How to Write Without Sounding Preachy

Happy Romantic Middle Aged Couple Enjoying Beautiful Sunset Walk on the Beach. Travel Vacation Retirement Lifestyle ConceptYou have something to say—something you desperately want to communicate.

You may even believe it comes from on high, that you’re destined to write it for the world to read.

Your motives are even right. The earth, society, your town, people will be enriched by reading what you have to say.

But You’re Afraid

You don’t have to tell me what you’re scared of, because you already have.

In emails, letters, at autograph parties, speaking engagements, and at writer’s conferences—everywhere!

When you’ve mentioned your message—to loved ones, friends, anyone—they tell you or you can see it in their eyes, sometimes in their body language:

They don’t like the way you say it.

You’re not getting the impression that they don’t like you particularly. Or even what you’re saying. How could they? Your message is important! You know this! It’s inspired or it wouldn’t have moved you so or stayed with you this long.

It’s How You Come Off

You don’t want to alienate people, you tell me. That won’t work, you say. You’re not one of those people who don’t get it.

The last thing you want is to go through life spouting opinions like you’ve got a direct line to the Fountain of All Truth while people are rolling their eyes and looking for the exit.

So how, you ask me, are some writers able to get away with this? How do they come off as  sages—able to teach and enlighten without coming off as know-it-alls or the dreaded P-word: preachy?

The Come Alongside Secret

It’s all in the approach.

Two writers could communicate the very same truth. One might point his finger in your face and say, in essence, “Here’s what you’re doing wrong and what you ought to do to change and start doing it right.”

The other might say, “Let me tell you about the time I learned a very tough lesson.”

Which are you more likely to listen to?

One is preaching at you, teaching you, eager to make a point.

The other is telling you a story, and when he is finished, he will not even have to turn the spotlight on you to be sure you got the message.

People Love Stories

In fact, readers love them so much, you can give them credit for getting your point without having to shove it down their throats.

Here’s a true example:

As a college freshman, I took pride in how tolerant and inclusive and color-blind I felt. In fact, I was so ignorant of my passive racism that I was shocked one day to be brought up short and humiliated by it.

On my way to class I complimented a black man almost three times my age for performing a menial task. I smiled at him and told him he was doing a good job. He nodded and asked if I would hold up for a second as my friends moved on.

“Didn’t want to embarrass you,” he said.

“Sir?”

“Just wanted to ask you if you ever complimented a white man for painting a wall?”

Puzzled that he somehow wasn’t pleased, I said, “Uh, no sir, I guess I have not.”

“Can you understand how that makes me feel, to have a young man like yourself praise me for doing something that anyone could do?”

To suddenly face such ugliness in myself stunned me to silence, and I could only nod in shame. I’d rather he had slapped me in the face, as I deserved. Nearly 50 years later it haunts me.

When finally I found my voice, I whispered, “Forgive me.”

He said, “Of course, brother. Now make us both glad this happened.”

Resist the Urge to Explain

Give your reader credit. A mistake after sharing the anecdote above would be for me to make sure you got the point, ask if you’d ever had a similar experience, work at making you apply the truth of it to your life.

Why? Because the story makes its own point!

If the reader doesn’t get it, becoming preachy about it won’t help.

What will you do to communicate your message without being preachy? Tell me in Comments below.

Related Posts:

How to Write a Memoir: A 3-Step Guide

How to Write a Devotional: The Definitive Guide

How to Write a Book: Everything You Need to Know in 20 Steps

  • Wow, this is a really powerful point. Thank you for sharing your story. I have always been afraid of coming off as preachy, (though I’m never ashamed of my faith – there’s a difference). I write to get the point of salvation across, and that is why I love writing fiction: because it’s one big story that, if done right, will leave the reader with your message without them even knowing it. I’ve had that happen to me when reading a story, and there’s never a need to explain.
    I don’t think that I come across as preachy (although my books are about Jesus Himself, set in Israel 1st century). You never can tell, though. I pray it isn’t.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      I write mostly fiction too, but there’s little more powerful than a true salvation story. Like you say, there’s never a need to explain. The teller just says, “Let me tell you what happened to me…”

      • Exactly. Stories are so powerful that way, and even more powerful when they’re true. (And I’ll say that it was your fiction that helped inspire me to start writing :) )

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Thanks for letting me know, Reagan.

