In last week’s article I laid out five (well, eight) fundamentals that’ll help you write better lyrics in your next song.
All of these principles were about the woods not the trees, because – controversial as this might sound on an internet listicle – most of the important principles of songwriting are about the woods not the trees.
That is, yes, it’s generally a good idea not to split an infinitive where you can. But it’s an even better idea to write lyrics that are simple, conversational and specific, and show off a bit of your personality.
The difference is, one of these skills takes about ten seconds to master (and give you an endorphin boost), and the other five might take you ten months (if you’re lucky).
I know, I know. You came here for simple, instantly actionable advice that can change your life overnight.
I know, I know. I should quit killing your vibe and just write ‘Ten INSTANT SHORTCUTS to writing a HIT SONG – RIGHT NOW!!!’
The trouble is, that’s not how this works. Anything worth having doesn’t happen overnight.
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So while I’d be fun to distract you with some simplistic dos and don’ts, that’s not really my style. Instead I’m going help you focus on developing a few key skills that are going to help you for the rest of your life as a songwriter.
That in mind, if you haven’t read last week’s article I recommend you do that before continuing. And if you have, nice work, and let’s keep going with a handful of more detailed principles – somewhere between the trees and the entire wood – you can use to write better lyrics in your next song.
1. Don’t Flip Words Around to Make a Rhyme Work
I get it. Writing lyrics that say what you want and rhyme is tough.
It’s much easier to say what you want and not rhyme or say something you don’t quite mean to fit a rhyme.
And here’s the thing: it’s perfectly OK not to rhyme. But it’d definitely not OK to say something weird just to fit a rhyme.
I’m talking about things like this:
Nice and warm in bed I’ll stay.
You’ll remember from last week’s article I said a good lyric is conversational. Well have you ever heard anyone say “Nice and warm in bed I’ll stay”? Really? I doubt it.
Have you ever heard anyone say something like “I’ll stay nice and warm in bed”? Probably. So you should say something like that instead.
This might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it happens. (While we’re at it, “When the skies outside are gray” isn’t all that conversational either.)
Don’t settle for OK. Keep rewriting until your words say what you mean and rhyme. There’s always a way to do it. You’ve just gotta keep looking for it.
It’s cool to stay in bed all day.
2. Make Sure Your Lyrical Hook Blends Well
And the simple art to using a lyrical hook is making sure it makes sense within the words and lines around it.
Here’s a good example:
All my troubles seemed so far away.
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay.
Oh, I believe in YESTERDAY.
You can see I’ve capitalized the hook for emphasis, but if someone spoke those words just as a normal sentence you might think “It’s kind of weird they’re rhyming so much” but you wouldn’t think “What???”
Here’s a bad example:
All my troubles seemed so far away.
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay.
Because one day ago is YESTERDAY.
The last sentence makes sense grammatically, but it’s pretty obviously tacked on just to get the lyrical hook in one last time. It doesn’t make sense in context, so it doesn’t work.
Just like there’s an art to using rhyme without making it sound like you meant to rhyme, there’s an art to incorporating a lyrical hook without making it sound like you’re trying to.
This comes with practice, so it’s OK if your rhymes and lyrical hooks don’t sit in your lyric as effortlessly as you’d like them to just yet. But if you know what you’re aiming for and keep practicing, you’ll get there in no time.
3. Keep Padding Words in Check
As you know from last week’s article, most lyrics don’t have that many words in them. So you want to make sure every word adds something to your lyric and isn’t just taking up space.
This means you want to watch out for padding or filler words like ‘really’ and ‘very’ you often don’t need. Or words like ‘yeah’ and ‘it’s true’ people often add at the start or end of a line to make a rhyme work or add an extra syllable or two.
Sometimes part of keeping a lyric conversational is including these kinds of words. And that’s fine. But if you find yourself including lots of extra words that don’t add anything to your lyric, you might want to switch them with words that do add something, or just get rid of them entirely.
4. Steer Clear of Cliché
It’s often said that the hallmark of a great work of art is that it makes you forget any other work of art exists. You know what I mean. When your favorite music sucks you in so much you feel like you’d be happy never listening to anything else again. (Until you listen to something else and feel exactly the same about that.)
That’s the trouble with cliché. A cliché is a word or phrase that’s been used so many times it’s lost all its originality.
If I rhyme ‘fire’ with ‘desire’, or ‘love’ with ‘turtle dove’, you’re not thinking about my song. You’re thinking about every cheesy love song from a hundred years ago.
Sure, you’ll tell me, you’d never use rhymes that were that obvious. But plenty of starting-out songwriters (sometimes more experienced ones too) fall back on these well-trodden paths. And it makes their songs sound much less distinctive. And that kind of sucks.
Be bold enough to be original. Surprise us with something new. I dare you.
