Be More Specific Than “Points” or “Things”

Andy Naselli —  May 8, 2014 — 8 Comments

McDill

Speakers and writers often say something like this: “My sermon has three points” or “I’d like to share four things.”

This book taught me not to do that:

Wayne McDill. 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching. 2nd ed. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006.

I took my first homiletics courses in college in the 1999–2000 school year, and the first edition of this book was one of my main textbooks.

That book has served me well over the last fifteen years. It taught me to use language precisely.

Below is one example that has stuck with me. McDill is giving advice about how to craft sermon divisions, but his advice applies to far more than just preaching. It applies to writing and to communication in general:

There are almost an unlimited number of terms you can use as key words [in sermon division statements]. Note that Appendix D provides a comprehensive list of possible key words. But some words should not be used.

      1. Do not use things as a key word. It is too broad and nebulous to be useful.
      2. Neither should you use points as a key word for the same reason.

Remember, the key word is simply a device to identify the nature of your sermon divisions as they emerge from the writer’s treatment of his subject. (pp. 111–12, numbering and formatting added)

So instead of saying that the apostle Paul “makes three points,” say, “gives three reasons” or “shows three ways” or whatever. The craft of communicating with speech and writing requires words, so if that’s your craft, you’ll want to develop your ability to use words well.

McDill lists 265 words that communicate more clearly that the ambiguous words “points” and “things” (“Appendix D: Sample Key Words,” pp. 295–96, numbering added):

  1. abuses
  2. accusations
  3. acts
  4. actions
  5. actualities
  6. admonitions
  7. advantages
  8. affairs
  9. affirmations
  10. agreements
  11. aims
  12. alternatives
  13. assertions
  14. angles
  15. answers
  16. applications
  17. approaches
  18. areas
  19. arguments
  20. articles
  21. attitudes
  22. attributes
  23. aspects
  24. aspirations
  25. assertions
  26. assumptions
  27. assurances
  28. attainments
  29. attitudes
  30. attributes
  31. barriers
  32. beginnings
  33. beliefs
  34. benefits
  35. burdens
  36. calls
  37. causes
  38. certainties
  39. challenges
  40. changes
  41. charges
  42. claims
  43. clues
  44. commands
  45. commitments
  46. comparisons
  47. compensations
  48. compromises
  49. compulsions
  50. conceptions
  51. concessions
  52. conclusions
  53. conditions
  54. consequences
  55. contrasts
  56. corrections
  57. credentials
  58. criteria
  59. criticisms
  60. customs
  61. dangers
  62. decisions
  63. declarations
  64. defenses
  65. deficiencies
  66. definitions
  67. degrees
  68. demands
  69. denials
  70. destinies
  71. details
  72. devices
  73. differences
  74. distinctions
  75. directions
  76. directives
  77. disciplines
  78. disclosures
  79. discoveries
  80. distinctions
  81. doctrines
  82. duties
  83. elements
  84. encouragements
  85. essentials
  86. estimates
  87. events
  88. evidences
  89. evils
  90. examples
  91. exchanges
  92. exclamations
  93. exhortations
  94. expectations
  95. experiences
  96. expressions
  97. facets
  98. factors
  99. facts
  100. failures
  101. faults
  102. favors
  103. fears
  104. features
  105. finalities
  106. forces
  107. functions
  108. fundamentals
  109. gains
  110. generalizations
  111. gifts
  112. goals
  113. graces
  114. groups
  115. guarantees
  116. habits
  117. handicaps
  118. hindrances
  119. hopes
  120. hungers
  121. ideals
  122. ideas
  123. illustrations
  124. imperatives
  125. implications
  126. impressions
  127. improvements
  128. impulses
  129. incentives
  130. incidents
  131. indictments
  132. inferences
  133. injunctions
  134. insights
  135. inspirations
  136. instances
  137. instruction
  138. instruments
  139. intimations
  140. invitations
  141. issues
  142. items
  143. joys
  144. judgments
  145. justifications
  146. keys
  147. kinds
  148. laws
  149. lessons
  150. levels
  151. liabilities
  152. limits
  153. lists
  154. losses
  155. loyalties
  156. manifestations
  157. marks
  158. means
  159. measures
  160. methods
  161. mistakes
  162. moments
  163. motives
  164. movements
  165. mysteries
  166. names
  167. necessities
  168. needs
  169. notions
  170. objections
  171. objectives
  172. observations
  173. obstacles
  174. occasions
  175. offers
  176. omissions
  177. opinions
  178. opportunities
  179. paradoxes
  180. particulars
  181. parts
  182. peculiarities
  183. penalties
  184. perils
  185. periods
  186. phases
  187. phrases
  188. pledges
  189. points
  190. possibilities
  191. practices
  192. premises
  193. prerogatives
  194. principles
  195. priorities
  196. probabilities
  197. problems
  198. processes
  199. promises
  200. promptings
  201. pronouncements
  202. proofs
  203. prophecies
  204. propositions
  205. provisions
  206. qualifications
  207. qualities
  208. questions
  209. realities
  210. realizations
  211. reasons
  212. reflections
  213. refusals
  214. remarks
  215. remedies
  216. reminders
  217. requirements
  218. reservations
  219. resources
  220. responses
  221. restraints
  222. results
  223. revelations
  224. rewards
  225. risks
  226. routes
  227. rules
  228. safeguards
  229. satisfactions
  230. secrets
  231. sins
  232. sources
  233. specifications
  234. statements
  235. steps
  236. stipulations
  237. successes
  238. suggestions
  239. superlatives
  240. suppositions
  241. surprises
  242. symptoms
  243. teachings
  244. tendencies
  245. testimonies
  246. tests
  247. thoughts
  248. threats
  249. topics
  250. totalities
  251. truths
  252. undertakings
  253. urges
  254. uses
  255. values
  256. views
  257. violations
  258. virtues
  259. voices
  260. warnings
  261. ways
  262. weaknesses
  263. wishes
  264. words
  265. wrongs

