As a lyricist, I’m always on the lookout in my own writing for what I would call “lazy language.” What I mean by this is a part of a lyric that feels clichéd. The problem, specifically, is that we’re only given a certain number of lines of lyric to convey the emotion and story of our song. Wasting one or more of those lines with expressions that are so overused that they cease to carry any emotional impact feels like a lost opportunity to me. That being said, I’m also a fan of saying things in the most simple, direct way. Therein lies the tension because there are certain expressions that do this job better than any other. Below are a couple of pros and cons for the use of common expressions/clichés.
Sometimes a cliché is the best way to say something
As I mentioned earlier, the power of a lyric is in its clarity and directness. If you’ve tried to find a powerful way to say something and still keep coming back to a common line like “I love you,” then use it. One thing you might consider, however, is to modify the common expression in a unique way. For example, if you’re going to say, “I love you” in your song, you could refine/specify it by writing, “I love you like the ocean loves the shore.”
You can tweak a cliché slightly to make it new
Country music is full of examples of clichés turned on their heads to create an interesting and memorable hook. An example that comes to mind is my friend Jeff Middleton’s co-write “Drowns the Whiskey” that Jason Aldean took to #1. Instead of the clichéd expression about how “the whiskey drowns your memory” the last line of the chorus is “your memory drowns the whiskey.” By simply rearranging the words of an overused expression, Jeff and his co-writers added emotion and uniqueness to their song’s message.
Don’t use a line just because it’s the first thing that comes to mind
I’m all about maintaining flow in a writing session. Sometimes this can mean putting in a “good enough” lyric to keep moving forward to get a first draft of your song completed. But that’s exactly what “good enough” lines are for: first drafts. You should be merciless in your editing process to be certain that you’re not coasting your way through your song’s story just because the lines sound good or work well enough. My personal least favorite cliché is when the lyric talks about feeling something “deep down inside.” That, to me, feels like giving up before a more visual or memorable option presents itself.
Don’t “tell them” when you can “show them”
Clichés often are the result of wanting to get your point across but not taking the time to do it in a visual, emotional and memorable way. One of my favorite “show ‘em, don’t tell ‘em” examples is the opening lines to the John Hiatt song, “Icy Blue Heart.” It reads, “She came on to him like a slow moving cold front / His beer was warmer than the look in her eye.” THAT, my friends, is truly “showing them.”
I’m not saying that writing great, memorable lyrics is easy. In fact, I’m saying the opposite. Using existing clichés is easy. What’s more difficult - but MUCH more rewarding - is taking the time to use language to tell your song’s story in a meaningful and unique way.
Cliff Goldmacher is a GRAMMY-recognized, #1 hit songwriter, music producer and author with recording studios in Nashville, TN and Middle River, MD. Through his studios, Cliff provides songwriters outside of Nashville with virtual, live access to Nashville’s best session musicians and studio vocalists for their songwriting demos. Find out more. You can also download Cliff’s FREE tip sheet “A Dozen Quick Fixes To Instantly Improve Your Songs.”