What to Do When Your Lyrics Just Don't Work

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Reading lyrics from most hit songs can be surprising for what you don’t see. It’s often amazing to find that lyrics from the best songs out there are actually quite ordinary, certainly not “poetry”, as such. And that’s usually part of a lyric’s success: you want your words to sound like they were said somewhat spontaneously, in everyday language. Having said that, there is something to be said for finding ways to make your basic run of the mill lyric sound more creative.

Lyrics generally fall into one of two categories: 1) poetry, or 2) common narrative. For poets, the lyric is often the most remarkable element of the song, and the writer can spend weeks or months honing the lyric into something that could be recited at a poetry reading. For most, though, you’ll want to be writing a lyric that feels more like something you’d say to someone in line at McDonald’s.

The real issue here is written versus oral language. We all know that the way we’d say something is not necessarily the way we would write it. In English, as with all languages, there is an oral approach and a written approach. It’s vital to remember that, because lyrics are words that are sung, not (usually) read. If you find that your lyrics sound stiff and uninspiring, it’s often because you’ve forgotten that the words you’re writing will be presented orally; most people will hear them, and never read them. Good songs offer a balance of both forms of the language, but for emotional impact, the oral-type words should be more plenteous.

The problem is easy to solve, but songwriters will have to battle an instinct to write something that’s a bit more sophisticated than the everyday language we use. Songwriters are always looking for more creative ways to embellish their thoughts. And they will frequently fail at the task, because they’ll resort to using words that work better as written text than as a sung lyric.

If you’re looking for a good way to be more creative with your lyric, the task is simple: take a line from your text, and reword it as many ways as possible. And don’t look for ways that work good as written text, but rather focus on writing the line the way someone would say it. This will result in words that look lousy on paper, but may flow quite naturally in a lyric. Here’s an example:

ORIGINAL LINE: “How can I go on / When you’re all I really want”

REWORDINGS:

  • “How can I make it / When you’re the one I want”
  • “What can I do / When you’re the one I love”
  • “How can I smile / When I don’t have you with me”
  • “How can I be happy / If you’re not here beside me”

As you can see, what you’re trying to do here is not necessarily come up with a word-for-word “re-transposing.” You just want to come up with simple, everyday kind of ways of conveying a similar thought. How you know you’ve come up with something good is if it sounds natural. You don’t want poetry here, you just want to convey some raw emotions using words from our language’s oral form, not the written.

Take a look through the lyrics of some of the songs you’ve written that leave you feeling frustrated, and I am willing to bet that you’ve resorted to using words that are the kind you’d write rather than the kind you’d say. And while a good lyric will use both, you’ll especially want to be sure that the more emotional moments in your songs are oral-type words.
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Open your mind to all the creative possibilities! Discover the secrets of songwriting by checking out Gary Ewer’s songwriting e-books here.

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