Creating word lists allow your song’s story to appear before your eyes.
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Here’s something many songwriters can relate to: you’ve got a captivating story or situation, but you can’t form it into a lyric that works. It’s frustrating, because the story may seem clear in your mind, and even just thinking about that story can generate excitement. But then you try to write the lyric, and… garbage happens.
The problem comes from the differing nature that exists between telling a story on the one hand, and writing a lyric on the other. When you’re telling a story, there is lots of flexibility for you to use as many words as you’d like, and even re-tell parts if you feel you need to emphasize a point.
But with lyrics, there is a need for economy. The best lyrics say what they need to say with precision. They usually build and elicit emotions by zeroing in and precisely targeting them. Most of the time, there is a power that comes from being able to describe a complex emotion or situation with one or two words.
So if you find lyrics to be the toughest part of songwriting for you, there is a good reason for it. Creating imagery, developing an emotional response from the listener, pulling an audience along in your story… this often takes a lot of thought, reworking and rewording in order to be successful.
It’s why I so strongly advocate the making of word lists as an integral part of writing lyrics. In a sense, word lists allow you to watch your story appear before your eyes. And in fact, even if you are sure you know what your song is about, word lists can help you see angles and directions that perhaps weren’t obvious before.
There are many ways to use word lists, but here is one that is going to help you develop a story that takes you properly from verse to chorus:
- Write your song topic at the top of your page, or a working title. (Example: “We’ve only got one earth… we have to take care of it”)
- Create 2 columns underneath, one for verse words, and one for chorus words. (Verse words are usually less emotional, and more observational; chorus words are usually emotional in quality.)
- Put words into the proper columns. If your song topic is wanting a cleaner, better environment, words that tell that story (verse) might be “earth”, “clean”, “poisoned waters”, “the silky forest floor”, “pollution”, etc. Words that express emotions might be “we’ve got to do better”, “time to change”, “give it up”, “breathe”, and so on. You’ll start to notice that as you work that your story, in a sense, appears before your eyes. Lists do that; they show you all the important words that your song lyric will contain, and will do that at a glance.
- At the bottom of the page, start to pull words together in your verse that seem to be calling out to you. See what you can do to create rhymes that feel natural and unforced. Do the same for the chorus.
At this point, you should be well underway to creating a song lyric that works well. It will move naturally from the observational-type statements to emotional ones, and that’s the proper way to snag an audience and keep them interested.
Any time you get stuck, simply glance through your word lists again, and you’ll be back in business.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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