“Few people ask from books what books can give us. Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own
prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning.” ― The Second Common Reader
Although it’s been suggested plenty before, I just recently discovered the beauty of reading my work out loud. Reading out loud enabled me to see my work from an entirely new angle, and catch all sorts of sore spots I hadn’t seen. It forces you to slow down, take in each word, and read it like a human being (not a “writer”). Here are just some of the benefits I found:
1. Tension. Not sure if that joke hits the punch-line just right? Is your illustration or story too fast, too slow? Is that surprise twist placed at just the right moment? If you’re a fast reader, like most writers, you’ll end up reading through these things at a much higher speed than you would if you read them out loud. Reading out loud helps us to get a feel for the timing on a more realistic scale for most readers.
2. Brevity. I had no idea how wordy I was until I read my last manuscript aloud. It’s easy to get away with this on paper, but when you read aloud, you can’t gloss over anything.
3. Authenticity. Some phrases, as I read out loud, didn’t really sound like “me”. On paper, that doesn’t show quite as much – but when you’re reading, it’s too embarrassing to read things that sound utterly different from your normal vocabulary or phraseology to tolerate. Isaac Asimov once wrote to a young Carl Sagan that he was “just the kind of writer I liked” because “When I read I feel like you’re talking to me.”
4.Spelling/Grammar. It’s amazing how easy this is to gloss over when you’re scanning your edit for the umpteenth time. Reading out loud forces you to slow down and smell the misplaced apostrophes.
5. Dialogue. If your writing contains dialogue – it must, must, MUST be read out loud. You’ll never know if it feels stilted or unrealistic unless you hear it.
6. Promotion. You’re going to have to read your book to people at some point – and likely, it will be those folks’ first impression of what you’ve written. You might as well start practicing now.
7. Flair. I don’t know how to categorize this particular section, but what I found in reading out loud was this: parts of my work bored me. Reading out loud helped me hear where my work dragged, and also sparked creativity for cleverer and quicker phraseology.
Ed Stetzer offers a critique and a way forward for multisite churches in Christianity Today:
“Whatever your opinion of multisite may be, there can be no doubt it is the new normal…
…But, that has led to much conversation– some profitable, some not. Since large and fast-growing churches are engaging in the practice, that (in and of itself) raises suspicion with some people. There are also ecclesiology (and other) questions as well. Yet, I am not addressing all of those (sometimes legitimate) concerns here, but rather talking about the growth and mainstream acceptance of the practice, and hopefully encouraging a certain type of multisite…”
I have a secret: all through high-school and most of college, I didn’t read literature. I even had my best friend read my Literature 101 book for cliffnotes, so I could write the report. But who could blame me? Reading fiction was impractical. It didn’t help me become a better future communicator; it would only distract me from life.
But then I traveled to Europe, and my whole final semester was shaped around reading mounds and mounds of literature. At first, it was painful. Then it was tolerable. It took about two years of disciplining myself to read literature before I started to find it enjoyable. Not only that, but I started to see that reading literature was not a waste of time; it was a crucial aid to my communicating biblical truths.
1. Imagination. Imagination is a muscle. It needs to be exercised. Unlike movies, books make you use that imagination. When I think of Charles Spurgeon or Jonathan Edwards – what strikes me about their preaching is their vivid imagination.
2. Illustration. Literature is full of amazing, gospel-like illustration. Authors are often able to portray people in their stories who are larger than life in their Christ-like qualities; something we can’t get away with in the blogosphere or newspaper.
3. Compassion. One of the surprising benefits of fiction to me has been an increase in compassion. Fiction gets you into the shoes of people completely unlike you, and lets you feel their feelings and think their thoughts. Preaching needs to be done with this kind of compassion.
4.Beauty. As C.S. Lewis has said, the chief reason we read is for enjoyment. To look at a beautiful world painted in a book is a restorative thing. Preachers, as people, need to wonder at God through the art of story.
