Originally I was going to call this post ‘Crafting Better Lyrics’ or ‘God Is In The Details’, but we all know smart, thought-provoking titles won’t ever get as much traffic as numerical lists with emotionally overcharged titles. Damn our society and its waning attention spans. (Oh look, a squirrel!)
Anyway, let’s just say that God is in the details if you want to craft a better lyric. Here are sixteen ways to put that into practice.
1. Word transposition
In the bed in which I lie.
If you’re twisting natural phrases and natural word order to fit your chosen meter or rhyme scheme, you’re in hot water. Nobody speaks like that, and these little distortions risk distracting your audience from whatever it is you’re trying to say. This is a hideous mess of an example, but it’s easy to let little distortions creep in if we’re not vigilant.
If it doesn’t sound like something you would say to someone in real life, it’s probably time to rethink the line. It might have been cool for Gilbert and Sullivan, but we’ve moved on, mate.
2. Ambiguous ‘it’
My mind’s a bit blurry.
The cat wore a hat.
Yeah, I think it was furry.
‘It’ can mean a lot of things. If you’re not careful, someone might think you were talking about a different ‘it’ to the ‘it’ you meant.
If in doubt, you can always swap the word ‘it’ for something clearer (like repeating the word ‘it’ is a pronoun for for) or rewrite the phrase entirely. In the above example, we’d have to throw out the rhyme scheme, but saying ‘The cat wore a hat, yeah a furry one.’ would make things clearer. ‘The cat wore a hat, the kind that’s tall and furry’ would be even clearer. (I guess a cat could be described as tall. But less likely than a hat, right?)
There’s a similar ambiguity in what’s called a dangling modifier. Listen to Groucho: ‘One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.’
3. Shoehorning the hook
Don’t know what I’d do without you.
That’s why I could never doubt you.
And yeah, I guess the hook should go here.
Ideally you want your hook to sit beautifully and indistinctly in your lyric. It’s that old adage of good craft being invisible: if we’re suddenly aware that it’s the hook, the lyric isn’t doing its job properly.
A common case of this is where a chorus finishes with the hook (sometimes prefaced with ‘And that’s why I say’ or ‘Don’t forget that’ or similar) but the rest of the chorus is heading in a different direction. It usually means your hook isn’t a good fit for what you actually want to say, so one of the two things ought to change to fit the other.
The acid test is to forget for a moment the phrase is your hook. In context do it and the words around it sound like something that a normal person might say in a normal conversation?
4. Unnecessary adjectives or adverbs
Adjectives and adverbs are a dangerous bunch. Writers often include them for clarity or detail, but the danger is that the extra words only dilute the impact of what you’re trying to say.
Lots of these words aren’t necessary. ‘Just’ and ‘really’ are two common padding words. They’re just really annoying. They weaken the sense of what you’re trying to say.
The solution is often simply to remove them. This can be a leap of faith: you think you need them, but your meaning isn’t affected much by removing them. Alternatively, you might be able to replace them with another word which adds something specific and therefore pulls its weight.
It’s boring. Find something original. Don’t let your lyric suck.
6. Split infinitives
An infinitive is a verb in its basic form. To live. To carry on. To cover a pensioner in treacle.
You’ll notice that they always begin with ‘to’, and other than that they can have one action word, multiple action words, or even a substantial phrase.
A split infinitive is when you split the ‘to’ from the verb. To peacefully live. To bravely carry on. To callously cover a pensioner in treacle.
Some people don’t mind split infinitives. Somehow ‘To go boldly where no man has gone before’ doesn’t sound anything quite as daring. (Hint: In ‘To BOldly GO…’ it’s those -o sounds on alternating syllables that charm your ear. Smart, huh?) But most of the time, if there’s an alternative which doesn’t involve the split and doesn’t involve awkward word twisting, it’s worth taking.
To live peacefully. To carry on bravely. To cover a pensioner in treacle with callous abandon.
7. Inconsistent tense or pronouns
Unity is a hallmark of great art.
When writing, it’s easy to switch between tenses – past, present, future – and persons – I/we, you/you, he/she/it/them. You just let it pour out without thinking about it, and that’s a good thing. But it’s worth being mindful that your final draft isn’t switching between tenses and pronouns indiscriminately and at random.
