Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by S.R. Morris
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In my experience, church is the best place to find ideas for stories, especially for the ones that religious periodicals like to publish. Years ago, it used to be said that anyone could write an article for the religious market, but that's not true anymore. Religious magazines, like many others, have become more sophisticated and particular about what they publish.
Still, I find the best ideas in church, and it doesn't matter which church. These are the five types of articles that religious editors like to see:
Let me explain how I find these five types and how I turn them into cash.
What better place to be inspired than at church? I like to hear unusual or miraculous stories, and so do editors and their readers. Sometimes it's not what I hear in the sermon, it's what others say when I'm in the lobby or foyer. When I hear something worth writing about, I make a mental note and begin inquiring about it, or about the person in question. Let me give you an example.
One day, I was at a spiritual resort in the mountains of Arizona. While in the cafeteria waiting in line to be served lunch, I struck up a conversation with the lady in front of me. When I asked if she was involved with a church outreach, she said she was not part of a church-sponsored ministry, but had a project of her own. When I asked her to explain, she began to tell me about her water ministry. She said she was known around downtown Phoenix as the "water lady." Her ministry involved giving away cold bottles of water to poor and thirsty people in the Arizona sun.
As I listened and asked questions, she told me about one incident when she gave a bottle of water to an obviously homeless man. After seeing his interest in spiritual things, she invited him to go to a large church with her the next day. As a result, and after an unusual series of events, the man was reunited with his mother at that church. Both mother and son had been estranged for years and neither knew where the other lived.
The story I pitched to several editors could have been titled "The Last Bottle of Water" because it was the last bottle of water she gave away that day. But I've found that editors sometimes like to put their own names on stories. I didn't mind it when the first editor titled it "The Mean Streets," or when I sold the reprint rights to another who called it "Offering the Water of Life." As a result, I sold the story and I got a check in the mail each time.
Another time, I heard an inspirational story about how a man had helped another man give up his alcohol addiction, and started believing and trusting God with his life. I titled the story "Holy Joe & the Religious Fanatic." By now, you can see I like to give my stories outrageous titles, but I don't care if editors stay with my title or choose their own. The titles I choose are to get an editor's attention, which is the first step toward selling the story.
Recently, I heard a story about a Christian teacher (again through an unusual series of events) who obtained a set of hand bells for her school. Since I have rarely read about hand bells, I sat next to the teacher at dinner after church, and asked for details. Another time I heard about a man who sold a set of Christian books to the wife of an atheist. The outcome was truly inspirational and I got a check for that story, too. The secret is to ask questions.
Out of all the stories I have sold to religious periodicals, I have sold more children's stories than any other. Some of these stories are simple lessons I've learned from children at church, and from my own children and grandchildren. I've learned that children (and editors) like stories in which they have pets or interact with animals.
The title of one story I sold was titled "Vanessa, the Kitten, and the Fire." A title like that will grab an editor the way "Abraham Lincoln's Mother's Dog" might have 150 years ago. Of course, catchy titles alone will not get you a check. The story must keep a child's interest, so read stories written by others and discover the words or series of events they use to capture a child's imagination.
Although the checks you'll get from editors at children's periodicals are usually smaller, I've learned that you can pad those checks a little by adding a puzzle or sidebar to the story. Puzzles are easy to make and children and editors love them. In a story I wrote about a boy and some ants, I also wrote a sidebar with unusual facts about ants. Another I wrote was called "God's Favorite Color." In it I included a word puzzle. Some of the clues were color words they could find in the Bible, such as "color of the pastures in Psalm 23:2" or "color of the horse in Revelations 6:4."
In my experience, editors will pay the most for interviews with religious people of interest. A few years ago I sold an interview with the founder of the world's first food bank. He was involved with a large church in Phoenix, and named the food bank after the church that helped him get it started. I titled it "That Crazy Food Bank Idea" and sent a small sidebar and photo with the article. In return, I received the biggest check I had received to date.
Interviews are a little harder to come by, and you have to sell the editor your idea with a query that will fit the editor and his readers' interest. If you have a speaker at your church with a widespread following, he or she might be the perfect choice for an interview. Find someone to introduce you and suggest that you be granted an interview. Be prepared, though, because some speakers have a limited time in their tour of speaking appointments. Have a notepad or a recorder to record the interview, and have some interesting or unusual questions for your interview.
Currently, I'm pitching a second part of the food bank interview I did years ago. I had too much material to put in one interview, so I've written another I call "Ten Thousand Chickens and a Simple Rule." Sometimes people will give you too much material, so why not split the interview and get another check as well?
Religious magazines usually can't compete on the same level with newspapers, television, and the Internet. You must find widespread interest in an event, or something not covered by the other media, that will make your article worth reading. The result will be cash for your wallet. Years ago, I wrote a story about a homeless ministry. In it a group of homeless men were painting a church whose members were too old and feeble to paint it themselves. In return, the members of the church, mostly women, cooked and baked a feast of delicious food and served those men the best breakfast, lunch and dinner they had probably eaten in years. A smaller magazine in California wanted the story and published it.
Another story I wrote was about a Christian school located in a remote area on an Indian reservation. This story also had some unique events that led up to the building and start of the school. In this case the largest daily newspaper was also interested and wrote about it. But even though it was written primarily for Arizonians, I pitched it to a periodical with nationwide (even worldwide) readership and received a nice check.
This is a type of writing that can pay well, depending on the magazine. Some will pay for a series (enough for a week or month) of short devotions of 150 to 350 words or more. Editors usually pay less per devotion, but this can amount to some steady work. The ones I have focused on are theme or seasonal devotions, which pay a larger dividend.
One of my first devotion pieces was called "Why I Help the Homeless," and I included a sidebar titled "Eight Biblical Promises for Helping the Poor." I sold that piece and later sold it two more times to denominations with non-competing magazines. Another devotion I wrote was titled "Why Jesus Was Born in a Manger," which was published just before Christmas of 2010. As with most seasonal pieces, you must submit them to editors from six months to a year or more in advance.
Now you know the secret to my success in stealing from churches and selling it back to religious periodicals. So keep your ears open to inspirational or motivational stories the next time you're at a church. You might be able to turn what you hear into an article or story. The best part of it is that editors won't consider you a thief and will even send you a check for your work.
This article is not available for reprint without the author's written permission.
S. R. Morris is a retired teacher and former reporter/editor/ publisher in the newspaper industry. Currently, he works as a freelance writer and divides his time between his kids and grandkids in Idaho, and his wife and adopted daughter in the Philippines. Over the years, he has written scores of articles and stories for religious publications, as well as several articles for health/nutrition magazines. He is active in his own church, but regularly visits other churches/denominations to gather material for religious articles and/or inspirational stories.