Songwriting for Beginners

Mar21

This was originally a forum post titled “38 or so things Nick says all the time (and some I should)”. Later it was suggested to me that we had a pretty good reference for the beginning songwriter. So here it is in all of its glory. And, yes, even though there are a couple of new additions, this list is only thirty-seven. That’s one of the great mysteries of life. Happy writing.

On inspiration:

1. Be on the lookout for things to write about everyday.

There was a comedian on the Letterman show the other night who told the story of her college years. She was living in a garage, the kind with the roll up doors. Whenever she sat down to relax on her couch she was staring at the two motorcycles that were parked in her living room. She used to sit there and stare at them and wonder if there was anything funny she could write about.

Okay, so you are living in a garage and your front door rolls up instead of swinging open and the centerpieces of your living room are two motorcycles. Wait a minute – that is funny.

Don’t overlook what’s right in front of you. There are things all around you every day that would make great songs. Go and find them.

2. Take a notepad or micro-recorder with you everywhere.

I have a friend who has been playing and writing for many years now. She tells me she has forgotten 10 times as many great lines as she has written down. If you don’t have a notepad or recorder, write them in your own blood. Just write them down.

For those of you who are Nirvana fans, if you take a look at Cobain’s writing, it’s in a spiral notebook like you’d get for school.

Many a great song has been written on a McDonald’s napkin.

Inspiration is a precious gift. Don’t waste it.

On writing lyrics:

3. If you can say it in fewer words, why don’t you?

You can pause while singing. You can hold notes out. Don’t feel the need to fill every space with a word. This is a danger most often experienced by lyric first songwriters.

Let the listener’s ears rest. Use empty space to develop contrast.

This one ties in with the next:

4. Try not to use phrases like “I feel”, “it’s like”, “because”. Tell me how it is, not what it’s like.

These words are often used to make lines fit the meter. But the effect they have is dilution.

Is she the most beautiful woman ever, or is she like the most beautiful woman ever?

Are you crushed and thrown in the gutter, or do you just feel that way?

5. Be direct, don’t give the listener too many choices.

Although you do want to allow for individual interpretation, you want to make sure the listener is getting the point. Write like a salesman. Ask questions that get you where you want to go. Don’t ask “Would you like to buy this car?” Ask “Wouldn’t it be great to be out on the coastal highway, top down, radio playing?”

6. Content dictates form, not the other way around. You aren’t writing haiku.

Don’t limit your initial creative output by imposing form limits. Maybe you have 4 lines and a chorus, maybe 8. Maybe you’ll have two verses then chorus, maybe 1. Just get that initial burst of creativity out. Create the form of the song around the content you have.

I doubt Stephen King decides beforehand, “Hmm, 637 pages, and I want every other chapter to be 42 pages.” You don’t need to either.

7. If you have to explain a line to me, you need to re-write it.

If I have to explain that line to you, I need to re-write it.

8. Do not confuse profound with vague.

This one ties in well with number 7.

This is one of the biggest errors I see and it manifests itself in a couple of ways.

First, even the lyricist doesn’t know what they are writing about. Overly impressed by their own ability to use flowery imagery, the writer will get stuck for an ending or chorus and ask for help. Heck, if you don’t know what you are writing about, how should anyone else know?

Second, the message is so lost in flowery writing that the natural progression of the song gets lost. The obvious symptom of this is overly long, formless writing usually followed by a request for help formatting the song into singable lyric.

No one needs to write in “Dick-and-Jane” style, but you don’t want to sound like a dot com company earnings call either.

9. Write about what you know.

I guarantee these will be your best songs. Go ahead and write about something you know nothing about and compare.

One day you cut your hand badly and require stitches, do you go to the auto mechanic? Nope, you go to the doctor. You want someone whose life experience includes stitching up cuts. Songwriting is no different.

9a. When you want to write about something outside your realm of experience, use what you do know to write about what you don’t know.

If you have to write about something, someone, someplace that you have no personal experience with, find something, a feeling, a belief, that you do have in common. Start from someplace that is authentic.

10. As you get better and better at writing, you’ll write simpler and simpler lyrics. Why not start now?

This one I stole from David Hodge. It’s true. There is power in brevity.

Don’t mistake “simple” for lack of meaningful content. One well chosen single word can have many more connotations and power than an awkward phrase.

10a. Even if you want to write about a passive condition, write it actively.

