Fearless Writing

by Stephen R. Clark

A friend from church recently shared a meme bearing a quote from Salman Rushdie: “A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.”

My friend said, “This is you!”

I took it as a compliment, but also as a bit of a challenge. A challenge I confront regularly as a Christian writer.

Several months ago, one of my grandnieces, Ellian Chalfant—an exceptional writer and a student at Gordon College—blogged about last summer’s racial unrest, explaining, “I’ve struggled to find the words to say. I know that as a writer, Christian, and human being I’m called to speak up for my brothers and sisters facing heartbreaking injustices in this country.”

Her bold acknowledgement that, as a Christian writer and fellow human being, she is “called to speak up” kind of smacked me upside of my face.

And then the meme my friend shared got the other cheek.

Why?

Because sometimes writing can be a source of fear and trembling for the writer. Especially when it comes to potentially explosive topics like racial injustice, social ills, sin in general, and so on.

The challenge is related to the caution in Proverbs 29:25—“Fearing people is a dangerous trap” (NLT).

While I get encouragement from readers, I also get pushback. Sometimes the pushback is a little harsh, and sometimes it comes from surprising sources. So, negative reaction is one part of the “fearing people” thing.

Another is sourced in my own heart, the fear generated from the man I am as shaped by a multitude of forces over time. I fear being wrong, making a mistake, looking stupid.

Nearly every time I metaphorically pick up my pen, I wrestle with the thought, “Who am I to write about this? What do I know? There are many others far more qualified than me!”

Writing is a process of exposure. When a writer writes he lays open his heart, reveals what he really thinks about something, and becomes very vulnerable.

And yet, as writers knowing this, we are still compelled to write.

Let me qualify that a bit more. As Christian writers, fellow sojourners on this earth, gifted by the Holy Spirit with a different way of seeing and the skill to share that insight, we are still compelled to write.

I put the question of fear to a group of fellow Christian freelancers. One, Ann-Margret Hovsepian, offered this guidance: “What helps me a lot is the conviction that my job is to serve my readers and not necessarily to please them. If I’m being faithful and obedient to God in using my talents for his glory and pleasure, how readers respond to my writing is none of my business. That doesn’t mean I don’t care what they think, but I cannot worry about it.”

Good answer. Although I assure you, I can worry and do care! Even though I probably shouldn’t. At least not a lot, anyway.

Right around when I posted the question, I participated in a webinar by author Alan Noble on what Christian writing should be. He offered these three principles: (1) God calls us to desire the good of our reader; (2) The Truth exists, and it is beautiful and good and worth fighting for; (3) Hope.

It was startling how closely what he said tracked with what both Ellian and Ann-Margret shared. Perhaps God was trying to tell me something.

For writers like me, the “dangerous trap” of Proverbs 29:25 is to fear writing, to freeze up, to hold back. Yet that verse concludes, “. . . trusting the Lord means safety.”

Jesus was a great instigator of strong reactions. It even got him killed. Yet, we are called to be like Jesus, to bear the image of God, to be a voice in the wilderness. For better or for worse.

I would argue that, most of the time, what we write leads to the better.

Randy Petersen, reflecting on the same unrest as Ellian, wrote this in a blog post:

“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.”

Alan Noble concluded his webinar with this summary: “If your work is truly for the good of your readers, have no shame in sharing it. You are not your writing. Expression is not the point. Your reputation and image are not the point. The good of your reader is the point.”

And then he tacked on this gem from T. S. Eliot, “Take no thought of the harvest, but only of proper sowing.”

So, here we are, Christians and writers. God has called us to write to his glory. To care for the good of the reader. When we write what the Holy Spirit lays on our hearts and minds, it is up to the Holy Spirit to impact the reader. It’s our job to share truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. To hone this gift and ensure that what we write is indeed “proper sowing.”

In his book, Scary Close, Donald Miller shared that when he was becoming too careful as a writer, he developed this manifesto:

  • I am willing to sound dumb.
  • I am willing to be wrong.
  • I am willing to be passionate about something that isn’t perceived as cool.
  • I am willing to express a theory.
  • I am willing to admit I’m afraid.
  • I’m willing to contradict something I’ve said before.
  • I’m willing to have a knee-jerk reaction, even a wrong one.
  • I’m willing to apologize.
  • I’m perfectly willing to be perfectly human.

