Nobody likes preachy writing. But what, exactly, makes writing preachy? And is that avoidable?
As a Christian writer and editor, these are questions I have to answer. Some might chalk the answer up to “stop telling people what to believe and how to live their life.” But telling people what to believe and how to live their life is the point of nonfiction, Christian or otherwise. That’s how writing helps readers learn and grow.
So, why are some writings that tell you how to live your life considered “preachy,” but others aren’t?
The difference between preachy writing and powerful writing is not what you say—it’s how you say it. Today, we’ll be running through some ways you can preach without being preachy.
#1. Handling Objections
Maybe you’re presenting a case for a theological position. Maybe you’re trying to inspire someone to better care for the environment. Maybe you’re writing a how-to article that’s competing with several contradictory how-to articles in the infallible realm of knowledge that is the internet. Whatever you’re writing, readers will have objections. Until those objections are answered, they won’t accept what you have to say.
This article started by acknowledging the “don’t tell me what to do” objection. If I’d been writing a book, I would spend far longer developing that objection. After all, I agree with much of what motivates that question: the value of humility, the need for empathy, etc. By acknowledging what my opposition brings to the table, my position becomes more nuanced and robust.
Developing that common ground with my readers not only helps them trust me—it shows I respect them. Changing one’s mind is hard. Sometimes, it’s embarrassing. More often than not, making your reader feel like an idiot will cause them to dig in their heels and fight back. But making the reader feel respected will help them respect you—and feel less defensive while considering your argument.
#2. Authoritarian Wording
Many nonfiction writers use the words “must,” “should,” “have to,” “need to,” and other demanding words to communicate their points. That’s a straightforward and clear way to think, but it’s not always the best way to motivate a reader.
Consider two examples:
- “You need to have shorter paragraphs. It’s important to use white space. Otherwise, readers will be confused and strain their eyes.”
- “Shorter paragraphs help organize your thoughts, and white space helps to rest your readers’ eyes.”
Notice how different these two examples are? They both communicate the same concepts, but with completely different tones. The first sentence is authoritarian. It insists that the reader has to do something or else something bad will happen. It makes the reader feel foolish and guilty.
The second sentence sounds helpful. It shows what the reader can gain from its advice. It makes the reader feel smart and prepared, like they’re adding another tool in their toolbelt.
Readers want to feel like you’re walking alongside them as a friend, not talking down to them like a disappointed schoolteacher. Take the time to consider how your tone is coming across to your readers and how you can write with respect and encouragement—even when correction is necessary.
#3. Absolutist Statements
I’m a Christian. I believe in absolute truth. However, not every absolute statement is true. For instance, if I say, “The closer you follow my advice, the better your book will be,” that’s generally true, but not absolutely true. My editorial advice is based on limited information. I may be missing something about your personality, your target audience, or your intended message. Part of my advice may be off-target.
Writers who overstate their case discourage critical thinking in their readers—and alienate readers who do think critically.
To avoid absolutist phrasing, I often rely words like “often,” “sometimes,” and “usually.” (In fact, I just used “often” in that last sentence.) These words allow me to suggest something as a reliable concept without sacrificing nuance or implying things I don’t want to imply.
Granted, there will be times when absolutist phrasing is warranted. For instance, as a Christian, I believe that Scripture is absolute truth. Even when quoting Scripture, though, I don’t make absolute claims lightly. Scripture may be inerrant, but that doesn’t make my interpretation inerrant. It’s always wise to study a source in context before throwing out a quote to prove a point.
A friend of mine once asked her pastor how to deal with her anxiety. The pastor told her that Jesus says “do not worry” in Matthew 6:25. He concluded anxiety was always sinful and she should stop sinning.
Needless to say, this only made things worse.
This pastor made a hasty absolutist statement without adequately researching his response. Not only was this a terrible approach from a psychological perspective—it was bad Bible study. It butchered the Biblical context. The whole point of Matthew 6:25-34 is to emphasize how God loves and cares for us, to comfort and encourage us that we don’t need to be afraid. Instead, this pastor made my friend more fearful than ever before.
As writers, we have a responsibility to convey truth. As soon as our words hit print, they take on a life of their own. While absolutist statements are dramatic and memorable, that’s only a good thing if the statement is true. Arguments of probability have weight too—and if you’re wrong, they’re far less likely to blow up in your face.
#4. A Humble Heart
There was a point in my college career where I’d gotten a little too big for my britches. I’d written multiple opinion pieces in the student paper that I was very proud of, and my writing class had an opinion piece assignment coming up. Naturally, I bragged about my past success in class and strolled into my opinion piece assignment with confidence.
And wrote something that offended people. And the whole class heard it.
The problem wasn’t what I wrote. It was how I wrote it. And if I’d approached that assignment with the same thoughtfulness and caution I’d used in my previous opinion pieces, it may have gone over much better in class.
I wish I could say that was the last time I made that mistake, but it wasn’t. There are likely places in this very article where that same pride is seeping through, despite my best efforts to the contrary.
Humility isn’t a writing skill. It’s a life skill. And no matter how many writing rules I follow to make my writing less preachy, my writing will inevitably reflect who I am.
The best advice on communication I have ever received was simply this: care about your audience more than you care about what they think of you.
In practice, that means our achievements and credentials only matter if they give readers confidence in our message. If being honest about our failures makes readers more receptive to a message that can help them, then our personal embarrassment is worth it.
No one is a perfect person or a perfect writer—that’s an absolutist statement we can all agree on. But when we’re up front about that, and we treat our readers with respect and kindness? Well, our readers will be inclined to treat us with the same.
So preach, writers! Preach with thoughtfulness. Preach with honesty. Preach with kindness. Preach with respect. Preach with your reader’s needs at the forefront.
Because that’s a kind of preaching this world needs more of.