazines. And remember, many copies are read by more than one person.
Did you hurry past those numbers? Read them again. Staggering!
The magazine market has shrunk considerably in recent years, and many print magazines have vanished or gone online. Still, a plethora of editors are still looking for a plethora (I do love that word) of good material. From freelancers. From freelancers who “get” that particular magazine’s style and audience. From freelancers who can bring a fresh voice while fitting in.
That’s why, in nonpandemic times, so many already-swamped editors take time away from work to serve as writers conference faculty. Even during COVID, they prioritize time for virtual appearances. They’re looking for dependable, skillful writers who have something worthwhile to say. The 2020 Christian Writers Market Guide includes almost a hundred pages of magazines looking for our work.
As a bonus, for writers tired of the word platform, article writing can stretch both time and dollars, often shortening the time between project completion and paycheck.
In addition to print and online magazines, of course, who can calculate the potential outreach of blogs and other online posts?
Bullet or Stalactite
Books and articles are both important, but I like to compare them this way: A book is like a bullet, a one-shot ministry opportunity. But articles are like stalactites—a steady dripping of hope into the hearts and minds of our target audience. And if we develop a good working relationship with an editor, we can often keep “dripping” into that audience for a long time.
Every article we publish is a precious, heart-to-heart present we can give to the Master we serve and to the readers we reach.
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10, italics mine).
 Sources: The 2020 Christian Writers Market Guide, The 2020 Evangelical Press Association Membership Directory, and the Guideposts website.
by Joyce K. Ellis
During a rough patch in my personal life, I couldn’t write. I had deadlines but couldn’t focus. God seemed silent, and the Enemy filled the void with accusations. I felt disqualified, unworthy of my calling as a writer. Was it time to quit altogether?
Each night before bed, my husband reads to me from a devotional book, and at that time we were reading Chris Tiegreen’s Hearing God’s Voice. At one of my lowest points, the daily selection was written as though God Himself were speaking. Phrases and sentences burned into my soul:
You would be shocked if I told you how many people refuse to seek My voice because they feel disqualified…They don’t consider themselves worthy enough….
Don’t keep your distance from Me. I’ve gone to great lengths to bridge that distance and unite us as one. When you run from Me, hide from Me, or even just grow cold toward Me—whether through your guilt, shame, fear, or apathy—you are wasting a gift I have paid an enormous price to give you.”
I felt as though Tiegreen could peer into my soul at that very moment.
But imagine: That book had been published several years earlier. Considering how slowly the gears of publishing turn, Tiegreen undoubtedly submitted the manuscript at least nine months or a year prior to publication. And because the devotional book covers a whole year, who knows how long it took him to write the 365 devotionals–and arrange them so this one would fall precisely on April 15, right when I would need it? (Of course, he had no way of knowing.)
God’s voice. God’s comfort. God’s encouragement. God’s timing.
A prophet’s time travel, of sorts—projecting those words forward?
I’ve always shunned any possibility that I may have the spiritual gift of prophecy. I can’t tell people what will happen to them in the future like Daniel or Elijah or one of the other biblical prophets did. Besides, the consequences for erroneous prophecies were severe!
Then I learned a definition of a prophet as a “forthteller,” more than a foreteller. And a desire to “tell forth” to others what the Lord is teaching me has been in my spiritual DNA from my early years as a believer. I pondered the way Chris Tiegreen typed words on his computer that “projected forward” to my need years later. I thought about other times I had been helped by that kind of “time travel” from other authors. On the other hand, over the years I have prayed for God’s guidance as I write—that the words would meet the needs of readers. But I hadn’t fully understood their time-travel potential.
It all came full circle, however, when my book, Our Heart Psalms (twenty years in the making) came out at the height of the COVID pandemic, followed by street violence. In God’s time-travel plan, Our Heart Psalms seemed a book “for such a time as this.” There was a reason it had been rejected, rearranged, and rewritten so many times—and finally published in 2020.
A friend gave a copy to an elderly woman whose husband has advanced Alzheimer’s Disease. Quarantined with him, this woman has few interactions with other people. But some of the words, possibly written twenty years earlier, touched her heart, and the woman wept as God met her on those pages.
What if I had quit writing when I was at such a low point? What if Chris Tiegreen hadn’t written those words that encouraged me to keep listening to God? What if he hadn’t followed God’s direction to place them as the April 15 reading? What if we served a God who didn’t have perfect timing?
“Let’s not get tired of doing what is good [what God has called us to do],” Paul wrote. “At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up” (Gal. 6:9 NLT, brackets mine).
“As for God, His way is perfect” (Psalm 18:30 NIV).
 Chris Tiegreen, The One-Year Hearing His Voice Devotional (Carol’s Stream: Tyndale, 2014), 105.