Choose Your Words
September 1999

“Choose Your Words,” New Era, Sept. 1999, 46

Choose Your Words

How to write a poem that can be a good hymn. The seven habits of highly successful hymn writers.

Which hymns are your favorites? Do you love the energetic hymns like “Called to Serve”? Do you love the peaceful, reassuring hymns like “I Know That My Redeemer Lives”? Whatever the topic, we owe a huge debt to the men and women who have written the words that inspire us so often.

Have you ever thought of writing a hymn? Even if you don’t think of yourself as a poet, writing a hymn text is a wonderful piece of “spiritual homework,” a task that will encourage you to search the scriptures, ponder spiritual truths, and express your testimony in carefully chosen words. Writing a hymn is a chance to draw closer to the Lord while refining your own thoughts and skills.

Over the centuries, successful hymn writers have followed important guidelines. These habits can help you to write a hymn in an effective, polished way.

Habit #1: Be constantly alert to ideas and examples

Pay close attention to everything—scriptures, talks, your own inspiration—that might suggest a topic for a hymn text. Some hymns are based closely on scripture, like “The Lord Is My Shepherd”; some reflect personal experience; some urge us to follow a commandment. What gospel truths are especially meaningful to you right now?

And as a potential hymn writer, you will of course want to pay special attention to the hymns themselves. Don’t sing on autopilot; take note of the qualities that make a hymn effective. Does the author use a beautiful metaphor? See “As the Dew from Heaven Distilling,” for example. Does a repeated word or phrase carry great power, as in “Love at Home”? How does each verse add greater meaning to the hymn’s subject?

As you pay close attention to hymn texts, you will notice that most hymns start with a powerful first line that conveys the basic message of the hymn; examples are “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet” and “I Believe in Christ.” You will also notice that, whether it is written from the singular point of view (I, my, me) or the plural (we, our, us), an excellent hymn will use the writer’s personal feelings.

Habit #2: Don’t wait for lightning

It would make a good movie scene: the hymn writer, pen in hand, sighing and restless, casts eyes toward heaven. Suddenly—in one magic lightning bolt of inspiration—the entire, polished poem leaps into the writer’s mind! But that isn’t how poems get written. Any serious poet will tell you that a fine poem is mainly the result of hard, hard work.

The Lord may bless you with an unforgettable spiritual experience, with a burning testimony regarding a particular gospel principle, or with a feeling of immense gratitude for a precious blessing. He may even bless you with the desire to write a hymn about what you feel. But hymn writers will tell you that the Lord is not likely to give you, word for word, the text of a hymn. He is more likely to inspire you as you work. It will be your job to craft your hymn, carefully and prayerfully.

Habit #3: Keep a wastebasket nearby

What? Throw away your precious lines? It’s not easy. Your draft, even the first one, represents your work and your thinking, so tossing it is like throwing away part of yourself. But the willingness to rewrite repeatedly is a characteristic of every skilled writer.

Once you have settled on a topic, you will want to try several approaches—different meters, different metaphors. Maybe you will write 10 verses, then choose the best lines from those verses, and come up with a final draft of three verses.

Excellent lines can be made even better. Consider these two versions of the first verse of “Lord, I Would Follow Thee” by Susan Evans McCloud:

Intermediate version

We are children of our Father

Here to prove ourselves alone

Surely those who help another

Find a strength beyond their own.

We are children of our Father,

Lord, may thy way be shown.

Final version

Savior, may I learn to love thee,

Walk the path that thou hast shown

Pause to help and lift another,

Finding strength beyond my own.

Savior, may I learn to love thee—

Lord, I would follow thee.

The earlier version, above, is a fine hymn text, elegant and moving. But if you compare the two verses carefully, you will see that Sister McCloud has taken a fine verse to a new level of spiritual impact.

