If you’re new to songwriting or even if you have plenty of experience, you might find it hard to write lyrics. Many talented songwriters are perfectly fine with bearing their souls through every musical aspect of their songs but struggle when it comes to matching music with words. If this sounds like you, it could be because you simply have no clue what to write about. Or, you may think lyrics are like windows to the soul and have no interest in revealing yours through your music. But the truth is that at any point in time, there’s an endless list of topics to write music about. And there’s no rule saying the lyrics in your music need to be emotionally deep or revealing. The important thing to focus on is creating work that feels unique and authentic to you. For songwriters struggling to do this through the lyrics in their music, here are four tips to help.
Try journaling and writing exercises
You could stop here at this tip and already get huge benefits to help you write better lyrics. Lyric writing is like anything else we do in the way that practice makes us better and gets us closer to our goals. If you keep a journal and write in it each day, the act of putting your thoughts on paper will become much more natural over time. And if you regularly incorporate exercises like free-writing into your routine, that’s even better. Free-writing is the process of writing down whatever pops into your head in a completely unrestrained way. Rather than editing or judging what you write during this process, you simply write down exactly what you’re thinking without judgment. The idea is to clear the mental junk out of your head so that lyrical ideas are free to reveal themselves.
Invent characters and write from their perspectives
If you can’t find anything to say in your music, invent characters that can speak for you. You can create fictional personalities or even make up perspectives from famous moments in history if you like. Doing this will unlock energy and ideas for some songwriters, but not everyone. But even if you’re skeptical, it’s worth giving it a try. Writing from a character’s perspective might be exactly what you need to express how you really feel through music. Or, it simply could be a good jumping off point to inspire your lyricism. Either way, you won’t know until you try, so give it a shot.
Avoid the obvious
Your lyrics don’t need to be emotional or profound. They could literally be about nothing, and it won’t matter as long as things sound and feel interesting. But if you resort to stating the obvious in your lyrics, it will be worse than writing gibberish. Listeners may not realize it, but they’re looking for something to pull them in when it comes to lyrics. It could be humor, a relatable story, a character they want to root for, something bizarre or poetic. Stating the obvious––“I feel sad,” “I was walking down the street,” “You make me feel,”––is a road that leads to nowhere. You don’t need to be cryptic or overly poetic in your lyrics, but your writing will be so much better if you can add in elements of tension and intrigue; the kind of things people don’t usually hear in their daily lives. This takes practice and shifting reliance on writing boring, overtly obvious lyrics starts with recognizing it when it happens and trying something different.
Focus on storytelling
If your lyrics aren’t strong, it’s probably because there isn’t any storytelling in your music. Music is at its most powerful when listeners can hear themselves inside what’s being presented. Lyrics don’t need to be in a song for this to happen, but when they are featured, listeners will relate most to stories. A story needs to have some sort of action and tension to be relatable. You may not think you can present a meaningful story in two to four minutes of music, but you absolutely can. Songwriters have been doing it since the birth of popular music. Musical storytelling requires saying only what you need to to build an experience and to fit that message within a set musical framework.
It takes a great deal of trial and error to develop the skill of musical lyricism, so don’t give up if you don’t get it right the first couple of songs. With enough time and practice, you’ll find a voice and style that’s unique only to you, and this is essential for writing engaging lyrics.
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.