Lyric writing, at its heart, is about telling a story. However, it can help to remember that it’s not just the story we tell but how we tell it that gets people to listen to what we have to say. To that end, I’ve put together a collection of tips and tricks to help you tell your story in the most compelling way possible.
Rhyme is a device that songwriters have used for ages in lyric writing. When investigated a bit more deeply, rhymes are designed to not only make a lyric sing more pleasantly but also to make a lyric more memorable. Another way to put “more memorable” is “easier to remember.” And, of course, the more easily our listeners remember our songs, the more likely those songs are to get stuck in their heads. This is a good thing. However, it’s not just rhyming that makes lyrics more memorable but the repetition of the rhyme structure. In other words, by keeping your rhyme scheme the same in similar sections (from verse 1 to verse 2 for example), you’ll be creating a lyric that your listeners – and hopefully the artist considering cutting your song – will find more memorable.
Often in storytelling, it’s the details that capture an audience’s attention. The use of details especially in your verse lyric – the place where you further your song’s story – is a tried and true device for drawing in your listener. Even better, if your details can take the form of images, you’ll be that much more likely to communicate your message in a potent, interesting way. The expression “a picture is worth a thousand words” exists for a reason.
Another trick that can be particularly effective in certain songs is to go back to the first line of your first verse and make that the last line of the song as well. This doesn’t work for every song – nor should it – but it can be a nice way to bring things full circle and leave your listener with a reminder of how far you’ve taken them with your lyric.
This may sound like an obvious tip but I believe it’s worth mentioning. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the story we’re telling in our lyric, we forget that our chorus is the spot where we should take a moment to get to the point. As I’ve suggested – not so subtly – in the past, our chorus is the place where we take our song’s message, tie it to a baseball bat and beat the crap out of our listeners with it.
The placement of your lyrical hook is almost as important as the hook itself. What I mean is that if you don’t place the hook in a position where the listener is most likely to notice it, you risk diminishing the power of your message. As a result, the last line of a chorus is a great place for your hook. You can use the initial lines of your chorus as a build up and then deliver your hook as the payoff. It may also feel good to have your hook as the first line of the chorus. There’s no reason you can’t do both. A secondary and related tip would be to set up your hook in the last line with a rhyme in the line before it. That will make your arrival at the hook that much more satisfying for the listener when they get there.
Often, in the songwriting process, we get in a flow and write quite a bit before we stop and reflect. This is, often, a wonderful thing and should be honored. The risk, though, is that we might not notice that we’ve been saying the same thing in slightly different ways over and over. While I’d never suggest slowing down the creative flow, I would highly recommend being ruthless after the fact and revising any line in your verses that doesn’t further your story in some way. You’ve got a very limited amount of space in a song to say what you need to say, don’t dilute it by saying something more than once.
While you should place this next tip in the “every once in a while” folder, sometimes swapping the order of your verses can give your song a little unintended pizazz. It might be that your second verse – when you make it the first thing your listeners hear – can more quickly and dramatically pull them in. And, in turn, your first verse when moved later in the song, can add information in a way that is a bit more engaging. This little trick certainly doesn’t work every time but when it does it really does.
Building a song’s story around a central metaphor – like a beach for example – is a great way to build a miniature world populated with imagery and details that convey your message in a unified way. The risk, however, is that straying from this metaphor can make your lyric less focused and even a bit confusing. For example, if your song’s metaphor is, indeed, a beach, then imagery and details about Chevrolets or kitchens will feel out of place.
As a lyricist, I live in mortal fear of going on too long. The art – and craft – of lyric writing is to say the maximum amount in the minimum amount of space. So when it comes to editing your lyric, it’s always a good idea to ask yourself if you could have said what you said in fewer words. If you can, do, and if you can’t, you’re done.
When it comes to catchy, memorable lyrics, a good “whoa, whoa, whoa” or “oooh, oooh” can go a long way towards earwormdom. As lyricists, we often forget that we don’t need to use every word in the dictionary to make our point. Sometimes a well-placed nonsense word will not only be fun to sing but give your listener a moment to digest your other lyrics. There’s no shame in it. Try it sometime.
And, last but not least, it can be helpful to remember that the major difference between lyrics and poetry is that someone will sing your lyrics. Often, the perfect word to tell your story just won’t sound good sung. The word “moist” comes to mind if you’re looking for an example. A lyric that doesn’t sing well has two major problems. First of all, it will be hard to find an artist interested in singing it. Secondly, even if you do find someone willing sing it, it won’t be enjoyable to listen to (see “moist” above). All this to say, make sure the words you’ve chosen not only communicate the message but sound good doing it.
As I’m sure you’re aware, lyric writing can be both exhausting and exhilarating. The key is to remember that our job as lyricists is to give our listeners something worthy of engaging their ever-diminishing attention spans. While these tips are by no means an exhaustive list, my hope is that they give you a few things to think about as you write new songs or edit the ones you’ve already got.