  • PolCorrect

    I love that u tell on yourself! That makes people identify w your encounter & take a closer look at themselves; asking themselves the question, “hmmm, I wonder if I do or have ever done that”. Then going to our father for that answer changes things. It also brings a release when people do realize we’ve done the same thing, hopefully brings us to our knees in humble repentance & then healing begins n areas where we often find ourselves stuck in the miry clay without even realizing it.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      So much better, isn’t it, than pointing the finger and saying, “I’ll bet you’re doing this without even realizing it!” That just puts people on the defensive, and even if they are guilty they’re thinking, I can deny this and he couldn’t know either way.

      • PHamm54

        Absolutely

  • Lisa Enqvist

    How do I cover a conflict where one of the persons only communicates by preaching, while the other longs for conversation, trust, and understanding. I don’t want to put in any direct sermons. These situations often lead to arguments, with both hurting each other. The one who preaches has a powerful message when he is in the right situation.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      You mean cover a conflict in a story, or in real life?

      • Lisa Enqvist

        In a story.

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Conflict is the engine of fiction, so let it happen. It allows you to have one character tell the other, “See, this is what happens when all you do is point the finger…”

          • Lisa Enqvist

            Thanks. I’m learning new things about the conflict I hadn’t thought of before. There is a saying in Swedish, It is not just one person’s fault when two people quarrel!

          • Jerry B Jenkins

            Yes it is.
            No it isn’t.
            Is too.
            Is not.

          • Lisa Enqvist

            “What are you doing, talking to that man all night?”
            “I wasn’t outside at all!”
            “I heard voices out in the yard.”
            “That wasn’t me. That fellow talks to himself all the time.”

            Then dad took up his old worn out story about the great mistake his beloved little sister had made. Now he was sure I was in danger of being caught in the same trap.

            I had heard that story through my teen years and hated listening to it.
            The night was hot. It was late. I didn’t want to hear any more.
            Dad repeated, “I just don’t want you to make the same mistake your aunt made.”
            “Daddy, listen to me now. I am not planning to make the same mistake. I have no intentions of any relationship with that guy or any guy.”
            Dad wouldn’t give up. In the end I said,
            “Stop comparing me to your sister, or I might as well do what she did!”

            (There is more both before and after this).

          • Good, Lisa. I’d just tighten it, like this:

            “What are you doing, talking to that man all night?”
            “I wasn’t outside at all!”
            “I heard voices in the yard.”
            “That wasn’t me. That fellow talks to himself all the time.”
            Dad took up his worn out story about the great mistake his beloved little sister made. I’d heard it throughout my teens and hated it.
            “I just don’t want you to…”
            “Daddy, listen. I have no intentions with that guy or anyone else.”
            But he wouldn’t quit.
            “Stop comparing me,” I said, “or I might as well do what your sister did!”

          • Lisa Enqvist

            Thanks. I’m enjoying learning to write the right way through this guild.

  • Jerry, when I read the story in my email and came to the paragraph of the incident, the first thing that caught my eye was that the man was 3 times your age. I immediately thought that you complimented him for a job well done because of his age and not his skin color. I can see the man’s point though. When I see the unrest today because of the abuse of power by police as seen by the black community which gave birth to Black Lives Matter, instead of spouting off more stuff to add to the fuel, I post something humorous to social networks. This was a picture of a cream colored dog and a black dog sitting together in harmony with the slogan “Black Labs Matter”.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      I think a teenager complimenting a man near 60 for painting a wall would be just as offensive, the way it offends me now when a young person refers to me, at 66, as “young man.” I don’t know why it’s so annoying. I don’t even mind the falsely endearing nicknames wait staff use like “dear” and “sweetie,” etc., but kids thinking it’s a compliment to refer to senior citizens as young people is subtly insulting. I haven’t become a curmudgeon and I don’t lecture them about it, but I do tell my grandkids not to do it.

