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

Your 2021 Writing Goal: Stop Waiting!

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

E.B. White

If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.

C.S. Lewis

If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done.

Ecclesiastes 11:4 (The Living Bible)

Christmas Greetings from Our Team

We appreciate each reader who follows, reads, comments on, and shares our blog posts. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas in a few days, four of our writers would like to share some thoughts with you. Enjoy!

Christmas Drama

by Randy Petersen

For a decade and a half, I wrote a new Christmas drama for my church each year. I loved doing this, but it became a huge challenge to find an angle we hadn’t tried before. Allegory? Been there. A zany innkeeper? Yep. Time travel? Every which way.

An approach we began to use exclusively was the modern-world story in which characters encountered and internalized the Christmas story in some way. This was a challenge too, because I always wanted to avoid a hokey conversion scene. I found that incremental changes in a situation or relationship carried more power. Two estranged sisters beginning to talk again. A prodigal daughter with an illegitimate child being welcomed home for Christmas dinner.

As a Christian communicator, you’ve probably wrestled with this too, or something like it. The Greatest Story Ever Told has been told many times. We don’t need to improve on it, but we do need to bring it home. How does the miracle of Christmas apply to the Worst Year Ever Lived (at least in the 21st century)?

It’s an honor to share this assignment with you, my freelancing colleagues. So as we go through this season and into a new year, let our creativity flow, our imaginations bursting forth with innovation, our hearts brimming with empathy, our minds honed to extreme clarity. May the miracle of Christmas invigorate our language as we find new ways to bring glory to God in the Highest.

Treat Yourself to the Joy of Writing

by Ann Byle

The holiday season can wreak havoc on your writing schedule, what with all the present buying and wrapping, decorating, making food for special meals, and gathering with friends and family in person or virtually. On the other hand, it can be a lonely time for those whose family is gone or far away.

Whatever kind of season you experience, finding time and space to write can be an oasis of calm in a fraught season. Search out those half hours of time to calm your heart and mind and write a few paragraphs. If time is all you have, start a project you’ve only dreamt of so far. Treat yourself to the joy of writing this holiday season in small pieces or days at a time. Writing time is never wasted and is the best gift ever.

My plan? Write when I can amid lots of activity, write when I have no other choice except to go bonkers, and write with joy and intention. And look forward to Ordinary Time when things settle back down sometime in January. May joy and peace be your companions this holiday season.

The Message

by Stephen R. Clark                                                                                                                   

The season speaks to us, a secret signaled incessantly in blinking lights and garland flags of pine and tinsel. Green with hope and red with joy, the message turns our thoughts outside our own needs, desires, and wants.

Trees suddenly grow indoors, decorated with memories, bearing the fruits of love and time. Gilded and ribboned packages magically appear under these incongruous evergreens—expectations and dreams captured in cardboard boxes.

At night, the air aglow with star shine on the snow, whisps of angel songs drift white and pure straight into our hearts. We gather inside our homes around hearths ablaze, warmed by goodwill and God’s grace. On the mantle, the story of Christ’s birth is played out in a motionless menagerie, objects of simplicity and awe.

Through eyes of innocence, we look past the nascent Nativity, just beyond the horizon of the season, where the new year waits poised with promise. The Message of the season fells fear of the future as the immanence of Christ’s presence is again heralded by the world.

Childlike, we are reborn, our voices and souls caroling the Gift of the Ages, in whom we live, and move, and have our being. It’s Christmas. Emmanuel is come. Maranatha!

If You Were a Christmas Carol, Which One Would You Be?

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

As you listen to the same carols over and over (and over and over) again this season, try this: Ask yourself which titles best describe your life. What message does your life— and, by extension, your writing—send out to those who are listening? Here are several examples to get you started.

  • What Child Is This? — Is Jesus unknown to you? Are you seeking Him?
  • Do You Hear What I Hear? — Are you so intently focussed on what God is saying to you that you are eager for others to hear Him as well?
  • Come Thou Long Expected Jesus — Do you desire to be close to Jesus? Do you tell Him so?
  • Silent Night — Are you able to be quiet and reflective of God’s gift or is your holiday full of noise and activity?
  • How Great Our Joy — Does your relationship with Jesus fill your life with great joy?
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain — What’s the message you send out to people at Christmas? That you’re excited and stressed about all your festivities and preparations, or that the birth and life of Jesus is the best gift you’ve ever received?

