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Category Archives: Freelance Writing

On one hand, I feel like an obligatory “I’m sorry I haven’t posted for three months” introduction is in order. On the other hand, I know no one has been checking in on a regular basis, routinely dismayed by the lack of a new post (nor should they have been).

So if not an apology, this post is going to be something of a transition—from the 3 months of zero posts to what I hope will be a more regular posting schedule.

LOST is over (and so is my mourning period), so I am no longer compelled to maintain that blog. Instead I plan to start posting here at least once a week (we shall see).

Posting about what? you may wonder. Good question.

Well, I’ve recently adopted a new goal for the completion of the first draft of my book, so I will be working toward that. This blog will provide a reprieve from the tedious and draining process of trying to pull all of that together. I’ve also found myself longing for a place to share some thoughts (the 140-character tweets just ain’t cutting it), and I started journaling (yes, with pen and paper) a few weeks ago, but it just felt too nineteenth-century for me. Honestly, it had more to do with the fact that I write slower than I type, and then, when I’m done, I can hardly read what I’ve written. So it was an ill-fated endeavor from the start.

Also, I’ve continued to do freelance projects on a regular basis, and I’ve been remiss about linking to those articles (or sharing things I’ve learned from those projects). I also plan to start doing that again here.

Meanwhile, I continue to manage a Snap Fitness in Delaware, Ohio. And the reason we moved here in the first place (to help with a church plant) is starting to come to fruition. You can find more about that here:

So I might have some thoughts on that (I expect I will). And I know I’ll be sharing some thoughts about what I’ve been reading.

So if any of that interests you, check back in. I’ll be posting again soon. I promise.

First of all, I’m sorry it’s been so long since I posted something here. I don’t know to whom I’m apologizing, since I don’t know why anyone would continue to check this site when I never update it…but I’ll work on that.

Anyway, yesterday Your Church magazine posted an article I wrote for them a few months ago, “Weighing Fair-Trade Coffee.”

It was an interesting article to write, because I learned a lot about where coffee comes from, how it gets from “bean to cup” (to steal a phrase from Michael Trent, one of the people I interviewed for the piece), and how some organizations use fair-trade coffee to assist communities where their coffee is grown (like Land of a Thousand Hills does in Rwanda).

It was interesting stuff. Maybe you won’t think so, but I do. So there.

Anyway, if you’re interested, check it out.

Hopefully there will be more here soon. Although I admit, much of my blogging attention is being consumed by my Lost blog (if you’re a Lost fan and you haven’t been there yet, come on over and share some thoughts:

With less than a month until the series finale, I should find myself with more time to devote to this blog soon.

A couple months ago, I interviewed a man named Doug Stewart for another Building Church Leaders article. The article is part of an Orientation Guide for mentors. (It’s the same type of article I did a few months ago when I interviewed Michael Aukofer.)

(Note: I did not have a picture of Doug, so he is neither of the men pictured on the left.)

This interview with Doug is not visible on BCL unless you purchase the download, but I’m pasting it in its entirety below. I don’t do this for all my articles, but even before I was done talking to Doug, I knew I would want to include this article on my site. Why, you ask? Well, I’m glad you asked. Put simply, Doug is an inspirational guy.

I hope that’s evident in the article. But if it’s not, then take my word for it.

In college, I not only had a mentor, but I also served as a mentor to at least one guy (officially), and a couple others (unofficially). During that time, I learned that there are few things that are more rewarding than helping others process things in their lives, challenging them to live out their faith, to grow ever closer to God. And man, I miss those mentoring relationships. But I had sort of forgotten how valuable those mentoring sessions were, and how valuable those relationships were. Until I talked to Doug.

I hope you find his words just as inspirational as I did. Here’s the article in its entirety:

Advice from an Experienced Leader
One mentor shares his thoughts on establishing effective mentoring relationships.

