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The Role of Editing in the Sermon Writing Process

I can’t remember the last time I preached my first draft of a sermon. I’m sure that I’ve done it, but I’m also sure that it isn’t my ordinary practice. This past Sunday I preached D4 of a sermon on Genesis 3. The Sunday before that I preached D4b of a sermon on Genesis 2:24-25. “D4” indicates that it was “Draft 4”, and “b” indicates that it was a light re-write or update of Draft 4.

In general, I use new numbers whenever I significantly alter the structure of a sermon and letters for lighter revisions and updates within the existing structure. I typically write my first draft on Tuesday whereupon I send it out to the other preachers in our Preaching Workshop. We then discuss the sermon on Wednesday, along with any other sermons submitted by the members of the group, whereupon I make further revisions on Wednesday afternoon.

About 70% of the time, I find myself preaching D2b of a sermon, meaning that I am delivering a Sunday morning revision or update of the draft I prepared on Wednesday afternoon, which was itself a rewrite of the original sermon draft from Tuesday. Less frequently I will engage in further revisions on Thursday or Friday, as I have done each of the last two weeks. On Sunday morning I arrive at the church 2-3 hours before the start of the service and will usually do some light updating, occasionally requiring me to reprint the sermon manuscript for myself and the Visuals Team.

A well-constructed sentence matters.

Why all this discussion about editing?

Because in my experience, nothing has more impact on the final quality of a sermon, humanly speaking, than the preacher’s willingness to engage in this disciplined process. Preachers who start work on their sermon too late in the week, or who are otherwise unable or unwilling to return to their sermon in the days after writing the first draft, miss out on the 1-2 letter grade improvement that editing typically makes.

In my own editing process, I try to focus on the following:

Editing for Clarity

There are many things that make sense in my mind that don’t make sense to others. Some of this has to do with education and exposure. Many pastors have had a unique series of experiences, relative to the average person in their congregation. I went to a Christian Leadership Training Camp in New York State every summer from the age of 9 through to the age of 18. I went to Bible College in Chicago. I then went to York University to study classics and religious study. Then I did an MDiv with a focus on exegesis.

To state the obvious, that’s pretty weird.

I was also a bookworm as a kid, an oddity shared by a disproportionate number of pastors. I read Mutiny on the Bounty a half dozen times, most of the original Sherlock Holmes series and every Hardy Boys book I could get my hands on. As a teenager I developed an interest in Roman and military history. As a result, I often use words and expressions that I assume everyone in the universe is familiar with only to be met by blank stares.

For example, I thought that the use of the word “ubiquitous” was, well, fairly ubiquitous, until my wife told me that she had no idea what it meant, had never heard it used by anyone other than me, and had long ago decided to simply smile politely at me whenever I said it, instead of asking me what it meant. I also thought that “hunger is the best sauce” was an expression as common as “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” The young men in the Preaching Workshop beg to differ.

The point is that preachers are weird, and they need help sounding less weird when they step behind the sacred desk.

Prior to the launching of our Preaching Workshop, I used to ask my Office Administrator to read through my sermons with a highlighter so as to indicate any words or expressions that would be unfamiliar to a normal person. If the word had theological value, such as “imputation” or “propitiation” I would keep it, but add a short definition. If the word was simply archaic or provincial, I would change it to something more modern and accessible.

Editing for clarity also involves simplification. By this I do not mean dumbing down, but rather, sharpening up. If I have 3 main headings, two of which have subheadings, I will try and restructure my presentation for greater balance, symmetry and memorability. The goal is for the sermon to be easy for the listener to understand. A good sermon may be convicting and even confrontational, but it should never be confusing in terms of the words, phrasing and arrangement.     

Editing for Efficiency

My first draft is always significantly longer than the sermon that will eventually be delivered on Sunday. I try to preach 4,200-word manuscripts. I write shorter manuscripts because I tend to “extemporize” in the pulpit more now than I did as a younger preacher. I still appreciate the process of preparing a manuscript for a variety of reasons (which I will blog about on another occasion) but I like to leave room for me to respond to the Spirit and to the feedback I am receiving from the congregation.

A typical person speaks at a rate of about 140 words per minute, so 4200 words equates to 30 minutes of preaching. That leaves me 8-10 minutes on average for “free preaching” as I tend to aim for 38-to-40-minute sermons.

My first draft is often 4800-5000 words; that means that typically, I will look to eliminate about 800 words through the editing process.

Towards that end, I will often write the wordcount beside each section in my first draft. If I have an introduction followed by 3 points and a conclusion, I will note the wordcount for each. If section 2 is 1300 words, whereas section 1 is 400 words and section 3 is 600 words, I will target section 2 and attempt to restate what I am saying there in a more precise, clear and straightforward fashion. I will then use whatever editing time I have left on the other sections, attempting the same basic process. About 95% of my Sunday morning sermon manuscripts come in between 4100 and 4299 words.

I find this process accomplishes two things: it makes my sermons tighter and it leaves me room and time to respond to Spiritual promptings on Sunday morning. If I were to preach from a 4,750-word manuscript, I would feel like I have to rush and that would result in me being less responsive to on the spot nudges, which often end up being the most impactful parts of the sermon.

Editing for Sensitivity

I am 50 years old. I was raised by two parents from the Silent Generation, one of whom never took a sick day in his life and the other of which never spent an idle moment in her life. “Rub some dirt on it” was one of the more sympathetic pieces of advice I received whenever I dared to complain about my circumstances. As such, I am often unaware of and ill attuned to the sensitivities of the younger generation.

