Great lyrics have the power to mold a shapeless piece of music into a profound statement, but a few poorly-written lines could potentially ruin an otherwise great song. Well aware of this fact, many would-be songsmiths opt to sit out of the songwriting process altogether out of fear of writing bad lyrics or of not having anything meaningful to say at all. But like every other aspect of songwriting, lyric-writing is a skill that’s developed over time, trial and error and lots of difficult work. We’ve assembled five helpful tips to help strengthen your lyric-writing game.
1. Start writing as much as you can
This tip seems obvious, but it has to be said. There’s a misconception out there that great songwriters do their work purely through inspirational means, but that’s just not true. When you first learned how to play your main instrument, you probably spent a considerable amount of time stumbling around practicing until you began to really figure things out and develop as a musician. Why would the lyric-writing process be any different?
Get in the habit of writing as frequently as possible, and don’t just stick to lyrics. Keep a journal, write short stories, jot down phrases or statements you find interesting throughout the day. If you’re in the habit of writing frequently, when those moments of inspiration decide to grace your presence, you’ll be ready.
2. Your feelings are icky. Get used to it.
Now for a less obvious tip. If you want to write any sort of honest, meaningful lyrics, get ready to confront some dark truths within yourself. Wow, that got deep quick, didn’t it? Lyrics are nothing more than your own thoughts and feelings reflected back at you. Many musicians don’t write lyrics because they’re secretly afraid of how they feel and what they think.
If you’re new to lyric-writing, you should expect, and even welcome, the bits of unpleasantness you’ll come across while scouring the depths of your mind. When you befriend the truths, feelings, memories, and thoughts that scare or mystify you, you can begin to transform them into meaningful narratives.
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3. Define what you love and loathe about lyrics in other people’s songs
Taking some time to think about what makes a song’s lyrics meaningful or embarrassing can help set you on a path toward writing great lyrics. Most people can recognize bad lyrics in a song, but few people really consider what exactly makes lyrics cheesy, vapid, laughable or just plain unmemorable.
If you fawn over Leonard Cohen’s lyrics but get nauseas when you hear Kid Rock’s, start to think about why. The exercise of pinpointing what makes lyrics good or bad can get you in the right headspace for writing your own.
4. Cut out the cliches
Cliches are not your friend when it comes to lyric-writing. Lyrics like, “I’m broken,” or anything that rhymes vein with pain should be avoided at all costs. Why? Because even if the songs you’re writing aren’t emotional, they should be meaningful to you. Cliches are like serving junk food for Thanksgiving Dinner. Your listeners deserve delicious ethically raised roast turkey and all the trimmings, not a greasy bag of chips.
5. Not everything has to rhyme
Newer songwriters sometimes go out of their way to make the lyrics they write rhyme, and this can be detrimental to a song’s lyrics. Forcing rhymes where they don’t need to be might cause a lyricist to choose weak phrases over stronger ones resulting in no real benefit to the song.
The lyrical phrasing in a song should always supersede things like rhyming, but there’s ways of singing and placing words in a certain way that mimic rhyming. Developing these skills takes time and lots of missteps and false starts, but you’ll improve and solidify your own style over time.
Patrick McGuire is a musician, writer, and educator currently residing in the great city of Philadelphia. He creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.