These are wise words to live by, to write by. Besides, as Aristotle is alleged to have warned, “There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”

As Christian writers, saying nothing just isn’t an option. As we write, we can do so in the certainty that, as Ann-Margret pointed out, if we are being faithful and obedient to God in using our talents for His glory and pleasure, then, as Proverbs promises, we are safe.

To paraphrase Paul, let us write on toward the goal of serving our readers to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14).

Ignore This Advice

Ignore all lists of writing tips. Including this one. And including this tip. Or at least take them with a big pinch of salt. I have never met two writers who work exactly the same way: One of the hardest, but ultimately most rewarding, things about writing is that you have to work out for yourself who and what you are as a writer, and how you yourself work best. When you’re starting out, it’s very easy to see a piece of advice by [insert your favourite author here] and think, If s/he writes like this, I must do it that way too. That can be unhelpful, and instead I think that every time you hear a writing tip, you have to decide whether it means something to you, resonates with you, or whether it sounds like the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard. It’s your book, you need to learn to write it your way. Now please ignore this advice.

Marcus Sedgwick, at the 2016 Cheltenham Literature Festival

Eliminate Weak Writing

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

In my February 16 post, Five (Plus One) Tips for Flawless Copy, I suggested not doing any copy editing until a first draft is completely written. Once you’ve got all your material and have checked all your facts, you’re ready to go through your manuscript more slowly and carefully, checking for basic punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes, but also looking for less obvious but common problems writers often trip over.

Hunt down and eliminate words or phrases that are. . .

Meaningless

Instead of “At this point in time,” say “now.” You can almost always delete these words: really, very, actually, suddenly, and currently.

I’ve started to reduce my use of the word “that” but be careful about omitting it completely. Sometimes the word  is necessary for the rhythm or logic of a sentence.

Redundant and superfluous (see what I did there?)

This should be, you know, blatantly obvious but, sadly, it isn’t. Avoid overstatements such as “catastrophic disaster,” “close proximity,” and “plan in advance.” Another cringe-worthy example is “free gift.” Isn’t a gift, by definition, free? All novels are fiction. All surprises are unexpected.

Also be careful when phrasing actions. For example, “He shrugged his shoulders” or “He nodded his head.” Only shoulders can shrug and only heads can nod.

Ambiguous

“Child killers should be locked up.” Are you talking about children who kill or people who kill children? Reading your work back to yourself s-l-o-w-l-y will help you catch phrasing that might be awkward or easily misinterpreted.

Lacklustre (particularly verbs)

In Words Fail Me, Patricia T. O’Connor writes: “Find an interesting verb and the rest of the sentence will practically take care of itself.” Avoid these:

  • Passive verbs – Instead of “That car was bought by Janice,” write “Janice bought that car.”
  • Equating verbs – Instead of “This action is a denial of human rights,” write “This action denies human rights.”
  • “Making” verbs – Instead of “That experience made me a stronger person,” write “That experience strengthened me.”
  • Verbs that need nouns – Instead of “He gained entrance,” write “He entered.”
  • Verbs that need adverbs – Instead of “He ran quickly,” write “He sprinted.”
  • Verbs that make dialogue awkward – It’s not a rule that you can’t replace “said” with a verb that encapsulates a character’s full response (for example: “I’m glad to hear that,” she smiled.) but don’t overdo it. Use “said” whenever possible because it fades into the background and doesn’t jar the reader.

Descriptive instead of declarative

Every writer has heard it: Show, don’t tell. Sometimes a reminder helps. Show a character’s emotions by his actions instead of telling the reader how he feels or relying on adjectives. Instead of “Roger was very, very angry,” say, “Roger slammed his palm onto the table. The coffee mug fell off the edge and shattered. He didn’t notice.”

Good writing is as much about the words you take out as the words you put in.

What are some other tips you’d add to this list? Please comment below!

