Seven habits of the purpose-driven writer

Here’s a chapter I wrote for Writers on Writing: Top Christian Authors Share Their Secrets for Getting Published

It includes chapters by Jerry “Left Behind” Jenkins, Liz Curtis Higgs, James Scott Bell and many more successful freelance writers and editors.

Writing is the hardest way of earning a living, with the possible exception of wrestling alligators
Olin Miller

I proudly taught this chapter at a writers’ conference in 1984 as “How to Succeed as a Christian Writer.” However, after my second book’s publisher went bankrupt, I started calling my workshop “How to Survive as a Christian Writer.” And after my seventh book actually sold negative numbers (more book stores sent it back than sold it), I was tempted to call it “How to Apply for Government Assistance as a Christian Writer.” Writing is hard work and even after you’ve signed a book contract and cashed the advance, it doesn’t get any easier-even after my twenty-first book project.

So, how does one succeed or simply survive as a Christian writer? I think, to paraphrase Stephen Covey, there are seven habits of the purpose-driven Christian writer.

1. Self-Discipline

Freelancing can easily become freeloading. It’s easier to be raiding the refrigerator than researching; watching “The Guiding Light” rather than waiting for God’s guiding light, to take time to relax than to take time to rewrite. I know. I gained ten pounds my first year of freelance writing.

Here are some ways I’ve found I can discipline myself.

Set a time aside each day for writing

If you’re waiting to find time to write, you will never find it. There’s always someone or something else demanding your attention and your time.

Roxanne Armes, my amazing editorial assistant when I worked at Wesleyan Publishing House, was always reminding her co-workers, “You can accomplish anything if you just work on it fifteen minutes a day.” She’s right. Rhonda Rhea is the author of three books, a busy speaker and a radio personality all while she a pastor’s wife and mother of five children. How does she do it?

I think the secret is subtracting the fruitless activities from the equation. I’ve had to learn, for instance, that my TV has to stay off during the day. OK, maybe I still squeeze in an episode of “Murder She Wrote” over lunch, but who can resist Jessica Fletcher? Too much online chatter, too many trips to the mall, too much time playing computer games, too many thousands of holes of golf–most of us have sneaky time-suckers lurking in our routine. I hit a writing roadblock last week (on deadline day, of course) and found myself hiding from the deadline by playing who-knows-how-many mindless games of “Minesweeper.” How fruitlessly time-sucking is that?

So, view it as a job. (You don’t play “Minesweeper” at work, do you?) Unless you’re on life-support, you can write. After double-hernia surgery, I finished a book project with two ice packs down my pants. So, other than life or death situations, there’s no real reason not to show up for work.

Create a mission statement

Four D’s will free up immense chunks of time.

Don’t. It’s okay to say to those no to those things that don’t contribute to your work assignment from God. For instance, my mission statement is:

To communicate the gospel of Christ
in as effective and creative manner as possible
with as many people as possible.

Cut out those activities that “don’t” contribute to your mission statement.

Delegate. If someone else can do it, he or she should do it. Children can learn to clean, do laundry, fix meals, do amazing things. If you have more money than time, hire someone to do things that aren’t a part of your mission.

Delay. If you have to do it and no one else will, delay action. Many times circumstances will arise that negate the necessity to do it. I’ve had a couple conference where I was supposed to speak cancelled by snow storms and other “acts of God,” so I don’t start working on a lecture until the point I know I can adequately complete the assignment. And, of course, Jesus could return before your deadline.

Delaying also gives your sub conscience or “muse” or voices in your head time to work. I write a weekly column for three papers and a humor column for each issue of Rev. magazine. Weeks before deadline, my muse (or is it the voices in my head?) start pitching ideas. I politely tell them to come back a week before deadline. So, when it’s time to start writing my muse has all kinds of ideas that have germinated in that incubation stage.

Do. If you absolutely have to do it, can’t find someone else to do it and the deadline is approaching, then do it. But not until you’ve exhausted all your options.

Set deadlines for yourself

If you don’t have an editor breathing down your neck for an assigned article or book project deadline, it’s often difficult to get motivated. If you’re just starting out in writing, you’ll need to be sending out query letters or book proposals and then waiting for months to hear from an editor. So, not a lot of motivation to just do it.

Setting deadlines (if you pass this “line” you’re “dead”) for yourself, helps get your going. And reward yourself each time you time your deadline. Dark chocolate is a power motivator!

2. Self-Motivation

Can you not write? If it’s possible for you not to write, you’ll do better as an underwater welding or heavy equipment operator. Real writers, particularly the one’s who get published, cannot not write. We pitiful, pathetic people with pens are like the prophet Jeremiah who lamented, God’s “word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9).

If I go more than a few days without writing, I too feel I’m going to be the first documented case of human spontaneous combustion. I cannot not write!

Even more than self-motivation, our true motivation must come from beyond ourselves. We must be motivated by a sense of divine call. (Bonnie Perry addressed that issue in the very first chapter, so moving right along . . . .)

Set goals

Realistic, specific and measurable goals will keep you motivated.

Make sure they’re realistic. Selling more books that Jerry Jenkins and Max Lucado combined is not realistic. Sending out one query letter a month to a magazine is realistic. Finishing the sample chapters for your “chick lit” novel in the next three months is realistic.

Goals also need to be specific. “Becoming a better writer” isn’t. Finishing this book, subscribing to The Christian Communicator, taking a class at the community college or joining a critique group is specific.

Finally, are your goals measurable? Will you know when you accomplish them?

