First, let me say that I do not have a formal education in lyric writing. What I have learned I learned by trial and error, until I started working with Mark Riddick (www.markriddickproductions.com). Mark is a fabulous songwriter, and puts a special emphasis on lyrics. I won’t spill his secrets here, but I highly recommend working with someone who knows what they are doing. It really helps.
My creative process is very fluid and iterative. I often start with lyrics, but I sometimes start from a rhythm, chord progression, guitar riff or melody. Still, having a structure gives me something to go back to when my creative process is stalled, and it reminds me that songwriting is as much about craft as it is about inspiration.
As with everything about songwriting, there are no hard and fast rules. This is what I do. Take what works for you and ignore the rest. If you have a process that works better for you, please share it. I would love to hear about it.
OK, let’s get started. Here are the phases I go through when writing lyrics:
Phase 1 – Uninhibited Brainstorming
This is where the raw ideas come from. The more ideas I have in this phase, the easier it will be to craft a song later. I don’t usually sit down to write a song from scratch. I keep paper notebooks beside each of my instruments and I write down ideas as they come. I have a file of lyrical ideas on my computer. I sing or say ideas into the voice recorder on my phone. At any moment, I might have 20 or more ‘songs’ in various degrees of completeness. Some are only a single line; some are nearly ready to start crafting. Some ideas have multiple treatments. I am constantly writing down snippets of raw material.
If I skip this step and leap right into songwriting, then I find I get caught up in the technical parts of writing and my songs don’t have the same spark. I need separate ‘creative time’, where I do not judge the quality of my ideas. To me, this is step 1:
- Brainstorm and record lots of ideas – more than you need. Anything goes: a feeling, character, emotion, rhyme, analogy, reference, event or any detail that could bring a song alive. I especially look for potential hooks and opening lines, as I feel without these the song isn’t going anywhere.
I don’t end my brainstorming phase there though. When I decide an idea is ready to turn into a song I continue in the ‘non-judgmental’ mindset while I rough out what the song will be like. So I go a little further:
- Decide on the message, audience and hook. I need these three things before I can start ‘working’ the lyric. If I start ‘working’ the lyric before I know these three things, I am going to have to find them in that process. For me, it works better to brainstorm on these until I am satisfied that I have something worth putting the effort of crafting into a song.
- Rough out the structure of the song (intro, verses, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, coda), by pulling out the best ideas from my notes. Here I am focusing on what I want to say, but not so much HOW it will be said, though if my brainstorming produced rhymes, I will certainly use them. The song will invariably have gaps at this point, so I then go back and brainstorm on the areas that need more material.
Again, the point of this phase is not to craft a final song, it is just to get something raw that I can start to mold. It usually ends with a ‘work tape’ recording of just me playing piano and guitar and singing.
Phase 2 – The Rough Draft
Once I have an outline of what I am trying to say, with hopefully a few good ideas and a hook, I get down to the craft. Here I am polishing the ideas into something that feels like it might work. I make a lot of choices about what the song will be like during this phase. If I started with an instrumental idea instead of lyrics, then I can often move straight to #5.
In this phase I:
- Pick the basic tempo and rhythm (ballad, mid-tempo, up tempo, dance)
- Choose the rhyming scheme (AABB, ABAB, AAB)
- Wordsmith each line one at a time, selecting specific words, rhymes and adjectives, adjusting syllable count, swapping out ideas that aren’t working.
When wordsmithing, there are two lines that deserve special attention: the first line and the hook. The first line should draw the listener in to want to hear the rest of the song. It could be provocative or intriguing or suggestive of something more, as long as it grabs. The hook needs to be memorable, repeatable and catchy. The hook is also usually the title of the song, so it also needs to make sense as a title. It will also almost always be featured in the chorus, so it can’t get old with repetition.
Also, I always try to keep my audience in mind. It is easy to get caught up writing for myself, but since I have decided I want to communicate my ideas to a broader audience, I have to consider how the listeners will respond to each line. If I am being too serious, too adult, too childish, too ‘male’, using offensive word or saying anything that will get in the way of the listener hearing my message I need to rethink the offending lines.
Selecting the right words takes time, and requires patience and creativity. I use every tool at my disposal – rhyming dictionaries, thesauruses, lists of popular baby names – anything that can help me find the right word. I also highly recommend aspiring songwriter spend time reading and analyzing the lyrics of other songs. Each genre has a style that dictates the type of words you use, and you need to understand that. I also warn against get too caught up in rhymes too early in the process. Just because something rhymes doesn’t make it the right word. Just because it doesn’t rhyme doesn’t make it the wrong word.
Wordsmithing and rhyming are big subjects and deserve their own blogs. I will go deeper into those at another time. For now, I am going to continue on with my process.
Phase 3 – Crafting and rewriting the song
It used to be that when I had finished a draft or two, I was pretty much done. But there were always those one or two lines that just didn’t quite fit, the rhyme that sounded forced, or the song just didn’t have enough ‘oomph’. These days, this is where I find the most value from a co-writer or coach like Mark. There are a lot of specific techniques to find and fix those few lines. I won’t go into specifics here because they aren’t necessarily my techniques, but I do want to emphasize that rewriting is a key part of my process. I don’t stop until I have something that feels right when looked at from many different perspectives.
As a final note – the creative process is a wild and untamed thing, and never happens in quite the same way twice. But I have found that by having a process, I am less prone to writers block and the overall quality of my writing has gone up. In the end this is a about creativity, but my simple process keeps me from making simple mistakes, and allows me to improve.
Whew, that is a lot so I will stop there. Next up: Lyrics part 2: Song Structure