I’ve spent many years writing, listening, and studying songs and have come up with this ultimate guide to help you write songs with lyrics you’re proud of.
The first thing to know about lyric writing is…
There are no rules
Writing music is a creative process.
However, when you sit down to write your next song, don’t fret about rules or a formulaic approach.
It’s better to write something that feels genuine rather than follows a rule book of songwriting tips.
However, many of these simple musical ideas are used in a lot of popular songs.
These tips should provide you with a general framework to develop your skills and personal style.
So experiment with these ideas when you write your song, but feel free to disregard those that don’t work for you.
“It’s very helpful to start with something that’s true. If you start with something that’s false, you’re always covering your tracks. Something simple and true, that has a lot of possibilities, is a nice way to begin.”
Make writing lyrics a discipline
Set aside time every day to write lyrics. Schedule specific times each week when you will have uninterrupted blocks of free time.
The more disciplined and committed you are about writing your lyrics, the more likely you’ll create a better song!
Remember, we get the best at the things that we practice the most!
Don’t think it, ink it
Make sure that you write down or record all music ideas at the same time you come up with them.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in your inspiration and then forget to write the lyric down.
You should also put freewriting into regular practice. This is also known as stream of conscious writing and can produce some great lyrical ideas and help prevent writer’s block.
Sit down with a pen and paper and write whatever comes to mind. Of course, you will write a bunch of nonsense, but your subconscious will push out a few golden nuggets every now and then. These lines could become some of your best lyrics.
Keep a journal of your freewriting and highlight any ideas that stick out to you.
Keep it simple and conversational
If you want to write better lyrics, then you need to write simple songs that are conversational.
Excellent lyric writing has catchy phrases that are easy to remember and repeat.
You don’t want to burden your audience with complicated words or themes.
A listener should be able to read the lyrics of your song and resemble something that would be said in everyday conversation.
If you can’t speak it naturally, then it’s a bad lyric.
Listen to Bob Dylan
Ok, so it doesn’t have to be Bob Dylan (although you can’t get much better as far as lyricists and songwriters go).
The main point is…listen to and study great songwriters. Then, takes notes on their choice of words, phrasing, and lyrical themes.
It helps to read the lyrics as you’re listening to the song. This will help you follow the narrative story and give you songwriting inspiration.
Take notes about what you like about their lyric ideas. Also, see if you can find patterns within their songwriting. Count the syllables in each line and discover what rhyme schemes they are utilizing.
When you start seeing your favorite songwriters using patterns in their music, you’ll learn the process isn’t as random as you thought.
“It is only natural to pattern yourself after someone… But you can’t just copy someone. If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to.”
Make every word count
There is a delicate balance between keeping your lyrics conversational and being wordy.
To be a great lyric writer, you need to know how to be brief but impactful with your words.
Write in soundbites.
Write your words out on paper and see what you can edit out.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Are there words that can be condensed into one?
- Is there a more straightforward way to write what you want to say?
Don’t forget your lyrics are drafts. Revise them to be as simple as possible without losing the message you’re trying to communicate in your music.
Use a thesaurus and rhyming dictionary
Sometimes you get stuck on a word or phrase with your music. The danger is to get lazy and resort to cliches.
Pat Patterson, a Berklee College of Music professor who wrote the book “Writing Better Lyrics” says that cliches are a virus that infects songs.
Brutal words, but good advice.
To assure you don’t resort to these cliches is to keep a good old-fashioned thesaurus nearby when you start writing lyrics.
Refer to it often to get new ideas on your more common word choices.
Also, Using tools like a rhyming dictionary can help you find words that fit perfectly into your song.
Use Literary Devices
Lyric writing is poetry.
Like poetry, great songwriters use metaphors, similes, personification, and alliteration to create more engaging music.
One of the best ways to make your lyrics stand out and sound authentic is through using metaphors.
Metaphors are a type of figurative language that connects an object or person with something else.
Typically a metaphor describes a subject in ways that evoke images not directly tied to its original meaning.
For example, a metaphor for a relationship could be “a journey.”
In terms of lyric writing, you could use this symbolically to say “the journey of love.”
A metaphor helps a listener relate the experience in the music to something in their own life. Metaphors can connect a non-relatable experience to something relatable to the listener.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things using “like” or “as.”
For example, you could say that parenting is like walking through quicksand because it’s slow and difficult.
Giving personal qualities to something nonhuman or representing an abstract quality in human form is called personification.
When you are trying to write music, using personification can be extremely helpful.
Not all songs are between two people. Sometimes the songwriter is going through an internal struggle.
