Filling a blank computer screen or piece of white paper with original song lyrics is no easy task. Some songwriters struggle with the thought that what they write might be too revealing while others fear that what they come up with is too boring, cliche, or dull. The lyrical part of songwriting proves to be the most challenging for many otherwise talented songwriters, which means it’s something we should talk about.
No matter what your unique challenges are for writing great song lyrics, one thing is sure to help: paying attention.
Pay attention to your own life
Being aware of what’s happening in your life doesn’t mean your lyrics need to be navel-gazing or self-serving. The truth is that you can’t help but let your own perceptions, previous experiences, and relationships shape the way you see the world and make music. In light of this, one of the best things you can do for your lyric-writing process is to get in touch with how you feel about your own life the best you can. For some writers, the dramas, characters, and story arcs that exist within the confines of their own experiences fit perfectly into their song lyrics, but it can and should be creative fuel and inspiration for all writers. No matter how hard you try, you can’t live anyone’s life other than your own, so pay attention to the one you’ve got and turn it into stories for your music.
Pay attention to what’s happening around the world
Writing lyrics that are inspired by politics, world events, and other dramas playing out on a large human scale doesn’t mean your music has to be pigeon-holed as being political or judgy. Since millions of people listen to music to help them cope with the world around them, shutting out what’s happening around you won’t help you write meaningful lyrics. But there’s a catch. Being overt about your opinions in your lyrics run you the risk of alienating some listeners. And in today’s tumultuous media climate, some listeners run to music as a refuge from what’s happening around them. How and what you decide to write is in your own hands and no matter what you do, your music will never be a good fit for everyone.
Pay attention to the lyrics of other artists you admire
If another artist’s lyrics stop you in your tracks, figuring out why can be a huge help in writing some great ones of your own. Thinking about what makes lyrics impactful aids in developing taste in a musician and a blueprint for their own writing. I should note here that this doesn’t mean copying another artist’s ideas and pasting them into your own work. It’s an exercise designed to get you thinking about why certain lyrics impact you and how to get the most out of writing your own. Similarly, taking some time pinpointing lyrics you don’t jive with can help you avoid the same lyrical pitfalls and cliches.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.