No Need for Telling

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

Five “I”s for Finding Stories

by Chris Maxwell

Debbie and I smiled at friends as we walked out of the church. We enjoyed the conversations in the cool November air. One of our friends informed us that the pecans falling from trees beside the church were ours if we wanted them. So, we began picking up pecans. My mind imagined a pie. Debbie’s mind focused on gifts for family.

Things changed quickly. As we worked, Debbie said, “What’s that?” She was watching what looked like a squirrel competing with us for the pecans. The more we looked, the larger the animal appeared to be. I walked closer as the creature climbed a pecan tree. If that was a squirrel, it was bigger than any I had seen in my years of disliking squirrels stealing food from our bird feeders.

I got close. Very close. The animal sat on the tree limb as we stared at each other. It didn’t have a mobile device. I did—I used it to take pictures, search the web, and ask a friend to come back to tell me what type of squirrel we had seen.

Our new friend? A fox squirrel. I posted pictures on social media. We all had pecans; I had a story.

Where are the stories?

Writers often struggle to find stories. Before we type nouns and verbs, before we reveal illustrations and key points, we search for stories. But where are they? In our hurry to find quality stories that have the potential to reach an audience, where do we spot them?

Stories are everywhere. Nearby. Far away. As writers, our job—and our privilege—is to notice them, craft them, present them. The stories are all around us, though we often miss the fox squirrel desperately chasing our pecans.

One place to trace stories is through IMAGES. We live in an image-driven world, so images shouldn’t be hard to detect. They stare back from our screens and devices. They rush through videos crafted to keep our attention. They sit in paper for those of us who still enjoy magazines.

We don’t always need to be staring at a screen. Look out the window. See the clouds as they ride through the sky. Pictures convey actions, feelings, experiences. See them. Stay there. Stare there. Stories are waiting.

Another way to discover stories is through IMAGINATION. Our brains can serve as tour guides into realms we will never visit. Mentally, we can go there. Listen for sounds. Look. Breathe. Hear the bird chirping? What is that smell? Roses? Do you see them? Who needs a rose from you? What is their story?

I have written for one company for three decades. They assign fictional stories as devotionals. So, I let the brain begin its tasks. Regions of my brain artistically reveal scenes. Nonfictional conversations merge with unreal narratives. Knowledge and encounters manifest as bizarre blends of actions. Stories emerge. They have been waiting there all along. We must give them time to wonder, to adjust, to merge, to mingle.

In my book Pause with Jesus I didn’t just read and study the stories. I imagined being in the stories. In the story, you need to write this week, imagine. Give yourself time to imagine.

INTERVIEWS also help us transform life experiences into stories. Engaging in conversations to begin crafting stories can be thrilling opportunities. They can also be intimidating. Choose to see the positive side. Ask open-ended questions. Listen well—remembering we have one mouth, but two eyes and two ears. Search for stories behind the stories.

I recently wrote an article about someone’s pain and grief. The original plan changed as I interviewed this person. The editor and I knew enough of their story to interest us, but we didn’t know the deeper part of the story that would appeal to a larger audience. One of their answers took me into streets I didn’t expect to travel. Those roads revealed portions I didn’t know existed.

Ghostwriting book projects taught me deeper ways to find stories in the interviews. My role as a pastoral counselor has helped me in this; those I am interviewing are not only providing information. They are telling stories they desperately need to tell. I must listen. Then I must write.

A fourth way to find our fox squirrels around all the leaves and pecans is through INTERRUPTIONS. Welcome interruptions.

When a dog barked, her high volume interrupted my planned thoughts. I struggled to get my mind back on track, but the bark continued playing in my head. It turned into a story—not about disliking dogs, not about the cause of a bark being hunger or hurt, not about frustration. The interruption became a story about grief—remembering a friend’s dog that died. The interruption became a story about how life is bursting with disruptions. Though annoying, they can teach us lessons. Though disturbing, that can distract us into a track for a story we otherwise would have never found.

Some of my best received blog entrees and stories originated with interruptions. Though we need to distance ourselves from distractions when writing, we shouldn’t always push aside that news alert. We shouldn’t always shake our heads amid commotion. We should sneak in and find a story.

