9 Tips For Better Lyric Writing
For the longest time, I used to hate having to come up with words for my music. It didn’t come naturally to me at all. The musical element of my compositions would (for the most part) flow with relative ease, but when it came to lyrics, I had to work a lot harder. After many years of pure frustration, I decided to focus my time and energy on drastically improving my writing. I dissected songs I heard on the radio. I read a ton of books, attended multiple courses and got advice from people in my musical community who are fantastic lyricists. The combination of all these things paid off and I finally got to the point where finding the right words was no longer such a daunting task.
Here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years that have helped improve my lyric writing. I hope you find them useful.
1. Be Clear with Your Ideas
A common mistake amongst many new writers is that they don’t have a clearly defined theme for their songs. They often have a great idea, but only one or two lines out of the whole song reflect it. Whatever your theme is, it needs to come across throughout the entire song. Make sure that all your lyrics clearly reflect what you are trying to say.
2. Let Your Creative Juju Flow
Whenever I’m writing a new song (or blog post 😉), I start by writing my ideas out as quickly as possible. I never worry about how terrible they sound when I read them back, in fact I already know it will most likely be paragraphs of total gibberish. What’s important at this stage is to simply get the ideas documented as quickly as possible, THEN I go back and meticulously edit everything I’ve written. I find that giving myself permission to work freely without limitations allows my creative juices to flow.
3. Be a GREAT editor
Editing is something I used to be very lazy about 😉 I cannot stress how important it is to edit your lyrics. Once I’m at the editing stage, I go over and over each word, sentence and paragraph until I have something I’m satisfied with. When I take a step back and read all the lyrics together, every section should flow effortlessly into the next. If I have anything that doesn’t seem right, it’s back to editing. This process can take a while, but it’s extremely important and makes a HUGE difference.
A simple exercise I learned early on was to go back through my lyrics and remove any non-descriptive words (like ‘just’). If it doesn’t serve a purpose or is simply a fluffy word to fill some space, get rid of it! You want every line to be strong and make a bold statement that revolves around your theme.
4. Too Many Words!
You want to make sure that your songs aren’t too wordy. By wordy, I mean that you have verse after verse with large blocks of vague or nondescript text, or there are certain lines within your song that clearly have more words than they should 😉. Even writers who incorporate a lot of lyrics into their songs use specific patterns that make the text flow in a very poetic way, whilst still staying true to the message of the song (Bob Dylan, Alanis, and Atmosphere spring to mind).
Remember that annoying KISS acronym (keep it simple stupid)? We’ve heard it a million times, but that’s because it’s so true – especially when it comes to lyric writing. Unless you’ve made sure that every single word is relevant and descriptive, wordy songs with line after line of unrelatable or nondescript text will make a listener switch off very quickly.
Speak your truth, tell people what you have to say, but make sure it’s clear and concise 😊
5. To Rhyme, or Not to Rhyme?
There are many rhyming patterns you can incorporate into your songs.
Commonly used patterns include:
1st line rhymes with the 3rd line 2nd line rhymes with the 4th line
1st line rhymes with the 2nd line
Next time you hear a piece of music, listen carefully to how the writer is connecting words together. Writers these days need to catch a listener’s attention very quickly and so (for the most part) they use simplistic patterns, but there are lots of interesting ones out there.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are also many well-known songs that don’t have any rhymes at all. A few examples of this are “Rocket Man” by Elton John, “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin and “Annie’s Song” by John Denver. These are songs where the lyrics are so incredibly well written that you aren’t even aware that a rhyming pattern doesn’t exist. Each line sits perfectly with the next, the words are descriptive yet simplistic, and the lyrics as a whole flow effortlessly together.
Next time you sit down to write, try experimenting with both rhyming and non-rhyming lyrics.
Something I spend an annoyingly long amount of time on is making sure there are rhythmic patterns within each line of text, in the form of syllables. Almost all modern songs use this trick and I started to use it after reading Jason Blume’s brilliant book 6 Steps to Songwriting Success (highly recommended). He talks about how listeners will connect with a song much quicker if you use this technique and repeat these rhythms in the same part of your song each time (verses, choruses etc).
As an example, this is the chorus from a song I co-wrote with Isha Erskine called “Move On” (which was used in a TV show recently).
Have a look at the number of syllables in each line:
Come on let me see you take that step (9) Don’t be afraid just catch your breath (8) We’ll move on, move on together (8) Move on, move on (4)
That’s the first half of the chorus, here’s the second:
Come on let me hear you make some noise (9) Know that you always have a choice (8) To move on, move on together (8) Move on, move on (4) With me. (2)
Once you have an awareness of this type of writing, you’ll hear it often, especially in commercially written pop music. One of my favorite examples of this is “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus. Have a listen and see if you can notice the pattern they have used.
7. Song Structures
As with rhyming patterns, there are dozens of different song structures. Most chart music uses basic forms, such as Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus – Chorus. To be honest, I probably use this example more than anything else, but I also enjoy writing with other structures in mind. Some songs have their chorus / hook at the end of each verse and then transition to a separate B section. Others have an instrumental as their chorus. There are all sorts of wonderful variations out there, go and explore, see what works for you!
8. Who Are You Writing For?
Something to consider when writing your lyrics is who or what are you writing for?
The type of lyrics you need to write will vary dramatically from one situation to another.
For example – remember my film & TV song I used as an example earlier? I used the words “Move On” multiple times. That’s because TV music needs to have the message hammered home in an overly clear way. They also need simplistic, universal lyrics and VERY clearly defined themes.
Country or Singer/Songwriter tunes on the other hand are the complete opposite, with heavy attention to detail and wonderfully descriptive lyrics, telling a story or painting a vivid picture in our minds, almost like reading a book.
Another thing to consider if you’re writing with a specific artist in mind is what would that artist want to sing about? I’m fortunate enough to co-write with some amazingly talented vocalists here in Austin and not only do I have to write interesting melodies that showcase their impressive vocal range, I also have to make sure that the subject matter is appropriate. For example, women singing songs about how angry and hurt they feel isn’t fashionable anymore 😉 In the 90’s it was extremely popular, but nowadays women generally sing about being strong and empowered. I want to make sure that if I’m writing for a female artist who is a kick-ass musician that they sing lyrics which reflect this.
Different scenarios require totally different lyrics. Something to keep in mind!
9. Above All Else, Be Kind to Yourself
We creative sorts can be so hard on ourselves, especially when things aren’t going right. Always remember that this is a journey, not a destination, and we’re forever changing and growing. Don’t be afraid of sucking, it’s all part of the process and is the only way we can truly grow and become better writers. Don’t let the thought of failure put you off from writing anything at all! Simply focus on writing the very best you can and keep learning from everyone around you. The more you write, the better you’ll become!
If you ever need help with songwriting, there are lots of great songwriters on AirGigs that are available for consultations, cowriting, and writing songs from scratch.
Thanks for reading this far – what did you think of my suggestions? Did I miss anything? Would love to get your thoughts. Feel free to share them in the comments below!