4 Essential Qualities for Writers

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

In this post and in this one, I shared several tips for submitting flawless copy. What we do as writers is obviously crucial. We must write with excellence, meet our deadlines, and keep learning. There are countless practical tips and guides for writers and most of them are fairly easy to understand and implement. Continue to hone your craft and never skimp on this.

However, it’s possible to do all the right things and to write perfectly but still not succeed as a writer. That’s because, unless it’s only a hobby, writing is more than a craft. Unlike diamond cutting or brain surgery or atom splitting, a writing career goes beyond sheer skill and requires the ability to communicate and connect with others. With very few exceptions—if any—writers cannot succeed on their own. We rely on editors, publishers, teachers, and our audience. And whenever a pursuit involves other people, it also involves our character, our personality, our attitudes, and even our approach to life in general. Building lasting relationships with editors is invaluable and, over the past 25 years of freelancing, I’ve pinpointed four qualities in particular that will make a writer a winner.

#1 – BE PROFESSIONAL

It doesn’t matter if you’ve been writing for six decades, six years, or six hours. You can still present yourself as a professional, the first step to being taken seriously. That doesn’t necessarily mean wearing a suit or carrying an expensive briefcase. You’ll probably mostly deal with publishers and editors by phone and email and not see them face to face. But your phone calls and emails should be handled with courtesy. Your emails should be written as perfectly as your manuscript. Follow the publisher’s lead in terms of how informal you are in your emails.

If you’re going to print business cards, make them good quality. If you’re not good at graphic design, err on the side of making your cards simple. This applies to your website, blog, Facebook page, and so on. Invest in learning—not only about writing, but also about marketing and social media, about finances, and about time management!

Be organized. Be reliable. When you have an assignment or project to work on, organize your time and stick to your writing schedule. Keep your work area tidy. Run a tight ship if you need to submit invoices and keep track of everything.

#2 – BE CREATIVE

Creativity has less to do with artistry or reinventing the wheel, and more to do with looking at things from different angles, solving problems, and presenting familiar concepts in fresh ways. Always follow your editor’s instructions, but don’t be afraid to ask, “What do you think about this idea I had? What if we approached it this way?” Even if your idea isn’t used, your editor will appreciate your initiative and creativity and will know that you care about the assignment beyond simply making a quick delivery and getting paid. Wow your editor by going beyond the assignment when you can. But don’t change the assignment—that’s not creative, it’s annoying.

Don’t wait for inspiration to hit you. Look for it all around you. Listen to people when they share stories. Read a lot. Observe nature. Write things down in a notebook or keep a file for ideas you don’t yet know what do with.

Don’t be afraid to diversify and to work on multiple projects, especially if you want to make a living writing. Not only does this ensure you have something to work on when one project finishes, but the creativity you apply to one project will help the other, and you will stretch yourself and grow as a writer. You may also discover a stream of work you hadn’t considered before. Be willing to try new things and don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is rarely fatal.

#3 – BE HUMBLE

First of all, be YOU when you write. Embrace your quirks and weaknesses and work with your strengths. This kind of honesty and vulnerability is appreciated by editors and readers. You may be the only person who can write what you’re writing the way you’re writing it. Don’t cross the line of oversharing inappropriately but don’t hide yourself either as that will stifle your creativity and make your work dry and less believable. If your editor can’t stomach your writing, your readers may never get the chance to.

Don’t patronize. Don’t preach. Don’t whine. And be willing to work hard. Remember WHY you are writing: to serve your readers and not to sell books or become famous. (Unless, of course, those are your motives, but that’s a whole other conversation.)

This ties in with being professional but it starts with the quality of humility: Be upfront about what you can or can’t do and notify your editor about any setbacks or possible delays immediately. Most editors are understanding and reasonable when they know you are doing your best.

Be teachable and open to feedback and correction. Even if you are sure your editor is wrong, discuss the problem with civility and graciousness. Don’t be stubborn because, truly, editors usually know better. If you don’t understand an assignment or correction, just ask. Guessing about it may end up wasting a lot of time—yours and the editor’s—if you guess wrong.

