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Somebody's Rules For Lyric Writing...


I ran across another “rules for writing†article. I’m always interested in those: I want to know if I’m “doing it rightâ€â€”but I also tend to critique what they’re saying. So many of the rule-propounders claim, “Do what I do, and you’ll be a success†and this one was no exception. The rules in this case were for writing LYRICS, which is of particular interest to me since words is what I do. Because I have a limited voice range, am not particularly good on the guitar and am still mostly tone-deaf, I consider the music simply a delivery mechanism for the words.

Here’s the rules:

  • Come up with a great title. People often say my titles are good. I think that’s an argument for letting the audience tell you what the title is. I rarely identify a song by title—I want to see what other people call it when they request it. And they’ve come up with some good titles.
  • Be specific. Particularly applicable to country music, which is what I write. No matter how high-falutin’ the message, it’s got to be expressed in terms of real (though not necessarily believable) things happening to real people.
  • It’s the music, stupid. Good melodies, in other words. I think I end up being distinctive because I insist every song sound different.
  • Writing is re-writing. Yes, but I’ll do most of my re-writing before I ever write anything down. I also insist on outside input—one shouldn’t write in a vacuum. (Poor lighting in a vacuum.)
  • What you say counts. They’re saying “be different†and I agree. Be saying either something new or something old in a new way. That’s where the dead animals come in. If you’re expressing it in terms of roadkill you are probably saying something different.
  • Step away from your piano or guitar. I never pick up the guitar until after I have the lyrics and melody all worked out. Most of my writing takes place in situations where I not only can’t use a guitar, I can’t even use a pen—so I have to memorize everything.
  • A song is not a poem. Sometimes it is. I’ve set Edgar Allen Poe and Dr. Seuss (and lesser-known poets, too) to music. “Oral tradition†stuff—poetry meant to be performed, not read—can be musicated easily because it has a beat, rhymes frequently, and has repeating parts.
  • Your lyrics must sing. “Poesy,†in other words. I regularly adjust lyrics so they’ll “sing good.†Doesn’t mean melodies have to be appropriate to the lyrics—sometimes dissonance is good. I like my songs about death to be upbeat and happy-sounding, for example.
  • Need I repeat—repetition works. Because modern pop music does it? Lots of repetition is not necessary to get people to remember a song. In “When I Jump Off the Cliff I’ll Think of You,†the hook occurs only four times in nine chorus-less verses. It’s still memorable.
  • Know your genre. I have done that. Nashville particularly is rife with rules about how you’re supposed to write, and I mostly ignore them (just like most successful writers of country music do). I do follow a mantra I learned from a newspaper editor I worked for: “You have to know the rules before you can break them effectively.â€

So… I’m doing all that (mostly—with a couple exceptions those are good rules), but the music industry still has not beat a path to my door (and realistically is unlikely to). “Do this and you’ll be successful†probably isn’t true. Promotion and name familiarity enters into the picture a lot, too, I think—and I’m still far from being a household word. (“Toilet paper†is more of a household word than I am.) The above rules may make one a better writer but they do not make you a more famous one.


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