Can you become a better songwriter by not writing songs? I remember when I was kid playing softball, our coach would always make us go back and practice the basics if we were on a losing streak or playing poorly. That’s a tool that I’ve kept with me all my life. It’s often way too easy to get into lazy or bad habits, particularly in things we do on a regular basis. We get tend to get sloppy.
The same thing can happen with songwriting. If you aren’t writing anything that has a magic to it or just doesn’t feel real – maybe it’s time to go back to the basics.
- I think the very best step at this point is to write without writing a song. Do not write in song form or rhyme words. Do not pick up your guitar or sit down at your keyboard. Focus strictly on ideas and words.
Start by flipping through all your hook ideas or sort through all your incomplete songs and grab those hooks. Find the idea that has the most attraction for you and write it down at the top of a blank sheet of paper. The first thing to do now is to explore. In very broad strokes, what COULD this word or phase be saying. Since you had it saved as a song idea, most likely it will in fact be the hook of your potential song, therefore it will be the summation of all the rest of the lyric. It will be the whole point of the song.
Write down these broad stroke ideas in one or two sentences.
EX: I love her so much, but she broke my heart and that’s why “I’m In This Bar Tonight”
EX: I’ve been in my share of fights and I’ve broken several hearts, but since I met you, “I’m Better Than I Used To Be”.
Go wild with the ideas. Don’t try to be “commercial”. Go down strange roads with the ideas. They never have to see the light of day, but opening up your mind to free flow will bring up ideas that aren’t cliché and used up.
- Next, try one or both of these next steps. Using your one or 2 sentence summation/hook idea as the focal point (Definition- the point at which all elements or aspects converge; center of activity or attention).
- Write a letter to a stranger. Give the back story that sets up the focal point. Also tell the back story of any and all characters involved. Use adjectives, action verbs and imagery extremely freely here. Don’t Censor Yourself! If an adjective feels corny, but it’s the first word that came to you, use it. Write it down. Free flow.
There’s a good chance you won’t use any of the back story in your final lyric, but it will help you get more familiar with your characters. Tell the whole story, taking the person you are writing this letter to, right up to the focal point/song hook.
- Another approach that works well for some writers is to write a screenplay. Using this tool, you’ll be painting pictures of what the audience will see or hear on the stage or screen.
EX: The setting is outside. It’s dark and there is no moon. Crickets are chirping softly in the background. A young man in worn out jeans and a young woman in a pink cotton dress are laying in the back of a pick up truck staring up at the millions of stars in the sky. He suddenly sits up and says ………..
The important thing in either approach is to let your mind run wild then slowly rein it back in. This will help you find fresher ideas and stories. New perspectives and better hooks.
Some other points to keep in mind as you try the letter or movie approach:
- In the margins or on a separate page, write down any adjectives or descriptive phrases that pop into your head.
- Don’t spend time trying a find just the right word. It’s more important at this point to just let ideas flow.
- Experiment with tense, attitudes or point of view (who is singing these words)
- Complex emotions are very hard to describe. Rather than just stating it (I love you), try focusing on finding imagery to express it. These 4 lines from The Good Stuff (written by Craig Wiseman, Jim Collins) speak volumes and are my all time favorite example.
“And it’s the way that she looks with the rice in her hair.
Eating burnt suppers the whole first year
And askin’ for seconds to keep her from tearin’ up
Yeah, man, that’s the good stuff.”
So when or if you find yourself writing weak lyrics, it may be because you are just plugging in words that sound good with the melody or music you are creating and you haven’t thoroughly thought through the song idea. And sometimes writers have a point they want to drive home and forget to add color, description and story to the lyric. They forget to entertain. I really think sometimes it’s just that we find ourselves “boring” and that appears to us as writers block.
Using the letter or movie approach allows you to focus just on fleshing out a great, unique idea. And after you do, you’ll find your lyric jumping right off the page at you – ready for a melody, some groovy music and just waiting for a chance to get on the radio.
Susan Tucker is Project Manager at Kim Copeland Productions. Her goal in working with artist clients is to make the process of getting the music from the studio to the fans, easy and efficient. She guides them through branding and setting up a solid marketing plan. Check out her books for the songwriter – The Soul of a Writer and The Secrets of Songwriting.
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