Being a Better Writer: Preaching to the Choir

Morning readers! Well, actually afternoon, and that’s my fault. Ever start reading a book late at night? Yeah, that’s something I shouldn’t do, and yet …

Well, anyway, let’s dive right into today’s topic shall we? It’s one that I’ve wanted to write about for a while, since it comes up a lot in the modern reading world, and quite frankly, it really shouldn’t. At least, not if the claims of the authors were remotely accurate.

What am I talking about? Why, I’m talking about preaching to the choir! Which I’m sure you know all about, so let me just skim over things so we can all get to talking about how right we are and how wrong everyon—

Ahem. Apologies, but we won’t be doing that at all. But that last little paragraph does serve to illustrate in a somewhat rough fashion exactly why this topic should be brought up, as it’s an exaggeration example—though not too far off the mark in many cases, sadly—of what preaching to the choir is, and offers a glimpse of why writing something in that fashion can wreck your story’s potential audience.

So without further ado, let’s dive into today’s Being a Better Writer, starting with an answer to the question that I’m sure is on some of your minds (and if not, we’re talking about it anyway to establish a baseline): what is preaching to the choir?

Preaching to the choir is … Well, it’s almost exactly what it sounds like. The idea behind the saying is that you have a preacher or religious figure who has tailored and directed their spiritual message to those in the choir—those members of the local parish that are devoted enough to show up early and are working at being the best members of their religious following that they can be—rather than speaking to those in the audience who came with some curiosity to hear the preacher’s message. Why? Because the preacher knows that the choir will be receptive, especially if told what they want to hear, while the rest of the audience may be a little harder to reach, less understanding, or perhaps even unwilling to accept some of the preacher’s message. So, rather than face that crowd, the preacher tells the choir—again, already devoted members of his parish—something that they wanted to hear anyway, and dodges the stickiness of addressing potentially more difficult crowd that may question what they have to say.

In writing then—or in any form of storytelling, really—what this translates into is a story that tells a specific audience that already agrees with the theme or message of the story exactly that, i.e. that the message/theme that they already subscribe to is so correct, that they are right, and that everyone else is wrong. It’s not a story that explores the suggestions or ideals at the core of its tenets, but rather one that simply presents it and says ‘Yup, this is right, and if you believe it, you’re smart’ (and usually ‘If you believe otherwise you’re a tool’). It simply reinforces an ideal or belief that the audience already had, often by stoking their ego, rather than by examining the idea or anything attached to it.

Got that? Basically, preaching to the choir is telling the reader what they want to hear that they already subscribed to. It’s a book or a film that tells a story that, from the very beginning, is aimed at reinforcing a conclusion that the audience will already hold. And at this point, some of you might be thinking “Well, that doesn’t sound so bad. I mean, stories all have a theme or a message anyway. What’s so bad about subscribing to one?”

Nothing. At least, not if you’re being balanced about it. All stories do have a theme and come with some sort of message, that’s part and parcel of telling a story. But where preaching to the choir changes is in the execution. The bit with the preacher earlier? How they had turned away from the general audience and turned to the choir? Yeah, that’s what happens with stories that do this. They adjust the story that they’re telling so that it is no longer aimed at the general audience, but at those who already buy into it. And that means changing the presentation.

For example, say someone writes a story that is going to preach to the choir with regards to one of the US’s political parties (which happens a lot, unsurprisingly). Writing a story that appeals to the group already supporting that party is going to result in a different story than one written to a general audience. A story that was written for a general audience on the topic would need to, for starters, approach all of its topics from a neutral starting point, as it would need to assume that those approaching the work didn’t share or even know of the authors ideas and views. It would then need to examine the ideals it wanted to present from a variety of points, answering the reader’s questions and concerns—which could be fairly vast—as it attempted to explain the stance of the author. It would also need to do so while maintaining a level voice and giving the various viewpoints a fair shake.