5. Conviction. Another surprising benefit of fiction has been how the portraits of characters (I especially think of Anna Karenina and Les Miserables) have been so like the worst part of me. These character convict and change me, because fiction is a wonderful and gentle mirror into our own interior world.
6. Articulation. If you want to learn to describe things with richness and vividness, look no further than fiction. Those who pen stories are the best in the world at digging up word treasures and displaying them (appropriately). If you want to be better at articulating your sermons, pick up a book.
7. Mission. Do you forget what it’s like to see the world from a non-Christian perspective? Imagine someone offered you the chance to travel around in someone’s head who didn’t know Christ for a day, a week, a few months. That’s what fiction offers – it reminds us first-hand how we see the church, explain what’s going on around us, and the patterns we use to process it all when we don’t have Christ.
“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!” – Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary
Exposition and description
“Perhaps my biggest pet peeve with an opening chapter is when an author features too much exposition – when they go beyond what is necessary for simply ‘setting the scene.’ I want to feel as if I’m in the hands of a master storyteller, and starting a story with long, flowery, overly-descriptive sentences (kind of like this one) makes the writer seem amateurish and the story contrived. Of course, an equally jarring beginning can be nearly as off-putting, and I hesitate to read on if I’m feeling disoriented by the fifth page. I enjoy when writers can find a good balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel, and the unknown is what propels us to read further.” – Peter Miller, PMA Literary and Film Management
“The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.” – Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary
“I dislike endless ‘laundry list’ character descriptions. For example: ‘She had eyes the color of a summer sky and long blonde hair that fell in ringlets past her shoulders. Her petite nose was the perfect size for her heart-shaped face. Her azure dress — with the empire waist and long, tight sleeves — sported tiny pearl buttons down the bodice. Ivory lace peeked out of the hem in front, blah, blah.’ Who cares! Work it into the story.” – Laurie McLean, Foreword Literary
Starting too slowly
“Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes & thinking, staring out the window & thinking, tying shoes, thinking.” – Dan Lazar, Writers House
“I don’t really like ‘first day of school’ beginnings, ‘from the beginning of time,’ or ‘once upon a time.’ Specifically, I dislike a Chapter One in which nothing happens.” – Jessica Regel, Foundry Literary + Media
Most pastors think they’re expository preachers, but much of what is called “expository” is just cleverly disguised topical material or scriptural commentary. Dr. David Prince and Dr. Russell Moore explain why in this helpful video:
“Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do.”
I’m crazy about John Green. He’s an incredible writer, even genius. But when it comes to authorial intent, he’s wrong.
In the video above (which is part of a great introductory series on literature), Green compares understanding authorial intent to a ship sailing against the waves…an outmoded, possibly naïve and definitely unhelpful way of thinking about a piece of literature. I sympathize partially with what he’s saying, but ultimately I believe he’s wrong for two reasons:
1. It ignores the scale of understanding. Green is making a youtube video because he believes he can communicate his intended meaning. But, he argues, the distance between us and an author is just too far – especially authors using figures of speech in different languages, cultures, spaces and times. I agree that these barriers make understanding more of a chore – but I would argue that our degree of understanding these texts is dependent on how much we understand their context. We understand words in relationship to other words – so the more words we have available, the better we understand authorial intent.
I’m confident we can understand authorial intent in scripture, for example, because we have mounds and mounds of texts written in Greek, long-standing traditions that aid our understanding, tons of scholarly research on the historical context, and plenty of works written by the authors themselves, enabling us to understand how they use words and phrases. Some figures of speech are completely obscure, but almost all of them have a very large context to work in.
But besides context, there’s also a scale of skill – my skill as a reader, and the writer’s skill as a writer. Green is perfectly correct in asserting that an author who uses cliché is susceptible to misunderstanding. But what about an author who is concrete, particular and accurate with words? The degree to which we understand their writing ranks much higher on the scale. And the more we understand language, the higher we rank as readers able to understand the author’s particular meaning.
