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Honing Your Lyric-Writing Skills

If you find lyrics are the hardest part of songwriting, the best way forward is to try to emulate the greats.

Whenever I hear songwriters describing the difficulties they have with lyrics, it’s almost always that they feel that they’re “lame.” In other words, it’s not so much that they don’t know what to write about; it’s more that by the time they’ve got something written, it all looks and sounds corny and badly worded: in other words, lame.

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So how do you emulate the great lyricists? Here’s one way to do it. First, do some research into your genre of choice, and find names of the notable lyricists. Once you’ve got a few names that are mostly unknown to you, do the following:

  1. Go to a lyric site online, and find songs by that lyricist for which you don’t know the lyric. Any site will do, but you can try, A-Z Lyrics, MetroLyrics, or any one of probably hundreds of other sites.
  2. Copy and paste the first line or two from some random song by that lyricist into a blank document.
  3. Do that ten times or so, so that you have a page with ten first lines.
  4. Put that away and come back to it later in the day, or the next day.

Now open up that document in which you compiled first lines from ten songs. Take the first line, read it to yourself several times, and try to get a sense of the internal rhythm, the pulsing and accents of the words, and the general idea of what the line is about.

Now write your own second line. The challenge is to write a second line that sounds like a good follower for that first line. You want as much as possible to emulate the style and feel of that first line.

Let’s say for example that the first line you copied was “So you walk away but don’t say why…“. If you look at that line for a while, you’ll notice two important things:

  1. It’s a very casual kind of line, as if it might have come from a conversation.
  2. The point of view is personal — the singer speaking directly to another.

Your created second line should continue with those two observations, so you might come up with:

  1. That hurts to see, I won’t lie…
  2. Please don’t tell me that this is good-bye…
  3. “Was it something I said, or some other guy…

Don’t belabour this, and in fact you might try putting a timer on and not spend more than 2 or 3 minutes on any one line before moving on.

Once you get the hang of this, try looking for more unknown lyrics, but this time try copying out an entire verse, and then see if you can come up with an entire second verse that properly emulates the qualities you see in the copied verse.

As you do this exercise, the hope is that you start to get a feel for how your choice of words is a lot more important than the song’s topic. You can also try copying a verse, which will likely be “observational” in nature, and then see if you can come up with an appropriate chorus, which should be emotional in nature.

In a way, this exercise allows you to learn lyric writing by working side-by-side with a pro. It guides you by requiring you to copy the style of the lyric written by a more experienced lyricist, and that’s almost always going to make you a better writer.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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