review: the write stuff

The Write Stuff: Crafting Sermons That Capture and Convince
by Sondra B. Willobee (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) pb, 123pp
“… what releases of torrent of inspiration in preaching is often not climbing a high mountain to gain some grand and sweeping vista but instead small things – taking an unusual sight line in a biblical text, raising a provocative question, or turning off the computer and paying attention to what is happening around us..” (pp.xi-xii)
“… the only thing worse than listening to a sagging sermon is delivering one.” (p.1)
“When we fail to reach people, it is not usually for lack of conviction or effort or sincerity on our part. Rather … our preaching usually falters for lack of craft. … Weak introductions, vague application, and slow narrative pulse. Too often, pressed by the demands of impossible schedules, we shortchange the process of shaping the message so that it can be heard. This is where writers can help us. Good writers know how to grab and hold our attention. … This book condenses material from the creative-writing shelf for busy pastors. Yes, our sermons must do more than dazzle. … But our people cannot judge the value of our ideas if they’ve quit listening.” (pp.2-3)
“Imaginative exercises used by writers can also help us outwit what I call ‘The Censor’ and ‘the Production Manager.’ The Censor says, ‘You can’t say that. What will people think?’ The Censor shuts down exploration before it’s even started. The Production Manager says, ‘Quit messing around. You’ve got calls to make, people to counsel, and meetings to plan. Come up with something now!’ Pressure from the production manager obstructs the flow of fresh ideas.” (p.4)
“Some preachers worry that too much attention to technique makes sermons calculated rather than inspired. … To dismiss craft, however, is to refuse the gifts of those who communicated the words of God through the ages. Prophets used imagery, plays on words, parables, and proverbs to get their hearer’s attention. Jesus used aphorisms, riddles, and hyperbole, as well as distinctive parables, to cajole and convict. Paul used every weapon from the arsenal of rhetoric to quell his critics and strengthen his congregations.” (p.5)
“All matters of technique have to do, not with the desire to be clever, but rather with the intention to be alive and open to the surprise of the gospel.” (p.6, quoting Eugene Lowry)
“Fred Craddock told his students to assume their listeners almost didn’t come to church that morning.” (p.12)
“For journalists and writers, the opening of an article, essay or story is called the ‘hook.’ A hook dangles something that is important to the listener. A hook incites interest, establishes the speaker’s credibility, sets the tone, and suggests something about the theme. Hooks also tell our hearers how to listen to the rest of what we are going to say …” (p.12)
“If the narrative process is to be followed, the sermon will begin – one way or another – with a discrepancy, a conflict, an ambiguity needing resolution.” (pp.14-15, quoting Eugene Lowry)
“Try this. Read Mark 3:19b-30 or 2 Corinthians 12:11-19. What are the conflicts or tensions within the text, stated or implied? What entities are opposed to each other? What is at stake for each of them? Write a hook that sets out the conflict.” (p.15)
“Whether you open your sermon with a conflict, an unresolved event, a question, a vivid character, a strong statement, an arresting image, or a joke, a well-constructed hook is a form of pastoral care. We pay our parishioners the courtesy of engaging their attention before speaking of difficult matters. We honor them when we respect the fears, doubts, fatigue, or rebellion that almost kept them from worship. A good hook meets our congregations in their need and prepares them to go the next step of the sermon with us.” (p.26)
“The most effective preachers seem to have unusual access to powers of imagination. By ‘imagination’ I mean the ability to enter deeply into the world of another, whether that person is a parishioner or a biblical character.” (p.29)
“… I suggest three ways that we can cultivate our imaginative powers: praying, playing, and paying attention.” (p.34)
“Telling stories is more than a way to entertain distracted listeners. Story is the way faith happens. … Therefore, sermons need to move as stories do.” (pp.44-45)
“Try this. Study the use of the refrain in Psalm 46,80, or 136. Reflect on how the refrain works in each psalm. How does the refrain tie together disparate elements in the psalm or deepen the relationship between similar ideas?” (p.51)
“A file folder of good stories is like a bag of gold.” (p.64)
“Where do we find good stories and examples if we don’t use prepackaged materials? What pastoral ethics and etiquette guide us when we use stories and examples in our sermons? And how do we incorporate them into our sermons so they don’t sound so contrived? … read widely for quality material … acknowledge your sources … motivate with positive examples … ditch the inappropriate illustration … create your own story … use dialogue to convey character and action … slant the story to express the theme … always ask permission … it’s not about you … make it up” (pp.65,69,71,75,77,79,80,81,83)
