Six Easy Steps to Writing Hit Lyrics
Many songwriters tell me that melodies flow out of them like beer from a tap, but writing lyrics make them ache all over. I tell them they are in good company. Almost every other client shares their problem when they contact me. But the good news is I can fix this. I've developed a six-step system for lyric writing, aimed specifically at writers who claim they can't write words and don't consider themselves lyricists.
Melodies are open to interpretation - so when you write one, what you feel or intend is still safe in your heart - you do not have to reveal yourself or stand completely naked in front of the world. But once you put words to a tune, your feelings are totally out in the open. Everyone knows what's in your heart. Therefore, it's very inhibiting to write lyrics.
But here is a process I use with my clients to make lyric writing simple for them. There are six steps. I suggest you use all of them. Cutting corners is usually why a lyric doesn't work.
Let's assume, for this assignment only, that you have a melody but no idea of what to say in the lyric. In a future column, I'll gladly give you pointers on how to start a lyric if there isn't any music in your head.
But for now, you have a melody.
STEP l. Play the melody you wrote, or choose one from the radio, writing non-rhyming prose as it plays. Let your words be a stream-of-conscious exercise to warm up your imagination. No rhymes. No logic. No continuity. All whimsy. Completely imaginative. Totally visual. Silly.
"A tooth farmer from Fluffy, South Apricot, dug through Exxon's banana shoe section for kangaroo lingerie, after the De La Hoya/Trinidad wrist watch from Western Tire Cough Drops slid unnoticed into ..."
STEP 2. Now we have you thinking and writing a little freer. Good. Let's close in a smidge. For step two, please write a silly, visual, non-rhyming lyric to the melody you've chosen. Fill it with ridiculous pictures, as I did in Step one. Don't be logical, don't make it make sense. Every line can be about something different. In this draft, try to keep yourself totally playful, and keep all the rhymes OUT. Here's an example, using the chorus of "I Don't Want to Miss A Thing" -
A lizard in algebra
Pigs on the 405
Serving footballs to Lindsay D
STEP 3. Write an uncensored list of silly, visual titles that fit with the title line of your melody. Try to get twenty or thirty outrageous possibilities on your list. Don't write anything you've heard before, okay? Let 'em roll - don't say "Oh, that's dumb". Come on. Let 'em loose. You might find one of your ridiculous titles could actually be a real title. "I love you" is fine. But Jewel's "Swallow the Moon" is sensational. A great title will write the whole song for you. A mediocre one will leave you stranded in line two.
STEP 4. Based on the title you've chosen, write the STORY of your song, in prose. Maybe writing it as a letter would be easier for you. If any words come out rhyming, change them so they don't. That way, you'll be able to express yourself with complete freedom - no constraints for rhyme or meter.
When you finish this step, you'll know the beginning, the middle and the end of your story before you begin the lyric. You'll also be able to see if you have enough story to fill a whole song, so you won't get stuck half-way through with nowhere to go.
In this step, you'll also be able to tell everything that happened - without worrying that you don't have enough room or time to include the whole saga. Tell the story - in as much detail as you want. Chances are you've never had this much freedom before as a story-teller in a song because lyrics are very spare, every syllable is critical and the lyric has to bow to the demands of the melody. So enjoy the freedom you have here to tell all, without worrying about time rhyme or syllables.
STEP 5. Using your story, write a non-rhyming lyric to the melody you've chosen. Remember - no rhymes.
STEP 6. Now write the final lyric, with the story and the rhymes.
I suggest you try these six steps. Not four. Not two. Six. My clients who do all of them, get great results. The ones who don't are still claiming they can't write lyrics.
Just remember - writing is a process. The inspiration draft is just the first one - one of many - not the final product.
Have fun, good luck and let me know how you do, okay? I'm at firstname.lastname@example.org