3 Ways I Used to Screw Up My Songs (And How I Fixed Them to Get Published)

John Chisum "Mercy Made Mine" single cover art

Photo by Laura E. Partain

I came to Nashville four decades ago to take a job that fell through. My young bride and I had $40 to our name and no place to live. I got a paper route making $60 a week and she got some part time work, but we were couch surfing long before that was a thing. I don’t recommend it.

I’d always wanted to get a song published, but I was clueless about how that happened. Like most aspiring Christian songwriters, I didn’t know much about the mechanics of songwriting. I just wanted to glorify God with my talents and get my songs out there. Little did I know that my songwriting education was about to begin and that everything I thought I knew about songwriting was about to be turned on its head.


I thought people would love my songs because I loved Jesus. They didn’t. And they still don’t. They love my songs because my songs meet a need in their lives. My songs help them feel the love of God, or maybe bring healing and encouragement. But they love my songs for their own reasons, not mine. One of the first things I had to learn from my mentors, Bill & Gloria Gaither, Gary McSpadden, and the many co-writers who took me in, was that I needed to stop writing out of my intuition—what I thought songwriting was—to writing with powerful commercial skills that would make my songs sticky and useful to people all over the world.

It wasn’t easy at first. I thought people would naturally understand my words and know immediately what I meant. They didn’t. I had to get out of the way of what God was wanting to communicate through me. I had to get crystal clear on how to say things through the title and lyrics that were married to a great melody. It took a while, but that was over 400 published songs ago and a 40+ year career. I live (or die) by the lessons I learned and they form the basis of my teaching and coaching to this day.

So, here are three ways I used to screw up my songs and how I learned to be a successful Christian songwriter.


I used to spend hours writing what I felt in my heart. I am a deeply feeling person, as you most likely are. Yet, no matter how deeply I felt about God, it took me a long time to understand that the strength of my song depended on the strength of my title. A weak title equals a weak song. I didn’t get that at first. I sincerely thought that my heartfelt emotion about God would carry the day, but people rarely felt what I did as I was writing it. That’s a songwriting failure.

When I was able to understand that a killer hook could help me write a killer song that people would actually love, I started upping the ante on the song title/hook before I spent time writing it. I learned to discern what makes for said killer title/hook and how to recognize them more often. Now I never spend ten minutes writing anything I don’t feel is a title worth writing. That’s set me and the writers I coach apart and brought the success we longed for.


Anyone can make up words and put them to a melody. Kids do it all the time. It took me a year or so to pick up from my coaches and co-writers that every song I wrote needed to be situated in a particular genre of music. While it’s possible to set any amount of words to a melody and plunk out guitar chords to sing them, if they failed to fall into an established genre, people would most likely have zero to no response. People like their genres. They love their Southern Gospel music. They love their Pop/CCM or Inspirational music. They have the musical lanes they like to stay in and most people have narrow listening habits, in case you haven’t noticed. I didn’t know that at first.

Once I understood that every song I write needs to be targeted, it made my songs cut through better. When I became a music publisher, it became my responsibility to help the writers I managed “cast” their songs in the proper genre so I could pitch them to artists, producers, and record company personnel. I got really good at it. Our company won dozens of awards from ASCAP, BMI, and other folks because we learned to target so well. If your songs aren’t targeted, they’ll most likely sound amateurish and not find a home on anyone’s playlist except your Mom’s.


Every song you love creates an emotion in your heart. That’s why you love it. “What A Beautiful Name It Is” evokes worship. “In Christ Alone” evokes worship, too, but it also evokes a sense of greater faith as the words help you give voice to Christ’s supremacy and once again rehearse His promises in your life. But a song like “Happy” by Pharrell Williams does something completely different. Have you thought about which emotion your songs evoke in your listeners?

Praise and worship are emotions. The words we choose will either evoke a response from our listener’s hearts or leave them flat. “Amazing Grace” brings out gratitude and humility. “Auld Lang Syne” is sappy and nostalgic, should we bother to sing it on New Year’s Eve. The point is that failing to think about which emotion we’re trying to summon from the souls of our listeners is to miss a grand opportunity to have our songs hit home. What’s your favorite song right now? Why? What does it make you feel? Now, what song are you writing right now and what are you trying to help your audience feel?


Successful Christian songwriting rarely happens without deliberate effort. You can tell me all day long that God gives you your songs. But is He giving you good ones? Are people really feeling them or are you being a lazy writer who’s screwing up your songs like I used to do by not paying enough attention to these three things? Is it possible that more work on your songs could open up more listeners? Are you open to being coached and improving your work for the benefit of your future audience? If not, get ready for less-than-awesome responses to your work.

My new single “Mercy Made Mine” releases this week on all streaming platforms. Co-written with NCS songwriter, Candi Broes, this song celebrates the sacrifice Jesus made for me in a very personal way. “Like pieces of a puzzle/All the pieces of my broken heart/Were lying scattered in the ashes/Of a life that fell apart” is the way it starts. This isn’t talking about all that happened before I met Jesus. Sometimes life falls apart after we know Him and we’re left wondering where He was when it happened. You may have felt that too, like me, but let me assure you that He’s always there even when life gets messy.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Don McCallum

    I was puzzled a while back, by someone I had met online on Facebook. We talked about our lives. His seemed full of miracles and converting people. My life seemed relatively empty of that. He spoke of his songs on You Tube and I expected greatness. What I heard was amatuerish noise. So, I think I understand your point. As for my songwriting, I mostly considered myself to be an instrumental songwriter, since I was mainly playing electric lead guitar, and seeking a Christian band with a vocalist who could add the words and melody to my guitar driven songs. I never found ANYONE who would work in a Christian band that played anywhere besides church. I finally realized I had to be the singer, too. After I started singing, my worship ministry went from #55 to #1 in Connecticut! But, I still don’t do well at writing songs AND words. So, I write Christian parodies. Nevertheless, people LOVE them! I read that Elvis did not write his songs, so, I’m not so worried about it, anymore. https://www.reverbnation.com/onlyoneway4/song/28523382-trust-me-gods-promise

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