A little while ago, author Sarah Baughman invited me to guest blog for a series looking at craft as a reminder that our Creator has crafted us and that He has given us creativity to create for His glory. She asked me to talk about the craft of writing a hymn. I loved this! In fact, two of my favorite words when talking about hymn writing are “craft” and “wordsmith.” I think it helps me picture the care and time it takes to create a hymn text, just as it takes care and time to make any number of tangible creations. Today, I’m placing my post here as well; if you missed it the first time, here it is!
So, let’s get to it, shall we? As with any of the posts in this series, you may not always feel particularly gifted or interested in a particular craft. But if you enjoy poetry, writing, music, or a combination of those three, you might find that you enjoy writing hymn texts. And if not, we’ll all learn and grow as we appreciate the gifts everyone has as brothers and sisters in Christ. (Hint: Read this through once before getting started. It’ll take less than fifteen minutes, and you’ll be better prepared when it’s time to dig in.)
I’ll start with one caveat: not all hymn writers write this way. If fact, I don’t always write this way. But I’m going to walk you through one of my most tried-and-true methods of writing a hymn text so that you can see one example of the process. And if you want to go from there, find me on the Internet and ask me more! Or ask someone you know who writes hymn texts too.
Paper (a notebook or journal is best)
First, think of a topic you’d like to write about.
Maybe you’re interested in creating a hymn for family devotion time. Or you’d like to meditate on a favorite Bible passage. Or you’d like to encourage a friend. (Hint: Notice the scenarios do not include riches, fame, and esteemed publication. Focus first on serving your neighbor for the most fulfilling writing.)
Once you know what you want to write, study it. Read over the Bible passage, or use your Bible’s concordance to find some readings that pertain to your theme. (Hint: With any devotional writing, it’s always best to start with the Word rather than cram passages in later to make your point.)
When I study a Bible passage, for example, I’ll often print it out, read it over, and highlight interesting turns of phrase. Then I let it all marinate in my mind while I move on to the next step.
Think of a tune you’d like to use. No, this may not be the tune you will always use for this text. But finding a good tune can help give you a framework. It’ll help you focus on a certain mood. And it’ll help you find the right places to rise and fall with your theme.
In other words, grab that hymnal. If you don’t have one at home yet, see if you can borrow one from your church the first time around. (can help in a pinch, but it’s best to start with what you know.) Think of a fitting tune by considering your topic. If you’re thinking about a Lenten text, find a tune used during Lent. If you’re wanting to write something for your family’s bedtime routine, look for an evening hymn. It doesn’t have to be quite so direct, but it’s a place to start. (Hint: Look at the bottom of the page. Does it say “public domain” for the tune? If so, great! If not, that’s a different discussion.)
Okay, now this next step might seem silly, but it’s essential. Especially if you’re picking a tune from a hymn you know, take a look at the text that’s already there. Study it too.
Particularly, look at the rhythm and meter.
Rhythm, simply put: where the stresses fall
Meter, simply put: how often the pattern repeats per line
Iambic (stress on the second of two beats: unite, divide, agree)
Trochee (stress on the first of two beats: offer, given, happen)
So write until you have it right. (iambic tetrameter)
Sister, help me learn this meter quickly! (trochaic pentameter)
We could go on, but you can easily find more on this topic elsewhere. Before we move away from studying the text, look also at the rhyme scheme. Try to copy the pattern or do something similar, but also be wary of taking these words! Your brain will naturally go to them if you’re using the tune of a hymn you know well.
Ready? Let’s go! I encourage you to grab a notebook or journal. If you don’t love hymn writing, you can always use it for something else. If you do love hymn writing, you’ll forever regret that you lost some of your earliest texts because you misplaced them in the shuffle (ahem, cough, cough). Sure, you could start writing with the computer. But there’s something about hymn writing that is satisfying when you look at a page full of scribbles and messiness. Also, I use pen. Why? Because I change my mind. I’ll write arrows, cross out lines, and make all kinds of silly notes in the margins, and I’m glad I have everything right there so I can go back and remember my original words if I want to use them somewhere else.
How’s it going? Got your first line? First stanza? Here are some tricks as you go:
1. If you’re really stuck early on, try a different tune. Yes, that might mean a different meter too. But maybe it’s not the right skeleton for your hymn’s body.
2. Hum as you write. But don’t forget the rhythm and meter! Some of my earliest mistakes happened when I relied so much on the tune, that my rhythm—and even meter—were off.
3. Not enough words rhyme with love? I hear ya. If you want to use a phrase that doesn’t rhyme well, try recasting your line so that it ends differently.
4. Hate it? Take a break. Frustration muddles the wordsmithing.
5. Rhyming is soooooooooo easy? Great! But hang on. Is that because you’re using very common words and religious clichés? Make this text your own by challenging yourself to say something in a different way.
6. Speaking of rhyming, you may have noticed I didn’t mention a rhyming dictionary. I challenge you to try to think of rhymes that come naturally to you. Maybe not the first rhyme that comes to mind, but the second or third. You could also run through the alphabet in your mind (bat, brat, drat, fat, beGat . . . ). If you are totally stuck, you could use help on occasion, but be honest with yourself: if you’d never use a certain word on your own, try not to use it in your writing. And as far as tools go for rhyming helps, an Internet search engine works as well as anything else.
Time to edit! Okay, so you were probably editing as you went along, but now it’s time to really evaluate the text. So, first, let it rest. Walk away. Give yourself time to breathe. You’ll either love or hate the text a little too much at the moment, so take some time to separate yourself from your work. Ready? Okay. Here’s the part where I pull out my laptop. As I type in the text, I’ll catch a few things I’ll want to change. I’ll tweak a little more. Then, I read it again. Does the rhyme still work? How about the rhythm and meter? Does it still sing well? Did you use the same word too often? Is there a better way to say this line? How about that one? (Hint: Grab a snack or a favorite beverage to keep yourself going. This can be tough.)
Print your work. It sounds silly, but do this: Type your name and date. Even use this handy sign: ©. As your text rolls out of your printer, you are officially published. (There are other ways, but this is easy enough.) Hey, that was easy, right? Now comes the best part. Bring the text to life: Sing it. Teach it. Hang it on your wall to remember it. And then? Try another one.
Thanks again, Sarah! Readers can find the original post here.