How to write lyrics: an essential guide

ICMP Songwriting course Programme Leader Jonathan Whiskerd lifts the lid on the dark art of Lyric writing.


Songwriting is at the very heart of the music industry and one gentleman well placed to give advice around this hot topic is our Songwriting course Programme Leader Jonathan Whiskerd

Jonathan is an award-winning songwriter and experienced recording artist who has worked with the likes of Joshua Blair (Mark Ronson, Bruno Mars), Sophie Daniels (Joelle Moses, Westlife) and Igor Haefeli and more. 

He's played a major role in shaping ICMP's songwriting course programm design, management, and development so we asked him, for his essential advice around on how to write lyrics. Coming in two parts, read his great tips on how to deal with song structure, making lyrics authentic and the benefits of collaboration... 

How do you begin writing a song when confronted with a blank sheet of paper?

As a lyric writer the key thing is to understand that it’s an iterative process. New songwriters tend to put huge pressure on themselves to write brilliant lyrics from the start.

But song lyric writing takes practice like everything else. You don’t pick up a guitar and expect to start playing like Jimi Hendrix. If you acknowledge that your first ideas may not be that great and you relax, it can really take the pressure off.

I’m always urging the artists I write with and the students I’m teaching to suspend their judgement during the early stages of the process. It’s so important to splurge and not worry about whether what you’re songwriting is ‘good’ or whether it’ll work. Just allow words to be created! If you’re sitting there with your pen hovering above a blank page and dismissing your ideas as they come, then the page is most likely to stay blank for some time.

Write everything down! It’s surprising how difficult it is to do this but it really does work. Having three pages of nonsense is progress; having a blank page is not! Anything you can do to bring some playfulness and silliness into these early stages will really help you to get out of your own way and to create interesting raw material. You can apply writing craft and technical skill later.

How do you approach lyrical song structure?

Before thinking about song structure, I feel it’s important to think about your intention. Spend some time working out why you’re writing the song: why does it need to exist and what are you hoping to communicate? Once you have decided on your creative intention and splurged some of your ideas, then you can think about how to organise them. Stephen Sondheim, the musical theatre writer, talks a lot about how content should dictate form, not the other way round. This really resonates with me as I think it’s a very authentic way of writing: decide what you want to achieve and use song craft to suit your own creative needs.

Personally, I tend to take a title-focussed approach. I’m always hunting for song titles, gathering them via conversations, newspapers, TV shows, films, novels; they pop up everywhere! The first thing I do in a song writing session is pull out my long list of titles and, together with my co-writer, find one that resonates. Then we’ll work out what we want from it - flesh out the song’s concept and the situational or narrative framework. For example, take the Bruno Mars song ‘Grenade’ - with a one-word title like that, there are a number of songs you could write. You could write a lyric about the futility of war, a volatile relationship or a friend with an awful temper! Starting with a title helps me to think about the ‘destination’ in the lyric: where are you leading your listener?

Simon Hawkins, a Nashville songwriter, recently published a book called ‘Song Maps’, in which he explains that, like movies, song lyrics tend to be organised in only five or six different ways. The maps help you to think about how the ideas and thoughts in your lyric will develop.

Take ‘Someone Like You’ by Adele, which is a textbook illustration of the ‘tension/response’ song map. in the verse, the speaker in the song describes in detail how the tension is sensed, then in the chorus, she makes a declaration about it. In verse two she tells us how she’s responding to that declaration and how she feels about having to move on. In the middle eight, we hear about what it all means. Song mapping is an example of a tried and tested, invisible set of conventions that I’d never really thought about before. Using convention - especially ‘invisible’ structural ones like these - to your advantage can be a very powerful thing in contemporary writing. It can really help your original, unique, personal lyrical content to land more powerfully.

As a lyric writer, is personal experience important to making lyrics feel authentic?

Absolutely. In my experience, authenticity is what’s prized above everything else in the industry. When we think about great writers and artists, what we are often responding to is that sense that it’s all real. Can they authentically convey their experiences and emotions? Human beings respond to detail: the great movies and books are the ones that vividly bring experiences and emotions to life for us. A sense of felt truth is integral to successful lyric writing.

But that doesn’t mean you have to have experienced this truth yourself.

Unless you have a dramatic and tumultuous life, then you won’t necessarily have a continuous flow of experiences to draw on and use as the basis for song lyrics. But it’s ridiculous to think you can ever run out of things to write about.

You can simply to delve into other people’s experiences, whether that’s via someone you know or perhaps based on a story in the news. You can write a powerful song by stepping into other people’s shoes. This idea of ‘creative borrowing’ of other people’s experiences is a time-worn approach to writing lyrics and songs!

How important is getting feedback to song/lyric writing?

Feedback and critical self-reflection is vital to the development of any songwriter in all aspects of songwriting – whether that’s in an educational setting like ICMP, or in a professional setting from co-writers, producers, publishers, managers or labels.

Gaining perspective on your work is so important because lyric and song writing is about two things: expression and communication.

So, while you might be satisfied that you’ve expressed yourself in a way that feels authentic to you, you may not have communicated effectively. There are so many technical aspects to lyric writing that can impact how ideas are communicated - rhyme, meter, phrasing, structure, vocabulary and detail. Trying to gain perspective on all of these elements by yourself is difficult. So I think at whatever stage you’re at as a writer, having someone hear your song and offering their perspective is essential. Even recording the song and playing it back to yourself allows you to hear it differently. But this isn’t just an educational notion specific to a songwriting programme. Part of the life of the writer is to discuss your work with other people. Getting feedback and (perhaps) redrafting based on the insights you’ve gained can be a great way to enhance the impact of your song...

Read part two of How to write lyrics: an essential guide'

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by Jonathan Whiskerd, BA Songwriting Course Programme Leader
November 29, 2017
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