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.
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/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 be at its most powerful.
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. The example I like to use is you can either describe a woman as sexy but with evil intentions or you can simply describe her as “a black heart in a green dress.” 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.
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.
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.
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, interesting way will work wonders when it comes to having a compelling – and commercially viable – song. A secondary tip when it comes to chorus lyrics 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 land with a satisfying – if metaphorical – thud.
One thing I talk to beginning songwriters about often 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.
One of the final tests I use when refining my lyrics is to make sure that there’s a through line in my story. Do my “ands” and “buts” make sense? If they’re used improperly they can act as speed bumps or minor distractions 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.