Speaking of stealing from David…

I wrote a song about a guy sitting in the dark, losing it ’cause he is suddenly alone. He’s sitting and thinking, then lying down and thinking, and then in the last verse he’s suddenly smashing things. It just didn’t flow right, it didn’t build.

Here is the first verse before and after:

Before:

Alone in the dark at the kitchen table
I wonder whatever became of you?
Didn’t I tell you often enough?
Can you tell me what I didn’t do?

After:

Talk to the empty chair in the darkness
I wonder whatever became of you?
Didn’t I tell her often enough?
Can you tell me what I didn’t do?

It’s a minor change, but combine that change with the new second verse you can see an active progression into losing his marbles.

11. Even if your lyric doesn’t tell a story, it takes the form of a story. It has a beginning, middle and end.

Number 11 is the subject of much confusion. There is a big difference between a story song, like old folk songs, and a story line. I think we decided to call this the “Song Agenda” or “Song Progression”, but the more I think of it, the more I like plain old “Story”. You may write a silly story with no point, a clever story, fable, parable, that it obvious fiction, a review or description of some thing, or an old fashioned folk tale, or even a true story, but they all have a timeline or agenda or progression from start to finish.

Even if a lyric has no story, it has a beginning, middle and end. Heck, even if a song is an instrumental it develops from beginning to middle to end.

Make sure you know what your story/agenda/progression is.

If you get lost while writing, take a couple of minutes to write a paragraph describing how your song develops from beginning to end. Best of all, go to number 12.

12. Write down the story you want to tell in a couple of sentences before you start the lyric. You can revisit this later if you get stuck.

Usually I do this after the initial burst of writing subsides. Then I organize my thoughts into a progression.

13. Make sure your lyric pulls the listener through from beginning to end.

Number 13 is the reason for 11 and 12. The listener should want to hear what comes next. They should be waiting for the exciting, (or not) conclusion. If you give it all away in the first verse, what is the reason the listener won’t just tune out?

OVERVIEW of 11 – 13:

Think of a song like any other form of communication for entertainment purposes. Songs are like miniature books, films or plays, a 3 minute diversion to transport the listener to another world.

14. When you have “finished” your lyric, read it OUT LOUD. Let your ears do the final edit.

The single most valuable editing tool is listening. After you read it out loud to yourself, subject someone else to it. Some words that fit when written will break oddly across rhythm.

15. If it sounds forced when you read it, it will sound forced when you sing it.

16. If you would never, ever say it that way, double check that you can sing it that way.

Probably tied for number one on the most often seen problem list, is the forced rhyme. Don’t do it. Forced rhyme pegs you as an amateur right away. Not even great lyrics will pass the “would you say it that way” test all of the time, but it is a good test. The most often seen example of this is the reversed sentence:

“..and so to you I will not go.”

or something similar. Wouldn’t you just say “I will not go to you?”

17. Write often. Practice writing just like you would practice a guitar riff.

One of the early controversies about the Sunday Songwriter forum was that you can’t force inspiration. This is true, but you can learn technique so that when inspiration pops up, you have nothing standing in your way.

If you want to improvise guitar, you go and learn riff after riff until they flow effortlessly. When the time comes to improvise, you don’t want to spend a bunch of time saying: “uhh, that would be at the fifth fret and…. I think I’ll do that Led Zeppelin thing”. By the time you get that thought out, the rest of the band will be on to the next verse.

I have a place to write with a guitar on a stand nearby, computer, rhyming dictionary, pencils, paper. When I’m inspired to sit down to write, I’ve practiced it so many times before that it just flows.

On receiving critiques:

18. If someone points out something that bugs them, I guarantee it will bug 100 others. Listen to them.

You may not agree. They may be wrong. You may not be willing to change, but you must consider what they are saying. If not, why bother to post the lyric in the first place.

When I started posting songs, I had to force myself to get over my defensive reaction. But I did it and now I probably incorporate 75% of all suggestions into my work. Hey someone wants to do work for you for free, take them up on it.

19. If someone takes the time to critique your lyric, listen to them.

20. Don’t get defensive. Listen.

21. If the critique starts with “This sucks”, you have my permission to ignore #20.

22. Turn about is fair play. If someone critiques yours, return the favor.

Besides making a habit of writing, this is probably the most powerful songwriting tool available. No kidding. By reading other writers lyrics and styles you learn volumes. You learn what works and what doesn’t, you get “what if” ideas, you expand your own lyrical horizons and you gain an ability to see things in your own work through others. Sometimes things are so close to you, you can’t see them.