This Christmas, just as these songs proclaim the good news of Jesus’ birth, may our lives of joy, peace, and love do the same.

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.

Word Play

by Randy Petersen

My first job out of college was editing prayer letters for a mission agency. I admired the missionaries who penned these epistles, but most of them weren’t writers.

During one lazy afternoon at my desk, I tried an experiment. Taking a letter that was badly overwritten, I applied all the Strunk & White guidelines. No passives. Verbs over nouns. Few adjectives. Short sentences. I managed to cut the verbiage in half.

While it was better than the rambling document I started with, it seemed stark, robotic.

I tried again, this time going halfway on those improvement measures.  I allowed some verbs of being and passive constructions. The best modifiers got to stay. If compound sentences tumbled down in an orderly manner, I looked the other way.

This turned out to be the best version of the day.

Learning to Read

Eight years later, I got a freelance job editing books for a literacy project. The publisher gave me two rules: no word more than two syllables and no sentence more than fourteen words. This seemed arbitrary to me, especially the syllables. I could use rhythm, which seems difficult for a novice reader, but not harmonica, which could be easily sounded out. Yet those were the rules and they paid me to follow them.

Despite my initial objections, I found it a great training experience. Through this project, I honed my ability to write simply and clearly. I recommend it as an exercise for you. Could you take a paragraph you’ve written and rewrite it with these two rules? Is the result better or worse? I’m not suggesting this is the way to write everything, but it might give you the ability to tighten your style when you need to.

An Editor’s Wisdom

Let me fast-forward a few more years to an extremely helpful interaction with an editor—though I wasn’t too crazy about it at the time. The editor, whose name was Tim (one of the few details I recall about the incident), asked me for a rewrite of something, and I was initially shocked. My pride kicked in. A professional writer for more than a decade, I had developed a crisp style that many editors liked. It wasn’t weighed down with academic ostentation or religious jargon. And I had learned a lot from that literacy project: compact words in tight sentences.

Tim dared to tell me that my writing was punchy. Noun-verb. Noun-verb. One short sentence after another. I had prided myself on a punchy style—more journalistic than devotional, I thought—but Tim was right. Punchy prose makes readers feel that they’re getting punched. It’s not enjoyable to read.

“Change it up,” Tim said. “Vary your rhythm. A long sentence can be clear if its ideas are in order. And the variation can create a pleasant reading experience.”

The Adams Family

One more stop on this journey of discovery.  Today. I’m working on a project now, creating a collection of material quoted from American Christians of the last four centuries. It’s a fascinating study in styles of communication and how they’ve changed. In general, writers of the past were far more verbose than their modern counterparts. I can’t rewrite these quotations, but I can cut them off when they start to wander. (Ellipses are such wonderful tools!)

But my overwhelming impression about previous generations of wordsmiths is that they loved to write. Abigail Adams took five sentences to tell her husband what I could edit down to one, but clearly she was having a great time finding different ways to make her point. For her, and for many in past centuries, writing was not merely a conduit for ideas; it was a sport, an art, a pastime. Writing was their YouTube.

So maybe it’s okay to use a five-dollar word once in a while—for the fun of it. Maybe a run-on sentence could reflect something delightful about my state of mind. Maybe there’s a pleasing rhythm in a well-turned sentence. Maybe I can forget the rules once in a while and just play.

Fly a Little

The brilliant Joyce Ellis wrote a great piece in this space recently urging us to tighten up on verbal constructions that are redundant or unnecessarily wordy. She is absolutely right. Tight language keeps the reader’s energy with you, and it can free up space elsewhere in your writing (especially if you’re on a word count).

But good writing is not always short writing. Sometimes you need to spread your wings and fly. Have fun with it, and bring your readers along. Let your sentences be as long as they need to be, as we celebrate our delight in this gift of language.