If you’ve ever wondered how you can write better lyrics, I’ll give you the honest answer: practice more.
Seriously. Lyric writing is pretty much the most difficult thing you can do with words. You have to say exactly the things you mean, using only a few words, all while making sure it rhymes, scans and works rhythmically the way you want it to.
So before we look at five specific things you can think about to write better lyrics, here are the three big things you absolutely must be doing for any of those ideas to be useful to you.
How to Write Better Lyrics: Write. A lot.
Like I said: practice. Then practice some more.
Set aside ten, twenty, eighty minutes a day to sit down with a yellow pad or blank screen and get some words down. Start training your brain to think, live and breathe lyrics. Just like training in the gym or learning a new language, with writing lyrics you have to put in the hours if you want to make progress.
And what should you write? Whatever you feel like. Honestly. It doesn’t matter.
You might hate what you’ve written. (And if you don’t now, you will in a few years.) But that’s fine. That’s how it works. Keep practicing and you’ll be writing better lyrics in no time.
How to Write Better Lyrics: Listen to Different Lyrics. A Lot.
Lyric writing, like all kinds of writing, is done with a heady mix of instinct and logic.
The way you fine tune your instincts is to get to know a lot of lyrics. Inside out. Your brain is really good at turning old ideas into new ideas in a kind of magical way you can’t really explain. But for that to happen you have to pack your brain full of old ideas – i.e. existing lyrics – so it can work its magic.
Create playlist after playlist of lyrics you love. Maybe create a playlist of lyrics you’re not crazy about, and see what you can learn from them. (There are plenty of lessons there too.)
To swim in the ocean of influence you have to jump in first. Or something like that. Keep listening. Ask yourself every Monday “What am I listening to this week?” and make sure you always have a different answer.
How to Write Better Lyrics: Study Different Lyrics. A Lot.
I’m not joking: get your analytical brain on. Get thinking. Go exploring.
The internet contains virtually every lyric you could ever want to see. Print some of your favorites off and start covering them in pencil annotations.
Think about their structure. Think about their rhyme schemes. Think about the images they use. Think about why the person who wrote each lyric made the specific choices they made.
Try to understand how and why the lyric works. Then do the same with a different lyric.
You’re trying to build up a repertoire of techniques and tools – direct from the art you love. Whenever you take someone’s second-hand account of what makes a good lyric – including mine – you learn to understand lyrics in someone else’s words and someone else’s terms.
And that’s fine if you’re just starting out, but if you’re serious about creating art that’s really interesting and really remarkable, you have to understand lyric writing on your own terms. And the only way you do that is by doing lots of work on your own.
In fact, the five things I’m about to tell you about won’t be much use until you’ve figured out – on your own – how they work in practice. That’s the difference between knowing and understanding. And, well, I can help you know stuff. But truly understanding stuff? That’s up to you.
You have to apply these ideas to the songs you love to see how they work in practice. That’s how you master them.
OK, that said, let’s take a look at five specific things you can think about to help you write better lyrics.
1. Choose Your Words Carefully
If I had to summarize the creative process in five words, it’d be ‘No. No. No. No. YES.’
With fifteen, it’d be ‘No. No. No. No. Maybe? Uh? No. No. No. Maybe? No. (Still.) No. No. YES.’
You get the idea.
The art of making art is looking at lots of different options. Then saying no to the bad ones. Then no to the OK ones. Then no to the good ones. Then YES to the amazing ones.
It takes courage and patience to keep trying – especially once you’re into the OK or good choices – until all you’re left with is great choices.
This is especially true in lyric writing because words are so specific. With music you can create a wash of feeling or style or genre and the details don’t always matter so much. That’s not true with words.
Different word choices have subtly different effects.
Do you mean ‘happy’? Or is ‘thrilled’ more accurate? Or is ‘delighted’ a better fit?
No one’s saying you should pick complicated words when a simple one will do. No one wants your lyric to sound like you swallowed a thesaurus. But you’ll notice that even though the three words above are in the same meaning ballpark, they’re different words. They resonate in different ways.
On their own, these choices might not seem like much, but overall making extra effort to choose your words carefully makes the difference between a lyric that really shines and a lyric that’s just average.
In fact, if you’re struggling to get started on a lyric one way you can get moving is to start brainstorming words and phrases you might use in the final lyric. Just words and phrases if you like. Full sentences (without rhyme or structure) if you like. It’s a great way of figuring out what you’re trying to say and how you might say it – and then you can start working to turn it into a proper lyric.
Either way, a lyric is only as good as the words you choose to build it with.
Make good choices.
2. Keep It Simple
The thing about setting words to music is that the music makes those words richer.
On its own, ‘I will always love you’ isn’t a particularly remarkable sentence. But with music underneath it – and a story behind it – it sounds really profound.