Doug Stewart has worked for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship for 50 years. He and his wife, Marilyn (who has been with Intervarsity for more than 45 years), are both Specialists in Pastoral Care and Spiritual Formation—although Doug prefers referring to his position as a Ministry of Pastoral Care and Spiritual Formation. Doug currently mentors ten men on a consistent basis and he looks for other opportunities wherever he goes. Tyler Charles spoke with him about his experiences and his approach to mentoring.

Tell me a little bit about your experiences as a mentor.
When I was first invited to speak on mentoring to a local group, I thought, “I’m not a mentor.” I thought of a mentor as an expert in a certain field. But then I thought about it and realized, “I’ve been a mentor all my life.” Mentoring has been an essential approach to ministry that I’ve followed. So I realized that mentoring has been what I’ve done at every stage.

What does a typical mentoring relationship look like for you?
I don’t try to become a friend, a buddy, or a peer—neither do I try to hide behind some expertise. But I do realize, in this particular relationship, they’re seeking something from me, and it’s not about me wanting something from them. It’s not a reciprocal thing. I’m not saying I don’t benefit from the relationship, but I have to realize I’m there for them.

What is the goal of mentoring?
The goal is the empowerment, the encouragement, and the strengthening of another person to take steps forward from where they are. Whether it’s in ministry, in their personal life, with God, or in their family, it’s about getting from wherever they are to whatever is set before them.

Often people seek out mentors when they want to move on in someway, but they don’t know how to do it, or they don’t feel capable of doing it.

Does mentoring come naturally for you, or is it a conscious effort?
As I look over my life, and the ways God has used me, I probably have a gift of mentoring. And it’s one I think I should develop. So that means taking initiative—not to push myself on somebody, but to at least offer an opportunity.

It’s a skill—a posture—that I’ve cultivated, and it now comes naturally to me. This is what I do best. I come alongside of people and try to empower them in whatever way they need to take the next step in life.

How do you approach the initial meeting?
I want to put the person at ease first. They’re always a little apprehensive and nervous; they’re wondering how I’m going to respond. Am I safe? Can they trust me? So I ask them general information—questions that will help them feel I’ve gotten to know them a little bit.

Then I’ll ask them what they are wanting from me. How do they feel I’ll be able to help them? Since I usually meet with a person as a spiritual director, I usually ask them what their journey with God has been like thus far.

I try to laugh, joke a little bit. I want to put them at ease. Then get them to tell me what they’re looking for. I don’t try to cover much more the first time than establishing a confidence and sense of security.

How long does it take for the relationship to go deep?
In some cases, I’ve seen a depth immediately. One man started sobbing the first time we met. I was shocked at such vulnerability. I usually meet for an hour—and I would say it’s usually at least two meetings.

After a couple of meetings, I feel a connection to the person, and I think they feel more relaxed with me.

Is it important for men to mentor men and women to mentor women?
Generally men mentor men and women mentor women, but by no means would I say exclusively. My wife meets with several men; she’s their spiritual director/mentor, and I know they get quite a bit from her. Given the fact that there will be an age difference—and we’re not talking about peer relationships or friendships—I think men can mentor women and women can mentor men. It may not be quite as common, but I think it can work very well.

Is mentoring a rewarding experience for you?

Apart from loving my wife, my kids, and grandchildren, it’s the most rewarding thing I do. It’s extremely rewarding to connect with people’s lives, to encourage them, to open new perspectives; it’s wonderfully rewarding. I hope to do it as long as I can.

It’s something very appropriate for people in my stage of life. A man was telling me how wonderful it was to have a “grandfather” in his life to affirm and bless him, and I said, “You don’t know how wonderful it is to have a young person take and learn something from my experiences.” It’s redeeming. We learn a lot more from pain than successes, and I think [mentoring] is great for people as they get older.

What advice would you offer to new mentors?
A mentor needs to take initiative to ask some questions. I don’t find that others can always explain or want to explain what they’re facing, so their needs may not be apparent at first.

Also, I try to communicate worth, appreciation, and value.

What else should other mentors know?
To me, it’s equally important that I have someone that I go to. It changes the way I do mentoring, because it keeps me humble and helps me realize how to be helpful to another person. I think that we all ought to seek somebody with whom we can have a little more intentionality and talk about what’s on our heart.