Think about the character in the song’s story and personify objects or places in the world they inhabit.
How does the character interact with these objects?
Having these types of interactions within your lyrics creates fantastic imagery and intrigue for a song.
Using alliteration in your songwriting creates better lyrical flow and more catchy melodies.
Alliteration is when you use the same starting consonant in two or more words next to each other in a phrase.
An example of this would be, “She sells seashells by the seashore.” You can see how the first three words start with an S: she, sell, seashells.
When a songwriter utilizes alliteration for their lyrics, the words will have a catchier, more consistent flow.
Ask for feedback on your lyric writing
Songwriting is personal, and it can be challenging to let someone else voice an opinion on your work.
However, you will get attached to your music as you write. As a result, it will get increasingly difficult to separate good ideas from bad.
So it’s vital when you are writing songs to get a fresh set of eyes/ears to review your music.
Getting the opinion from someone you trust can drastically improve your songwriting and make your music better.
When you can hear and accept feedback, you will grow much faster as a songwriter and write better lyrics.
When you count the syllables in your stanzas, you will create better symmetry within your lyrical lines.
You should try to keep sections of your song with the same amount of syllables.
For example, say your verse is in an ABAB format.
Your A sections rhyme together, and your B sections rhyme together.
You should also write your A sections with the same amount of syllables and do the same for the B section.
This will force you to think creatively about the words that you choose for each line.
Also, this songwriting tip can help keep your music concise and clear.
Stick to Your Theme
Your song is a story, so make sure that your narrative flows from start to finish.
Decide what the main message of your song will be from the start. Then work your way down to the details from there.
Every lyric idea should always support the main message.
Examples of lyrical themes could be:
- Goods triumph over evil
- Coming of age
A songwriter will write better lyrics when there is a cohesive narrative that flows from start to finish.
Create Questions in the Listener’s Mind
Carefully crafted word choices can open up the “story loop,” which will keep an audience engaged.
Story loops are created by questions.
So what question are you answering with your song?
Practically, I’d encourage making your opening lyric as punchy and intriguing as you can.
Modern music listeners have short attention spans. So hook them in with a lyric that creates a question right away to prevent them from skipping your track!
Phoebe Bridgers is an artist who does this masterfully.
Check out the opening line from her song “Motion Sickness.”
“I hate you for what you did, but I miss you like a little kid.”
This lyric is intriguing and conversational. It creates questions in the listener’s mind.
- What did this person do?
- Why does she still miss them?
Write song lyrics that add intrigue and drama and create questions that your audience needs to answer.
This ensures they will be engaged from start to finish.
Be descriptive with your verse lyrics
The verses set the stage for your main message. It’s ok to be a bit more detailed in the verses.
The verses should give context to the world, mood, and people that the song takes place.
If the theme of your music is love, for example, then you could write lyrics like:
Your hair’s like the golden hills (simile)
Your words pour out like wine (metaphor)
I’ll take a sip
and lose all track of time (idiom)
At this moment, everything feels right
In this lyric example, we have the writer seeing someone as beautiful as the hills and as intoxicating as wine.
You can relate with that feeling of being “love drunk,” and now that song title would be given more meaning.
These lyrics can set up a more simple chorus in its delivery because the verse has filled us in on the details.
Keep it simple in the chorus
This is the heart and message of your song, so we want to keep chorus lyrics simple enough for people to sing along to and remember on the first listen.
A great chorus should read as if it were easy to write.
When you look at it on paper, it just seems too simple.
For example, Blink 182’s “Miss You” (which, by the way, has two verses before it actually hits the chorus!)
This song is also a great example of using detail in the verses and letting the chorus open up and breathe in lyric simplicity.
Detour in the bridge
Think of your bridge as the song’s detour.
Not all songs use lyrics in their bridges, and a lot will use instrumentals or solos.
However, if you decide to write a lyrical bridge, just remember to keep it short and sweet.
The bridge is the chance to build up for a big finale, so don’t waste any time or space with filler lyrics.
You want your listeners to anticipate what’s coming next to keep their attention until the song ends.
Everything leads to the song’s tag
Think of your song as a climb up a mountain. The peak of the mountain is your tag (or hook)…the one phrase that encompasses the entire piece of music.
Most of the time, the tag is the title of your song, and it is a simple one or two-word phrase.
A tag is a lyric that, on its own, might not hold much meaning. However, when you put in the hard work of supporting it with the verse and chorus, its meaning becomes significant.
When you are thinking of writing better lyrics, always start with a tag.
A great tag is what makes hit songs.
Structure your rhyme schemes properly
One of the most essential techniques in writing better lyrics is to structure your rhyme schemes properly.