Habit #4: Choose one topic and stick to it

Many hymn texts are weakened because well-meaning writers have just tried to convey too many ideas. Choose one topic, and then work to give it new meaning. Be disciplined. If your text is about repentance, you probably want to save the Restoration, fasting, pioneers, and missionary work for another hymn. Look through the topical index (Hymns, 415) to see the kinds of subjects that have made excellent hymn texts.

In some hymns, “Do What Is Right,” for example, we address one another; other hymns are written as prayers, and in those we address the Lord (“Guide Us, O Thou Great Jehovah”). Avoid mixing the two kinds.

Habit #5: Work within a standard meter and rhyme pattern

Ordinarily, when you write a poem, you can allow yourself all kinds of freedom in choosing—or ignoring—meter or the rhythmic pattern. Hymn texts, however, follow a set of rules.

Turn to the index of meters on page 405 of our hymnbook. At first, this index looks like it’s written in code. But it’s easy to understand when you know that the numbers—8686, for example—simply refer to the number of syllables in each line of the hymns listed below the numbers. Since “We’ll Sing All Hail to Jesus’ Name” (along with 24 other hymns) is listed under 8686, we know that it has eight syllables in the first line, six in the second, and so forth. Any hymn on the 8686 list would fit the tune of any other.

As you look at some of these hymns, you’ll notice that it’s not just the number of syllables that is important; in addition, the even-numbered syllables are the stressed ones. A six-syllable line will be in the pattern wSwSwS (we’ll SING all HAIL to JE sus’ NAME), with w standing for a weak or unstressed syllable, and S standing for a strong or stressed syllable.

Choose a favorite hymn tune—one that matches the meter you have chosen—and use it as a “temporary home” for your words. Make sure every word of every verse of your hymn is an exact match to notes of your temporary tune. Then you can be sure that you have the exact number of syllables required to fill out the pattern.

In poetry of other kinds you have great freedom in using or not using rhyme. However, with very few exceptions, hymn texts rhyme. In a four-line hymn verse, usually lines 2 and 4 will rhyme (sometimes 1 and 3 rhyme with each other as well). You may think that these rules of meter and rhyme will restrict your creativity. Amazingly, what you will find is that the rules unleash your creativity as you search your heart and your imagination for the words and phrases that will exactly harmonize with the pattern you have chosen.

Habit #6: Use dignified but simple language

We sometimes sing old-fashioned words or phrases because some of our hymns were written in an earlier century. But your responsibility is to use words that have meaning in your own time. This means that the language of today should be the language of your hymn. There is no reason to use biblical word endings (like waketh). If the entire hymn is a prayer, then of course the language of prayer would be appropriate.

Slang, highly informal words, contractions (like don’t or it’s) are not appropriate either. Work also to keep natural word order (our sacred promise, not our promise sacred).

Habit #7: Make this hymn the first of many

When Eliza R. Snow wrote “O, My Father,” she had been writing hymns and other poetry for 19 years. Your writing skills will grow over the years.

Show your hymn to family members, experienced writers in your ward, your youth leaders—anyone who can give you useful encouragement and advice. Be receptive to suggestions. An inexperienced writer sometimes is defensive or offended when someone offers a suggestion. Experienced writers, on the other hand, constantly seek feedback from editors, readers, and other writers.

Remember—the main purpose of this hymn is to bless your life. But for now, the hymn belongs in your heart and in your journal. Don’t hesitate to show your hymn to family, friends, your seminary teacher, and others who can encourage you. If you are proud of your polished text, submit it to the New Era contest. Maybe there will be an occasion, in seminary or at family home evening, when your hymn could be performed, with its “temporary home” tune or a tune you or a friend has written.

Young people of the Church are aware of Elder Boyd K. Packer’s wise counsel: When unworthy thoughts enter your mind, switch to an emergency channel. Think of a hymn (see Ensign, Jan. 1974, 27). Imagine the joy of being able to hear your own hymn on that emergency channel—beautiful, uplifting words reminding you of your own best, most spiritual self!

Photography by John Luke; electronic composition by Pat Gerber