At its best, lyric writing is a magical mixture of creativity and storytelling that can bring your listener into a world you’ve created and hold them there for the length of your song. However, in order to create the perfect, tightly-scripted narrative that great lyrics possess, countless hours of writing and re-writing are often necessary. I’ve found it’s just as important to know how to critically examine and edit a lyric as it is to write one in the first place. To that end, here are seven questions that songwriters can ask themselves during and after a songwriting session to make sure their lyrics are as effective as they can possibly be.
1. Is everything you’re writing related to the hook/message of the song?
Given the truly limited amount of time you’ve got to make your point in a lyric, it pays to make sure each line serves the message of your hook so that the song’s point is developed and driven home at every opportunity. Lines that just sound or feel good are, unfortunately, a waste of valuable space.
On a related note, if you’re building your lyric around an overall metaphor such as the ocean, for example, stay away from expressions or images that don’t relate. What I mean is that expressions about waves will work better than expressions like “putting on the brakes” which relate to automotive imagery instead. Each image and detail should relate to the overall metaphor in order for the lyric to be at its most powerful. Be careful, though, not to use so many metaphors that your song sounds contrived. Being conversational and not “too clever” is an important step in keeping your song believable.
2. Have you used details in your verses?
Verses are the place to tell the story and stories are best told with interesting details. The expression “A picture is worth a thousand words” is never truer than in your verses. To that end, really focus on the kind of imagery that will bring the listener into your song. Instead of saying “a woman gives a man at the bar a cold look,” you could say “his beer was warmer than the look in her eye.”
On the other extreme, be careful not to overdo it in your verses with the kind of minutia that makes a song seem too long or confuses your listener. The keys to great verse writing are being interesting and impactful.
3. Have you already said it?
One of the traps we fall into as songwriters is inadvertently coming up with different ways to say the same thing. Be certain in your verses that each line furthers the story and you’re not simply repeating yourself line after line. Every line of every verse is an opportunity to move your story along with new details/information.
4. Have you said enough?
As songwriters, we’re the only ones who know the whole story that we’re trying to tell. There’s a danger in assuming that your listener knows what you’re writing about. Make sure your lyric would be clear to any listener who is hearing your song for the first time. Remember that the average listener doesn’t have the benefit of being inside your head or having you around to explain anything.
5. Is your chorus lyric the main message of your song and is it memorable?
Remember that your chorus lyric is the single best opportunity you’ve got to make your song both catchy and memorable. Making sure your chorus speaks to your overall point and does it in a simple, punchy and interesting way will work wonders when it comes to having a compelling - and commercially viable - song. A secondary tip is to keep in mind that the last line of your chorus is a very powerful spot. It’s often the last thing your listener hears before you go back into telling more of the story or the song ends. For this reason, it’s a perfect place to put your hook. The key is to have the last line of your chorus go out with a satisfying - if metaphorical - bang.
6. Do your words sound good sung?
One thing I say to songwriters who are just starting is what I refer to as the hippocratic oath of lyric writing. First and foremost your words should “do no harm.” What I mean by this is that if a lyric doesn’t sound good - and natural - being sung, it doesn’t matter what you’re saying, things won’t go well. Lyric writing may be related to poetry but a lyric still has to answer to a singer. It’s not enough to tell a good story. The easier and more comfortable a lyric is to sing the more fun it will be for people to listen to. Then, and only then, will you have an opportunity to tell your story and have people listen. A tip to help you is to say the words back and keep track of your lip movements. If you stumble, so will the singer, so look for physically easier ways to say the same things.
7. Are the little words like “and,” “but” & “’cause” used properly, or can they be removed altogether?
One of the final tests I use when refining my lyrics is to make sure that there are no speed bumps in my story. Do my “ands” and “buts” make sense? If they’re used improperly they can be distracting to the listener. Sometimes the best solution is to see how many of those little words can be removed entirely. It’s amazing to see how little you have to say to tell your story if you say it properly.
Lyric writing is an art, but it’s also a craft. A successful lyric performs a delicate balancing act between substance and style. By asking yourself the questions above, you can make sure you’re not just telling a great story but that you’re telling it in a way that makes people want to lean in and listen.
Cliff Goldmacher is a songwriter, producer, session musician, engineer, author and owner of recording studios in Nashville, TN and Sonoma, CA. Cliff’s site, http://www.EducatedSongwriter.com, is full of resources for the aspiring songwriter.
Cliff’s company, http://www.NashvilleStudioLive.com, provides songwriters outside of Nashville with virtual access to Nashville’s best session musicians and singers for their songwriting demos.