      Frankly, I’m, not sure how I’d feel if I were a black man about the Black Lives Matter issue being made light of. I get the backlash about all lives mattering, etc., but when I talk to my black friends I get a sense of the depth of their pain. With two black grandchildren I find the nightly news sobers me in new ways now.

      • I love how you termed it, “passive racism.” That’s so what I want to illustrate through my story–how a sense of superiority over the stupidest things creeps in so easily. Since my eyes were opened one day in a similarly painful manner, it’s been so obvious to me. It’s hard hearing loved ones make comments that are well-intentioned yet just as wrong as my attitudes were until recently.

        And this:
        “To suddenly face such ugliness in myself stunned me to silence, and I could only nod in shame. I’d rather he had slapped me in the face, as I deserved. Nearly 50 years later it haunts me.

        “When finally I found my voice, I whispered, ‘Forgive me.’

        “He said, ‘Of course, brother. Now make us both glad this happened.'”

        We readers feel the burn. Thanks for the story and BOTH lessons!

        • Ellamae

          I am also offended when someone accuses me of racism when I have a different “political” idea than they do that has nothing to do with race. This is particularly onerous when I have extended biracial family.

          • Jerry B Jenkins

            As am I.

  • Debbie Walker

    Invite the readers to take this journey with you.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Exactly, Debbie.

  • I had just got done begging God to give me wisdom about writing to younger women. My Bible is still open to Isaiah 3 where I was getting scary counsel: “As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them…” As much as I know God has given me a message and the means to share it, I am terrified of messing it up.

    So I decide to check my email, and I read this. Can you say spot-on?!

    I have tried sharing my “wisdom” so many times before, and like you in your story, so many times I’ve discovered I was so far short it’s humiliating to recall. Still, I’ve had two different people call me the same day recently asking for almost identical advice, and I want to get the things I’ve learned down for my children’s sakes at least.

    As you’ve gotten old enough to realize how much you don’t know, has it ever been a hindrance to your writing?

    God bless!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Excellent question, Rebekah. And isn’t terror a wonderful motivator? It keeps us on our toes, not to mention our knees.

      On the contrary, however, realizing afresh every day how much I don’t know has proven other than a hindrance to my writing. Rather, it has allowed me the freedom to open up and say – instead of, “Here’s what I know works after all these years…”, “Here’s what I’d be very cautious of after all these years…”

  • Riley Bates

    Great topic! I am very mindful of not wanting to sound preachy- especially with my target audience (abuse survivors)- because many people have been hurt with bible verses thrown at them (often misused and taken out of context). Most people have good intentions when they ‘preach’ to someone but their method is a turn off.

    Don’t misunderstand me–there is nothing wrong with quoting bible verses but in trying to reach people, especially deeply wounded people, I think it’s more effective to write in a way where the characters are living a Godly life, the reader can see there is something different about them, where that strong character doesn’t judge and tries to see things from the other’s point of view.

    That’s how I’m striving to write.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Good thinking, Riley.

  • Rick Taylor

    How to make a point? I have one character who is known for dropping folk sayings and Biblical quotes as part of his personality. He doesn’t preach,he just drops a quotes until people tease him about it but the wisdom makes it on the page.
    Another thing I do is allow characters to argue both sides of an issue. If it is all one sided, then I am preaching but if there is an argument or balanced discussion it is not preaching. What my protagonist chooses to do is a measure of his/her growth/personality.
    Or am I fooling myself?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      No, Rick, I don’t think you’re fooling yourself. I’ve been told that one of the reasons the Left Behind series worked was that I had credible skeptical characters. Not everyone wound up coming to faith, and many needy people died whom readers really wanted to see come around.

      All readers need someone theycan identifywith, and we must reflect life as it really is.

  • Patricia Manns

    Ouch! I’m reminded of the responsibility we Christians have to listen to people and hear their story. Sometimes I think we’re so intent on telling a story that we fail to put ourselves in the shoes of our audience. I recently received feedback from Beta readers, and one commented that my first novel seemed a bit preachy. She was the only one who made that comment, but if one person felt that way, it’s worth paying attention and doing some close examination. I love your encouragement to simply tell the story. A good story teaches. Isn’t that what Jesus did?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      It sure is, Patricia. However, I would caution you not to overreact if only one of your Beta readers feels strongly about something. Sometimes people react because of something in themselves, not something in your writing.

