10 Tricks to Take Your Writing to the Next Level

by Patti Townley-Covert

While waiting for the literary agent to speak, my hands shook and my heart raced with nervous anticipation. It was my first writer’s conference, and since first grade I’d wanted to be a writer. With a stern face he looked down at my article, then at me.

“You have no style.” My heart sank as I sighed, and my shoulders drooped. Mr. Stobbe’s words killed the dream.

Wait. What? He wasn’t finished. “You have no style, but you can learn.”

Our meeting that day changed my life. For the next decade I attended writer’s conferences, read recommended books, and wrote, revising one article more than 30 times. But before being published in a magazine, it won an award. Then, my articles started appearing in national and international magazines. After editing numerous books by clients, this past year I finally published my own.

The tricks I’ve learned have not only made my writing better, they also make it more fun. These tips can do the same for you. Here’s ten ways to elevate your craft.

  1. With your first draft, just write. Do not edit as you go. Trying to do both simultaneously forces the creative right side of your brain to wrestle with the analytical left side. The result is torture. So, let your creativity fly unhindered while expressing your thoughts.
  2. Then, go back and replace passive voice with active wherever possible. Sometimes we need the vagueness of passive, but active verbs grab a reader’s attention.
  3. “Show” don’t “tell.” Weak: “she is walking this way carrying a gun.” Stronger: “she sauntered closer, a loaded pistol in her right hand.” Play with those verbs (and nouns, too!) to engage a reader in the scene. Think of a rough draft the way an artist might pencil sketch an image. Then, go put the color in making your writing as vibrant as possible while shading the nuances. For me, that’s when the fun begins.
  4. Eliminate wordiness. Tighten your prose by removing unnecessary words. Wherever possible use one word instead of two or more.  
  5. Use contractions. Instead of “I have” or “she will” using “I’ve” or “she’ll” makes writing less stilted, more conversational.
  6. Avoid redundancy. If you use a word like “coffin,” don’t repeat it in the next sentence or even the next paragraph. A good thesaurus offers a variation like “casket” instead.
  7. Eliminate clichés. Instead of “she ran faster than a speeding bullet,” think of something fresh. “She ran faster than a roadrunner chased by Wile E. Coyote.”
  8. Vary sentence and paragraph length. Short sentences or paragraphs increase tension. Longer ones slow a story down.
  9. Eliminate “I” as much as possible. Revise sentences that start with it. It’s easy to say “I this,” and “I that.” But even if it’s your story, readers want to know what’s in it for them. Avoiding “I” whenever possible strengthens your message.
  10. Always keep your reader in mind. Identify who you’re writing for and meet that target audience right where they are.

My best tip for life and writers is to never stop learning. Reading books, attending conferences, joining critique groups, and experimenting with words make the writing life one that can take us places beyond our wildest dreams.

Award-winning freelance writer and editor Patti Townley-Covert is the author of The Windblown Girl: A Memoir about Self, Sexuality, and Social Issues. Concern for young adults trying to escape life’s pain infused this page-turner with a message relevant for today. Patti has written numerous articles for publications such as Life Beautiful, Facts and Trends, and Decision.

Point to Ponder

Not all writing is political or revolutionary, but the very act of giving yourself permission to write, to speak, to share the truth no matter whether the truth you understand is the truth others want to acknowledge, is brave, powerful, and important.

Dinty W. Moore, The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life

Pen, Pencil, or Crayon?

by Stephen R. Clark

All writing is not equal. Nor should it be. Just as we can use various tools to write with, such as a pencil, ballpoint, fountain pen, crayon, or marker, these can also describe different types of writing to fit different needs.

Elements that play into defining need include your audience, the action you want them to take, the medium you will use, your budget, the timing involved, and the consequence of your message.

Before you start writing, be clear about what type of writing you need so you can pick the right style.

Pencil it in

We’ve all “penciled the date in” when making appointments. This implies the meeting is a throw-away or very tentative. It may or may not happen and the consequence either way is light.

The same is true for “pencil copy.” This is writing that needs to be done “quick and dirty.” The message needs to be shared, but it isn’t vital to national or your security, so you don’t need to sweat the style. Just write the facts in plain good English and be done with it.

For instance, a reminder notice of a meeting that includes a brief agenda. You want people to show up on time, at the right place, and have something to say. All they need are the basics; the rest they’ll get and contribute at the meeting.

Ink it with a Bic

When you put ink to paper, it’s time to get a bit more serious. But maybe not too serious. The writing in an informal company newsletter needs to be well done, but it’s not great literature. The same is true for meeting minutes, church bulletins, and sale flyers.

