Sitting down to write lyrics for the first time can be a daunting task. Not only are lyrics typically very emotional, but the idea of writing your own story on a page and having it come out differently than intended can be terrifying.
Fear not, every great lyricist had to start somewhere, and you’ve got what it takes too. After all, if there’s a will there’s a way.
So grab your pen! Here are a few tips to get you started.
What Do You Want To Say?
Spilling your heart on the page can be cathartic and can create some amazing art. But sometimes, that spillage doesn’t exactly translate into lyrics that are concise and/or understandable.
By all means, spill your heart out every time you write, but maybe use that first pass of your song as a brainstorming sheet.
A lot of the time, what you’re trying to say will come out clearly, and with a little bit of finessing, you’ll have yourself some beautiful lyrics.
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Charting Out Your Songs
Now that you’ve gotten the main idea of your song figured out with tip one, let’s make a song chart. Write the main idea in a big box in the center of the page. That’ll be your chorus. Now make two more boxes above this chorus box, with the smallest box being on top.
The medium box will be your pre-chorus ideas, and that small top box will be your verse ideas. The sizes are important, because you’ll want your ideas to grow in the same way the boxes will. Think of it this way: you’ll want each box before your chorus to be growing towards that central idea, without giving it away.
Specifically, in the verse you’ll want to give a little backstory or detail about where the song is going. However, you’ll keep the actual message of the song hidden until the chorus gives you more room to grow. You’ll need to think about what can be said to build up to the pre-chorus. And after you’ve got that figured out, what can you write to continue the momentum forward to your chorus?
Here’s an example to help you visualize it. Let’s say I was writing a song about feeling happier after a break up. I might set my boxes up like this.
Things between us were so good, I thought you were the one.
But then things went bad.
Now that you’re gone, I feel better.
If you look over that chart you’ll see how each idea grows and lends itself to the ideas leading into the reveal of the chorus. That way, when the chorus hits it feels fresh, big, and like it ties all of the prior information together.
That’s what you’ll want to try to achieve with your own songs.
Keep in mind, these boxes are an exercise that help with lyric writing when you’re starting out to aid the flow and growth for your song. By no means is this a be-all-end-all technique. Each song is different. But this technique definitely helps to give you a place to start with your song when you’re first getting started on your journey with lyrics.
Build out Verses
To get into lyric writing, let’s go more into depth with song structure. Specifically your verses. Typically lyrical content in the verse sections of your song are more detail-oriented. This is where you can tell your story, or plead your case. Going into specifics is usually a nice touch in getting your listeners into the world that you’re weaving.
An excellent example of this is Olivia Rodrigo’s smash hit “Driver’s License,” which does a great job of weaving the lyrics into a world we can picture.
“And you're probably with that blonde girl
Who always made me doubt
She's so much older than me
She's everything I'm insecure about
Yeah, today I drove through the suburbs
'Cause how could I ever love someone else?”
With lines like “you’re probably with that blonde girl” and “I drove through the suburbs” you’re immediately seeing the visuals that the writer’s intended you to. I mean- c’mon. Tell me you don’t immediately picture a person or place when you hear those lyrics?
That’s the job of the verse.
Another important thing to talk about when it comes to verse lyrics is that you don’t want to give your entire song away in the first verse - otherwise, there’s no point in listening through the rest of it. Each section should build on ideas, like in the chart we talked about earlier. And this first verse is your song’s opener. You want to capture attention, and interest, and start laying out your beautiful stories here.
Add progression in the Pre-chorus
The pre-chorus is the bridge between your verse ideas and your chorus ideas. Lyrically, this should progress your verse lyric idea with some sort of turning point or new information that will make the chorus hit even harder.
In modern music pre-chorus’ are typically shorter, sometimes only a line long, and thus they don’t need to be anything crazy. As long as it has connecting functions.
Most of the time chorus’ are repetitive and contain the lyrics that illustrate the main idea of your song (and usually title, depending on genre.) Usually chorus lyrics consist of iconic, concise, and singable lines.
And nine times out of ten the lyrics here are simpler than the rest of your song. Why? Most of the time you want something that your listeners can pick up while going through their everyday lives.
Let’s face it, if your listener is in a grocery store carrying a crying baby and hearing your music through loudspeakers, they’ll need to remember something about it to look it up. That way they’ll be able to find your song again, and more importantly, scream the lyrics to their car radios or at your concerts.
That being said, this is just the typical format. There are plenty of hit songs that have had complex lyric lines in the chorus. Depending on what style of chorus you go for, that might be an alternative route for you.
However, this is all just advice to get you started.
Editing your lyrics
Perhaps the most important tip in lyric writing is to be your own editor. Editing your songs is so important! I mean, c’mon, the lines probably sounded great at the time. But sometimes you go back, and they just don’t hit the same. That’s when you’re going to want to go back in and change some things up. Lyric writing is all about telling your own stories in the way you want to tell them. So make sure that’s what your lyrics are doing!
There’s no shame in reworking something time and time again. After all, you can’t rush a masterpiece.
Showing and Telling
Now that we’ve gone over editing and the basics of lyric writing in structure, let’s talk about showing and telling. Compare the two lines below:
1) “I have a crush on you”
2) “Everytime I see you I get butterflies”
Line one is an example of telling the listener what’s going on, and line two is a version of showing the listener.
While there’s a time and place for each of these lines in every song, showing us that you have the crush makes things a little more visual and interesting. Plus, it lets us feel and remember the sensation you’re describing as our own.
However, just telling us doesn’t give us that emotional connection. Both of these types of lines should be added to your lyric writing arsenal to explore and think about as you get started, and especially as you edit. After all, you’ll want to see which versions of the lines have the most impact.
Quick tips on rhyming
There are tons of different types of rhymes. Exact rhymes like cat and bat are extremely satisfying to the ear. However, near rhymes, like cat and last are great options too. Most writers I know use websites like RhymeZone, B-Rhymes, or carry a rhyming dictionary to aid their lyric writing as they’re working.
Also, you don’t HAVE to rhyme. Not rhyming in songs can actually make certain parts sound a bit more unstable which can be desirable in sad songs or uncomfortable lyrical moments. So definitely play around with rhyming and see what best works for you.
Try, Try Again
Last but certainly not least, try again. If your lyrics aren’t coming out quite the way you want them to, you can always start from scratch. In fact, one of my mentors, Pat Pattison, wrote a book called “Writing Better Lyrics” that I highly recommend for anyone looking for more tips on ways to improve their lyric writing, and my favorite quote from it is “Crap makes the best fertilizer,” and he’s right. The more crap you write, the better songs and lyrics will come.
I hope these tips set you out on the way of becoming the lyric writer you’ve always wanted to be. Remember, practice makes perfect. So if things aren’t coming out quite the way you want at first, put in your 10,000 hours and keep on keeping on. You’ll get there.
Sammy Hakim is an up and coming young songwriter based in Los Angeles. In May 2018 she graduated from Berklee College of Music with a Major in songwriting and a focus in music business. These days she spends most of her time in songwriting sessions with artists all over the country.
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