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Fourteen Tips to Consider Before You Try Writing a Hymn Text

In his lectures and seminars on hymn writing, Carl P. Daw, Jr., executive director of The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada, offers these tips for beginners.

In his lectures and seminars on hymn writing, Carl P. Daw, Jr., executive director of The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada, offers these tips for beginners.

1. Find out what a hymn is before you try to write one. You might start by studying Austin C. Lovelace's The Anatomy of Hymnody, available from The Hymn Society.

2. Learn the mechanics of your language. Know an iamb from a troche. Think about the difference between them. A trochaic line nearly always pushes you to declare or do something. An iambic line is softer. It begins with an unstressed syllable and moves gently. It's more an encouraging line than a proclaiming line.

3. Decide whether to use rhyme. If you start out rhyming, you can't stop rhyming when it's hard to find a word, or try to irregularly rhyme different lines. If you choose not to rhyme, or even not to use punctuation, then be sure to organize your words another way, perhaps by a pattern in the lines. For example, Jaroslav Vajda repeats “now the (noun)” to organize “Now the Silence.”

Remember that handling the mechanics capably helps the hymn writer establish trust with those who sing the hymn. If rhymes are too close together or sound sing-song, singers will get the message that the subject isn't serious. In our poetic tradition, things that are serious tend to end with a stressed syllable.

4. Have a sense of proportion in what you write. Charles Wesley would write songs with 27 stanzas. John Wesley would trim his brother's enthusiastic output to no more than six stanzas. There's a limit to what a congregation can sing without passing out.

5. You don't have to present the hymn in the order in which the lines occur to you. End with your strongest line. The creation story in Genesis tells us that God loves beauty. We are most like God when we are most creative and least like God when we want to do it our way.

6. Paraphrasing is a good way to get into hymn writing, because it lets you start with something that already has proportion, meaning, and beauty. You might start paraphrasing a passage you know intimately, such as Psalm 23. Isaac Watt's paraphrase of Psalm 23, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” turns the psalm's final words into “no more a stranger or a guest but like a child at home.” He turns the word “dwell” into wonderfully powerful drama.

7. Pay attention to details in the world around you. Daw once saw a misprint in a Marva Dawn book about worship. What should have been “singeing fire” was printed as “singing fire.” That started Daw on writing a hymn for Pentecost. Keep a notebook of striking phrases. These are seeds from which hymns may grow.

8. Key in on details as you develop a large subject. If someone asks you to write on a large topic such as crucifixion, you may feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. But if you choose one detail from the crucifixion story, maybe a sword or tree, you could write a hymn that traces that single image through the scripture or salvation history.

9. Know the pros and cons of choosing music before you write the text. Having a type of music in mind before you write your text can be helpful. If you will use an 8/7/8/7 meter, then the music may have a turn halfway through, like the tune Beecher. If you write in that meter, you can't make your turn at the second or fourth line. If the text tells you about a problem but the music has shifted from minor to major, then singers will experience a disconnect.

On the other hand, having music in mind can also be a trap, because it stifles your text.

10. Use today's words. “Thee” and “thine” were in common usage when the Wesley brothers were pumping out hymns. Think of two words—“myriad” and “billions.” They could be used interchangeably, but “billions” is a modern word so it has more power to engage the singer. Natalie Sleeth's “Hymn of Promise” is so popular because it speaks to modern situations, such as people at funerals who don't understand a death but want to believe in a life to come.

Do remember, though, to consider whether your text's modern words or situations fit a worship setting. Lines from songs that did not get chosen for the Episcopal The Hymnal 1982 include:

  • Make a magic circle and mark it with a spot and put it in a self-cleaning oven…and the devil won't like it.
  • All bells but hell's bells are ringing tonight.

11. Immerse yourself in Scripture so that your hymn texts naturally express scriptural ideas. It's okay to pile on scriptural allusions. Daw says he'd rather put in more than people get on the first singing, because it's wonderful when you've sung something a dozen times and a line suddenly jumps out at you.

12. Words that look fine in print sometimes combine in unfortunate ways. That's why Daw cautions against writing “It's not…” No doubt you remember plenty of mis-heard and incorrectly sung examples from your childhood. Ice a-render all. Loaf in the gravy lay. Standing by a purple tree, eating God's commands. When peas like a river up-endeth my bowl. Humble praises, holy cheeses.

13. Begin by writing hymns for a community you know well or are part of. Daw says there is no such thing as “an average congregation.” If you pay attention to the people and situations in your church, you'll get ideas for hymn texts that might be helpful. Remember Paul's advice in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 as you try to write hymn texts—the final goal is to use them if others agree the hymns might strengthen the church, not to fulfill your own dreams.

14. Consider forming a small hymn writing group. You might start by agreeing to paraphrase the same Bible passage and to use the same number of stanzas and kinds of lines. This exercise will remind you that you're all writing for a community. And it will probably surprise you, because everyone will produce something different. Daw calls this exercise “a spiritual Rorschach.”

When your group shares the goal of writing hymn texts that will strengthen your congregation, then you can be both honest and gentle with each other's works in progress. For the sake of producing songs easy for a congregation to sing, you'll want to know or point out which phrases hit home and which need work.