2. It assumes truth is within. I don’t believe everything I take from a book is correct, just because I took it. Why? Because I don’t believe truth is within me – it’s why I can’t jump out my window and fly. Truth is without, and I don’t always like it. I read books to be rubbed up against, to be challenged, to see objective reality hitting me in the face, even when I don’t like it. When everything we take from a book is good because we took it, we’re free to read with a closed-mind, seeing only what we want to see, rather than being molded, shaped and challenged by the perspective of the author.
So yes – when I read The Great Gatsby, the relationship between particular words and phrases intersected with my life differently than it did yours. But The Great Gatsby was still The Great Gatsby; the authorial intent was still there, and it still mattered. And understanding that authorial intent helps me to better understand how Fitzgerald’s view of the world can shape and challenge my own. It doesn’t take away from my special, intimate, particular relationship with the book, but enhances it.
I’m playing with a new format on Scribblepreach.com, that would enable me to facilitate a bit more content to you, while keeping my posts to a minimum (which means higher quality, I think). For the next couple of weeks, I’ll be giving you a “Scribble” and a “Preach” link on Tuesdays and Thursdays – if you like it, I’ll extend it to Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and keep my articles on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
So, feedback welcome: here’s the first entry:
SCRIBBLE: Grammar Puppets Teach You How to Speak Good
PREACH: 7 Secrets for Persuasion from Emmy-Winning Writers.
This article courtesy of the Huffington Post:
“…1. The Headline Principle. Get attention for a topic by sharing your best information first, McGowan says, especially if it’s a thought-provoking line that makes listeners think “I want to know more.” This is golden wisdom. It applies to investment pitches, sales presentations, and, of course, to articles, press releases and blog columns as well. As I like to put it, writing a great press release or article is like telling a joke backwards: You begin with the punchline. Then you proceed down the pyramid to fill in the color and the additional details.
2. The Scorsese Principle. In a persuasive setting, you can hold attention by providing your audience with visual detail. For example, says McGowan, few people who’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s movie Goodfellas can forget the scene of Paul Sorvino thinly slicing a garlic clove with a razor blade as he prepared a culinary feast while in jail. The image told a vivid story: Sorvino and his wise guy pals were living like kings behind bars. Consider this principle as you prepare your pitch or presentation. You are the director of your own product or company story. What are the images (and also the details and words) that will bring your message to life? As your high school English teacher used to say about your writing assignments, “Name the dog.” (What kind of a dog? Large, small, ferocious? Hector? Skippy?) These details count.
3. The Pasta Sauce Principle. Every sauce is better when it’s boiled down to its essence. You should make your message as rich and brief as you possibly can, McGowan maintains. Your story takes three pages? What happens when you distill it to a couple of bullets and words? Avoid the temptation to overwhelm your audience. Leave them hungry for more…”
Ever seen a TEDx talk? They’re pretty great. Here’s one I happen to enjoy, and have used in a couple of sermons. I’ve wondered for a long time, “How in the world do each of these talks end up consistently blowing me away?” So I did some research, and found the TEDx talk guidelines for speakers. Some of the advice was basic – but some of it was unexpected. Much of it, I think, is a welcome wake up call to preachers who are communicating in a 21st century postmodern, post-Christian context. Obviously, some of this doesn’t fit with a preacher’s ethos: but much of it does.
That said, here are 12 things TEDx speakers do that preachers usually don’t:
Present one great idea. “An idea isn’t just a story or a list of facts. A good idea takes evidence or observations and draws a larger conclusion.” Of course TEDx talkers often have multiple points, but they always have direction: they’re always moving forward to a set conclusion (and that’s all big idea preaching is, for all the flack it gets). They also suggest to the speaker: “Get your idea out as quickly as possible”.
Set a time limit. “Shorter talks are not lesser talks. It may only take 5 minutes to make your point unforgettably”. Ouch – yes, I often speak too long. Like Pascal in his letter, most of us preach long sermons because we don’t have time to prepare short ones – certainly not 20 minutes – but we could all stand to lose a few. Here’s how they approach this: “Make a list of all the evidence you want to use: Think about items that your audience already knows about and the things you’ll need to convince them of. Order all of the items in your list based on what a person needs to know before they can understand the next point, and from least to most exciting. Now cut out everything you can without losing the integrity of your argument. You will most likely need to cut things out you think are important.”