      That’s your call, of course. If they are right, they’re right. But be judicious. Something just might have stepped on a toe she needed stepped on. :)

      And yes, Jesus is our model as a storyteller.

      • Patricia Manns

        Good point, Jerry. I’ll take that into consideration.

  • edd hogeboom

    Hi Jerry! How does an inspired and committed author survive in a world that distracts, counter-acts and diverts the completion of their book? As successful as you are in the art of writing I’m very sure you’ve faced this reality on occasion yourself.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Seems I answered this one recently somewhere else, Edd. BUt of course it depends on how committed, doesn’t it? If we weren’t opposed, we wouldn’t be doing it right. No one said it would be easy. :)

  • San Banks

    Jerry, I have told you this story before, but it bears repeating here: You are the one who taught me this crucial lesson twenty years ago, when you critiqued one of my stories. You encouraged me first, by saying, “You are a great storyteller. You had me ‘on the couch’ enjoying your story; then you suddenly got up from the ‘couch,’ walked over to the ‘pulpit’ and started preaching at me.” (It was true!) Then, you spoke five simple but powerful words: “Keep me on the couch.”

    I went home, “armed and dangerous,” excitedly went through fifty-two of my yet-to-be published stories, found the preachy “pulpit” moment in each, and changed it, to keep the reader “on the couch.” The majority of those stories have since made their way into published books — and the first to sell was that one you critiqued! :) I’m still learning, and you are still teaching. So, thank you, keep on! Sandi

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      How kind of you to say, San! Thanks!

  • edd hogeboom

    No response required Jerry. Going back to our old Christian Writers Guild days, I’ve used the following two scriptures for my inspiration (too often I’m not able to do them justice): Acts 20:24 and Matthew 5:16. You shared 2 Timothy 1:12 with me in the front of “I,Saul.” and I’ve kept it close ever since!!

  • LifeLearner2

    Thank you for the great info Jerry. I think that last point is new to me, and is where I need to focus the most at this point. I was a small group Bible Study leader for many years, where discussion was encouraged. And I am now in the process of building an online eGroup study blog that encourages the participants to comment, ask questions, and “discuss” the topic if they like. With that type of setting, I’m assuming your above tips still apply? Or would you recommend any slight changes? Thank you again for your willingness to share you expertise with us beginners.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      I think in that setting, the hearer can ask questions, sure. For instance, if I told my story there, I wouldn’t ask what they got from the story, but in open discussion some might say, “That reminds me of the time something similar happened to me…” Or they might ask, “Were you do defensive at first that you resented his saying that?” Or, “Why does it still bother you?” and I could say that it has informed the way I live ever since. All those comments and questions would reveal that people are getting the message.

      • LifeLearner2

        Thanks Jerry! that’s a good point. I can see how I’m going to have to actively practice wording that invites participation through their own stories, comments and questions much as “friends” do… and not as an “instructor” or teacher. I’m learning that how you effectively handle a group study in person is MUCH different than how you do it in writing. I’m thinking your own blog here is going to be a good example for me to study as to how you do it. Thanks again for being here for us novices!

  • Michael Tolulope Emmanuel

    Yesterday, a friend mentioned that I was being preachy. I read a lot to figure out how some authors just tell the story. Keeping me on the couch. And I really need to master that. It just gets so hard…

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      But you can do it, Michael. Being aware is half the battle.

      • Michael Tolulope Emmanuel

        Thank you sir Jerry. Thank you very much for the positive words. I just noted you mentioned that if a reader doesn’t get the message through the story, there’s no need explaining. How true that is! Thank you once again.