Write in a conversational style and make sure your facts and quotes are accurate. The information needs to be fresh and timely, not weighted with endless detail and complex sentences.

Wake up & smell the marker

When it’s time to get attention and make an impression, bring out the big fat stinky bold black marker! Be audacious and gutsy. Write in broad strokes and use outlandish, exciting language. Just like they do in those tacky, but effective, carpet and auto dealership commercials.

If there’s a critical deadline your audience needs to respond by, or truly urgent information they need to take to heart, don’t be timid. Write bold, write big, make some noise, and maybe even raise a little stink, but without being offensive.

Pass the crayons

Are you writing about something fun, inventive, or playful? Then get out the crayons! Keep the tone light and colorful. Draw your audience into the fun. Make them see and feel the joy. Write to the senses.

Your company has had a record sales month and it’s time to celebrate. Don’t send out stodgy engraved invitations. Tell them to come and enjoy a steamy hot cup of cocoa with marshmallows and freshly baked glazed donuts! Give them a taste of what to expect. Whet their curiosity.

Let the fountain pens flow

Weighty topics and momentous events call for fine writing. Put on the evening gown or the tux and pull out your best gold-nibbed fountain pen.

When it’s a speech to contributors, a sermon for Sunday morning, a book for the ages, or an article detailing the ethical lapses of a company, it’s time to take time and carefully craft your message.

You need to be attentive to each word and shape every phrase and paragraph with painstaking precision.

Here is where voice is most critical in writing. Your message must resonate and be sound not only in its logic, but also in its tone. Be memorable, lyrical, and quotable.

So, whaddya need?

You’ve got a message that needs delivering. Who is it for? What do you want them to do? How are you sending it? How much time and money do you have? How truly enduring is your message?

Answering these questions will help you determine how to craft the final product. Who knows? You may need a marker headline with a crayon opening followed by a finely written body. Mixing styles is fine if it meets your need and connects with your audience. When that happens, it’s all good.

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.

On Being Original

The most original authors are not so because they advance what is new, but because they put what they have to say as if it had never been said before.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.

William Makepeace Thackeray

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

C.S. Lewis

A Writer Walks Into a Church…

by Stephen R. Clark

I believe some of the best writing in all Christendom can be found in churches. Especially in smaller churches. Yes, some of this will be found in the sermons pastors sweat out week after week—producing the equivalent word count of a novel every year.

But beyond the sermons, there are bulletins, Bible studies, blog posts, websites, devotionals, emails, announcements, curriculum, newsletters, and so much more being crafted regularly that exhibit some of the best writing a lot of people will ever be exposed to.

Frankly, a publisher would do well to aggressively scout these non-sermon church sources to find the better authors to write the books and articles they need. Just saying.

Some of these writers are you and me serving our churches with what we likely see as the big gift God has blessed us with.

But what about those complementary gifts and skills that we can also offer to our churches? Disciplined writers, like you, possess a plethora of talent that all churches need:

  • Administration. We know how to organize, set priorities, manage processes, and run a good meeting.
  • Knowledge. We generally know what’s happening in the evangelical world, possesses a broad knowledge of useful materials, can assess good studies to pursue, and are discerning of who are reliable authors and who to avoid.
  • Interactive. We know how to interview people and can customize studies for various groups.
  • Process. We understand the difference between pacing for speech and reading, can provide proofreading, edit material for clarity and conciseness, and bring the editorial process to bear.
  • Messaging. We can craft messages for various audiences, grasp what makes a good website, write blog posts and content, and establish branding.
  • Creativity. We are able to teach Sunday school classes, can create readings and liturgy elements, and can add the written word to creative arts efforts.
  • Visuals. Some of us are skilled in photography, audiovisual, videography, have an eye for design, and maybe even a little talent for graphics.
  • Technology. Most of us are reasonably competent with a variety of software and comfortable with computers.

There are probably more that you could add to this list.

As writers, we write to be read as well as get paid. We also enjoy a little recognition now and then. So work that brings in no income and where we are often completely invisible may be less than attractive. Yet it can be highly rewarding.

When you’re looking for a market for your writing and other skills, consider the market of your church. They need help and most are hungry for it.

Serving your church, bringing all of your gifts and talents to bear, is an excellent way to hone your craft as well as strengthen your spiritual muscles.

When serving your church, the pay and recognition, in worldly terms, are lacking. But the rewards are moth and rust resistant while living out the fullness of your calling as a writer and so much more

Aim for the Stars

Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world. And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things—childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves—that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.

Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

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.