Collaborate – On the above suggestion: “Consider making this list with a trusted friend, someone who isn’t and expert in your field.” During rehearsal stage, the guide recommends “listening to criticism”. Calvin made it a rule for pastors in his region to collaborate on their texts before preaching. Personally, I wish we didn’t see the preparation of a sermon as a lone-ranger event: why not ask the perspectives of people who represent those who will be listening to this thing, believers and non-believers alike?
Put time into visuals. “Note anything in your outline that is best expressed visually and plan accordingly in your script.” In the section regarding the question, “What goes in my slides?” the guide states: “Images and photos: to help the audience remember a person, place or thing you mention, you might use images or photos…Use as little text as possible – if your audience is reading, they are not listening. Avoid using bullet points. Consider putting different points on different slides.” We might not have time every week to come up with captivating visuals, but check out some websites like prezi.com - you’d be surprised how quickly you can put together an amazing presentation.
Practice. “Once you’re settled on your outline, start writing a script. Be concise, but write in a way that feels natural to you. Use present tense and strong, interesting verbs.” After the script is finished, the guide implores: “Rehearse, rehearse rehearse! We can’t stress this enough…If someone says you sound “over-rehearsed” this actually means you sound stilted and unnatural.”
Stay away from notes. “TED discourages long talks, podiums or readings”. This isn’t for everybody – but it’s certainly worth noting that according to the best speakers in the world, notes are considered to be a thing of the past.
Avoid industry jargon. Christianese, anyone? “Don’t use too much jargon, or explain new terminology…Spend more time on new information: If your audience needs to be reminded of old or common information, be brief.”
Draw people into caring. “Start by making your audience care, using a relatable example or an intriguing idea…Draw your audience in with something they care about. If it’s a field they never think about, start off by invoking something they do think about a lot and relate that concept to your idea.” How often do we assume that everyone sitting in the congregation is as interested in our text as we are?
Show how it makes a difference. “Don’t use your conclusion to simply summarize what you’ve already said; tell your audience how your idea might affect their lives if it’s implemented.”
Keep structure clear but invisible. “Your structure should be invisible to the audience. In other words, don’t talk about how you’re going to talk about your topic – just talk about it!” I thought this was especially interesting – the TEDx guide states that structure should be present, but that it shouldn’t be announced. Presumably, it should be natural and strong enough that everyone listening can understand it without explanation.
Stay planted. “Practice standing still, planted firmly in one spot on stage.” So, yeah, about this. I have a VERY hard time with this. I should put two little shoe imprints near the pulpit.
Respectfully address arguments. “Respectfully address any controviersies in your claims, including legitimate counter-arguments, reasons you might be wrong, or doubts your audience might have about your idea.” The Puritans spent much of their preaching time answering inner-objections - it’s what Keller calls “preaching to the heart”. In a post-Christian society, we ought to be putting more time into answering arguments, not less.
“Every single day, I get emails from aspiring writers asking my advice about how to become a writer, and here is the only advice I can give: Don’t make stuff because you want to make money — it will never make you enough money. And don’t make stuff because you want to get famous — because you will never feel famous enough. Make gifts for people — and work hard on making those gifts in the hope that those people will notice and like the gifts.
Maybe they will notice how hard you worked, and maybe they won’t — and if they don’t notice, I know it’s frustrating. But, ultimately, that doesn’t change anything — because your responsibility is not to the people you’re making the gift for, but to the gift itself.”
Welcome to Scribblepreach - I'm Nicholas McDonald. I'm the husband of an amazing woman, father of two awesome boys, a writer and a preacher. I've studied communication and creative writing at Olivet Nazarene University and Oxford University, and I'm currently pursuing my M.Div at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. I love to hear from my readers!