Of course, you can change tense consciously for effect: a song in the past tense might be switch to the present for a wow-here-we-are effect in the final section. But then it’s a choice to serve a specific purpose, not an inadvertent blunder.
Identities are perfect rhymes that aren’t. Basically the rhyming part of the word – the last accented syllable and everything after it – sounds exactly the same in both cases. Seen – Obscene. Gust – Disgust. Nation – Consternation. Close but no cigar.
In fact, identities are like those New Year’s Eve parties that promise so much but deliver so little: worth avoiding. And as easy to spot as they might seem out of context, in real life they can easily sneak past even the most professional eye or ear.
9. Words liable to be misconstrued
If you write a line that can be misinterpreted as something dirtier, it will be misinterpreted as something dirtier. Some words to watch out for: balls, stool, soiled, wet, job, come, whack, cans. Sure you can add your own.
Unless, of course, the innuendo is intentional.
10. Awkward structural pointers
Phrases like ‘And that’s why we all say:’ or ‘And let me tell you once again:’ might be perfectly at home in campfire songs. In most types of song, they’re usually just a distraction. If you’re going to say something, most of the time it’ll have more impact if you just say it. No announcements, apologies or signposts needed.
Imagine if a rollercoaster told you everything that was about to happen five seconds in advance.
11. Consonant clusterfucks
Sometimes these are called consonant clusters. I prefer this term, partly because it’s more memorable but also because it is a consonant clusterfuck itself.
It’s those pesky hard consonants – b, p, f, c, k, t – that make swear words so satisfying to say. Try think of a dirty word without any of them. However, in a lyric, too many of these sounds close together can make your singer’s life difficult. Sometimes to the point the words can get mangled.
It’s especially important to watch moments where consonant-heavy syllables butt up against each other. Try these four lines on for size:
And there’s one thing I found:
Look – strewth!
Crystallic growths abound!
It’s not a successful lyric on many levels. But try saying out loud. You’ll notice how the first two lines, with far fewer backed-up consonants, are infinitely easier to say than the last two.
Similarly, reciting your own lyric aloud is the best way to guard against any inadvertent tongue-twisters.
12. Words that come from the writer’s mouth not the singer’s
Not usually a problem if you’re writing songs as yourself. Unless you have some sort of dual personality thing going on.
Assuming you are writing for someone else, we’ll get put off if they use words that we don’t believe they’d use in ordinary conversation.
If you’re writing a song for a badass rapper, probably don’t use the word ‘wazzock’. Even if it’s your favorite word. Even if you say it two hundred times a day. Similarly, if you’re writing for the latest thirteen-year-old popstar, probably worth going easy on the swears. Even if they start young these days.
Seems obvious in these examples, but it’s a habit worth cultivating: the more you can adapt your own voice to the particular brief the more your lyric will be specific and credible.
13. Spreading out related words
There’s a difference between ‘I smoke cigarettes only on Sunday’, ‘I smoke only cigarettes on Sunday’ and ‘Only I smoke cigarettes on Sunday’. You might think this distinction is a stuffy one. And you’d be right. But sometimes being extra precise about sticking related words together can help folk understand your lyric more easily.
‘There was a cigarette burn in the rug in the center’ is less clear than ‘There was a cigarette burn in the center of the rug’.
Incidentally, don’t smoke kids. It’s not good for you.
And you risk leaving cigarette burns all over the place.
14. Relying heavily on punctuation
Unless you’re writing a song that’s also a scene where a secretary takes dictation, your listener won’t be able to hear the punctuation. So if your lyric needs a lot of commas, colons or dashes to make sense on the page, you might be in trouble.
15. Awkward run-on-lines
Had eyes that were so blue.
This isn’t so big a problem if there’s not much of a gap between lines. But if there is, and these pauses don’t match the natural pauses in speech, you risk distorting the meaning of your words or making your singer seem like a weirdo.
You wouldn’t say ‘I once knew a chick whooooooooooo … … … Had eyes that were so bluuuueeeeee’. Though you might say ‘I once knew a chick. … … … She’d lay it on thick’, because that’s a natural place you might pause in real speech.
16. Unnecessary complexity
Lyrics are a compressed form. Using complex or unnecessary words only dilutes your message. Just remember this mantra: ‘Be sure to get rid of them’. Or better: ‘Ditch them’.
For more ideas on keeping your words crystal clear, you can check out the First Testament of written expression: Strunk and White’s incredible The Elements of Style.