It’s very hard for men to do this; it’s hard for them to take that first step. Probably that’s why I take more initiative than might be normal. I like to build a bridge there in case the other man wants to cross it.

If you could give just one piece of advice, what would it be?
Believe that God has given you something that you can pass on and share with another, and be willing to do so when the opportunity arises.

—TYLER CHARLES; © 2009 Christianity Today International/

This post is about conducting interviews, so if you are a job hunter searching for “interviewing tips,” you might as well go back to your Google results and find a new link. I don’t have any advice for you.

But for those of you trying to refine your journalistic abilities, or those of you who are just trying to not sound like a fool during interviews, maybe I can give you a tip or ten.

After all, I know what it’s like to sound like a fool during interviews. I’ve listened to my recorded phone interviews, and it’s shameful to realize how often I’ve said “um” and how much I ramble through my questions.

Despite what you’ve seen from Barbara Walters or Larry King, interviewing people isn’t easy. It’s a skill that needs to be developed. Unless you’re Conan O’Brien, and you can just act goofy and make everyone laugh. But those are TV personalities, doing filmed interviews.

A writer interviewing a source need not worry about as many details. A writer only needs to worry about getting the information necessary for the article. With that in mind, here are the things I’ve learned (the hard way) over the last three years:

1. Don’t Act Too Professional
Professionalism is important, but if you try to act too official, you can make your interviewee uncomfortable. And when they get uncomfortable, they clam up. The answers get shorter, they feel the need to qualify every statement, and sometimes, they start trying to use big and impressive words.

Obviously, if you’re interviewing President Obama, first of all, congratulations to you (and you really shouldn’t be reading my interviewing tips), then you should be as professional as possible. This is true whenever you’re interviewing someone who routinely deals with the media. When I interviewed someone from the FCC, for example, I tried to be more professional than I do when I interview a pastor who is less accustomed to interacting with the media.

But if your subject is not a celebrity or a PR person, acting too professional could make them nervous.

2. Don’t Act Too Unprofessional

Acting down-to-earth can backfire. This happened to me once. I was interviewing a man whose name I will omit, because, well, he frightened me once, and I have no doubt that he could do it again.

As it turns out, he was a very professional man—and during the course of the interview, as I was trying to be down-to-earth and friendly, he began to question my professionalism. I heard it in his tone. And then he started grilling me with questions. He wanted to know who assigned the article to me, what articles I’d written in the past, etc.

So by trying to make him feel comfortable, I made him question my credibility. And you never want that.

I even got a semi-nasty follow up email from him in which he talked about journalistic integrity and a host of other things.

You can bet, if I could have started that interview over again, I’d have been as professional as possible.

3. Keep Them Focused
As the writer, you know what angle you’re pursuing. The interviewee knows their subject matter (that’s why you called them, right?), but they aren’t always accustomed to the angle on which you’re focusing. Or more often, they might be passionate about one aspect of their business/ministry/etc., and that’s what they’ll want to talk about, even if that’s not the aspect about which you’re writing.

I recently wrote an article about fair-trade coffee, and one of the women I interviewed worked for Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee—which partners with a community in Rwanda that grows their coffee beans. So during the interview, she spoke a lot about partnering with that community, and it was fascinating stuff. Unfortunately, most of the information didn’t fit with my article, since I was writing about what churches need to know about fair-trade coffee. Land of a Thousand Hills is just one option for those churches, and, interesting as it was, I didn’t need to know those details about the community in Rwanda.

So if I had been more aware of this during the interview, I could have saved this woman some time (not to mention my own time), by redirecting her back to questions that would more directly pertain to my article.

4. ALWAYS Prepare Questions in Advance

This is critical. When I first started doing interviews, I always did this.

And then I got lazy. Or overconfident. And I started thinking, I don’t need to write questions down. I’ll just go with the flow and see where the conversation goes.

