How to write lyrics: an essential guide part 2

ICMP Songwriting Programme Leader Jonathan Whiskerd delves deeper into the art of lyric writing in part two of his essential guide...


How do songwriters come up with song lyrics for choruses and verses? And how do you beat any creative blocks?

These are big questions for writers and ones tackled by our Songwriting Programme Leader Jonathan Whiskerd in the second part of his essential guide to lyric writing.

If you missed part one, then read it here - and if not, get stuck into his second collection of tips below...  

How do you differentiate between writing lyrics for a chorus and writing for a verse?

Conventionally speaking, the chorus is focused around a message - a key statement or idea - and the verse is focused around the situation or narrative that illustrates the importance of that message.

You can think of your chorus as the heart or ‘destination’ of your song, where the essence of the main idea can be found. The verses add context and depth to that idea, either by perhaps describing emotions, telling a story, or offering images or metaphors. It really depends on the writer’s style and approach; there is no fixed way to write a lyric!

It is difficult to make generalisations about lyric writing but I would argue that engaging your listener, evoking their emotions, inviting them in to a world (and so on) are fairly fundamental."

Of course, every writer does this differently - think about the contrast between a Thom Yorke and a Dolly Parton lyric, for example (!) - but the principle of capturing our interest and leading us toward an idea can still be identified in almost all song lyrics.  

It’s important to remember that when the song starts, the listener knows nothing about what you wish to communicate. Then, in just a few lines, your job is to immerse them in the world of the song, so that when you state your main idea or message, they are emotionally impacted.

The reason lyric writing is so challenging is it requires economy. You don’t have much space in which to convey your ideas! You also probably need to consider how your lyric fits in and around the other elements of the song and so the big challenge is to not overfill it. A lyric is distinct from a poem: these words will be sung to a tune; poets only have words to work with, so tend to use denser and more complex language.

For these reasons, redrafting is crucial to the lyric writing process: after the initial creative outpouring of ideas, you have an opportunity to start to refine and edit your content into a more coherent, economical, singable lyric.

If you get stuck in writers’ block - how can you overcome it?

Every time I’ve spoken with someone about their creative block, it boils down to one of two things: you have either exhausted a particular approach or you are judging your work too early. Or both! If your current method (starting with a chord progression and humming over it, for example) has stopped yielding results, then try something else! Perhaps find a phrase that interests you and then flesh out a concept or story around it. Or you could write to a drum groove and map out the meter of the lines before anything else. Or change the instrument you’re working with. Or write with someone else. When you change your approach, you will inevitably inspire yourself in a new way and will, most likely, find that you can write again!  

The other big self-limiter is when writers judge their ideas too early on in the process.

When you are first exploring ideas, don’t worry about quality, whether they’re ‘right for you’, whether others will relate to them or whether your cat will like them - just write and create a big ol’ mess of stuff!"

Then you can start applying your judgement to decide what is worth taking forward and what is not.

How clever can you be when it comes to writing lyrics? Is less more? Or is using elaborate language acceptable?

A lot of this is about intention and style – there are no rules as to what you can and cannot do but there are some powerful conventions that you can use in subtle ways to help your songs connect with people. You can use these strategically to get your ideas across.

I think it’s important to acknowledge the art form you’re working in. As mentioned earlier, lyrics are words to be sung, so if they’re too elaborate or dense, then they can be difficult to follow when people hear them in the context of a song. There is, of course, a huge amount of scope within this principle, though. It’s ultimately a stylistic choice: contemporary folk artists like Ray La Montaigne write using lots of vivid and figurative language, which really works in his songs, but this is unlikely to suit something by Beyonce. 

How can you avoid clichés when it comes to lyric writing?

Be authentic and be specific - if you write using detail, it’s the best way to short circuit clichés. When people start writing, they often defer to that which is vague and generic, I think in an attempt to emulate a perceived language of lyric-writing, whereas what is always more compelling is when writers use their own words to vividly convey the details of their thoughts, emotions and experiences. It’s more authentic and real. Consider the well-worn trope of the love song: love is something we all experience and what’s interesting is someone’s individual experiences and ideas around this.

Many new writers think that, by keeping their lyrics general, they’ll be more relatable but I feel the opposite is true.

We are unlikely to be moved by a dry presentation explaining, in abstract terms, the impact of a death in the family. Instead - whether it’s a charity fundraising campaign, a TV show, a novel or a film - we are moved by detailed narratives and believable characters."

It’s how we relate to each other as human beings. Apparently it’s known as ‘neural coupling’ (best to Google this – it may surprise you but I don’t know much about neurology).

So, ultimately, the irony is that you spend years developing as a writer just to sound like yourself. That’s what everyone wants to hear. That’s where the value is: finding a way to craft lyrics that is unique and specific to you.

How do you know when you’ve finished a song?

This is a tricky philosophical question.

I try to get new writers to embrace the idea that writing is an iterative process: it’s not just about what you create in the first sitting. Redrafting is incredibly powerful."

Keep focused on what your creative goal is and, once you feel that the song really does what you want it to, you could argue that it’s finished. As humans, we’re programmed to take the path of least resistance, so it’s easy for creatives to excuse underdeveloped work and explain issues away: it’s less work this way! So I think it’s about digging into the aspects of the song that, deep down, if you’re really honest with yourself, you know are not quite there yet. We’ve all listened to thousands of songs in our lives, so we know what we like to hear. Ask yourself if you’ve really developed the song as much as you can; have you pushed yourself to the fringes of your ability level? It’s hard work and it’s frustrating – but that’s the work of a writer! The finished songs are your reward for this work.   

Read part one of Jonathan's essential guide to lyric writing

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by Jonathan Whiskerd, ICMP BA Songwriting Programme Leader
December 7, 2017
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