I remember many moons ago attending a huge youth ministry conference and saying, I want to be the presenter on stage publishing articles and books and being super cool all over. I contacted a couple big publishing houses and found a less than hospitable reaction to a youth worker with about a year and a half of experience wanting to write for them.
Since then I have had a bit more success writing online articles for several different places (including this one) and publishing curriculum for four general church agencies of the UMC as well as a monthly column in a major UMC magazine and a book or two.
I don’t say that to toot my own horn, but to say that I know the ropes of this thing and if you want to follow the path I did (I’m sure there are many others that end up in this place), it may lead to your desired destination… or not. Either way, if you continue past this point, it’s your own fault.
Step One: Turn Back Now
Seriously, you may think you want to do this, but you don’t. It requires a lot of late nights, a lot of failure, and a lot of work in general. You will discover awful things about yourself. You will discover ego sensitivity you had no idea existed. You will discover a lack of ability to complete what you want to complete, and worst of all you will discover how little you really know about youth ministry and life in general.
That is why I say turn back now. Unless you can’t. Unless you’re like me. My problem is that I love writing. I love finding just the right way to describe a difficult idea or a poetic turn to a piece of prose that brings out the art in the description of Chubby Bunny. The only way this works is if you have an uncontrollable urge to write. If not, just quit. It’s just your ego talking and you will be very frustrated.
If I’m completely honest, it’s probably your ego talking either way, but if you like writing, you might have a chance.
Step two: Write and Read
Writing for publication is like the ego stroke for what you love to do anyway. The only way you can hope to get the publication validation you so deeply desire is to get better, and the only way to get better is to write and read other people’s writing. Carve out time every week to write something and even more time to read. Whenever you have a chance to do a retreat, write the curriculum yourself.
And if you really hate yourself, start a blog and let the entire world tell you what they think in the comments. Don’t worry, for a while it will just be your mom commenting and she will be pretty nice. She’ll mostly tell you about the missing comma in the second sentence of paragraph 3, but at some point some random person will link to it and you will get an onslaught of “fun.”
Step Three: Figure Out What You Actually Know
Look, you never know everything, and should not offer advice on something you haven’t had a couple years’ experience doing. On the flip side, there is always something you actually do know. If you are just starting out in youth ministry, you know the rookie game really well.
When you have no experience you can write about all your firsts. You can share what is difficult about having no experience and little training. All of those can be helpful for people who are in the same boat as you, and they can be helpful to the old people who have gotten stuck in their ways and forgotten what it was like to have the rookie feels. Then after you have five or six years under your belt you can start writing more authoritatively in your field.
Don’t forget to lean into your other experience. If you worked for three years as a guest relations employee at an amusement park, you have a good bit of experience in diffusing angry people, listening and referring to your manager. All of that works in youth ministry too. An article about how to diffuse an angry customer/parent works!
Step Three: Beg for Legit Feedback
Once you have actually written some things (and by some I’d say 50 blog posts or several pieces of retreat curriculum) Take your best stuff and start sending it to the people you read asking for advice. If you like their writing style, a quick email saying something like “I really liked your article on _______ and used it with my volunteers. I’m trying to get better at writing myself in hopes of being published some day. Would you mind reading it and giving me some feedback?”
Most non million-seller writers know this stage of development and are willing to give you something back. When you get their feedback, believe it. It will most likely hurt. It may make you doubt whether or not you should be writing. If they only say positive things, they are being nice. Don’t believe them, and don’t ask for more advice. If you want to throw away your computer after reading their response… that’s the good stuff. Close the email. Take a break and relax. Then, go back a day or two later and believe everything they say and figure out how to fix it.
Step Four: Work for Free
Once you have something you think is really good, send it to some of your favorite youth ministry sites and ask if they would be willing to publish it for free online. Once they say yes, follow up with an email offering to write more regularly (for free). They’ll likely give you a chance if they liked your first piece well enough to publish it.
Then, follow up your first piece with a second one that is hopefully better than the first. This is important, because if you just fire off something at a much lower quality, you risk losing the chance. A second strong article/resource will show them that you have the chops to produce consistently good (maybe not great) content and they can rely on you.
Step Five: Roll Free into Money
Once you have a couple publications on a third-party site it’s time to try a couple low-level publications. Don’t start with Christianity today or Rolling Stone. Find a lower-level magazine and work on a piece that seems to fit their style. Then, send the email to one of the editors with a list of your other publications. They may not read any of them, but the goal is to show that someone else has looked at your work and been willing to associate it with their brand. Your list of publications will be the key in getting them to open the attachment.
Do all this enough and you will succeed at getting paid very little for a whole lot of work and pain! Congrats!
Don’t Save Good Ideas
I don’t know why this is, but once you start saving good ideas, you turn off the good idea switch. If you have a good idea, write it and publish it wherever you can. If you hold it thinking it will be the one you write for your first paycheck, you are fooling yourself. Ideas have a short shelf-life like an open bottle of wine. It’s good to let it breath for a bit, but if you leave it out too long it will end up tasting like vinegar once you write it.
Find an Editor You Hate
The best editors are the ones that you hate the most after reading their comments. Really. Writing is like creating a precious baby. Then you pass off this beautiful thing you love to someone who tells you it’s nose is too big and the birthmark you thought was adorable is a tumor that you are going to have to cut out yourself.
It’s true. Every word they say. Every comment they make. That’s why it hurts so much: they are pointing out the actual weaknesses in the thing you created and love. Believe them, hate them, and then ask them to look at your second draft.