The Manuscript Maze (part two)

February 9, 2007

Last Friday we began a new short series entitled “The Manuscript Maze.” For today’s Work Ethics, we’re going to ponder the pros and cons of using full notes. Obviously, this approach involves writing out the sermon word for word, followed by extensive reading of the manuscript or using it as a prop. Let me be up front and say that this is the method I currently use.


So what are some of the pros and cons of the full manuscript approach?

1. It often brings greater clarity of thought to the preacher. Though some preachers can think clearly and concretely without writing, for many this discipline converts their general ideas into a more definite form. You might say that ‘the writing becomes a way of thinking.’

2. It can help ensure careful expression. This is especially useful when something has to be phrased with precision. In this regard, it can prevent sloppy word choice or using certain words repititiously. We may not even notice that we use the same stock of words regularly, but seeing them on the page can flag up this problem .

3. It guarentees that no important aspects of content are missed out. This, of course, may happen if we are relying on a bare bones outline or just our memory. ‘Why didn’t I say that?!’

1. If used poorly, it can limit eye contact severely. (Although its a myth that every preacher with full notes necessarily reads their script).

2. It can lead to ‘speaking as we write.’ Those who take this approach must find a way to ‘write as they speak.’ Otherwise, using a full manuscript can create a wooden and unnatural feel to our preaching.

3. It usually takes more preparation time than putting together a bare bones outline and thus has an impact on time given to other pastoral matters.

4. It may, if used unswervingly, lead to a lack of spontaneity. In an extreme case, we may not able to react to a situation of the moment which should alter our approach to some degree.

Well these are some of the positives and negatives I thought of. Perhaps you can think of some more. Or, you might want to quibble with part of what I’ve said. What do you think of the full manuscript approach?



  1. Colin,

    I can relate to con no. 2 above. I spoke from a manuscript for my talk on ‘3 Scots Puritans’ last week at the H&TF, and had to record it on film to send to a seminary I’m applying to. When I watched the tape back I realized my language was a little too formal and ornate at times, because I had taken time to write it out, but what ‘reads well’ doesn’t always ‘speak well’. As you note, I think the solution is to learn to write as one speaks.

    In seminary (DTS) we were taught to write out a manuscript, but to commit it to memory (and go behind the pulpit without any helps). I consider this the ideal, but I don’t always find time to do it. Alas …

    Thanks for the helpful posts!

  2. I use a Manuscript just about all of the time when I preach. I don’t have much of a problem writing how I speak when I’m purposefully doing it. I also find that it’s easier for me to remember a particular turn of a phrase or whatnot if it’s in the manuscript. My mind wanders a lot too, and I like to have one thought easily transition into another when I preach. Having a manuscript, where I’ve developed transitions and a flow of thought, is really helpful.

    It’s important to still practice the sermon if you have a manuscript. I’ve found the more I practice with a manuscript instead of relying on it, the less I read and more I’m able to actually preach with passion instead of reading from my pages. And the more familiar you become with the manuscript, when you glance down at the page to see the opening sentence of a paragraph you can remember what the paragraph is about and not have to just read it.

    Anyway, manuscripts work for me, but having on is not a substitute for practice and preparation when it comes to delivering the sermon.

  3. Learning to write as we speak is a great word. It’s important for preachers to remember that a “written sermon” is not a sermon. What is written becomes a sermon only when it is spoken from the pulpit. Thanks for these posts, I look forward to reading what’s coming.

  4. I think that the benefits or drawbacks of using a full manuscript depends on the person. I have heard them both condemned and praised by various scholars. I used to always use full manuscripts, but now I never use them. I may begin using them again in the future. There is a certain degree of preparedness that a full manuscript almost forces that can be very beneficial to any speaker. I would prepare a manuscript and then read it aloud over and over until I could not help but preach it even as I was just reading it aloud to find out how long it was. Having a full manuscript also gave me an easier time deciding which and when new ideas were appropriate for the existing sermon or should I just write them down for consideration later.

    For some it is a must. For others it would drive them from the ministry.

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