If you attempt the “go with the flow” method, you too will be burned. Eventually. You’ll interview a man with a penchant for one-word answers, leaving you no time to think about what the logical next question should be, and you’ll find yourself saying “Okay, ummmm, can you, ummmm, ummm, maybe explain that in, uh, a little more, uhmmm, can you give me any more details?” while you’re mentally kicking yourself for not preparing any fallback questions.

Sure, there is something to be said about the spontaneity of going with the flow. It makes the interview feel more like a conversation (which puts the other person at ease) and less like an interrogation (even though that would be more professional).

There are times when I’ve gotten away with doing an interview without a list of prepared questions, but I’ve learned that it’s always good to have a few questions on hand. Even if you don’t need them.

5. Do Your Research
In addition to preparing questions, know details about the person you’re interviewing. This is imperative.

For example, when I interviewed Michael Aukofer (a Music Director from my old church), I knew he had worked with Phil Keaggy and Rich Mullins. This was important because it helped establish his credibility. Knowing he had worked with well-known musicians, it changed the questions I asked him. Also, these are details Michael probably wouldn’t have shared. He’s a humble man, and I doubt he would have mentioned these accomplishments.

Also, if you’re contacting someone who is an expert in a certain field, the questions you ask will reveal how knowledgeable you are about the subject matter. And if it’s clear you don’t know anything (and have done little to no research), your interviewee will be annoyed. Especially if they have to explain details that are obvious to them. The more you know prior to the interview, the more time you can spend focusing on the most important questions (and avoid annoying the person you’re interviewing).

6. Ask Stupid Questions
Yes, that’s right. Ask the most obvious questions you can imagine. Why? Because it will give you the most usable quotes.

Referring again to the article I wrote about fair-trade coffee, everyone I talked to wanted to share specifics about the communities growing their coffee. They talked about processing the beans, finding local roasters, the intricacies of coffee, and other technical things. Being immersed in coffee (not literally, although that might appeal to some people), it was natural for them to think about the details and the specifics. And by the time I was doing my fourth interview, I realized, Wow, not one of these people has given me a good quote about the overall value of fair-trade coffee.

So my next question was, “Do you think a church should buy fair-trade coffee?”

Now realize I’m asking this question to someone who works for a fair-trade coffee company (a fair-trade coffee company that specifically markets to churches). Her response could have been, “Duh.” And that would have been justified.

Her answer, however, was a little more articulate. She said, “I don’t think there’s any reason why a church shouldn’t go with fair-trade coffee. Of all the people who should be concerned about the other end—where our coffee comes from—it should be the church. To turn a blind eye to that shows a very deep lack of concern. I feel like the church should be at the forefront of that.”

If you ask me, that’s a great quote. It shows her passion for the ministry aspect of fair-trade coffee, and I wouldn’t have gotten that quote if I hadn’t asked a stupid question.

7. Be Open to Email Interviews
Personally, I love email interviews. I realize it removes all spontaneity, and it eliminates the personal connection between interviewer/interviewee—and it also restricts the potential for great follow-up questions.

But emailing questions has a lot of benefits. For one, it gives the interviewee a chance to look over all the questions before they answer any of them, helping them understand the angle. So they will be less likely to veer off on a tangent, and in the end, their answers will be more directly related to the angle you’re pursuing.

Another plus, they can edit their responses before they send them.

In a phone interview (or an in-person interview), people always abandon sentences halfway through. For example, if I ask, “How’s the weather today?” (what a boring interview that would be), a typical answer would look something like this…

“Oh you know, the weather is…it’s actually colder than I—but, I guess it’s better than yesterday, but it’s weather, you know?”

Unless you’re typing their response verbatim, you don’t even notice that they abandoned two sentences before answering the question. In context, we have a way of signifying that we’re starting over, but on paper…not so much.

But if they’re typing their answer, there’s no way they’re hitting the “Send” button on something like that. So with emailed questions, the answers come back cleaner, and the quotes are more usable.

