Ruth Duck on hymns and worship

For Hymn Text Writers

SUGGESTIONS FOR WRITERS OF HYMN LYRICS  (by Ruth Duck)

 Content and style

Find your own voice. Be creative in choosing subject matter and fresh in choosing words. Identify subjects that deserve more attention.

Find images to give focus to your ideas; a hymn is not a theological treatise, but a poem.  Choose images carefully, to honor all people; for example, avoid overuse of male terms and use of “dark” or “blind” as metaphors for sin or evil.

Seek to unify the text thematically so that everything fits and progresses well.

 Rhyme 

Be consistent with your rhyme scheme, if you use rhyme; e.g. you might always rhyme lines 2 and 4, and 6 and 8.

Be sure that every rhyming word is so appropriate to your theme, purpose, and style that no one could guess which was chosen first; use a thesaurus and rhyming dictionary.

Avoid speaking of God’s dwelling as “above”—even though it rhymes with love.

Be consistent in patterns of rhyming or not rhyming.  Rhymes help to unify a text and make it memorable; other devices, such as repetition, can also do this.

Rhythm and meter

Be consistent with rhythm.  To test, say words aloud, exaggerating the meter.

Keep strong accented words, not words such as “of” or “the,” on primary beats.

When using a familiar tune, make sure your syllables perfectly fit the listed meter (e.g. 8.7.8.7. means a line of 8 syllables, then a line of 7 syllables, then 8, then 7.)

Don’t add an extra syllable when there is a slur (notes tied together) in the music.

Most words should be of one or two syllables, lest the rhythm be distorted.

Sounds.  Listen to the way your words sound with your chosen music.

Are some words hard to say with your tune?  (For example, “Christ’s” is hard to sing quickly—six consonants and only one vowel.)

Do the words sound like your meaning?  (For example, open vowels may suggest peacefulness; closed vowels and hard consonants may express tension; and repeated “m” sounds may sound pleasantly hypnotic.)

Use such devices as assonance (repeated vowel sounds) and alliteration (repeated consonants) to express your meaning and make the sound interesting.

Clarity and syntax. 

Follow normal English word order as much as possible, rather than inverting word order to serve rhyme or rhythm.

To make it possible for your text to fit a tune well, place clause or sentence breaks and shifts in feeling tone at the same place in each stanza.

Keep sentence structure simple, with subject and verb close together, so that singers can follow your meaning.  Each sentence should be grammatically complete in most cases.

Revise, revise, revise.  The hymn is not complete until you’ve said what you intended with good discipline, so that others can sing it with ease.

Join the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. http://www.thehymnsociety.org.  It publishes The Hymn, a journal with information about the history of hymnody and current stories about hymn writing and currently published hymn collections.

PUBLISHING YOUR HYMNS

I am often contacted by people who would like tips about publishing or refining their hymn texts, tunes, or anthems.  Here is what I can offer:

  • Occasionally, the Hymn Society holds a one-week hymn writing workshop. Participants study in small groups with leading hymn text and tune writers, and receive detailed feedback.  At each Annual Meeting includes a session for text writers, and another for tune writers.
  •  Study the catalogues of various publishers of church music.  Some publishers with interest in hymn texts and tunes include G.I.A. Publications, Hope Publishing Company, Oregon Catholic Press, Selah and Wayne Leopold.  If you are more interested in contemporary Christian music, notice the name of the copyright owner of songs you particularly like.  When you identify a publisher that has published the most songs or hymns similar to yours, begin by submitting your work to that publisher.
  • Before presenting your work to a publisher, ask for feedback from someone you trust.
  • Choose just one publisher and send a sample of your best work to the music editor there.  Be honest with yourself; people who look at many manuscripts may peruse them quickly and be put off by just one poorly written text or tune.
  • Some of these presses review church music by as many as a thousand people a year.
  • If the publisher is interested enough in you to want to work with you if you are willing to change or refine your work, jump at the opportunity.  It means they like your work well enough to consider it seriously, and that you will receive some expert help and advice about how to improve your work.
  • If your first choice publisher turns you down, keep working down your list.
  • Before sending your work to a publisher, ask for feedback from some people you trust to have good judgment about hymns.

Since I am a full-time professor of Christian worship, I do not have time to provide personal assistance either by giving feedback on hymns or making personal contacts with publishers on a writer’s behalf.  Thank you for your understanding – and keep singing a new song to God!

Ruth Duck

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