Related: other posts on preaching and writing

8 responses to Be More Specific Than “Points” or “Things”

  1. Jason Sturkie May 8, 2014 at 11:14 am

    If “points” is an ambiguous term, why is it included in the list of acceptable less-ambiguous terms?

  2. This is helpful. Thx Andy!

  3. I’m guilty of this! But I find the list of 250 other terms to use instead as being very helpful!

  4. One of Arthur Plotnik’s passions is getting communicators’ words to do justice to their ideas. I enjoyed reading Plotnik’s book Elements of Expression this past year.

    Here are some relevant quotations from the book:

    “We feel like babies, unable to express the nuances of pleasure and discontent. And babies hate that feeling.”

    “Reacting to life’s nongeneric stimuli, however, we find ourselves grossly unprepared. So many thoughts and passions stampede inside us, as mad for release as the bulls of Pamplona. But open the gates and see how our puny words scatter, overwhelmed and impotent. We gasp for the telling language and we choke. We rant. We go mute. We claim linguistic Fifth Amendments: ‘Words fail me.’ ‘It defies description.’ We buy sympathy cards the size oftombstones just to say, ‘WORDS CANNOT EXPRESS…'”

    “Unable to express the nuances of experience, we fall back on generic language in ways that mock our humanity.”

    “The more complex our experience, the more we long to unravel it in words.”

    “With no more than eighteen thousand different words, Shakespeare’s writings have stimulated the Western world for four centuries; the average American commands some twenty thousand words and about four minutes of attention.”

  5. paul rochford May 12, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    Yes! thanks for this list, every time I preach one of the hardest parts of the sermon prep is finding terms to use instead of “things” or “points.” This list is awesome.

  6. Yup, those are all good points.

    [cough]

  7. Samuel Trusty May 18, 2014 at 8:09 am

    To the comment about the word “points” as the subject and in the word list, I the think the word is a powerful descriptive word when organizing a sermon. The problem is being over used. If I use this other other, I see no reason why the word points cannot be used sparingly.

    I rarely comment on things, but I really find this article helpful.

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