Also, busy people are less likely to commit to time on the phone. Recently, I interviewed pastor Mark Driscoll. Well, kind of. I submitted questions to his assistant, and he forwarded them to Driscoll. Driscoll’s assistant then sent me Driscoll’s answers. I wasn’t going to get any phone time with him, but he made the time to send an email. Those quotes featured prominently in the beginning of my article, and without email, I wouldn’t have gotten them.

8. Do “Short” Interviews
When I request an interview with someone, I always say it’s going to be a “short” or “quick” interview. Don’t think this article is their top priority. If the interview is going well, or if there is more to be said, they will talk longer. A couple months ago, I talked to a man for nearly 90 minutes. This wasn’t a short interview at all, but it turned out really well. I had no idea that it would last 90 minutes, but even if I had known, I would have never asked for that much time. Very few people would be willing to commit to that much time.

So always plan to make the interview short, and if they have more time to give, keep asking questions until you’re done or until they say they have to go (the latter has not happened to me yet).

9. If They Ask, Let Them Review the Article Before It Prints
I know there are mixed feelings about this, even among the other Christian writers/editors with whom I’ve rubbed shoulders. Some people believe, if the quotes aren’t being used out of context, then there’s no need to run the article by the interviewee (because it will most likely prompt them to revise their words, or be nit-picky about details that aren’t all that pertinent). If someone asks me if they can see the article before it prints, I always send it to them. I tend to think this person doesn’t trust the media, and I don’t mind putting them at ease. Also, if they’ve taken the time to talk to me, the least I can do is assure them that I won’t be taking their quotes out of context.

I do know at least one story of a former colleague having an interviewee object to the article. Even though the quotes were used fairly, he didn’t want the piece to run. And they had to sort that out. In that case, it would have been much easier to run the piece without allowing the interviewee to review it.

So I guess it’s a personal preference, but I’m willing to extend that courtesy whenever I’m asked.

10. Don’t Be Afraid to Follow Up
I always end an interview by saying, “If I have any additional questions, I’ll shoot you a quick email or give you a call.” I’ve never had anyone object to this. If they’ve done the interview, they’re invested in the outcome. They want their quotes to be used effectively and fairly, so if you are unclear about anything during the writing process, I think the interviewee would prefer to get a follow up email/call if it ensures that the final piece is well done.

I hope these tips will be helpful to you. And if you ever do interview President Obama, and you use my tips, I expect to be compensated for it. I’ll accept cash, cookies, or a flight on Air Force One.

My newest article, This Is Not a Football Story was just posted on The Burnside Writer’s Collective today.

I’ve been completely swamped with freelance projects recently, but I temporarily pushed those projects aside (sorry to those editors still waiting on my assignments) to write this article, which was not assigned to me and for which I will not be compensated (sorry to my wife who would probably like to see me making money). But I made this article a priority because I felt like the content needed to be shared with a wider audience.

Stefanie Spielman (the wife of Buckeye great Chris Spielman) died of breast cancer last Thursday, and on Friday, I was profoundly touched when I heard her story on the radio. In the last few days, I’ve learned that many in this area (and beyond) have been touched by Stefanie (and Chris) Spielman. This story has been big in central Ohio, where the Spielmans live, but I wanted to share it with a wider audience.

(Thanks to the Burnside folks for being willing to put this up on such short notice—and for trusting me when I said I had a piece I wanted to get online right away.)

In the article—which is really more like an essay—I wrote in the first person, and I almost changed that. I wanted the story to be about Stefanie and Chris—not about me. (For the same reason, I removed the names of the radio broadcasters on 97.1 The Fan, and I didn’t include the quotes from Lance Armstrong, Archie Griffin, or Jim Tressel in which they commented on Stefanie’s passing.)

But I left myself in the article because I felt like it showed how their story impacted me—a real person—just as I experienced the way their story impacted the people who called into the radio station I was listening to last Friday.

I don’t think I did the story justice…but I hope I did a good enough job to give you a glimpse of Chris and Stefanie Spielman. I don’t know them, but from the glimpses I’ve seen in the last week, they’re pretty remarkable.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it: This Is Not a Football Story.