Disclosure: the book recommendations below are Amazon affiliate links.
Want to write better songs? Try writing something that’s not a song.
At age eight, my pal James and I wrote a story about a werewolf terrorizing a small village – and a boy in a wheelchair rescuing the town through smarts and daring.
Thanks to the help of our dedicated teacher, my coauthor James and I attached a spiral binding and set to work illustrating. We used a box of scented markers. The werewolf smelled like cinnamon. The blood of the villagers smelled like cherries.
By the time I was ten, I’d set my mind on becoming a novelist. I read novels, wrote stories, imagined characters, and drew whole maps of imaginary worlds. I trudged to school each morning with haggard eyes because I’d been awake all night, reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings under the covers with a flashlight. When I discovered Writer’s Digest books, I read them voraciously. Little by little, my writing improved.
My love affair with fiction lasted twelve years. Novel writing wasn’t the path I chose after all, but the writing skills I built have been vital to me as a songwriter.
To Write Better Lyrics, First Write For the Page
I’m willing to bet that at some point in your life, perhaps as a child, you wrote a poem or invented fictional characters just for the joy of it. We can rediscover this simple joy of writing.
To become a truly fluent songwriter and prepare yourself for all the challenges each new lyric poses, first it helps to be a good writer in general. Why not get your hands dirty by trying to write a little something creative in your spare time? You could try your hand at:
- Prose (writing blog posts and such)
- Letter writing
- Fiction (short stories and novels)
We’ll examine each mode of literature below.
I hope that you won’t worry yourself too much about whether your story, letter, or poem will “be any good”; the real goal is to get into an enjoyable habit of daily writing practice.
Keeping a personal journal is a great way to kick start the writing habit.
To begin journaling right now, just note the day’s weather, record your present mood, jot a few notes about whatever’s on your mind, and recount the day’s events. Easy, right?
As a songwriter, you can make a journal even more useful. You can use a songwriting journal to:
- Write about what a book you’re reading
- Write about music you’re listening to
- Scribble down ideas as they occur to you
- Write exploratory fragments
Journaling is a great way to make sense of your day, it creates a record for future reference, and it’s a pleasure. It’s also a good way to warm up for other forms of writing practice, including those below.
Prose: Blog posts, etc.
The lyric is a very short and restrictive form of writing, so writing prose can feel liberating — like emerging from the underbrush into a bright, spacious clearing. There’s plenty of room to explore any idea in prose, no matter how complex.
Writing essays, articles, and blog posts for an audience is a great way to practice expressing ideas clearly. Revising your prose is especially helpful – writing multiple drafts of the same piece will make you a better writer.
Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is a classic guide to writing clearly and well – if you choose to get a copy, please make sure it’s the version with E.B. White’s chapters on style.
When’s the last time you received a handwritten letter from a friend?
It can be a pleasure to sit and write a letter to a friend – it’s reflective like journaling, but it also connects you to another person. There might be somebody in your life who’d very much enjoy receiving a letter from you.
Writing longhand can be very satisfying, and it can create a keepsake for your relationship with the person you’re writing to. If you prefer, though, you can always just type and email the letter.
In an age when everyone seems to feel pinched for time, receiving a thoughtful, leisurely letter from a friend is a surprise. Letter writing in our present day and age is a very personal gift.
For inspiring examples of letters written by interesting people, check out the website Letters of Note.
Lyric writers often write from personal experience, but sometimes writing a better song means modifying – or entirely inventing – characters, places, and situations. Writing fiction is a great way to practice creative writing outside of the tight constraints of lyric writing.
Writing a short story is great practice in using language to describe vibrant characters, settings, and situations. If fiction intrigues you, Writer’s Digest Press prints some excellent books and eBooks about writing.
Rhetoric is the study of effective speaking and writing. And the art of persuasion. And many other things.
— Silva Rhetoricae
“Rhetoric” is a word we often use to describe the bluster of executives and politicians. Look into its history, though, and you’ll find that the art of rhetoric is actually a serious discipline reaching all the way back to ancient Greece.
One of the best things about the art of rhetoric is that rhetoricians have labored for centuries to notice, describe, and categorize figures of speech that reach beyond the more famous ones, like simile and metaphor, into lesser-known but useful devices like epizeugma – repetition of a single word for emphasis – or anesis, which involves writing a line that adds a poignant twist to everything written before it. Anesis is a great way to make your listener’s heart sink (in a good way).
For many more poetic devices like these, and for an introduction to the art of rhetoric, there’s a lot to explore on the website Silva Rhetoricae.
Whether they’re listening to a song about a love affair’s highs or its fiery lows, listeners have a taste for dramatic situations.
Writing a stage play or a screenplay is a great way to develop your ear for dialogue. It’ll also give you great training in inventing emotional situations and conflicts between characters.
Of all the forms of writing listed above, this one is probably the one that tests your patience the most. It requires that you really slow down, breathe, and closely examine individual words, even individual syllables. It’s got the most specific, detailed structural demands, and requires that you choose your words very, very carefully.
Poetry has a rich tradition of poetic forms that force the writer to tie their vocabularies in knots, searching for hours through thesauruses and dictionaries and rhyming dictionaries in search of a word that fits the poetic rhythm, the poem’s topic, and the rhyme scheme. It forces the writer to endlessly iterate the same idea in different forms, going down dead ends often.
In my opinion, there’s no better writing practice for lyricists. Composing poetry is slow, it’s difficult, and it doesn’t always work out. But when it does, it’s a thing of beauty. When you do finally write a gem, it feels like a huge payoff.
The best introduction to poetry that I’ve found is the chapter on poetry in Minot’s Three Genres: The Writing of Fiction/Literary Nonfiction, Poetry, and Drama. It’s a college textbook, so it’s expensive – but it’s also 464 pages long, and provides a great introduction to three major genres of literature. It’s worth the expense, and if you’re on a budget you can easily find a used copy.
A songwriter stands to learn a lot by being a man, woman, or androgyne of letters. Dabble, experiment, study, and have fun… There’s a lot of joy to be found in filling up text files and spiral bound notebooks.