My agent, Janet Grant (Chapter 24), advises writers to “make sure the goal is within your power to accomplish.” Getting my book published isn’t. One quick “war story.” Tuesday, April 20, 1999, brought the horrific killings Columbine High School in Colorado. Two days later my book proposal, Dying to Know: Teens’ Questions about Death and the Afterlife, went to the publication board at a major Christian publishing house. The marketing people’s response, “Teens aren’t interested in death.” HUH?!

Publication is not in your power. Submitting the best possible proposal with the best possible sample chapters is.

3. Self-Organization

Here’s a test: can you find your tax return from five years ago within one minute? How ’bout the top of your desk? Freelance writing demands that you keep good financial records, records of where you have sent your manuscripts, keep track of multiple deadlines, etc. (Now where are those tax returns?!)

Create your work environment

Working off the kitchen table just doesn’t work. You’ll need a space dedicated to your writing to keep organized. It doesn’t have to be an entire room, though. I started out in a walk-in closet, but I had everything I needed: computer, printer, phone, file cabinet and lots of shelving.

Having a space dedicated to writing also helps with self-motivation. If you consistently sit at your desk at the appointed time, your brain will begin to build a strong association with that location and writing. Your subconscious or muse or voices in your head will think, “Hey, she’s sitting at her desk, we better get busy!” After thirty years of sitting in front of a keyboard, I don’t have any trouble getting “inspired” to write.

There are also tax advantages to having a percentage of your house as a home office dedicated exclusively to your business. You can deduct that percentage from the mortgage, utilities, insurance, etc. (Talk to a certified tax consultant for the many advantages to having a home office.)

4. Self-Worth

For the first few years of my so-called writing career, my sense of identity and self-worth was wrapped up in being a writer and speaker. So an SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope with a publisher’s response to a query) had a direct effect on my SELF-worth. Thin SASEs were usually a check; fat SASEs were my manuscript coming back with the dreaded, “We’re sorry but your manuscript does not fit our editorial needs at this time.”

It wasn’t until I allowed the truth of Brennan Manning’s Abba’s Child to sink in and “think in,” that I broke the grip of “mail domination.” I am loved by the Creator of the universe. I am His beloved child. No publisher or conference audience is ever going to love me like God loves me. And there aren’t enough rejection slips in Colorado Springs keep God from loving me.

Sure rejection still hurts surface emotions, but it no longer cuts to the very heart and soul of Jim Watkins. Jim Watkins is a child of God. Oh, I almost forgot, he also writes books and speaks at conferences.

5. Self-Promotion

I absolutely cringe at the idea of promoting myself, but it’s absolutely crucial. I’ve finally come to peace with it realizing that without m-e there is no m-e-s-s-a-g-e. God always sent a messenger with his message; no writing in the sky, but a person. If I don’t promote me, the message won’t be promoted?and published.

Use “pull” rather than “push”

Try to push a rope any distance and it will curl up on the ground like a snake. But try to pull a rope, and it can travel as far as you go. As writers, we won’t get far pushing ourselves, but if we can find people to pull us, we can go far. Ask, who do I know who has “pull.”

For instance, my Campus Life director in high school went on to be the president of Youth for Christ. So, I asked him to write a foreword for one of my books. He also wrote a glowing endorsement for my speaking ministry.

I met Calvin Miller while we were both speaking at a writers conference. He gladly “pulled” me with a great endorsement. “Jim is one in a million. Two in a million would be overkill.” (I think that was an endorsement.)

The reason you bought this book may have been seeing a popular author’s name on the cover. They are all people that I have worked with at writers’ conferences and were glad to “pull” this book.

Promote the message

Again, remember you are promoting the message God has given you, not yourself. So shameless promote yourself with a web site, news releases, radio interviews, etc. etc. Carmen Leal’s book, You Can Market Your Book, is a must read on this subject.

6. Self-Improvement

We must always be learning to keep our writing edge: subscribe to writers’ magazines, attend conferences, take a class at your community college, sign up for a course with the Christian Writers Guild, just keep growing. If you’re pleased with what you wrote a year ago, you haven’t grown as a writer for an entire year!

7. Other-Orientation

Writing is not completely self-oriented. You need a support group (“Hi, I’m Jim, I’m hooked on phonics”) to keep you disciplined, organized, etc. Join a writers’ group, ask for prayer for your projects at church group (then celebrate together when a check or contract arrives) and keep your spouse or closest friend in the loop.

And network,network, network. Even in Christian publishing, it’s who you know, not what you know that gets your foot in the publishing house door. Build a network of editors and other professional writers as you attend conferences and seminars.

Copyright © 2000 James N. Watkins

7 thoughts on “Seven habits of the purpose-driven writer

  • September 13, 2017 at 8:39 pm

    Very helpful. I’ve been reading Build Your Author Platform and it suggests looking at blogs from famous writers to get ideas. You’re one of the first I’ve perused. Just wondering: does your wife write too? Your household sounds about as crazy as ours, so I would enjoy reading what your wife has to say about things. 🙂

  • September 9, 2019 at 4:03 am

    Thank you for such an informative (and inspiring) article!

  • August 20, 2022 at 6:15 pm

    Thank you, James. Each point you made was a confirmation of what God and I had been talking about!
    I’m rewriting this as a checklist to put in my daily book. I feel very encouraged and affirmed.

  • October 25, 2023 at 10:49 am

    Jim you gave me your book Change Lives in Battle Creek when I told you God wants me to write a book. I have used the book to help me firm up what I am to write about and just went to your website to look for a conference and found these writer tips and am going to be implementing them. Thanks for the information.


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