But if we compare that to a title written for an audience that wants to be preached too, most of that will disappear. For example, that audience does not want to start from a neutral point. They’ve already left that ground. They want a position already ensconced in their stance. Nor do they want to examine their own beliefs from a variety of angles—that can raise uncomfortable questions and truths that they’d rather not deal with—so each angle approached must be designed to reinforce that safe space they’ve already built for themselves by making sure that all other ideas, themes, etc, are wrong. It also can’t have a level voice nor give equal treatment to other views; after all, those views are wrong. Lastly, to preach to the choir, the work needs to reinforce the idea that the audience is safe where it is, that they have made the right or smart decision by believing what they believe.

And the truth is, creating this kind of work is extraordinarily popular. Everywhere. Because there’s a guaranteed audience as long as the “choir” exists. Michael Moore films, for example? One-hundred percent preaching to the choir. Baptist-ploitation films like God’s Not Dead? Also preaching to the choir. And many, many others—crud, you readers along could probably fill the comments with thousands of works from all sides of any spectrum or idea that preach to the choir. It works because it appeals to a set audience that wants to be told that they’re right, to be reinforced without thinking critically (or in some cases, by being giving a thought that sounds critical, but actually isn’t). And that audience? They eat this kind of pandering up.

And yes, it is pandering. The goal with preaching to the choir isn’t to advance or invite consumers of your creation to think or consider things, but rather to effectively tell them “Yes, you’re smart and made the right choice” in exchange for money. Feel-good dollars, effectively.

The problem is … that’s all a pandering work like that could ever be. Yes, it’s a dedicated market among the subset that agrees with the message, and that’s more than enough for some authors and creators (after all, if 5000 people purchase your product, you’ve got it made). But like everything else, it also comes with drawbacks. And in this case, the drawbacks are rather large. And the biggest one?

No one else will want to read/watch/consume what you create.

See, the problem with preaching to the choir is that while it strongly appeals to the crowd that wants to have its beliefs reinforced, that same aggressive reinforcement only serves to drive every other potential audience member away. Those who are standing in neutral ground will see the beginning position for what it is: Slanted. They’ll also see the lack of an even-handed approach to things, and likely be insulted or rebuffed by the common assertion that the intended audience is smart and capable for having this position, while anyone who doesn’t have the position is unintelligent, an idiot, etc etc.

This is why products—be they books, movies, etc—that are created for a specific audience never flourish outside of that audience. Be they political, religious, or whatever, they appeal strongly to the one crowd by backing them up … but are not approachable to anyone else outside of that crowd. That said, they still flourish within it, and can be a reliable source of income for those looking for it. Want to make a quick buck? Write a book that talks about why X political figure from the last election should have won, or even just suggest it over the course of a story, and you’ll find an immediate source of income from those who already subscribe to the idea. But any other readers? They’re not likely to pick it up.

So, with that said—specifically the bit about a quick buck—why wouldn’t you want to preach to the choir? Why not go for it?

Well, the answer is pretty simple: Once you do, it’s hard to go back. Once you’ve started writing stories that support that little “safe zone,” you’ve effectively shackled yourself to it and to that audience. That audience is going to want more of the same, and if you don’t deliver it, they will become unhappy. Meanwhile, the “general” audience that’s left is going to look at  what you’ve created, think “Oh, yeah they’re totally preaching to that group over there” and write you off (pun intended). Any attempt to go back is likely to go poorly.

Okay, this stretched on far longer than I thought it would, so let’s now move onto the second half of this post and talk about how you can avoid preaching to the choir, even by accident. And yes, it’s very easy for authors to do this by accident, especially new ones.

But if you want to avoid it, you can start by looking at what goes into a story that does preach to the choir and make a conscious effort to avoid it. For example, remember how above we discussed that a story that preaches will not start from a neutral point?

Actually let me clarify this point a little. A story that preaches to the choir won’t start at a neutral point of view from the point of the narration. For example, have you ever seen one of those old 50s-60s era training videos? The ones MST3K would riff? You knew where they were going even if a protagonist didn’t. For example, the primary character might not start out having a stance at all on the subject at hand … but the narration, on the other hand, painted a clear picture from the start.

Those films were slanted even though the protagonist “started” from a neutral place. And you’ll find books that do the same, that present a protagonist with a certain view, but that only exists for the narration/plot to paint them as such a bad person for ever thinking that. This is still preaching to the choir.

