Tuesday, December 16, 2008

How to Preach Things People Will Understand

Again and again, I find my reading on writing informing my preaching. One of the weaknesses of my preaching, however, is that I love to write…I love words…I love using  “the correct” word.  And so I have often tried to preach that way. And it just doesn’t work.  But Jim Heath of Viacorp has written a concise article entitled How to Write Things People Will Read that reminds me that generally good writing isn’t that way either.  He is writing particularly on business writing and not writing for academia, but his points are helpful both for writers as well as for preachers:

  1. damaging circumstances 1. Have you cut out the deadwood?

    Look at these examples: “The deluxe table is red in color.”
    “Our batteries last for a duration of 25 hours.” “To start the generator, turn the handle in a clockwise direction.” See the deadwood?
    The same sentences come to life when you chop it out: “The  deluxe table is red.” “Our batteries last 25 hours.” “To start the  generator, turn the handle clockwise.”

  2. Are your words & sentences too long?

    Why do you get a headache when you read your insurance policy? Because the policy says “implement” when it could have said “do”. Or it says “terminate” when it could have said “end”. And the sentences run for miles. Who can wade through it? If you overdo the long words and sentences, you might as well write in Greek. Your readers won’t understand a thing. And you don’t even impress them –– most people have a quiet contempt for stuffy writing.

  3. Are Your Verbs Working?

Make your verbs work as hard as possible. They drive the writing along.
WRITE: “This report explains our policy.”
NOT: “This report is an explanation of our policy.”
WRITE: “Our company designed and developed the new console.”
NOT: “Our company has done the design and development of the new console.”
WRITE: “The costs exceed what we expected.”
NOT: “The costs are in excess of what we expected.”
Both versions say the same thing. Yet one has force and the other lacks it.

4. Is your conversational level about right?

If you never use words like “you”, “we” , “your”, and “our”, then your publications could suffer. People relate to personal words. And these words help a lot when you’re giving instructions. (“When you get off the train, watch the step” not “It is advised to observe the step when alighting from the train.”)

5. Will everyone get the same message?

Most people find it easy to write something they can understand themselves. But someone else might read it in a completely different way.
Here’s a typical scene: “That’s not what I wrote!” says the writer, getting mad, explaining it in new words. The reader stareschickens are ready to eat
at the page again, and sure enough –– there it is: the meaning he hadn’t seen. Yet both meanings were there in black and white
. . . Ambiguous writing.
Sound familiar? It’s why professional writers tell you to put your writing away when you’re finished. Then look at it later, with a cold eye. Or let someone else criticize it.

6. What About the Big Picture?

Do you start with the main point? Or do you lead your reader up to it slowly?
For a hundred years, newspapers and magazines have put the main point first. (The “inverted pyramid” style.) Readers now expect it. If you don’t do the same thing, your readers may never get to your main point. And they may feel tricked.
Imagine you get a long letter that starts off by thanking you for your support for your bowling club. The letter goes on and on, saying how well the club is doing, telling about the events coming up, the new members, then –– bang! –– after four pages
you find out what they’re after: a $200 special contribution from every member! Feel burned?
Another example. Scientists used to put their conclusions at the end of their reports. (After they’d softened up their readers
with arguments and evidence.) But readers automatically skipped to the end, to find the meat. So scientific reports now have the
summary right at the front.
Look at your newspaper. The headline sums up the whole story. The first paragraph sums it up again, with a little more detail. And so on, until the end –– where you’ll find the least important details.
Do the same thing. It’s easy. And it helps your reader.

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