Three Commonsense Tools For Writing Great Lyrics (That No-One Tells You)

2018-05-06 Essay


by Alec Plowman

When I started out writing lyrics, I read a bunch of books, forum threads, and how-to-guides on great lyric writing.

I’d say that 20% of what I read really helped me on my journey as a lyricist.

The other 80% however was utter nonsense.

The big problem with a lot of the lyric writing advice out there is that it mythologizes the process of lyric writing, employing endless clichés about creativity and inspiration.

There are plenty of people out there that want to mystify the process of lyric writing. Over time, I’ve come to realize that most of those people aren’t good lyric writers.

Don’t get me wrong, writing great lyrics isn’t easy. It takes years of practice, and hard work. But it’s not some strange alchemy, nor does it require cosmic alignment for those lyrics to appear on the page.

So, with that in mind, here are my three commonsense tools for writing great lyrics. Hey, they ain’t fancy, but they’ll get the job done.

Make writing boring

This one seems counterintuitive to a lot of people. Lyric writing is supposed to be exciting, surely?

It’s true that you don’t want your lyric writing sessions to be a dirge. That’s going to sap your motivation really quickly. But, you don’t want to build it up too much in your head either, because that’s when writer’s block starts to kick in.

Making a mountain out of lyric writing is a mistake that lots of aspiring lyricists make. They build themselves up for a lyric writing session, but when they sit down at their keyboard, or with pen in hand, and wait for inspiration to strike them like a lightning bolt, it doesn’t.

After a while, apathy kicks in, and they’re less motivated to write lyrics. As a result, it takes them a long time to build themselves back up to lyric writing. Once they finally get there, they’ve made a mountain out of it again, inspiration still doesn’t strike, and the cycle continues.

When you make lyric writing boring, you take away the pressure of writing something truly great every time you sit down, and focus instead on just writing something.
Try writing a new set of lyrics everyday – set aside an hour and aim to have two verses and a chorus finished by that time.

Does it have to be good?

No. It just has to be done.
What you come up with first will almost certainly suck. But, the more and more you practice, the better you’ll get. Before you know it, you’ll be writing killer lyrics in your sleep, and without a mountain of pressure to boot!

Don’t worry about getting it right first time

Following on from point number one is not being precious about your first draft.

Getting your ideas onto paper is a process. Lyrics, like any form of writing, rarely come to your mind fully formed. In fact, you should look at the writing as the act of making sense of those ideas that are in your head.
Chances are the first draft of lyrics that’ll appear on your page will be the equivalent to a mental de-clutter. There won’t be any rhyme or reason to them (probably quite literally) and while some lines, phrases and motifs might stand out to you, there’ll be a lot of inarticulate junk in there that you have to wade through.

Don’t get disheartened at this point!
I know a great many would-be lyricists who gave up after the first draft, not realizing that it was only step one of the process!

Now that you’ve got your ideas out, take a breather. Go for a walk, catch a movie; whatever you want to do.

Then, come back to draft number one, look at it with fresh eyes and start to piece together what works and what doesn’t. Before you know it, you’ll have the beginnings of the set of lyrics that you pictured in your head.

Great lyrics tend to come about in the redrafting phase, so don’t fall at the first hurdle!

You don’t have to be an original

When I speak to people about lyrics, it amazes me how many would-be writers are pre-occupied with originality.

They want to write something that is completely out there, expressing sentiments that no-one else has ever thought of, using language and syntax that no-one else ever thought of putting together.

That’s all well and good. But, nine times out of ten, the lyrics those people show me are utter garbage.

Why? They’re so focused on being original that they’ve not made their lyrics relatable. They’re so obtuse that neither me, nor any self-respecting listener, can get their heads around them.

Don’t worry about trying to break the mold with your lyrics. Sure, you don’t want to be derivative, and you should avoid well-worn clichés where at all possible. But, you’re a lyric writer, not an avant-garde poet. Your priority, first and foremost, is to connect with the listener.

So, avoid being clever for the sake of it. Resist the temptation of reaching for the thesaurus and ask yourself this; am I trying to be an “original” or am I writing to serve the song?

In my experience, the best songwriters are always striving for the latter.