5. Watch Out for Identities
Identities are rhymes that aren’t. I’m talking about words like ‘hold’ and ‘behold’, or ‘deceive’ and ‘conceive’, where the accented syllable (‘-hold’, ‘-ceive’) is the same in both words, so they don’t really rhyme.
See for yourself:
“I do,” she said. “To have, to hold.”
It was quite a sight to behold.
She stood there, shaking, nervous, cold.
It was quite a sight to behold.
The first example doesn’t have anything like the effect of the second.
Of course, you can use only perfect rhymes, half (slant) rhymes, or a combination of the two in your song. That’s up to you. What’s generally not a good idea is to let identities slip though. Sometimes they’re tricky fuhuckers to spot. So keep an eye out.
6. Watch Your Consonants
As you know from last week’s article, a song lyric only really exists when it’s performed live.
That means you have to think about how your words are going to sound when they’re sung.
If you sing as well as write, you’ll already have a head start on this. If not, it’s worth getting used to saying your lyrics out loud to get a sense of what you’re asking your singer to deal with.
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In particular, you want to watch your consonants. If you speak a lyric out loud you’ll notice some consonants (like ‘d’ or ‘s’) are made at the front of the mouth while some (like ‘g’ or ‘h’) are made at the back. In short, if you stick a ton of different consonants close by, you might have written a tongue twister not a song lyric.
That is, here’s a good lyric line:
Here’s not a good lyric line:
Decent singers are good at navigating all kinds of challenges songwriters throw their way, but the more you can do to help them out, the better. There’s always a way to rephrase a tricky line.
7. Important Words and Lines Go at the Edges
Here’s a tip: any word or phrase at the edge of a line is always going to be emphasized.
That’s especially true in songwriting at the ends of lines if that’s where the rhymes are – because rhyming two words emphasizes them even more.
That means it’s a good idea to put the important words – the ones that are most important to each line’s message – at the ends of lines.
Weighty words can get lost in the middle, it’s true.
Important words go at the end.
You can’t always do this, but it’s better that you do where you can.
Similarly, you want to keep an eye on the lines you put at the beginnings and ends of sections as they’ll be more prominent too.
One common technique is to start each verse – especially the first – with something bold:
The fire burning in her eyes.
[Maroon 5: ‘This Love’]
Another great technique is to finish each verse with a setup line that connects into the chorus. It’s easy to overdo these – no one wants you to write “And then the chorus goes like this:” at the end of your verse. But there are more subtle ways to create the same effect:
She said, “Boy, tell me honestly
Was it real or just for show?”, yeah
She said, “Save your apologies
Baby, I just gotta know:”
“How long has this been goin’ on?
You’ve been creepin’ ’round on me
While you’re callin’ me ‘baby’”
[Charlie Puth: ‘Attention’]
Let’s talk about a couple of things about the line ‘Baby, I just gotta know:’. First, it’s definitely the most dramatic and direct in the pre-chorus. Second, it perfectly sets up the chorus’s first line ‘How long has this been goin’ on?” like a big ‘HERE. WE .GO’. (Which, by the way, is another dramatic line, which also happens to be the song’s lyrical hook.)
There are other tricks and techniques like this one – keep an eye out for them – but in general, they’re all to do with making the most of your lines at the start and ends of sections. In fact, some people call these lines ‘power positions’. Whatever you call them, make them count.
8. Read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style
Last up, here’s your one homework assignment: read William Strunk and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style.
I’ll warn you: it’s pretty old school. There are parts that aren’t relevant to lyric writing. There are ideas that seem kind of outdated and way too formal for the kind of casual, everyday language that makes up a great lyric.
But oh, boy, are there gems. Not just about lyric writing – but about using language to say things clearly, simply and directly in whatever you write.
“Omit needless words.”
“Keep related words together.”
“Write in a way that comes naturally.”
As a concise guide to good English, you can’t beat it. It’s short enough you can get through it in an afternoon or two, but the ideas inside will help you express yourself more clearly and coherently for the rest of your life.
Check it out: The Elements of Style.
For extra credit you can also pick up Sheila Davis’s The Craft of Lyric Writing. It’s more detailed than some songwriters will need, but if you’re serious about your craft you’ll really value its ideas and techniques.
Pat Pattison’s Writing Better Lyrics is also very popular, but my probably controversial opinion is that it waffles on a lot and its ideas are über-über-detailed – to the point they’re more likely to distract and confuse you than inspire you to write better lyrics.
And of course, in my book The Art of Songwriting I go into more detail about how lyrics work, and how you can train your brain to churn out great lyrics without worrying about rules or intricate theories.
So feel free to check out any of these titles too. Or, better yet, pick up all three and form your own opinions about them.
Either way, happy writing. May your lyrics be as awesome and awe-inspiring as you are.