“More than 150 years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson complained about a preacher who failed to connect with the lives of his listeners: ‘This man had ploughed and planted and talked and bought and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches, his heart throbs; he smiles an suffers; yet there was not a surmise, a hint, in all of the discourse, that he had ever lived at all.” (p.92)
“We can trust language to do its work. When I asked him what advice he would give preachers, poet Thomas Lynch said, ‘Don’t explain the metaphor, just give it.’ If our our hearers don;t understand the metaphor right away, so much the better. They will mull it over during the week.” (p.96)
“The incarnate word is a deliberate word, chosen, weighed, sweated over. Here is the anguish of revising whole paragraphs, or even starting over. … To put ourselves in obedience to the exact word or the clearest image is a spiritual discipline as demanding as prayer or fasting. It challenges our laziness. It goes against our instincts. We won’t always do it. But when we do, when the words sing together like music, it is worth every drop of sweat.” (pp.99-100)
“When we leave our preparation to the last minute, we deprive ourselves of one of the most effective sermon techniques available: revision.” (p.103)
“… protect time to prepare … break it into small tasks … observe sabbath to refresh your spirit … say it out loud … trim everything that doesn’t advance the theme … review parts for effective order … look at it line by line.” (pp.104,106,110,111,112,113)
“Try this. Pick a random paragraph from a sermon you preached recently. Check for places where you can cut weak words and substitute stronger ones, changing passive verbs to active ones and cutting unnecessary words. Brevity communicates vigor.” (p.113)
I’m a fan of Tom Cruise and Thomas Long. Seeing the title – The Write Stuff – my mind leaped to Top Gun. Reading the top of the cover – “Foreward by Thomas G. Long” – I had to pick it up. Peeling it open to the foreward’s concluding sentence I read: “I cannot imagine a more practical, attentive, useful, reliable, provocative, and thoughtful guide to the delightful play of detail and form in sermons than this volume.”
I was instantly $15 lighter.
Granted, the brief table of contents doesn’t look inspiring, but don’t let that fool you.
  • Introduction
  • Part one – Hook
  • ch. 1: Use a Hook – pp.11-28
  • ch. 2: Inspired Imagination – pp.29-42
  • Part two – Book
  • ch. 3: The Plot Thickens – pp.43-63
  • ch. 4: Finding Stories – pp.64-88
  • Part three – Stone
  • ch. 5: Language of the Incarnation – pp.89-102
  • ch. 6: Time to Revise – pp.103-114
  • Notes
Understand (p.2), the three key words form the structure of this book’s three parts, you will remember the essence of the sermon creation process. Hook means “creating a compelling opening.” Book is about “how to generate suspense through structure.” And Stone tells you how to “arouse interest with vivid language.” Hook. Book. Stone. Got it.
This book is precise. It’s tightly written; there are no wasted words. Warning: if you’re a highlighter, you’ll run out of ink if you one of those who likes to highlight everything you like.
This book is perfectly practical. It’s not just a book; it’s a workbook. It’s not about theory; it’s all about practice. Read it and gain much; work it and gain much, much more. Don’t merely hear fifteen “Try This” exercises  (pp.4-5,15,26-28,40,51-52,58,61-63,78-79,80,82-83,85-86,97-98,100-102,109,113); do them. Put into practice the numerous, solid suggestions. Learn from the complete sermon manuscript (Genesis 32:22-31; pp.53-57). Harvest the abundance of good illustrations. Revel in the practicality of it all.
This book would be tremendous for the newbie preacher. If I taught a homiletics class, this would definitely be a required textbook. However, veterans can benefit from this work just as much as rookies. I know I did. No, I am. There are things in it I’ve forgotten, things I never knew, bad habits of mine that get called out and good habits that find reinforcement in every chapter. And so I’ve put it in my head to re-visit this book once a year to keep me sharpened. Where has this book been all my life?
And one quick aside. I recently read, and reviewed, Preaching On Your Feet by Fred Lybrand. The Write Stuff is something of “the other side of the coin” to Preaching On Your Feet; Stuff is primarily about preparation and Feet is all about delivery. It was great to hear these two very different voices almost in conversation. I’d love to see an interview exchange between Fred Lybrand and Sondra Willobee!
In sum: buy, read, ponder, work and keep this rare, little gem. Now. It’s a perfect 10.