23. Listen, listen, listen.

Did anyone pick up on my subtle message in this section?

On writing critiques:

24. Do unto others.

A critique of “This sucks” is about as useful as one that says “this is perfect”. Well, unless you really mean it. I haven’t seen one yet. I haven’t written one yet, the perfect one I mean.

25. Find at least one positive thing to say, there is always at least one.

The fact that someone was brave enough to put pencil to paper is one. Is there a story line? Are the feelings out there and exposed? Did one of the verses not have a forced rhyme or cliché? Come on now, you are supposed to be creative.

26. Do not start reviews with “This sucks”. I told them not to listen to you in #21.

27. Don’t get offensive.

This is not a battle zone. No tit for tat, “he really let me have it in his last critique, I’ll show him, (or her)”. Try to help no matter what.

28. Writing critiques is probably the single best way to improve your own writing.

By learning how to articulate your own thoughts about someone else’s work, you can appreciate the thought that went into someone else’s critique of yours and also develop a mindset of looking for problems in your own before you start. See number 22.

On cliché:

29. Never use the words “stairway” and “heaven” in the same line.
30. Make that the same verse.
31. Did I say verse? I meant song.
32. What the heck, just never use them…never.

Don’t make me think of someone else’s song while I’m listening to yours.

33. I would rather hear about your personal experiences than generalizations.

Take a gourmet dinner:

Fresh caught Jumbo Shrimp cocktail
Fresh made bread
Filet mignon medium rare
Baked potato with fresh butter and chives
Vintage red wine
Tiramisu

Now put the whole thing in a blender until it has the consistency of baby food and eat it. Somehow the generalization of the meal just isn’t the same. Give me the experience first hand.

34. Using cliche is the equivalent of saying, “Yada, yada, yada”.

The biggest problem with cliché is that it is shorthand for your experiences. I don’t want the Cliff Notes version, I want to do the interpretation myself thank you.

35. If you twist a cliche into something new, it is by definition no longer cliche.

It’s a pretty good technique really. You get a sense of the familiar combined with a sense of originality.

36. Back by popular demand, here is my famous cliché analogy.

If you ask 100 people to draw a tree, 99 of them are going to:

  • draw two parallel lines to represent the trunk
  • 1 perpendicular line beneath to represent the ground
  • -and a series of scalloped lines above to represent the leaves.

But they haven’t drawn a tree. They have drawn a representation of a tree.

If you tell them that, they won’t get it. But if you show them the picture that the 1 out of a 100 drew, the one that actually looks like a tree, they’ll say, “oh yeah, now that’s a tree.”

That artist didn’t draw a representation of a tree. The artist drew one that is based on that artist’s actual interaction with a specific tree. It’s the tree climbed long ago. It’s the tree of a summer nap in its shade. It’s the tree the artist raked the leaves from under.

When you look at that picture, you can see the artist’s song about that tree.

Be the 1 in 100.

37. Rules are meant to be broken, but you better have a darn good reason why.

Does this all make sense to you? Would you like to learn more about songwriting? Then join us in the Sunday Songwriter’s forum. All writers are welcome regardless of writing experience. You’ll find a place to get positive and constructive feedback on developing both your songs and your writing style. The big benefit of the Sunday Songwriters forum is we aren’t expecting the polished, we’re expecting to help you polish. Come on in and give it a try this week or next.

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About Nick Torres

London born, Washington DC area native Nick Torres has been involved in music for more than 20 years. From singing with the Paul Hill Chorale at the Kennedy Center, to Regional Chorus, soloist at Trinity UMC in Alexandria VA, bell ringing, amateur and professional musical theater, and a band or two along the way. Currently Nick is focused on spending as much time as possible with his lovely wife and two children. When he's not doing that he's practicing his acoustic guitar and hanging out in the Songwriters Forum here on Guitar Noise. And writing articles and reviews, let's not forget that...

Comments [3]

  1. Thanks, nice post.

  2. Tanis Propst says:

    I just read your 37 rules and they made sense to me, so I might have a shot at this! I had just written a son. You know, one of those that pops into your head and you run to grab a paper and pen before it goes away. After I read your “rules”, I did a little tweeking and it’s much better now–thanks to you! Now I have to go back to the others I’ve written.
    Who knows? You might even hear one of ‘em someday! (No splitting royalties, though!)

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