The Discipline of Songwriting
I recently had a conversation about the process of creating art with a friend who writes movie scripts. As we talked, I mentioned a difficulty I’ve had in writing a song that I’m actually happy with. I’m trying to write more because I want to cultivate this gift in my own life and serve the congregation I am privileged to lead. But it’s been frustrating.
He related a principle to me (he couldn’t remember where he heard it) that I’ve found helpful as I consider faithfulness in writing songs. He said what typically compels an artist to begin to create something is some burst of inspiration. It could be a theme, a truth, an emotion, a picture, whatever. Their task then is to recreate that feeling or thought in a way that allows others to experience it as well. Most of the time, especially when we are first beginning in our craft, we stink at this. The amazing picture we had in our mind doesn’t quite make its way to the canvas in front of us. The glorious truth that so strongly affected us somehow doesn’t seem quite as earth-shattering when we write a song about it. The feeling of awe and wonder dissipates as we read what we have just written. The process of closing the gap between what we imagine or experience and what we actually create, he told me, is where discipline comes in.
Psalm 96:1 tells us to “Sing to the LORD a new song!” If you’re anything like me, I imagine that new songs, like any other amazing art, should be created and completed in a flash of brilliance. The words and melody flow out of us in a moment of inspiration like water from a faucet.
Unfortunately, this never happens to me. Ever. It’s not that I’m never inspired. But typically I begin with a flurry and then get frustrated and give up. My friend helped me realize that this is part of the hard work of becoming a better artist. Hopefully, one day I will be able to sit down with an idea and be able to recreate it exactly the way I envisioned. But in order to do that, I must discipline myself to grow in the art of songwriting. This requires time, energy, and hard work. There’s no way around it.
I am not saying that we can’t or shouldn’t write songs that come quickly to us. What I am saying is that the difference between an okay song and an excellent song can often simply be my laziness.
Writing songs for corporate worship does not release us from the principles of discipline that other artists adhere to. In fact, as Christians, I would argue that we should be even more motivated to work at our craft. How are you, as Harold Best so helpfully puts it, “becoming better than you once were?”
How do we grow?
Here are a few ideas for how to grow.
- Study lyric writing. Read books on songwriting. Study hymns. Research great songwriters. Work to understand why certain phrases and melodies work, and why others don’t. Try to master the craft, not just ‘write a song.’
- Get input. Being a Spirit-filled songwriter does not exempt us from evaluation. Just because the Spirit enabled you to write a song doesn’t mean that it is immune to work, editing, and critique. God works through disciplined editing just as much as moments of inspired writing. Trust people who are better at songwriting then you. Listen to them and try to understand what they mean in their critique. We grow by putting ourselves in situations that stretch and challenge us.
- Work to say exactly what you want to say. This can be so frustrating! Work until each line says precisely what you want to communicate. Don’t settle for typical phrases when you can come up with a more creative, thoughtful one. Keep writing until you’re satisfied with the result. Don’t give up!
May we continue to develop and cultivate the gifts God has given us, trusting that he will use our efforts for his glory.
Jordan Kauflin serves as a pastor at Redeemer Church of Arlington (redeemerarlington.com). He oversees the corporate singing and member care. He is married to Tali, and they have five children.
 Harold Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 108.