  • Comfort Ayittah

    Thanks Jerry for this article. My concern is “Does it apply to instructional materials too?”. I often write or edit articles/books that are not fictional. For example, if I am writing/editing a book on marriage or love relationships, where I will want to put a point across, will it be wrong to state the lesson I hope to convey before or after sharing a story that illustrates it? I believe these materials have great messages, but it will be sad that people don’t relate to it because it’s preachy. Please help?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      I think it does apply to instructional materials, because the lesson is expected and built-in. Why is the person reading an instructional book on love and marriage? To me that makes it even easier to merely use examples of techniques that work–or don’t–without having to say, in essence, “So, you see, if you’re kind, your spouse will be happy. If you’re not, your spouse won’t be happy. Don’t you want to be happy?”

      Your topics will be How to Quickly Solve Conflict or How to Share Unpleasant Tasks. No need to preach. Just use examples. They’ll get the message.

  • Jerry, Thank you for your transparency. I use scripture in all my blogs. My blog is about me and my hero. I show the ugly side of me, the sin that so easily entangles and chokes me. The hero of my blog is God. He works the Word in my heart and mind to transform me. I share the difficult process, the love of God, and the importance of Scripture. My prayer is others will learn from my mistakes and desire to be rescued by the Redeemer. You have helped me to be less preachy in my writings. Thank you for investing in other writers.

  • Loved this post. I believe stories are so powerful. So my question is this: when I am writing for a Christian site and I’m citing verses (something they require), doesn’t that all of a sudden change the flavor causing some to think I’ve left the couch? I’m curious because I know there are some that would just read over those Bible references and enjoy the ‘story’ part more.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Yes, and a powerful story would be an anecdote about how you once made that mistake and what you earned from it. :)

  • Karen Keil

    I’m dealing with this challenge right now. I’ve been given the opportunity to speak for an hour (including discussion time.) My title is “How A ‘Nobody’ Is Changing (my home town) For The Better, And How You Can, Too.” I have stories to tell that I hope will give people ideas and change their minds about how to accomplish this needed task, but I also have information and ideas to share. It’s in the planning stages at the moment, but I would like to add to the material and make an article or book out of it. By nature, I tend to lecture. That may not be the same as preaching, but I’m sure it’s close. I’ll definitely be keeping the idea of storytelling in mind.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      And there’s a difference between a sage and a finger-pointer. If you’re an expert, you can simply say, here’s a handy way I’ve found to do this, and it doesn’t sound iike preaching.

      • Karen Keil

        Thank you. I don’t know that I can claim to be a sage, but I try to come at things from an angle that just plain makes sense (especially given research.) Like….”if you want to make _____ a better place, get involved with people from _____,” or “if you want to make ____ a better place, listen to what Mother Theresa says and “go home and love your family.”

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Well, you don’t call yourself a sage, but you take that tone–not of preaching but of trying to use your experience to be helpful.

          I have to say, the examples you gave above DO come off as preachy. The way to soften that is to make yourself the foil–the object–of your anecdotes, something like this:

          When I was first admonished that if I wanted to make [ ] a better place, i should listen to what Mother Theresa says and “go home and love your family,” I didn’t take it well. In fact, I was defensive and resisted it.

          Didn’t I love my family? What did Mother Teresa (correct spelling, btw) know about it? Did she ever have a family? And who says I don’t love my family?

          So I had to do a little self-examination, and here’s what I learned…

          Then tell what you learned, and if your reader needs to be admonished, they will be without your saying another thing. Don’t preach; tell stories about yourself, and your reader will get the point.

          • Karen Keil

            Listening, learning.

  • Ellamae

    My first book (maybe last; but Ii hope not) was just published by WestBow. I had the main character do a bit of preaching but she was called down for it by another character. She also tries to be inclusive and respectful of other beliefs. In one section the book follows a teacher who believes in theistic evolution but must teach Bible creation and what he learns. This in a setting of mystery and romance with a spiritual focus. Title: STARTING OVER IN THE PAST. I began writing it while taking your CWG course on fiction. Ella Rydzewski

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Great, Ella.

  • I will observe more of how what I am writing is or could be perceived for now on. I can’t remember everything what Bruce Wilkinson in The Seven Laws of the Learner said about three things that stories do, but I know one of the things he said is that stories illustrate a point. How would I make a personal story that I share illustrate a point without sounding preachy?

