Three Tips For Avoiding Lyric Writing Clichés


2018-10-06 Essay

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by Alec Plowman

We all know a great lyric when we hear one.

Something about it grabs you and speaks to you with an immediacy that can’t be ignored.

Great lyrics, though, are relatively few and far between. Unique and compelling voices stand out precisely because there are so many overused sentiments and regurgitated lyrical clichés in the world of popular music.

But how do you avoid clichés in your lyric writing? What makes a songwriter fall into the trap of overfamiliarity, and how do we avoid it?

If you’re falling back on tried-and-tested and want to take your words to the next level, then this guide is for you. Hear are three top tips for writing attention grabbing lyrics that are fresh, from the heart, and cliché free.

Broaden your horizons

Do your lyrics repeat tired sentiments and overused phrases? If so, you probably need to get out of your comfort zone.

Every songwriter starts off working with what they know. They listen to music and study lyrics within their genres of interest, and what they create inevitably emulates the conventions of those genres.

Before too long, though, conventions turn into clichés and you end up with cookie cutter lyrics devoid of personality.

The way you get around this problem is by casting a wider net when it comes to your influences. Push yourself to listen to new kinds of music and work out what lyric writers in those fields are doing differently.

Key to making this work is understanding that it’s an active process. You’re not just listening to new music; you’re putting it under the microscope, dissecting these songwriters’ approaches to lyric writing to see what makes them tick.

From there, you take those new approaches and apply them to your style of writing. By doing this, you’re effectively expanding your palette. With more tools at your disposal, you don’t end up recycling the same motifs, and present the listener with something they weren’t entirely expecting.

“Feel… don’t think… use your instincts”

Outside of the realms of ancient intergalactic conflict, the wise words of Obi Wan Kenobi have many applications, including lyric writing.

One of the big mistakes people make when it comes to lyrics is being too preoccupied with what they think the listener will want to hear. The problem with this approach is that it leads to endless second-guessing, and usually results in “safe” (read: clichéd) lyrics that offer comfortable familiarity over a genuine and affecting hook.

Don’t play it safe when writing lyrics, and don’t be constrained to the imagined expectations of others. Go with that odd word choice you’re on the fence about; express true sentiments rather than those you think a given song should have.

Don’t get me wrong; this approach isn’t always smooth sailing. You might produce some messy first drafts this way, and sometimes what you’re doing just plain won’t work. But, all of those inconsistencies will come out in the redraft, and this way of thinking will read to lyrics that feel more genuine, emotionally engaging and reel the listener in from the first line.

Look at it this way. It’s one thing to give the listener what they think they want. It’s another thing entirely to give them what they didn’t know they needed.

Don’t just copy what’s already popular

Sometimes, songwriting clichés come from a lack of experience in the area we’re writing about. Write a “state-of-the-world” protest song without an interest in politics, for example, and you’ll find yourself falling back on the kind of “too many people making too many problems” generalizations that we’ve heard over and over since the 1960s. Likewise, attempting to write a love song without being a romantic, you might end up repeating schmaltzy conventions that have been overused since the dawn of popular music.

To clarify, there is nothing wrong with going outside of your comfort zone when it comes to writing lyrics. Indeed, that’s exactly what we were encouraging in point one. But, there’s a difference between expanding your horizons to push your lyrics to the next level and writing about something you’re completely unqualified to talk about.

More often than not, this sort of lyric writing comes about because the writer is trying to follow a trend - to emulate what is already popular. But, the truth is, people see straight through this kind of writing. It feels disingenuous, precisely because there isn’t much truth in the words.

If you want to write on a subject, make sure you know the subject you’re writing about. Don’t write shallow lyrics that follow the latest trend if they don’t suit your style. Whatever the subject matter, heartfelt and truthful lyrics will always have a greater impact that disingenuous ones.

Oh, and if you’re looking for fresh, cliché free lyrics to make your song stand out, why not check out our Premium Lyrics catalogue?