In songwriting, the most common rhymes are at the end of phrases.
However, an internal rhyme scheme (where words within the phrase rhyme) can lead to much more exciting lines.
There are many different styles of rhymes. However, to keep it simple, stick with the most common rhyme scheme of ABAB.
This is where the first and third lines rhyme, and the second and fourth lines rhyme.
Whatever rhyming scheme you choose, try and use it consistently throughout your lyrics, as this will help create cohesiveness.
Take frequent breaks
To stay fresh and creative, take breaks when writing lyrics for songs.
This break could be as simple as a small 15-minute coffee break or a few days off from writing.
It all depends on how engaged you’ve been in the process of writing lyrics.
It’s good practice to remove yourself from the writing process for a dedicated period.
Not everyone is going to have the same idea of what a break should look like.
Some great ideas to get you started are:
- Get into a conversation with someone that is not about music
- Go exercise
- Read fiction
- Watch a movie
Write with sensory imagery
Writing in a style that incorporates sensory imagery will make your music more engaging.
Sensory images naturally evoke strong feelings from listeners.
Sensory words will help listeners better connect to the lyrics of your song. The most essential part of writing good music is getting your audience to feel something.
Here are some ideas for each sense:
“When I see you in the morning light, it’s like a perfect sunrise.”
“The sight of your smile always warms my heart, even after all these years apart.”
“He smells of success.”
“The smell of your perfume lingers in the air.”
“The sweetness of your kiss, it’s all I want in my life.”
“We taste the saltwater on our lips from the ocean head dips.”
“I can hear your voice in my head, like an angel’s prayer.”
“It sounds like the love of a lifetime when you say my name.”
“I can feel it all over; I’m falling in love with you again.”
“It feels like a dream come true to be here with you now.”
Be mindful of what sense you want your song to trigger.
Great music invokes feelings from deep within a person–an essential quality for any musician who wants their work to touch others.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t write songs more abstractly, but writing with sensory imagery is an excellent trick towards writing better song lyrics.
Work with a co-writer
Working with another writer can help you to write better lyrics and sharpen your songwriting in general.
A co-writer can offer new perspectives and ideas for the song your working on.
Writing together stimulates creativity and builds relationships.
You might find that they introduce something inspiring into the process.
Comparing and contrasting ideas is an excellent way to finding innovative approaches for words and melodies.
This collaborative work between lyricists can produce exciting results!
Often, creative pursuits get done in a vacuum, which can actually stunt your growth.
To build a network of other songwriters that you regularly help with song ideas and vice versa.
Edit your words
Just like any creative writing process, you will need to go through drafts to find the perfect words for your song.
Nobody has ever got an award for writing the fastest song, so make sure you are developing your ideas to their fullest potential.
Some good editing tips for your next song are:
- Changing the order of your lyrics
- Reordering your verses and choruses to make the story flow more
- Trying out different rhyming words for phrases that feel awkward
- Addressing any cliche or repetitive ideas
- Add or change lyrics that don’t sound right in the song
- Try other phrases and words before selecting one line as the final lyric
Keep playing around with other words to see if you can level up your first and second draft ideas.
Use modern tools like Jarvis.AI
Artificial intelligence is no longer science fiction. Many people and industries are leveraging the power of Artificial Intelligence to be more productive and efficient.
Did you know that songwriters and musicians can leverage the power of AI to help write lyrics?
There is a company called Jarvis that has created a tool for marketing copyright that writes engaging, creative, and human-like sentences.
However, because it being a creative tool, it also does a great job at crafting some compelling lyrics. Best yet, what it creates is plagiarism-free and royalty-free.
For a more in-depth look at Jarvis AI please refer to my review here.
Lastly, be yourself
Writing great lyrics is much easier when you follow a proven framework; however, don’t forget to be yourself.
It’s ok if your songs sound like other songs when you are first starting out.
This is how you develop your style and musical language. Keep taking the risk and being vulnerable, and you will grow as a lyricist.
The trick is to write a song that sounds familiar yet fresh.
Continue writing, and you will develop that certain “X Factor” that only you can bring to the table.
This comes with lots of practice, but the more you write, the more authentic and genuine your songs will become.
What to do next?
The key to success with your songwriting ideas is to make it a lifelong process.
Don’t get over-attached to a single song or lyric idea.
Instead, finish songs and move on.
This rinse and repeat process will get you to the point where you have a more intuitive approach to your music and help develop your sound.
If you are just starting out, it may take a bit of time, but keep your head up and stay creative if you are passionate about it.
The world needs your songs, so don’t quit!