At its best, lyric writing is a magical mixture of creativity and storytelling that can bring your listener into a world you’ve created and hold them there for the length of your song. However, in order to create the perfect, tightly-scripted narrative that great lyrics possess, countless hours of writing and re-writing are often necessary. I’ve found it’s just as important to know how to critically examine and edit a lyric as it is to write one in the first place. To that end, here are seven questions that songwriters can ask themselves during and after a songwriting session to make sure their lyrics are as effective as they can possibly be.
1. Is everything you’re writing related to the hook/message of the song?
Given the truly limited amount of time you’ve got to make your point in a lyric, it pays to make sure each line serves the message of your hook so that the song’s point is developed and driven home at every opportunity. Lines that just sound or feel good are, unfortunately, a waste of valuable space.
On a related note, if you’re building your lyric around an overall metaphor such as the ocean, for example, stay away from expressions or images that don’t relate. What I mean is that expressions about waves will work better than expressions like “putting on the brakes” which relate to automotive imagery instead. Each image and detail should relate to the overall metaphor in order for the lyric to be at its most powerful. Be careful, though, not to use so many metaphors that your song sounds contrived. Being conversational and not “too clever” is an important step in keeping your song believable.
2. Have you used details in your verses?
Verses are the place to tell the story and stories are best told with interesting details. The expression “A picture is worth a thousand words” is never truer than in your verses. To that end, really focus on the kind of imagery that will bring the listener into your song. Instead of saying “a woman gives a man at the bar a cold look,” you could say “his beer was warmer than the look in her eye.”
On the other extreme, be careful not to overdo it in your verses with the kind of minutia that makes a song seem too long or confuses your listener. The keys to great verse writing are being interesting and impactful.
3. Have you already said it?
One of the traps we fall into as songwriters is inadvertently coming up with different ways to say the same thing. Be certain in your verses that each line furthers the story and you’re not simply repeating yourself line after line. Every line of every verse is an opportunity to move your story along with new details/information.