11 Secrets to Writing Great Lyrics
Words are all we have and if you are a songwriter, they can be your best friend or your worst enemy. While instrumentation and melody can open your mind to the feelings and emotions that a song conveys, it is the lyrics that ultimately reach through and touch your heart. And the right lyrics are often what separate the line between mediocrity and transcendence.
The hard part though is in coming up with the right lyrics, and there’s a reason why most songwriters’ workspaces look like a printing press that’s just weathered a tornado. Following are eleven secrets, if you will, that will hopefully help you with this process of finding the right words and stringing them together to create your own lyrical masterpiece.
Write what you know
You can’t write about love if you don’t know what it’s like to have fallen in love. You can’t write about despair if you don’t know what it’s like to have lost. You see the thing is music, in a lot of ways, is like body-language. Incongruence and insincerity shows through unlike most other forms of communication. So if you want your listeners to believe in what you tell them, make sure that you’ve lived every word of what you say.
Tap into your past
This might sound obvious, but there are so many songwriters around today that try writing about what they think people want to hear about. The problem with this is that they hardly have anything to draw upon. So use every moment you’ve lived and learned to your advantage and your lyrics will be all the more compelling.
Make it relatable
Listening to a song and being able to relate it to something that’s happened in your own life or something which you’ve felt yourself is a profound experience. And the truly great lyricists of the world know and use this fact to their advantage.
Don’t be too vague
There’s something incredibly beautiful in how two people can listen to the same song and infer two completely different meanings out of it. And this freedom and room for interpretation is also a mark of truly great lyrics. But that said, you should also avoid being too vague and not having any concept or story whatsoever. Remember, your listener wants you to leave room for the imagination but they also want you to lead them at the same time.
Know what you want to say
I doubt there’s any songwriter in this world that sets out to write lyrics knowing exactly what he or she is going to say from start to finish. But, it’s important to have at least a vague idea of what you want to say through the lyrics. Not only will this prevent you from getting lost in your own rambling and frustrating your listeners, but will also makes the writing process so much easier.
Write, write and then write some more
The one proven way to become a master at something is to do it and keep doing it over and over again. And so it is with lyric writing. In the same way that it takes a guitarist a few thousand hours to find his signature tone and it takes a singer a few hundred performances to find his singing voice, it will take you as much time to find your writing voice with your lyrics.
Like there would be no Jeff Loomis if there were no Yngwie Malmsteen, and no Yngwie Malmsteen if there were no Ritchie Blackmore, and no Ritchie Blackmore if there were no – well you get the idea. The creative mind needs inspiration and influences as much as an artist needs his eyesight. So seek out lyricists and writers whose work inspire and excites you and spend your free time studying their technique and style.
There’s a reason why writers refer to their craft as ‘battling the blank page.’ And that’s because writing can be hard; incredibly hard at times to be exact. And the only sure-fire way to overcome any and all literary obstacles is through perseverance. In a Rolling Stone interview in 1971 John Lennon said that he spent so long trying to come up with the lyrics for Nowhere Man that he actually drove himself into a state of paranoia because he just wasn’t able to produce any words. And he has said that the lyrics finally gushed out of him in one gulp when he lay down and tried not to write.
Use literary devices to your advantage
You don’t need to be an English literature major to be a great lyricist. Just knowing the basics of rhyming patterns, alliteration, imagery and metaphors can carry you a long way through your literary journeys. That said, you should never be hesitant to learn. After all, there is no such thing as worthless knowledge.
Keep singing in mind
This is especially important if you’re writing lyrics to a piece of music that is already composed. But it’s all too easy to lose your bearings when writing and constructing what you feel are compelling lyrics only to realize that they’re awkward or downright impossible to sing. While most songwriters tweak their melodies and lyrics simultaneously, it is always advisable to keep in mind the fact that you ultimately need to sing what you write.
Write to your audience
It’s common sense that you wouldn’t write the lyrics to a country song the same way in which you would write the lyrics to a heavy metal song. Knowing how to tailor your story to your audience is almost as important as being able to tell your story well.