So how can you avoid this? By keeping the narration either character specific or neutral, as hard a task as that may sound. Don’t use the narration to pass judgement on a character’s actions or beliefs. Instead, let the characters do their job and be characters.

Of course, starting from a neutral stance and letting the characters develop isn’t all you need to do. You need to dig in and explore things from a variety of angles. You cannot simply drop a stance on a reader without exploring it and looking at it. You can examine ideas, or even have things cast into doubt. Have characters question their stances, their beliefs. Remember, part of preaching to the choir is establishing that ‘safe space’ where nothing is questioned. A story that wants to truly make the reader think will have the characters think, rather than put them in a gilded cage where every “doubt” is quickly brushed away without getting a due.

This can be harder than it sounds, too. For starters, in order to really approach things from multiple angles, that means you as a creator need to give serious consideration to other viewpoints and look into them. Which … is hard. As a creator, this may mean that you’re writing about views and ideas that don’t mirror your own, or that you disagree with. You may even need to explore in-depth some of these arguments and argue for them in a way that makes it clear the character voicing them truly believes them—no easy task for some. This is difficult … but it’s also part of writing, and we’ve spoken of it here before on this blog. Twice, in fact.

Now, an important note here. This does not mean that you are required to treat the end result as neutral. Your story, work, whatever, can still reach a conclusion—don’t fall into the trap of moral relativism assuming that giving everything an equal consideration means that everything is an equally weighted answer (we’ve touched on that in this post, actually). It simply means that you need to give your work time to examine all angles, rather than brushing any opposing ideas or thoughts off.

Lastly (at least, for this post), don’t tell the reader what to believe. This is one of the biggest things that a story preaching to the choir will do: They’ll flat out tell the reader what they need to be thinking by the end of the work.

Don’t do this. Sure, you can have a character come to a conclusion, but the reader? Let them form their own opinion. In fact, it’s best that you start with this approach in mind. If you’re writing a book with a theme or a message, don’t start out by thinking to yourself that by the end of the book the reader will hold X idea, but rather that they will be thinking about X idea and the elements around it. The goal isn’t to write a book that thinks for the reader, but rather one that tells a story and presents a concept that the reader can then unpack on their own terms and time.

Look, this isn’t easy. It’s very tempting to cater to a particular audience by stoking their egos (see almost every political book ever written). But it’s worth getting right. A book that doesn’t preach to the choir is a book that’s written for the largest possible audience, that has the greatest chance of reaching the most readers. One that’s only written to reinforce a small subset, however, will never grow beyond that small group.

Even only slightly pandering to an audience can be harmful. I recall one book that I read that, while otherwise good, just could not stop taking small, pandering pot-shots at one of the two political parties in the US. The characters did it, even in somewhat out-of-character moments, and overall it was made clear that the author had an agenda they just couldn’t give up. Worse, the author tried to hide it by having one character work for “the opposition” but then just flat-out let slip that the particular person they worked for was so “different” by virtue of being a ‘good person’ that they ‘might as well have been the other party.’

Yeah, no joke. It was pretty forced, and by the end of the book, had soured an otherwise good story that definitely didn’t need to be tied into that. There was a sequel … but I never picked it up, because I didn’t trust the author not to continue to drop the same sort of one line “Hey, you need to support this party or you’re a tool” approach into their work (I might add it was especially jarring as some of the other core ideas and concepts the book’s world was built around did not jive with that party at all, creating a hypocritical dissonance).

So … recap. Preaching to the choir is effectively pandering to the thoughts and beliefs of a very specific audience and writing a story that reinforces those beliefs by dismissing everything else. This does garner sales with that particular group, but ultimately shackles you to them and decreases your exposure to readers at large. You can avoid this by writing stories that allow for examination of themes and ideas from various perspective and points, with serious thought given to different approaches, questioning of different angles, and most of all, keeping the narration neutral and letting the reader form their own conclusions, rather than having them thrust upon them. Even if you get a reader that doesn’t agree with the conclusion your characters reached, they will at least hopefully understand the point-of-view behind it as well as the reasoning for that decision, rather than simply seeing the opposing idea as “someone that doesn’t agree.”

And that’s an end result, I think, that most of us can agree with.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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