#4 – BE IRRESISTABLE

The first three qualities will already put you ahead of the game. But it never hurts to add a pretty bow to a gift or delicious frosting to a cake. Here are a few suggestions of how to do that as a writer:

  1. Underpromise and overdeliver–not the other way around.
  2. Get better and better with each assignment. Don’t slack off just because you’ve developed a good rapport with an editor. You can perhaps be more casual but NEVER less professional.
  3. Treat your editor like a human being. Be gracious and caring, recognizing that he or she may be under a lot of pressure and you’re not the only writer in the pipeline. Editors get tired and sick and have families and lives, too.
  4. Be joyful in your work. Put your heart into it and love what you’re doing. . .otherwise maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.
  5. Build community. Writers are known to be introverts. It’s fine if you want to work in solitude or if you’re not very social. But, as we said before, writers must serve their readers, and that means you must be prepared for a certain level of engagement with them. The more you do this, the more likely it is the reach of your writing will grow, especially if your readers learn they can trust you.

To recap, every writer should be professional yet creative, humble yet irresistible. If you focus on developing these qualities as you also work on improving your craft, there is no reason you shouldn’t do well as a writer. Have fun!

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.

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

That Story

by Chris Maxwell

We love writing stories people remember. 

A scene of the ocean as waves rush ashore in rhythm. A view of winter with snow covering the streets and a fireplace warming a family. A glance at a grin from bride and groom while they declare vows. 

What an honor to write those stories, to take people places through paper and screens, to guide eyes and minds into an encounter. Information and statistics help prove our cases. Quotes from trusted sources justify our arguments. But stories stick. They illustrate application. They offer an experience, an invitation, an opportunity.

Stories can shock us as the sad stat sheet turns into an example of a family grieving at the funeral home. Stories can motivate us to pursue more information about ways to rescue people who can’t find a method to pay for medication. Stories can lure us toward laughter as the grandparents tell stories of pictures in a photo album to their grandchildren at Christmas. 

In our tribe of Christian writers, we often create stories which we hope will offer encouragement. Even as we honestly reveal the conflict of our narratives, our beliefs bring a breath of reassurance.

We must be cautious, however, not to rush too quickly to the redemptive conclusion. The pain along the way has value. The greatest story ever told isn’t just about a resurrection. Crucifixion comes first. Blood is shed. Breathing stops. A crying Savior mumbles His meditative prayer from what, for us, is Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Before Resurrection Sunday comes Good Friday. And Jesus wants us to remember that story. 

He had gathered with His followers the previous week. They, as they often did and as we often do, ate together. He served bread and wine, declaring to them a tradition to begin, a story to tell, an encounter to experience. “Do this,” He said, “and remember me.”

Before we hurry to another submission or another assignment, let us hear Him. Let us listen as He says, “This is My body.” Let us pay attention to the ancient dialogue as He says, “This is my blood.”

Imagine us in the story and at the table. Not given instructions from our Teacher about better writing or proper grammar or future goals. But given bread to taste and wine to drink. Given words to receive rather than submit. Given nourishment for ourselves before hurrying it to another editor on our list of potential clients. 

Today, choose to be the client. The one loved. The one in the story. Dwell on the week, on the Thursday dinner, on a Friday we call Good, on a Saturday so silent. Stay there a while in that story. Stay there a while and be in the story. 

Slowly, very slowly, work your way to the Resurrection. Remind yourself, “He is risen.” Repeat and you reflect on your own life as someone loved by Him not matter how must or how often or how well you write, “He is risen indeed.”

We will write more stories. We will see them in print and online. We will receive payments. We will smile.

We will also receive rejections. By editors on our articles. By people on ourselves.

But today, step aside from the lists and the goals and the dreams. On purpose, refuse to be so driven. Remember. Remember His death. Remember His death for you.

Stay in that story. The death of your Savior.

Stay in that story. The Resurrection of your Lord.

Stay, remaining away just a while from the demands and the ambitions. Stay, with the story we believe is great. Stay, with the meaning of the bread and wine, of the cross and blood, of the death and Resurrection, of the ancient story and how we are transformed today.

Before we hurry to another submission or another assignment, let us hear Him.

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.

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.

Have Fun When You Write

Just sit down and write your book.

I know that sounds painfully simple, but you’d be surprised how many people want to write a book but never do. So just “doing it” is 80 percent of the battle.

Have fun when you write. Don’t worry about how it turns out. Lose yourself in your sentences. Enjoy the tapping sound of the keyboard. Success is not not your reward. Your life is your reward. The book is merely evidence of your wonderful life.

Sean Dietrich

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!

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

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