I have had the privilege to act as a consultant for aspiring praise and worship songwriters. It was a great experience. I was inspired by the creativity and passion that the writers brought to these songs, and I was happy that I could help to make these already good songs even better.
When giving, “cool feedback,” I found that one of the hardest things for me to communicate was why a particular word made the writing sound awkward or even amateurish.
I read a lot of artless writing. The amateur writer doesn’t know that the monosyllabic and ordinary word, “shows,” is sometimes the best word, as in “Creation shows the power of God.” “Shows” is always better than “exhibits,” and it is often better than “displays,” or “reveals.” When I encounter the word “disclose,” I know that someone has been abusing their thesaurus. It all depends upon the poem, and the line within the poem, of course, but these words, usually, don’t quite make it. Writers will use them for various reasons–to make a nice rhyme or to maintain a rhythm, or because they think it “sounds” better. It doesn’t.
And it’s hard to explain why. Most simply, it’s because it’s just not the perfect word.
It’s not too difficult to say why the use of the term “desire” is better in “It is my desire to honor you” than it is in, “You are the love of my desire.” But it is not so easy to explain why the word “ransom” is better in the line, “His wounds have paid my ransom” (“How deep the Fathers Love”), than it is in the line, “He is the ransom for my life” (“King of my Heat”)?
Why? I just know. And it’s not just me. Many other people also have this mysterious power. And you can have it too.
Developing a “Poetic Ear”
If you want to use words powerfully and beautifully you need to develop a poetic ear. Teaching literature for over 30 years has trained my ear. I read a lot. I read the work of amateur writers, and I read the best writers of poetry and prose in the English language. Consequently, I know where a piece of writing is on the continuum. It is no surprise, then, that I am sensitive to lyrics in our worship songs that more closely resemble my students’ writing than it does that of Robert Frost.
You too can develop this poetic ear. Read and study great poetry. My guess is that the poetry with which most praise and worship lyricists engage is that of other praise and worship lyricists. Even the big songwriters are often writing with unremarkable diction. Reading these won’t help to develop the poetic ear. If you really want to develop a sensitivity for good diction, read the very best wordsmiths–Seamus Heaney, Frost, the Brontes, Austin, Hardy, Christina Rossetti, Tennyson, Shelly, Keats, etc.
It will take time, but if you start reading the best novelists and poets, in ten years time, you will be writing much better lyrics than you would if you didn’t. “Ten years?!” you cry. Well, if you are 36 now, I’m telling you that by the time you are 46 you will have moved a long way down the spectrum toward being a poet. That gives you 30 years to write great songs. That’s lots of time.
Lyricist or Poet?
Good writers never compromise diction for the sake of rhyme or rhythm, or anything else. They strive to use the perfect word in every instance–they don’t settle. The perfect word will have the precise denotation and connotation, and serve the rhythm and rhythm perfectly. If they just can’t make it work, the poet will rework the line or the whole verse. They don’t stop until it is perfect.
You can’t start here, however. Before you know what the perfect word is, you need to have developed the poetic ear. Even then, it will tie you into knots at times, but that’s the challenge of poetry–and I don’t think we have any choice.
What I am asking is not easy, but if we aspire to write songs in praise of our King, they need to be excellent. Not for his sake, but for ours, and for those whom we lead in worship. We need to strive to be poets, not just lyricists.
And becoming a poet takes at least as much time and effort as it takes to become a great musician, and how long did that take?
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