So you want to write song lyrics?
In this Beginner’s guide to writing lyrics series of posts I’m going to outline some tips for getting started with lyric writing.
There must be millions of people around the world who like the idea of writing song lyrics. We listen to our favourite songs and get so much joy and inspiration from them. We marvel at the cleverness of them, their poetry, and how catchy they are. But how do you go from thinking about writing lyrics to actually writing some that you feel proud of and that could become part of an actual song? Well, in this beginner’s guide to writing lyrics, I’ll have a go at outlining some of the steps and techniques that I think will help a would be lyricist to become a fully-fledged songwriter.
Step 1 – jump in and start writing some words
You could start by consuming a book of songwriting theory. However, personally, I don’t think that’s the best way to go. The chances are that your motivation levels will go from sky high to rock bottom in a short space of chapters. Learning the theory of writing lyrics has its place and is important (and I will come back to this later) but in this guide to writing lyrics my recommendation is that you start instead by putting words to paper.
Reasons why you should jump in and start writing
- The commitment of words onto a page or screen is the FUN part of writing. And I think having fun straight away is vital to help maintain your motivation and inspiration.
- Even though you may not immediately end up with fully formed song lyrics you will come up with ideas. And those ideas can then later be polished up. There will be lines or sections of your lyrics that you will instantly feel drawn to and filing those away can be invaluable when you revisit your initial ideas at a later stage.
Indeed, I have another post that talks about how to revisit old poems and turn them into songs. The chances are that your early efforts at writing lyrics will end up as somewhere between poems and songs. I used to refer to what I wrote in my early years of writing as ‘pop poems’.
Step 2 – be inspired by your favourite songs
As you’re experimenting with lyrics, it’s worth evaluating the songs and artists that inspired you. What was it about their songs that took you beyond the point of enjoying listening to their music to where you wanted to write your own songs? What style or styles of songs do you feel drawn to? Is it one particular genre or a range of genres?
The point of considering your favourite musical artists isn’t to copy them or emulate them. Or, at least, I don’t think it should be. But it’ll help you think about components of your favourite songs that you might want to write into your lyrics. Are you drawn by big catchy choruses? Or by intricate poetic verses? Are you inspired by story-led lyrics or do you prefer songs that focus on provoking a particular emotion? Maybe you prefer songs that are really straightforward and literal as opposed to ones that employ lots of metaphors?
I’ve probably laboured the point but there’s a reason for this. When you are starting out with writing lyrics I think it’s important that you are clear on what you want to write rather than what you feel a songwriter should write. As an example, artists like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan may be held up (rightly) as having been master exponents of lyric writing but it’s equally valid to be a fan of artists and bands that don’t get that critical acclaim but who bring joy to their listeners, including you.
And you’re probably better trying to write in a genre and style that you find interesting as you start out. Play about with whatever themes and ideas come to you and see where that takes you. Don’t worry too much about trying to make everything perfect at the first attempt – what’s more important is that you get down the bones of a potential song lyric.
Step 3 – review and edit your draft lyrics
I think it’s important to regard your first completed version of a lyric as a first draft. Whether you’re a beginner writer or an experienced successful songwriter, you’re very unlikely to create a lyric so polished at the first time of asking that it doesn’t need any refinement. In fact, it is especially the most successful, most experienced lyric writers who would probably be most adamant about this point.
Tips for reviewing lyrics
With your first draft in hand, your task then is to review the lyric and edit it. When you review it, I would suggest using some or all of these techniques:
- Check that the lyric is formatted neatly, with different sections clearly separated. Having a neatly presented lyric typed out will make it a lot easier to review the lyric. And may also help you identify whether there is any uncertainty in your head about where one section starts and another ends.
- Read the lyric to yourself in your head. You can imagine someone singing it if you like. The purpose is to see if there are any parts of the lyric that feel out of place or clunky. You can hopefully also spot other pitfalls such as typos, grammatical errors, use of inconsistent tenses, words that have been repeated too many times.
- Sing the lyric out loud. Even if you’re not the most talented singer it’s worth finding somewhere where you feel comfortable to sing the song as you intend it to be sung. This will help you tease out the supporting melody. It may also reveal that there are parts that are surprisingly hard to sing. Maybe it’s because of inconsistencies of line length, or the sounds that comprise certain words are tricky to put together consistently. Whatever the reason, singing the song will often help you identify improvements that can be made. And if a vocalist subsequently picks up your lyric, he or she will appreciate that you have tackled these issues at an early stage.
- Get someone else to review the lyric and provide feedback. If you can find someone who is willing to review your lyric and who you can rely on to provide constructive feedback, then this can be a good approach. As writers we are often too close to a lyric to see potential problems with it. Having someone provide a more objective assessment can be really helpful. Maybe it will reveal that their understanding of the lyric is completely different to what you had in mind.
I’ll come on to some more advanced skills a little later but I think these initial steps will be valuable in helping you to correct any obvious problems with the lyric and to help you uncover ways in which you could start to improve its impact and singability.
Tips for editing a lyric
Your next step is to edit the lyric. Here are some tips:
- Allow some time to pass before editing the lyric. You may find that you intuitively do some editing as you review the lyrics for the first time. That’s fine. However, I think it’s worth completing your review and then letting a little time pass before you go back to the lyric and start to chop parts out and add new parts in. Taking that time allows a little better perspective to be applied. There’s a danger that in the initial moments after writing a draft lyric we either see the lyric as artificially brilliant or artificially awful.
- Edit from an electronic version and save the first draft. I like to edit from an electronic copy of a lyric. So even if I’ve written out my first draft in pen, I then write it up electronically. I’d recommend saving that initial first draft. Then create a copy of it which you’re going to play about with. Hopefully the changes you edit in will improve the lyric. However, if you end up feeling that the changes have been detrimental, you can always go back to the saved first draft.
- Copy and paste all your verses so that they sit below the rest of the lyric. I like to see them in close proximity to each other so that I can then read or sing them one after each other. You need the verses to match up in terms of prosody, which basically means that each line of each verse matches the corresponding line in the other verses in terms of flow and syllable length. If they don’t match up, then tweak them.
- Cut out unnecessary words. I once got a novelist to review a chapter that I had written for what I hoped would be a best-selling novel. That novel is still sitting in storage but one piece of advice he gave me has stuck. He commented that writers must ALWAYS cut out all superfluous words. In other words, make sure that every word that remains has a purpose and is needed for the impact you are trying to make. Although that advice was made about writing a novel it also applies to any form of writing.
Beginner’s Guide to writing lyrics quick recap
So that’s the end of the first part of my Beginner’s guide to writing lyrics. I’ve covered three initial steps. Step 1 is to jump in and start writing lyrics. Then, Step 2 is to review the lyrics, and I’ve provided some tips around how best to do that. Finally, Step 3 is to start editing your lyric. I’ve called out that editing is a vital part of the writing process and I’ve also provided some tips around things to consider when editing a lyric.
I hope you’ve found it useful. I will provide some further tips In part 2 and will go into more detail. So make sure you check back later. Until then, I hope you have fun writing, reviewing, and editing your lyrics!