    • Let it speak for itself. Give your reader credit. A mistake after sharing the anecdote I did above would have been for me to make sure you got the point, ask if you’d ever had a similar experience, work at making you apply the truth of it to your life.

      Why? Because the story makes its own point!

      If the reader doesn’t get it, becoming preachy about it won’t help.

      • That is so true, Jerry. Thanks so much for connecting with me and the other readers! And thanks for the very helpful comments also :-)

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Thank you, Sean.

  • I love telling stories, whether in writing or in public speaking. And you’re so right, Jerry — people DO love stories! We are drawn in to a great story, whether in an enthralling book, edge-of-your-seat live story-telling, or riveting movie. Jesus told stories to communicate truth and wisdom and lessons we need to learn — so we’re in good company! I’ve found the BEST and MOST responses to my blog posts that told stories. I’m learning still, to stick with what’s real, transparent, vulnerable, and “tells on myself” mostly, haha! People will get the point, like you said, Jerry. Thanks!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Becky.

  • Elizabeth

    Is this story true? Or did the writer take over?

    I so can understand what you said, I wich I could find words to explain. I think this is so much deeper than prejudice, and in fact I think this has nothing to do with the painter or his skin color, but all to do with looking for improbable situations to help others. I know I would have said the same thing quite a few years ago. Wow! That is an eye opener. Thank you for sharing this story.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Did you miss the introductory line: “Here’s a true example:” ?

      What kind of a charlatan would I be if I made up a story after writing that?

  • Elizabeth

    I think I may have been kidding, not sure, have to go back to the story and everything else, but I do know that the event you shared impress me beyond reason. By the way I did enroll in a Astronomy group and set up some questions to learn the “lingo”, so that I can use in my novel. I think that using the right ‘lingo’ is very important and I know I didn’t mean for you to do my homework, but thought I should tease you a bit about this assignment and bright your day (but maybe I made it darker??) What is fun for me maybe a tragedy to you…I guess we are all different…

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      I haven’t had a dark day in decades. I enjoy a good back-and-forth for clarification and certain haven’t taken offense. Hope you haven’t either. :)

  • Elizabeth

    Writers are not charlatans they give themselves permission to illustrate situations to their students, sometimes (I do. I talk about making a cake without eggs or butter or flour. Does this kind of cake exists? I could make such a cake and have made it, for my husband is picky about what he eats, but very few people could make such a cake, however I use this as an illustration about knowing the right ingredients to produce a set of results).

    I think illustrations are okay, but either way that story impressed me because I can see myself doing the same thing a few years ago, not so much now that I don’t want to spend the time puffing up people I think may feel “less than” or give a ride to my imagination that may think that they think that they are less than.

    I truly do not interpret this story as a story of prejudice but a story of a young man that worry more about other people’s feelings than his own and goes around trying to make people feel good about themselves (and I used to be that way but I don’t have the time anymore or the inclination). That is the core of the story that impressed me so much: taking the time to fudge a little bit about someone’s talents so that they could feel good about themselves.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      “Writers are not charlatans they give themselves permission to illustrate situations to their students, sometimes…”

      They are if they represent an anecdote as a true story and it is not.

      If you did not interpret the story as one of prejudice, I failed to communicate effectively.

      And you’re right, I was overreacting to “someone’s talents so that they could feel good about themselves.” Which is acceptable when you’re talking to a pre-schooler, not a grown man.

  • Elizabeth

    I re-read the story bc of the comment I received on the inbox. I just got a good idea and it came from this aspect of the story: the way I read this story is still the same.

    You, wanted to encourage the painter. In my estimation there was no ugliness about what you did: you sensed something, but that something you sensed was in according to your standards.

    So I got that nugget of info and realized that the story impress probably everybody but for different reasons.. it made me feel what you felt (others may emphatize with the painter) but one thing stands out: emotion…

    so I’ll go back to a few chapters of my story where the FBI director questions the NSA director and make clear about what is at stake there: lives were being lost!

