Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, is popular among writers seeking to improve their craft. But it wasn’t until I read Maggie Zhang’s article, “22 Lessons from Stephen King on how to be a great writer”, that I realized preachers could learn a lot from King too.
Read the full list of practical advice for yourself. These are the points, though, that I believe are especially helpful for preachers:
1. Stop watching television. Instead, read as much as possible.
As a college chaplain, when my students are obsessed (still) with Grey’s Anatomy, it is valuable for me to be culturally-clued in enough to know what they are talking about. But King makes a great point when he says that television is “poisonous to creativity.” He says “writers need to look into themselves and turn toward the life of the imagination.” Preachers do too. I often find myself wishing that the church of today could be more creative in a way that moves beyond the latest guru’s “outside the box” thinking. Reading good literature, creative nonfiction, and poetry awakens our imagination, sparking insight and ideas. Sermon writing can only benefit from such a practice.
2. Tackle the things that are hardest to tackle.
Tackling difficult texts and issues makes us dig deeper as preachers. King says, “stories are found things, like fossils in the ground.” Sermons should be found as well. Preachers need to not only dig exegetically deep into the text, but also within ourselves and the life of our listening community. The preacher who doesn’t dig deep doesn’t discover or preach anything new. During the sermon writing process, preachers would be wise to remember Robert Frost’s advice, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
3. When writing, disconnect from the rest of the world.
King suggests, “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” This is especially important for preachers whose first sermon draft can be inhibited by fear of what others will think. I try to write my first sermon draft just for myself. No one else will hear or read this first draft. Only after I have gotten down what I feel called to preach do I open the door to the editing process. The result is a sermon that is more authentic and true.
4. Don’t be pretentious.
“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones,” King says. In the preaching genre, I relate this to using big churchy words, or religious jargon that only the (ever decreasing) insiders will understand. As a college chaplain ministering among the most religiously unaffiliated generation, I know that even the word “ecumenical” needs to be defined. On the other hand, some of the church’s traditional liturgy resonates deeper than words that are more contemporary. For instance, when a young person hears the words, “You are dust and to dust you will return” and receives the sign of the cross in ash on their foreheads after listening to a sermon on death—you can bet life suddenly feels more precious. It’s pretentious to withhold such experiences from our community. But they need to be translated for today’s society.
5. Take risks; don’t play it safe.
At a preaching conference, I heard Dr. Brad Braxton say that the American pulpit could use a healthy dose of courage and I agree. We pastors are human beings who desire to be liked and loved just like anyone else. But this oftentimes leads us to play it safe in the pulpit. In our fear over upsetting someone, we avoid taking risks, being prophetic, and digging deeply into difficult texts and issues. King says, “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.” I’m convinced the same is true of preaching.
6. Don’t try to steal someone else’s voice.
It may be good practice to imitate the style of another writer or preacher. But, for the sake of authenticity, it is crucial that the preacher’s voice in the pulpit is the same as his or her voice out of the pulpit. I’ve known pastors who have a “preacher’s voice” in the pulpit—sometimes big and booming, sometimes sing-songy, always false. People are hungry for preachers to be their real selves in the pulpit. Anything else just feels put on.
7. Have the guts to cut.
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribblers heart, kill your darlings,” King says. Your “darlings” are the words, phrases, stories or illustrations you adore as a writer or preacher, but that don’t serve your larger message. Kurt Vonnegut says, “If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” This is painful when we have written something we love. But it is so important. For the sake of clarity and effective delivery of our creative, surprising, deeply dug message, we preachers need to be our own ruthless editors.
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