3 Simple Hacks for Writing Great Lyrics Every Day
by Alec Plowman
For many songwriters, lyric writing in the hardest part of the process. Coming up with inspiring chord sequences? Fine. Writing soaring vocal melodies? No problem. But finding the words to make that song really connect with the audience? That’s the tricky part.
I know this all too well, because that used to be me. For years, my songwriting process involved three stages. Stage one was composing the frame of the song. Stage two was sitting down with my paper and pen and completely blanking on ideas. Stage three was spending three hours playing Crash Bandicoot instead of writing lyrics.
The advantage to this method is that you get really good at Crash Bandicoot. The problem with it is that you don’t get a lot of songs finished. And having a pile of unfinished songs is really frustrating.
Fortunately, there are ways around this writer’s block: hacks that will get you writing more, and better lyrics on a daily basis. And the great thing about these hacks is that they’re straightforward to implement. So, check them out, try them out and feel the benefit. I guarantee you’ll spend less time playing Playstation and more time writing awesome songs.
Forget Inspiration! Make Writing Regular
Back when I was a struggling lyricist, I got really hung up on the idea that you needed to be inspired to write great words.
I’d wait for my muse, that spark of creativity to hit me like a bolt of lightning, a gift from the gods of rock ‘n’ roll…
Guess what? That very rarely happened, and I didn’t end up writing many lyrics. Those lightning bolt moments do come around, but they’re usually pretty few and far between. And the truth is that lyric writing – like anything worth doing – requires practice.
I only got good at writing lyrics when I threw the idea of inspiration out the window. Like guitar playing, I made it something that I practiced every day
. I’d lock off half an hour in my daily schedule to sit down with my pen and paper and write. And, I set myself the challenge that, at the end of every session, I needed a complete set of lyrics; three verses and a chorus. Those lyrics didn’t have to be good – and believe me, most of the early ones weren’t (one of the first songs I wrote was about my pet hamster and it still makes me cringe) - but, by the end of that half-hour session, they needed to be done.
After about a year of doing this, I was consistently writing acceptable lyrics. Songs were getting finished and I got a regular swell of pride from my own productivity. Inspiration is great when it happens, but when it doesn’t, you need grit and determination to fall back on.
Broaden Your Horizons: Read A Lot
Once I got into the habit of writing lyrics every day, I came up against another brick wall. I was writing lots of lyrics, but they were all very same-y.
Lots of the same themes, motifs and ideas were cropping up again and again. It got to the point where, in my mind, all the sets of words were blending in to one another, and I was struggling to remember which was which.
The problem, I eventually realized, that I had a limited pool of experience to draw from.
I was still a teenager at this point, had a lot to learn from life and hadn’t gotten out into the great wide world. To make matters worse, my media collection – the thing I was basing my ideas on – was limited to say the least; you can only get so many songs out of a complete collection of Arnold Schwarzenegger videos, a stack of ‘80s X-Men comics and every Crash Bandicoot game (In case you didn’t guess, I REALLY liked Crash back in the day).
If you want to be a great writer, you should read a lot.
That’s as true for writing novels as it is for writing songs. These days, I try and read as widely and prolifically as possible; newspapers, fiction, non-fiction, history books, graphic novels – whatever I can get my hands on. I actually carve out a half-hour of my schedule to do this every day, right before my half-hour of writing. By reading, I get a regular stream of new ideas, and when I sit down to write, I’ve usually got a topic in mind. Which is great, because having something to write about is half the battle.
Don’t Just Listen to Great Songs; Learn From Them
I was writing lyrics regularly, and those lyrics were no longer just paeans to the greatness of Arnold Schwarzenegger. But my lyrics still weren’t great. In fact, they were all over the place. I struggled getting them to fit the structure of the songs I was writing. Some of the rhymes were really awkward. I’d made progress, but I was still falling short of the greatness reached by my rock ‘n’ roll heroes, and that bothered me.
Practice was part of the equation, but practice only got me so far.
As the old gym saying goes, “if you do what you always do, you’ll get what you always get.”
I only got over that hurdle went I stopped just listening to other people’s lyrics and started to understand them.
I don’t mean understand them on an emotional level; I mean understand them on a practical level.
I’d take my CDs and start studying the lyric sheets, breaking them down in an almost scientific manner. In doing that, I started to understand how different rhyme schemes worked, that songs had different verse and chorus structures and that many of these patterns were common and recurring. Once I understood the conventions of lyrics great lyrics, I was able to emulate them. And once I was comfortable emulating those conventions, I was able to break them; that’s when I started getting truly great results.
Rules are made to be broken, but you’ve got to learn them first. Study great lyrics and eventually you’ll write them.