On Writing Sermon Manuscripts

The pastor left his sermon manuscript in the pulpit. When the janitor found it, he couldn’t resist the urge to read it. He was impressed, until he stumbled over a note in the margin: “Argument weak here. Start yelling!”

Old story.

Timeless truth: Passion is never a substitute for clarity. If you write yourself clear, you won’t have to yell to cover up a weak argument.

I am a manuscript preacher who cheats. Most weeks, I write a complete manuscript. Most weeks, I do not carry anything to the pulpit but my Bible.

I believe both practices sharpen the preacher – writing manuscripts and preaching without notes.

Here are 11 tips for writing yourself clear in sermon preparation.

Pray. This is not a cursory step. You should pray before and throughout your study of the text. And you should pray your way through sermon preparation. You need guidance in what to say and how to say it to your congregation.

Start with a sermon skeleton. Begin by determining the title, theme, central idea, outline, and other elements that make up the framework of the message. Establish the structure of the sermon. Then put meat on the bones.

Write. You will never write a manuscript if you do not write a manuscript. Don’t procrastinate. Sunday is coming. Starting writing. Write for as long as you can. Get your ideas on paper. Don’t worry about how good it is yet. A bad page is better than a blank page. Just write.

Write it out word-for-word. Type out your introduction, explanations of the text, scripture references, applications, illustrations, and conclusion completely. “The Vacation Story” or “Charles Spurgeon quote” may suffice in your pulpit notes. Not here. Write it all out. After you start writing manuscripts regularly, this practice will also help you to gauge how long your sermon is.

Write for the ear. A sermon manuscript is not a term paper, theological essay, or potential book chapter. It is a transcript for a message you will deliver to God’s people. As you write, think about those who will listen to what you say, not those who may read what you write.

Preach it as you write it. Talk it out as you are writing it down. This will help you communicate clearly and effectively. Some words that are easy to write are not easy to pronounce. That long, run-on sentence that looks so beautiful on your computer screen may be a nightmare to say. Likewise, preaching it as you write it aids memorization.

Strive for clarity. Process your word choice, sentence structure, cross-references, transitional sentences, and illustrations as clearly as possible. If you do, style and creativity will take care of themselves. Clarity is its own style

Craft transitional sentences. Car accidents often happen at intersections, during lane changes, or when making a turn. Likewise, moving from the introduction to the main body, from point 1 to point 2, or from illustration to application can be as dangerous as driving in rush hour traffic. So work on smooth transitions. Don’t say, “Let me say three things about the text.” Give them three reasons to pray or four ways to resist temptation or two benefits of trusting God.

Work around writer’s block. I rarely write a sermon from beginning to end. And I struggle to write my introduction and conclusion first. I write as it comes to me, which may be point two. If I get a mental block, I start working on another part of the sermon. This helps me to keep writing when a section is not yet clear.

Mark the manuscript for preaching. I put the main points in red font, sub-points in dark blue. Scripture references are italicized. Quotes are blue. Illustrations are purple. “Runs” are green. Hymn lyrics are orange. I highlight, underline, and change font sizes. This helps me memorize the message. Or if I have to preach from the manuscript, ideas, sections and transitions pop out on the page.

Edit maliciously. The manuscript is a draft until you preach it. Keep working on it. Explain technical words or choose simpler ones. Shorten your sentences. Take out cliché, well-worn words and phrases. Find a different way to say it. Use one cross-reference, instead of three. Cut out that section that was good study material but doesn’t fit in the message. Eliminate unnecessary repetition. Have the courage to leave some hard work on the cutting room floor for the sake of clarity, unity, and movement.

What tips would you share for writing sermon manuscripts? 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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18 thoughts on “On Writing Sermon Manuscripts

  1. Here are a few recommendations that I have found very helpful through the years. I hope that these resources will greatly assist you in your sermon preparation:

    (1) Teaching Preaching: Isaac Rufus Clark and Black Rhetoric, by Katie Geneva Cannon. (This is one of the best books on Black preaching. I highly recommend this book for all preachers. Pay close attention to what he has to say about the “Proposition Statement”).

    (2) The Certain Sound of the Trumpet: Crafting a Sermon of Authority, by Samuel D. Proctor. (This is one of the best books on sermon preparation written by one of the most profound Black preachers the Black church has ever produced. Highly recommended).

    (3) How Shall They Preach, by Gardner C. Taylor. (If you can find this one, get it! It will bless you).

    (4) The Heart of Black Preaching, by Cleophus J. LaRue. (This is a must have for understanding the history of Black preaching. Anything by LaRue is good to have in your library).

    (5) Preaching on Your Feet, by Fred Ray Lybrand. (This is a very good book that discusses the advantages of preaching without notes and relying on the Holy Spirit during the preaching moment.).

    (6) The Witness of Preaching, Second Edition, by Thomas G. Long. (For those of you who are contemplating enrolling in a Theological Seminary, this will probably be the book they will use).

    (7) Towards an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching, by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. (All preachers need to know how to exegete the Scriptures! Exegesis is different from Eisegesis. You need this book bigtime).

    I pray that this list will help all of you prepare better and more theologically-based constructive sermons. Preach on!

  2. Thanks for the grat ideas. Just to add that, you should also try to preach the sermon to yourself as many times as you can so that it becomes part of you. This helps you to be connected with the message and allow the Holy Spirit room to add new things to what has been stored in your spirit. Futher more it helps you be make contact with the hearers without being stuck to your notes (as most of the information will have been internalised earlier).

  3. Thank you for reminding something this important which I had learn and followed,but avoided recently for one can be more effective with notes as it avoids rabbit trails, keeps the sermon pointed and sharp.

  4. HB, thanks for sharing again. I remembered you telling me
    this in Corpus Christi, TX one year during our revival.  I have always taken your concept and applied
    the principal to my preparation.  I will
    always be grateful to you for teaching me this concept.  Bless you HB!

  5. J. E. WOOLFOLk
    Dear pastor Charles, thanks for making my sermon preparation and presentation better, I am saving this, Not only will I keep pen and paper by the bedside, but I will keep the notes in my mind

  6. Thanks you Pastor Charles for the insight and the humbleness and willingness to share.  This information is empowering and shall be put into practice. Be Blessed! 

  7. “…this is great advice and guidance! The work is need for organization! Thanks Pastor Charles!”….

  8. While in the pastorate, I found that consistency of habit and working in advance with a planned preaching calendar will most crystalize the result of following your above steps of process and preparation.

  9. Thanks Robert. 

    You make a good point. There is a sense in which the manuscript is still a draft after you preach it. It pays to go back to it after you preach it to changes things that did not work or to add insights that came in preaching but were not in the original manuscript. 


  10. these are some great tips. Also after the sermon has been preached, go back and insert new ideas that came out of the sermon flow…I always write long and then cut. Awesome insights sir!!!