Things I Learned: Writing Hymns

The “Things I Learned” series continues! This is my favorite genre to write for, so it’ll be tough to keep this brief, but I’ll do my best! By the way, I’ve also written a post on hymns from more of a how-to approach, so you can check that out as well, if you’re interested.

  1. Do. Not. Overthink. This is always good advice when writing. Teaching Writing 101 is essentially finding ways to encourage writers who are paralyzed with fear, doubt, and overthinking. When prewriting and writing a hymn, this is especially a problem. For such a compact piece of writing (because it is such a compact piece of writing), there are so many things to think about! But if you think about them all, you’ll never get started. Write now. Edit later.
  2. Write often. Easy for me to say, I know. Writing hymn texts is a habit for me. But because it is, it comes more easily. Practice does that. Also, I’ve noticed that fellow hymn writers who struggle with a certain text often do so because they place so much weight on that one effort. Writing frequently can lift some of the burden and offer some perspective on each text.
  3. Check your expectations. Twenty percent of my hymns have been published. Fewer have become choral arrangements. Fewer still are in any form of publication that is made to last. As you know, motivation is a big factor for me (see my blog site title). If you’re writing hymns for fame, you are very likely to be disappointed, for a number of reasons. If you’re writing for God’s glory and to serve the Church, you will very likely find joy in the endeavor. Side note: just about every experienced hymn writer I’ve met has told me that they started writing to meet a need, usually for their local congregation.
  4. Have a plan. When you sit down to write a hymn, have a plan. It might be as simple as a Bible passage or a theme in mind. It might be a detailed as a doctrinal point, tune, poetic structure, and more. For me, it varies. For you, your writing process will likely influence how much or little you have in mind when you write. But regardless, have something as your focus so that your text is clear and helpful.
  5. God is God. You are not. Teaching the matters of faith is always daunting, but it seems that hymns can be especially so. People will be singing your words on matters of faith! Exciting and terrifying. This TIL point has at least two implications. Keep God’s Word as your focus as you write. If not, why bother? If so, God’s Word will work as our Lord promises. Here’s another implication. Your hymn will not. Will not. Will. Not. be perfect. We are broken humans whom God chooses to use as instruments. Beautiful! But if you are attempting perfection, you will absolutely fail. You are not God. Renowned hymn writer Stephen Starke says it more eloquently than this, so ask him if you ever get the chance. And to quote John Newton:

To Thee our wants are known,
From Thee are all our pow’rs;
Accept what is Thin­e own
And pardon what is ours.
Our praises, Lord, and prayers receive,
And to Thy Word a blessing give.

Lutheran Service Book 921:2