When I write my first draft, I am not thinking about how a 38-year-old single female will “hear it”; rather I am thinking about what the text meant to the original hearers and what it means to us today. I am thinking about how the indicatives undergird the imperatives and how the participles support and amplify the main verb. Thinking about modern sensitivities too early in the writing process can tempt the preacher to pull his punches, but once the message of the text has been discovered, divided and arranged, it is not inappropriate to consider how certain stray words and phrases might unhelpfully offend or prejudice one’s hearers.

I find the Preaching Workshop helpful in finding and filtering out potential distractions.

One rather amusing example has to do with the word “booty”, which to my Patrick O’Brian and Bernard Cornwell reading brain, means “captured or stolen goods” but apparently, to hip hop raised Millennials and Tik Tok watching Gen Zs means something else entirely. 🙂

Occasionally the comments of my mostly younger workshop partners will result in, not just another word or phrase, but the addition of an entirely new sermon in a series. In our current Biblical Anthropology series, in which we’ve been looking at God’s design for human beings out of the first several chapters in Genesis, I had not originally planned on doing a separate sermon on singleness.

Afterall, singleness is not a major theme in Genesis, or the Old Testament as a whole, for that matter, but in today’s culture, one cannot do a sermon on gender, followed by a sermon on marriage, followed by a sermon on childbearing without at least discussing singleness from a biblical perspective.

Editing for sensitivity is a necessary, but dangerous undertaking. It should be done near the end of the writing process, and it mustn’t be allowed to shave off any sharp edges that are plainly derived from the text. Its only goal must be to remove unnecessary offense and to anticipate culturally inspired questions and confusion.

Editing for Practicality

Most of the D3 and D4 sermons I’ve preached have been necessitated by the nagging sensation that my message was lacking in the area of practical application. As stated previously, in my first draft I am thinking most about what a passage means. I am trying to understand the argument. I am exegeting the text within its context. I am thinking about how the doctrine introduced is developed or framed by the rest of Holy Scripture. Then I am thinking about division and arrangement. Should my sermon have three points or four? Is there a word that starts with “D” that could be used to introduce what I want to say at the end of my presentation, given that the three previous sections all leant themselves to a heading that began with the same letter?

Getting it right and getting it clear tend to be the concerns uppermost in my mind during the early stages of the writing process.

However, as I walk my dog, shower, and fall asleep – all tasks that seem to stimulate my thinking – I often begin to feel as if my sermon is lacking in the area of practicality. Assuming that a person is able to understand what I am saying on the coming Sunday, what difference should it make to him or her during the following week? Did I spell that out clearly enough? Did I underscore the important implications? Did I translate that into a way to think differently, pray differently, evangelize differently or parent differently?

If I write a third of fourth draft on Thursday or Friday, it is almost always as a result of questions like these. I will often go back and read my sermon over again looking for points of application and implication. If I can’t find any, or if I can’t find enough, I will undertake a revision. A sermon is not a lecture. It should educate, but it should also correct, rebuke, inspire, equip and move. It is often in the editing process that my sermon grows in that direction.

Editing for Pastoral Punch

Most of my editing for pastoral punch happens on Sunday morning. On Sunday morning I tend to be thinking a great deal about how to say things. I tend to verbalize sentences as I mark up my manuscript for emphasis. I use a yellow highlighter for low level reminders and a pink highlighter for key words and phrases.

Occasionally, in the process of identifying and verbalizing points of emphasis I will think of new and more impactful ways of communicating the idea represented in the manuscript. Most of the time I will just write these sentence fragments in the margin of the page. If the new wording is more extensive, I will enter it into the document and reprint.

This part of the process may seem pedantic, or even profane, but it is not. Our job is to help people hear, respond to and remember the Word of God and a lot of that, humanly speaking, comes down to our use of language. I’ve experienced the truth of this from the other side of the process, as a listener.

“God keeps us in the faith by enabling us to do keeping things.”

That sentence was an absolute game changer for me. I first heard it live in a sermon by John Piper at T4G 2012. I remember it, in part, because it served to finally cut the Gordian Knot in my mind regarding the balance between God’s grace and our work in the process of growth and perseverance, but the impact that sentence had on me was about more than its explanatory power, it was about its beauty, balance, and precision.

A well-constructed sentence matters.

A good sermon will contain phrases that have been conceived and crafted for the ear. A good preacher knows that the hearts of his people may be calloused through exposure to the coarseness of the culture and therefore he will sharpen his verbal arrows so that they fly true, strike hard and burrow deep. I find that I am most helped by the Holy Spirit to do this work just prior to my stepping up into the pulpit.

It is almost as if the Holy Spirit will not amplify my rhetoric until I have done the spade work of study and exegesis. But when that work has been done, he will often bring a sharpness to my words that they would otherwise lack. The wise preacher will leave space in his Sunday morning routine for these final preparations.

Editing is not the whole of preaching, but it is an important part. It takes a fair bit of time, discipline and planning, but it allows the preacher to offer his very best unto the Lord. Having done that, he can pray with greater confidence for the fire of heaven to fall.

And may God alone be glorified.

Pastor Paul Carter

If you are interested in more Bible teaching from Pastor Paul you can access the entire library of Into The Word episodes through the Audio tab on the Into the Word website. You can also download the Into The Word app on iTunes or Google Play.