Another way we can find stories is through INTERSECTIONS. Junctures of life barrage us with stories. We cross with age. We shift with grief. We turn during times of career change or health change or financial change or political change or international change or emotional change. We aren’t alone on those intersections. Others travel there. Others are stopped there, seeking solutions. My friend writing about his wife’s death—he has a story from that intersection. My friend writing about his move to a foreign land for mission work—he has a story from that intersection.

Good stories need intriguing take-aways. Those found in the intersections of life bring those to types of stories to us. Though uncomfortable at times, these intersections might be your most stimulating stories. Notice them. Write them.

I can still remember the first time I attended an Evangelical Press Association convention. I sat at a lunch with an editor who knew of my writing because of curriculum I had written. He listened to my ideas for his magazine. He was nice, but I could tell none of my concepts thrilled him. Our conversation continued as we told personal stories. When he found out my brother-in-law was a major league catcher, his facial expression changed. He asked me to write about that. I did—using images, imagination, interviews, interruptions, and intersections. It became their cover story. It was my first of many articles with them.

Let these five trails aid you in finding a few pecans. Let them also help you notice the fox squirrels of life. Those are the stories. Look at them. Stare as they glare back. Sit with them. Study, observe, and learn from their climbs and jumps. Notice their belligerent pursuit of pecans, their stillness when seeking to convince you they’re not there at all.

Readers are waiting to see a fox squirrel as they eat a few pecans. Craft your story to take them there.

Chris Maxwell served 19 years as lead pastor in Orlando, Florida, after five years of youth ministry. He’s now in his 15th year as Campus Pastor and Director of Spiritual Life at Emmanuel College. He speaks in churches, conventions, and schools, and is the author of ten books, including Pause With Jesus, Underwater, and a slow and sudden God: 40 years of wonder. His latest book is his 2nd collection of poems—embracing now: pain, joy, healing, living.

Keep Your Reservoir Full

It takes a heap of living to make a writer. It doesn’t necessarily have to be physical action, either. It may be the lives other people have lived, close to you. But a steady flow of happenings, motives, emotions must pass through your mind into your subconscious, and must enter in a continuous stream to supply that certain something that lets you make stories real to the reader.

The important thing to remember is that your ability to write is like your bank account—you must keep putting in to have something there to take out.

Jane Littell, Writer’s Digest (May 1940)

Highlight Reel

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

A couple of years ago, this blog was just a gleam in our eye (which sometimes made me wonder if I needed to clean my glasses yet again) so it’s exciting to look back over the last year of activity on the Christian Freelance Writers Network blog. We weren’t sure whether it would take off and now we’ve already got material lined up for our readers for the next few months, so we’re not even close to running out of posts to share with you!

Some of you are new to this blog, so you may have missed the earlier posts. Today, to celebrate CFWN’s first anniversary, I’m going to highlight several posts you shouldn’t miss (or might want to revisit). Click on the titles to read the posts.

In no particular order…

The Best Way to Be Creative (It Involves Coffee) by Anita K. Palmer

As writers we tend to work in isolation. An original idea, though, most often does not come in a lightbulb moment. No “eureka!” Good ideas need a community.

5 Tips to Enrich Your Pitch by Randy Petersen

Is our breadth keeping us from finding a successful niche? Is our desire to be everything to everyone keeping us from being anything to anyone?

Three Essential Qualities by Jen Taggart

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.

Pursue Excellence, Not Perfection by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

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.”

5 Questions to Ask Before You Challenge Your Editor by Michael Foust

Imagine, for a moment, that your story is a triage unit, and you’re determining which patients need the most help.

Is Writing a Spiritual Gift? by Joyce K. Ellis

Just as some pastor-teachers use their gift in large congregations, others at racetracks, and others in children’s work, some of us use ours in print.

Ten “Its” for Writing Well by Stephen R. Clark

For many, writing well in a compressed period of time seems impossible. But you can write quickly and write well. 

Thank you for following our blog! We’d love it if you shared it with your writing friends, students, and groups.

P.S. To find more writing and freelancing tips, use the “Categories” or “Past Posts” lists on the right to access our archives.