How do you stop sermonic or preachy writing?

by W. Terry Whalin


"I'm a member of a small on-line editing group. On my last article, our leader wrote, 'preachy' and 'sermonic.' I'm not sure what he means. I asked, but he had trouble defining it exactly."


Sermonic or preachy writing creeps into our fiction--and nonfiction. If the writer has an agenda--particularly around a controversial issue like abortion or gay marriage, then often that agenda comes across as preachy in the word choice.

I view the solution for this type of writing to return to excellent storytelling and pointed illustrations to get your views across--not the sort of oral didactic teaching that often happens in a sermon. It's a hard transition for many pastors who have been preaching this way for many years--to make this important shift in their written communication.

Also this type of writing appears in many beginning writers who don't understand the need to show and not tell. It's a common discussion about this need to show and not tell. It's important to create word pictures through memorable stories instead of standing up with your finger pointing at the reader.

When we talk about show and don't tell to solve sermonic writing, many people wonder, "How do I show?" The best instruction that I've found in this area is from bestselling novelist Sol Stein. He's an amazing teacher (who I have had the privilege of meeting and sitting under his instruction. He has created a software program for writers that I recommend is called Write Pro. His book, Stein On Writing by Sol Stein (St. Martin's Press, 1995), is excellent and includes a chapter about this aspect of "How To Show Instead of Tell."

The final paragraph of this chapter has some good advice so I include it here, "I have a small suggestion that carries with it a big reward. In a three-word note to yourself say, SHOW THE STORY. Then hang the note where you will see it whenever you sit down to write. Think of it as an antidote to a lifetime of hearing that a story should be told." (p. 128)

I recommend you take a second (or maybe third) look at your article or book manuscript before you send it out--and watch for sermonic or preachy language. Has it crept into your work? Then cut it out before you send it to a book editor or magazine editor.


W. Terry Whalin understands both sides of the editorial desk--as an editor and a writer. He worked as an editor for Decision and In Other Words. His magazine articles have appeared in more than 50 publications including Writer's Digest and Christianity Today. Terry has written more than 60 nonfiction books and one of his latest is Book Proposals That Sell, 21 Secrets To Speed Your Success (Write Now Publications). See more about Terry For more than 12 years Terry has been an ECPA Gold Medallion judge in the fiction category. He has written extensively about Christian fiction and reviewed numerous fiction books in publications such as CBA Marketplace and BookPage. He is the former Fiction Acquisitions Editor for Howard Books and creator of Sign up for Terry's free newsletter, Right Writing News.

© 2008 W. Terry Whalin

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