    Okay thanks. Got the point: at times emotion can be higher than truth itself. (that serves me well, if the lesson meant something else, that is okay too. I’ll take it this way because it helps me and that is the way it makes sense to me)

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      I may have wanted to encourage the painter, sure, but when he deftly pointed out that I would not have done the same to a white man, I was exposed and couldn’t deny it. I was guilty of a benign, passive racism that is not mean-spirited but no less shameful because it evidences a superior-mindset I would never have otherwise recognized. That a 17-year-old freshman felt some empathy toward a black man in his late 50s may show a certain positive quality, and I cannot say I was ill-motivated.

      But who was I, a few months from living at home, to bestow some good feeling upon a man who had likely seen military service, been married for many years, raised a family, faced all manner of injustice, and should have been respected for no other reason than that he was my senior? That I was naive enough to praise him for how he was painting a wall, as I said, still makes me shudder. I was, for all practically purposes, treating him like a child.

      What made his counsel even more poignant was that he did not respond with the anger he could easily have felt (and probably did). He even spared me embarrassment in front of my friends.

      How easy it would have been for him to glare at me and demand to know who I thought I was and ask aloud if I would say the same thing to a white man. But his maturity, his very life, made him respond with kindness…making his point.

  • Dalene Bickel

    Excellent post! As a ghostwriter/biographer, I encourage potential clients to share what they’ve learned about life with their readers. Often, they either don’t feel qualified to do so, or are concerned that they will come across as arrogant and all-knowing. This post was a much-needed reminder for me to emphasize their story, which will subtly yet powerfully highlight their knowledge.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Dalene. And just as important, it teaches without preaching.

  • Elizabeth

    I had a good laugh thinking that one story shed light in some many areas of our minds (good thing we all have a different mind, otherwise we would all be telling the same story). I had a good laugh about that too.

    Good to know you didn’t take offense. :)

  • Elizabeth

    I saw that the intentions were good, but perhaps not politically correct.
    I have to revisit my own prejudices. It would be naive of me to think I don’t any those.

    But the moment of that story shows much more than prejudice. It shows to me a young man wanting to praise someone and wanting to do a good deed, it showed to me also two Christians making amendments recognizing that we fail to see things as they are (yes, because of our prejudices, but prejudices are not only racial, we are all submersed in them and unless something like that happens, unless someone calls out attention to what we are doing, we probably don’t realize it).

    Okay, so I agree, there was more than a nudge of prejudice there, but there was also love. And the reason the story touched me so much is because I can see a younger me doing just that and thinking that I was doing a good deed!

  • Elizabeth

    hate to admit but you made a strong point on that one. I have to agree with what you said. Who are we that we think we can impart some confidence because we think someone can’t handle life the way we can. Point well taken. I am guilt of that sometimes.

    Santification is a painful process. Good thing you spoke with a brother. I think you’re right, well intentioned or not, we must get rid of prejudices.

  • Stephanie R Howard

    I am often scolded for my preachiness, even when I tell a story. I often feel the need to make sure they “get it” but not anymore. Thanks for this Jerry.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thank you, Stephanie.

  • MarJean Quiring Peters

    In our mission publications, many of which I have content edited for over 10 years, I try to get our writers to substitute the word “you” for “us” or “we” to avoid sounding preachy. Our mission comes alongside missionaries to encourage them so we cannot afford to preach at them. I’ve noted your freedom to use the word “you” in writing to us and obviously get away with it. What is the difference? I love the idea of telling stories and “not leaving the couch” but how can we stay on the couch and keep saying “you”without sounding preachy?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Interesting question, MarJean, because that same thought–how I do it–began niggling at me and I wondered why I felt comfortable doing it and why people seem to respond well.

      I asked a few people who have a habit of telling me the truth, and they posit this:

      Some people can get away with a little more direct here’s-how-you-should-do-it approach because they’ve earned it. They aren’t coming off as preachers, but more as sages. Their years of experience and/or their body of work has given them a certain built-in authority and right to be heard. The implication was that I fit that category.

      I don’t think that way consciously, but I think what may help my medicine go down is that I do add enough sugar by admitting my mistakes and bad decisions as part of the lesson, so my students can avoid dong the same. And I admit my procrastination, my self-doubt, and other foibles. Plus I do often tell a story without feeling the need to make the point for the reader, so there is no “you.”

