Ear Writing And How To Do It

What in the world is ear writing?  And why would I give this post that odd title?

Well, ear writing is the process of writing with the understanding that what you write will be HEARD more than it will be READ.  Which is the opposite of how most of us were taught to write in school.

Ear writing is the specialty of those who write speeches, those who write advertising copy, and those who write … sermons.  Here are some clues I have learned in my time on the job:

Basic Principles For Ear Writing
1. Short Sentences. Your English Composition teacher may have been impressed with your compound sentences and your use of the semi-colon; your congregation won’t be.
2. Celebrate the vernacular. Huh? That’s a fancy way of reminding you to speak the language of the people to whom you preach. You are preaching for congregants and not for professors. Not even for fellow pastors.
3. Avoid quotations. The person sitting in your church is not likely to be as impressed with Bonhoeffer as you are. If you find a quote that is indispensable to the message, hold it up and make a production of reading it (since, after you read the next chapter, the rest of your sermon will be note-less). At Good Shepherd, we had a sermon series coinciding with the two-year anniversary of the racially charged street uprising that rocked our city in 2016. I closed Week One of that series by reading ver batim this email I had received two years earlier from a parishioner:

On this day when my heart is so very full from sorrow, grief, confusion, and even helplessness as a mother of an African American son, I have to stop and pray and one of the things I prayed for was my church family. I have been attending GS for the past five years and was embraced from day one. The moment that I showed up for First Serve for the first time and felt like part of a team that didn’t care who I was, where I came from, or if I was a member but was happy I was there and ready to work side by side with me I knew this would be my home church. When my faith starts to waiver, I get a random call from one of the pastors checking on me. When I’m overwhelmed with life I get a call or text out of the blue from a LifeGroup member asking how they can pray for me or how they can serve me that week. When I’m saddened by how my son may be affected by all this, the Nursery Volunteers send me kind notes on how he is a blessing and how much they enjoy having him there. The family of GS “get it” and the presence of the Lord is TRULY in this place. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for empowering leaders, inviting all people, and sharing God’s word in the midst of unrest and racial tensions in the country. I could easily give up and lose faith but instead my faith and trust in God is stronger than ever and I credit a huge part of that to walking side by side with the people of Good Shepherd.

It was a long quote, of course, but as you might imagine, it well worth it as we seek to become a “full color” congregation.

4. As much as you will want to be sparing (but effective) in your use of quotations, you will want to be even more disciplined in avoiding clichés. At the end of the day, avoid clichés like the plague, because when you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all, and there are no shortcuts to great writing.

5. Choose the concrete over the abstract. Bible college and seminary teaches most of us to think conceptually. Terms like grace, repentance, and salvation flow off our tongues. Yet for most of the people to whom we preach, those words remain just that: terms. Concepts. Abstractions Resist any temptation to define grace, for example, by using more words. Instead, define it with a picture, an incident, a metaphor, a demonstration, or a moment when you received something better than you deserve. As I tell my preaching workshops, “don’t ever define a word with more words.”

The preceding was an excerpt from Simplify The Message; Multiply The Impact, released in February by Abingdon Press and available here.