“Writing for the Ear”

One of the hardest things to do in a preaching class is teach students to write for the ear.

Usually they have had sixteen years to learn how to write on the page, and they do it fairly well. But when read aloud, it usually makes for a poor speech or sermon.

The reason has to do with the medium we are using to communicate. The ear listens in time; the eye can return to the previous sentence, idea, or page. This was a major discovery of writers and rhetoricians when print became the major form of communication. Then, the repetitions and fancy sentence constructions of the oral age seemed annoying and fanciful, like “painting the fair face of truth” with cheap cosmetics. So instead of teaching students to write in the grand and full sentences of Cicero, which most Western students learned in their study of Latin, students were taught to write the plain style–sentences in which the subject, verb and object, or predicate are not manipulated for memory or sound, but for sense.

Enter the preacher. Suddenly, he or she is occupying a pulpit and using language that is oral, which cannot be returned to, which the preacher wants people to remember and keep for at least a couple of hours after the sermon. Here, all the skills of the plain style are of no avail.

But not to worry. The rhetorical tradition going back to Socrates has many resources and helps. Here are the basics:

Repetition. Since speech is oral and sound which disappears into the ether, think musically. Repetition is a musical impulse, and it makes an idea or theological claim memorable. While that is essentially true, repetition of a complicated paragraph will not do it: the rhetoricians taught us that it is the form that makes it easy to memorize, and so they gave us several tips.

Narrative. A story has a beginning, middle, and end and they are usually pretty easy to remember. Jesus’ use of parables is the best example. Think of how long the faith would have lasted if his teachings were as abstract as Aquinas’ Summa!

Images. These are concrete pictures of your ideas. Jesus is also the expert here with his belief that the homely images around him, seeds, fig trees, treasure chests, sheep, coins, etc. could point beyond themselves to heavenly meanings.

Sentences. The ancients understood the power of sentences that were balanced, or shaped syntactically to make remembering less complicated.

  • Balanced: these are sentences in which the clauses or phrases are equally balanced, such as:

  • Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country. (JFK’s Inaugural)
  • The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. (FDR’s Inaugural)
  • I have a dream that one day my children will be judged not by the color of the skin, but by the content of their character. (Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech)

  • Periodic: These are sentences in which the meaning is not clear until the very last word:
  • If we say we have no sin, we lie.

Ancient rhetoric, developed by Aristotle, Cicero and Quintillian, and taught to Shakespeare and his peers was based on teaching these kinds of sentences until the students became proficient in them. We might surmise it is one of the reasons his plays continue to be memorable. “To be or not to be: that is the question.”