      I don’t know if that explains it, but it’s a thought.

      My counsel, again, is to make yourself the foil of your anecdotes, sharing lessons you’ve learned, and resist the urge to then make a point for the sake of readers. Trust them to get it.

      • MarJean Quiring Peters

        Thanks so much for responding! I get it. I do wonder how spiritual gifts play into the struggle with “preachiness.” It seems our spiritual passions from Romans 12 certainly motivate our writing. I think Mercy wouldn’t have any trouble staying “on the couch” as they identify and comfort others. I’m not sure Encouragement can “stay on the couch” without grabbing your hand and saying, “Let’s do this mountain together!” I think the Teacher is most likely the Sage in giving instruction (Even your Left Behind Series teaches prophecy). Then I imagine the Prophet, so spiritually motivated to root out evil and give truth, may profit by the story telling technique. Helps may need to apply gentleness to their practical “How To” writing, and the Administrator. . . hmmm might just write documentaries without being preachy. Fun to think about and perhaps hear other thoughts.

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          The issue is less the couch than it is staying out of the pulpit. :)

          • MarJean Quiring Peters

            Ha! Great point! I get it. :)

  • thinkingabovemypaygrade

    I remember a few of the Christian books I read were…really BAD and UNREALISTIC fiction…(a few). One girl named Roxanne…in a book from the 1960s… whose title I long forgot…became a Christian and basically snapped into 98% Perfection…And of course (like some of the Christian films…seeking a too-easy climax) she died at the height of her protestant Sainthood. Wow. (I became a Christian…but I still sinned…and still had to repent, grow, etc.). The better Christian fiction was probably some of the books we consider classics or near classics…like Heidi, the more recent Treasures of the Snow…also set in Switzerland..but a bit more modern. No “easy” conversions, solutions, etc. Some of the debris of life was not so easily cleaned off the characters’ plate…

    • Wait, what? You’re a Christian but also a sinner? How can that be?

      Don’t tell anybody, but I am too. In fact, if this were a club, I’d have a membership card and a decoder ring. And so would most of the people in the Bible. :)

  • Lynn Thomas

    Jerry, I have thought about writing an allegory in chapters as the intro to each chapter of a nonfiction/teaching book. My thought is to demonstrate the principle in the story and support the outcome with biblical principles in the chapter. Have you ever seen that method? Your thoughts?

    • It’s hard to say without seeing it, Lynn, but I’d love to see you write only the allegory and let it do the work. Some of the bestselling books of all time are just that. Doing both makes one or the other unnecessary, it seems to me. But it’s your call. If you can make it work without redundancy, go for it.

  • I’m cleaning out my email inbox and found this one I’d saved to read. So glad I did. Great advice and illustration. My cheeks burned as I read your story. You’re right. It said so much more than pointing a finger would.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Debbie.

  • Sarah Rexford

    So good! Read this after watching your Memoir workshop last night. Am I right that a story with a good message inspires change in others simply by being inspiring in and of itself, and not because it has a “call to action” at the end? I feel like pounding the message into the reader’s head almost takes the value out of the story.

    • Exactly, Sarah. And if the story hasn’t made the point, author intrusion won’t help. When the reader realizes that what happened in the story can happen for them, they’ve got it, and nothing’s better than self-motivation.

      • Sarah Rexford

        Really then, “preachiness” is just a sign of bad writing? Or a story that lacks an inspiring plot?

        • Preachiness can come in good writing too. The problem with it is that few of us writers are preachers, and few readers want to be preached at unless they went to church for that purpose. That’s why I recommend the come-alongside approach. I listen better to someone sharing their heart with me than one pointing a finger and making sure I get it. :)

          • Sarah Rexford

            Got it that makes sense. And that’s probably why being open is so important. Thanks!

  • Robert Rufe

    I started writing with the goal to help family members understand events in my life that reveal that God REALLY cares about us. He has intervened in my life a number of times. In my anecdotes I sometimes include a paragraph titled: Reflection, in which I talk about what I have learned from an incident. Sometimes I include a scripture that has become a guide. Does that sound like a preachy style?