Monday, March 10, 2014

Hints for writing a hymn lyric (for MTC doctrine 2 students)

2nd year students at MTC get to write a hymn lyric for assessment. Can an assignment be any better than this? No. I don't think so.

I have a friend in second year and she asked for some hints on how to go about it. 

Here are the hints I gave her. 

10 hints for writing a hymn lyric.

1. The aim of a hymn is to teach a doctrine in a way that makes people feel the importance of it. If you are just stating the facts, then that isn’t enough. Before you start writing, think about why the doctrine is important to you. Why does it matter? What difference does it make in your life? How does it make you feel? Try and write that down (in prose at first).

2. Look at what you’ve written. Underline any theological jargon. Rewrite your ideas without using those words. Big words often mask a lack of understanding. If you can’t explain something without fat words, you probably don’t really get it. Theological jargon also makes a song boring. It clogs up the song and gets in the way of imagery -- and it is imagery that lifts your words off the page and transforms them into something else. So no fancy schmancy theological words. Okay?

3. Think about your subject again, but this time use all your senses. What does it look like? What does it smell like? What does it taste like? What does it sound like? How does it feel under your fingers or under your feet? Describe it, but avoid adjectives. You are on the hunt for a metaphor. The perfect metaphor will bring your song to life and make us see your topic with new eyes. A lyric without metaphor is just words on a page.

4. Now you are ready to start writing. Choose a meter that you’d like to work with - perhaps 8686 - 4 lines to a verse, first and third lines with 8 syllables each, second and fourth with 6 syllables. This is the meter that Amazing Grace uses. Just try to write words that fit that tune and you’ll be right. 8888 - When I survey. NOTE: Keep to the meter! If there is a syllable out of place, fix it! It does matter. Being disciplined with the syllable count actually forces you to be more creative and will lead to better ideas.

5. If you are trying to make people feel something, remember that the worst way to do this is to tell them how they should feel. You need to make them so understand the content that they feel it themselves. It is unhelpful to ask people to sing stuff like “Jesus I’m in awe of you, I’m so in awe of you...”. People will think that they should feel like that, then beat themselves up for not feeling like that. = guilt = bad. Make them feel in awe of Jesus by showing them how awesome Jesus is.

6. Make sure there’s a progression of logic or a story developing as the verses progress. The song has to go somewhere. 

7. Remember that your hymn needs a key line or a repeated couple of words to make it memorable. We call this a lyric hook. Make sure your hymn has something that will make it stick in people’s minds. Perhaps find a couple of words to start or finish each verse with.

8. Rhyme matters because it binds ideas together and helps make your lyric memorable. But obvious rhymes will ruin your song. Profound truths will seem trite and we’ll yawn. Most of the time an obvious rhyme is a sign that the writer doesn’t have anything to say. They are just retreating into cliche formulas. Do not rhyme love and above, cross and loss, treasure and measure... etc 

9. If you’re not happy with your hymn draft, pretend your lyric is a piece of pottery. Chuck it on the floor, smash it up, then get your glue and try to put it back together again - but differently. Turn the vase into a sugar pot. Change the meter. Change the voice (who you are addressing). Look at the subject from a different vantage point. See if that works any better. I will often look for the one good line in the lyric (most often there is only one!) and rewrite the whole hymn around that line.

10. It’s not unreasonable to spend 20+ hours working up a 16 line hymn lyric. Don’t expect to finish this task quickly!

Work hard and go well! I'm praying that this assignment will be really helpful for you.


  1. You're right: a great assignment.

    Nice tips too.

  2. #11 You're only allowed to ignore #4 if you are John Mark McMillan, which most of us aren't.

    Seriously though, a really helpful list, thanks!