And this is true whether you’re writing a belt-your-tits-off power ballad or anything else. Music makes words richer.
So if anything, you can afford to underwrite a lyric. Something that looks average on a page or screen usually sounds great when sung.
Can you imagine the song with a lyric like ‘Actually I’ve gotta tell you I’m always gonna love you, baby’?
Simplify your lyrics. Cut words you don’t need. Find the courage to say things simply, directly and plainly.
That’s why you want to choose your words carefully. One word that fits just right will always say it better than three that don’t quite.
3. Keep It Conversational
You probably know this already, but a song is sung by someone. There’s somebody there making those notes and those words.
And obvious as that might be, we’re talking about it right now because it affects the way lyrics are written.
The best lyrics sound like someone speaking.
A short story is not a lyric. A newspaper article is not a lyric. Even a poem is not a lyric.
All these things exist first and foremost on the page, maybe a screen. A lyric might exist first on a page or screen, but only so that a real-life person can perform it.
That means lyrics can sound informal. You probably know that already. Words like ‘yeah’ and ‘um’ work great in a lyric. So do incomplete sentences, slang phrases and even speaking like a stream of consciousness.
Sure, a lyric isn’t really a stream of consciousness. It probably rhymes, scans and sometimes uses words you don’t hear in everyday conversation. But there’s an art to making a lyric sound easy and conversational even though you spent a week or a month hammering it into shape.
And the best way to learn that art? Say your lyrics out loud. Sing your lyrics – even if you’re not a singer. Have someone say or sing them back to you.
Above all, connect the dots that the lyrics you write are there to be performed live. You’ll start to realize what does and doesn’t work in speech.
Soon enough your lyrics will sound as natural as everyday speech. Even though they’re not.
4. Use Specifics
Harry Potter and What’s-his-name’s Thing. Doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
A lyric isn’t just a collection of words – it’s a collection of ideas and images those words represent. And in general, it’s good to be specific about those ideas and images.
‘A red dress’ or ‘a tight dress’ or ‘a torn dress’ is more evocative than just ‘a dress’. Those extra details give us a clue or two about the person who might be wearing it. The specifics help paint a much more interesting picture.
“But wait up”, you’ll say. “Adding extra details makes a lyric more complicated. Didn’t you just say simple lyrics work better?”
Then before I’ve even tried to reply, you’ll add “And actually HOLD ON because when people speak conversationally they use words like ‘thing’ and ‘whatever’ not ‘a chamomile dress with fine Galician embroidery’. WTF man?”
And I say: sure, you’re completely right. Welcome to the world of grown up lyric writing, where things are more complicated than following five hard-and-fast rules you read on an internet listicle.
Sometimes you make a lyric a bit less conversational because an extra detail or two makes it more interesting. And sometimes you sacrifice a bit of simplicity and add words you strictly don’t need because it makes a lyric more conversational.
Otherwise, if your only goals were to make a lyric simple and conversational that’d make the greatest lyric ever something like “Hi. Hi. Hello.” (It’s not really working for me. You?)
It’s up to you to find a good trade-off between these three things. That’s part of choosing your words carefully.
Sure, in a song lyric you probably want to avoid something like “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May”.
But equally, you probably want to strive for something richer than “I was like baby, baby, baby, yeah.”
Lyric writing is a balance. You’ve got to find a balance that works for you.
5. Show Us Your Personality
Speaking of finding what works for you, don’t forget that writing lyrics is a creative thing. And as a creative thing, that means what you say goes. There’s no right and wrong. There are no rules.
If you’ve ever loved an artist or songwriter so much that you got to know their back catalogue inside out, you’ll start to spot patterns in the lyrics they write. These lyrical tics – whether they’re words, phrases, turns of phrase, sentence structures, whatever – are part of any writer’s personality. They’re what makes one writer distinct from the thousands of others out there.
If you’re just starting out as a writer, you’ll be focusing more on your technique than anything else. (As you know already, writing lyrics is hard. Really hard. Nobody masters it overnight.)
But even if you’re new to writing, it’s always a great idea to inject a bit of your personality into what you write.
Words and phrases you love? Use them. Some crazy expression that’s technically bad grammar but you use it in real life and it sounds super fly? Throw it in. Some structure or tool or technique your favorite songwriter uses all the time? Try it out.
Just like it takes time to get skilled at turning words and ideas into solid lyrics, it takes time to uncover your personality as a lyric writer so you can create for us the lyrics only you can create.
These aren’t two things that happen one after the other. You don’t master the craft of lyric writing then think ‘OK now I have to figure out what my personality is’. You do them both at the same time. And you learn more about your craft and your personality the more you write. Ad infinitum. The more you practice, the smarter, better and more original you become.
So wherever you are as a lyric writer, don’t be afraid to show us who you are. Because we want to know. And, I assume, so do you.
Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash