How to Write Better Lyrics
The art of crafting the perfect lyric for your song
Last Updated: December 2023 | 2729 words (13 – 15 minute read)
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Lyric writing can be difficult when you’re first starting out as a songwriter.
The words you put to that melody can make the difference between a song really connecting with an audience or not. Of course, the same could be said about the melody itself…
But in this post, we’re going to give you 14 things to keep in mind when writing song lyrics.
This isn’t a step-by-step checklist on how to write better lyrics – I don’t think one can even exist. This is more of an overall way to approach your art. If you’re brand new to songwriting be sure to read “How to Write a Song” first.
So let’s get to it, starting with… Inspiration itself.
Article Table of Contents
- 1 Writing Better Lyrics
- 1.1 Live a Life
- 1.2 Read More
- 1.3 Enjoy (and Study) Your Favorite Arts
- 1.4 Write More
- 1.5 Conversation and Story
- 1.6 Start With the Chorus
- 1.7 Be Authentic
- 1.8 Integrate Rhythm
- 1.9 Show, Don’t Tell
- 1.10 Be Simple and Specific
- 1.11 Don’t Use Cliches
- 1.12 Lyrics vs. Poetry
- 1.13 Bend and Break Rules
- 1.14 Don’t Just Write, Re-Write
Audio Version of Article
Live a Life
The first and most important thing you need to do is live an actual life. Experience is the best inspiration for art – so go out and live a life worth living.
Spend time with others, go experience new things, meet new people, share moments and love… Be open and vulnerable. Let yourself get hurt (hopefully not physically).
It’s the ups and downs of life that make for the best stories that everyone can relate to.
So don’t spend ALL your time working or writing songs. Go and live. And bring those experiences with you into the writing session.
Lyrics are literally words. So what better way to find inspiration for your own lyrics than to read… words.
Whether it’s classic literature, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc. reading a lot can help ideas come to life in your mind.
But this goes beyond the written word, too.
I remember speaking to a music producer who found inspiration in things like Ted Talks. So even just being open to new ideas can spark a great line in a song.
My favorite songwriting story is when Serj Tankian from System of a Down was stuck while writing their soon-to-be biggest hit song ever (Chop Suey). He grabbed a Bible and flipped to a random page and saw the line “Father Into Your Hands I Command My Spirit.” It became one of the most iconic and emotional parts of the song.
So remember – you can find inspiration in lyrics, literally anywhere.
Enjoy (and Study) Your Favorites in Art
Piggy-backing off the last point, you need to enjoy – and importantly, study – your favorite forms of art a lot. Whether it’s movies, music, paintings, dance, stories or anything else – art inspires art.
Yes, you should enjoy it as a fan. But in the case of music, specifically, you want to do a deep-dive study into the song.
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Don’t just listen passively. Study the vocal melody. Have the lyrics in front of you as you listen. Read the lyrics without the song playing in the background.
You want to try and understand the story, the words and poetic devices being used, as well as the rhyme schemes, syllable counts, and other mechanics of the song.
This requires dozens (if not hundreds) of listens. But it is so worth it when you’re learning how to write lyrics.
At the risk of contradicting myself, I have to mention that you should be producing a lot more than you are consuming.
Taking in inspiration (art, books, etc) is great – and important – but it’s not a substitute for actual songwriting. Even though you should consume a lot of things that can inspire you, you should be writing lyrics (and songs, in general) a lot more that that.
You need to be careful because over-consumption will actually work to DESTROY your creativity.
Your output needs to be greater than your input.
The only way to really get better at writing lyrics is to actually WRITE A SHIT TON OF LYRICS. So you need to write more. It doesn’t matter how much you write currently, you need to do more of it. A lot more.
That whole idea of “10,000 hours to achieve mastery” is a misconception. It’s not 10,000 hours, it’s 10,000 tries at doing the thing.
Have a Conversation and Tell a Story
Now we get into some more meat and potatoes of the whole lyric writing process.
The first thing you want to keep in mind when putting words to a song is that you should just be speaking like you normally speak.
Don’t try to write in a flow-y, poetic way. Write like you’re having a conversation with someone.
If you think about it, you actually ARE having a conversation with your listener. At the very least, the listener is a fly on the wall during the conversation that is your song. So write like you’d normally talk to a friend.
And beyond that, think of your lyrics as if you’re telling a STORY.
You have a point to make – something to say – in your song. But you almost want to tell it like a story – because that’s the “format” that resonates so deeply with human beings.
And that leads into our next point…
Start With the Chorus
Sometimes it can be helpful to start writing chorus melody and lyrics first and foremost.
Because the chorus should be the “summation” of the STORY you’re trying to tell. It’s where you get to the point you’re trying to make in your song. The chorus is the “payoff” of the rest of the story. It’s the entire reason you’re telling this story in the first place.
When you start with the “end” in mind, it can make it easier to fill in the backstory and details afterwards.
Writing a song’s verses is where you add context to the story – think of it like the beginning and middle sections. It’s where you add details that help to give the listener an understanding of what’s happening in your chours.
It’s in the verses and also when writing the pre-choruses that you “build up” to the climax/payoff of your chorus.
That’s why starting with the chorus first can make it easier to fill in those details in an interesting and compelling way.
Be Honest and Authentic
Being honest and authentic doesn’t mean you can only write about things that happened to you directly.
It’s more about you being yourself, and allowing yourself to be vulnerable in your lyrics.
For a song to really resonate with an audience it has to be authentic to both the songwriter and the performer.
You’ll write your best lyrics when they’re really coming from YOU, and not some trend you’re trying to chase because you think it’s hot right now.
And don’t be afraid to open up in your lyrics. We’re all humans, and we’re all looking to really connect with someone or some thing on a spiritual level.
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When you’re writing song lyrics, you have to remember they need to have a rhythm to them. We are having a conversation in our song, but we’re not speaking the same way we speak during a normal conversation.
There are musical “beats” to our singing/rapping – certain syllables get stressed and words wrap around time, in a specific cadence.
It’s important to integrate a rhythm to your lyrics as you’re writing them. This usually takes care of itself if during your songwriting session you start with the melody instead of the lyrics.
But if you’re starting with lyrics, make sure you integrate some rhythm into your writing.
If you’re having trouble with this, it may help for you to use a metronome at a specific BPM to read back the lyrics you’ve written to help you nail down the timing/rhythm.
Show Us, Don’t Tell Us
The tendency for most people when telling a story is to just dictate what happened. Go from event A to event B to event C, etc.
But that’s not what makes an engaging story.
You don’t want to tell me what happened – you want to describe it to me. You want to take me there, inside what’s happening.
The best way to describe a story is to use imagery. That’s why you’ll often hear the phrase “paint the picture” when talking about storytelling.
Your job as the storyteller is to paint the picture in the minds of your listener through your lyrics.
Using descriptive language and imagery is a great way to bring people into a story in a compelling way.
For example, you could just say “she was angrier than I’ve ever seen her” or you could say “open hands turned to fists and her teeth clenched tight enough to shatter.”
One is telling, the other is describing using imagery.
Be Simple and Specific
There’s a tendency in all of us to try and complicate things – to make them more difficult to explain or understand than necessary.
But in songwriting, you want your words to be accessible. You want to just come out and say what you’re trying to say. Don’t cover it up using unnecessary explanation.
Be concise. Be simple. AND be specific.
Cleverness is great. When you hear a really well put together and clever line in a song, it’s a great feeling.
But it can be hard for a songwriter to pull off well. And what often ends up happening is we write something SO clever, that no one actually gets what we’re trying to say.
If your reference is obscure, or your line would take a PhD dissertation to explain it’s significance, you’ve lost the plot.
Don’t be so clever that you’re confusing. And don’t try to be clever for the sake of being clever.
A clever line should also be simple and easy to understand.
Don’t Use Cliches
Another thing to avoid like the plague when writing your songs is cliches.
What are cliches? They’re sayings/phrases/ideas/things that are overused, generic and obvious.
Saying “I love you more than life itself” is an example of a cliche.
If any of your songs use cliches as lyrics, re-write those lines. Cliches are boring. They’ve been done so much they’re beaten to death.
But then how do you express your undying love in song?
The Same Things, But Different
Your job as a songwriter is to find an interesting and unique way to say the exact same things we’ve been saying for millennia.
A large fraction of songs are all about love. And the sentiment of “I love you more than life itself” is very common among two people deeply in love.
But you won’t find many songs (especially recent songs) that out and out say “I love you more than life itself.”
But they DO find ways to say that exact same thing, without saying THAT exact thing.
Find a cool way of saying something that’s already been said, and you’ve got the seed of a great song lyric.
Lyrics vs. Poetry
This leads us into the idea of lyrics and poetry. Lyrics can definitely be poetic, but lyrics are not exactly like poetry.
Lyrics are more conversational and will use more everyday language than a lot of poetry will. Poetry is often VERY poetic. Whereas lyrics are more often down to earth.
It’s ok to sometimes be poetic in your lyrics if it serves the song, but be careful not to overdo it.
Don’t Be Overly Metaphoric
Metaphors and lyrics can go hand-in-hand.
But it IS possible to be too metaphoric or use too many metaphors. This also relates to the idea of just saying what you mean – being simple and specific.
Metaphors are like a spice – used in the right amount, it adds flavour. But if you add too much, it becomes inedible.
So use metaphors. Use poetic language and poetic devices.
Just don’t overdo it.
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Bend and Break Rules
Now that you have read through a few of these guidelines on writing better lyrics… feel free to throw them out the window whenever you feel like.
The great thing about art is that there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules to it’s creation.
If it’s something that resonates emotionally with another person, it’s art. It works.
So try and bend and break these (and any other) “rules” to songwriting that you come across.
Rhyme Schemes and Non-Rhymes
A great way to “break the rules” of songwriting is to experiment with different rhyme schemes. Change up the way you put your lines together and see what you come up with.
Another way to break “rules” (or “myths” in this case) of songwriting is to just not use a rhyme.
Not every line has to rhyme in your song.
Hell why not try writing an entire song with no perfect rhymes? Or no rhymes at all?
I’m not saying your lyrics will be good, but it’s worth a try. You never know what you’ll come up with when you just try shit.
Don’t Just Write, Re-Write
And finally, the biggest way to write better song lyrics is to NEVER STOP at the first draft.
This is the biggest shortcoming of most amateur songwriters – they write the song, and consider it “finished.”
But when in life do you ever submit the first draft of something as the finished product?
You should ALWAYS be RE-WRITING your songs after you’ve got the meat and potatoes of it down.
Try and refine and polish it – the syllables, the words, the rhymes, the concepts, the order of the lines, etc.
There are so many different ways to rewrite your song lyrics to improve them.
But be careful, you don’t want to become SO obsessed with the rewrite that you never actually have a finished song.
You need to balance the need for rewriting with the need for finishing work. But never underestimate the power of rewriting your lyrics to help refine and improve them.
Frequently Asked Questions
Either lyrics or music can be written first when songwriting. It’s often most effective to start with an underlying chord progression (i.e. the harmony) or a melody of the vocal line first. Lyrics can then be fit to the melody or written simultaneously with the melody.
Yes, ChatGPT can write lyrics but they’re terrible and cliched.
Yes, anyone can write lyrics. Lyric writing is, indeed, a craft that can be studied but there is nothing stopping anyone from become a great lyric writer.
Writing lyrics is difficult because it takes skill and mental effort to be able to convey an entire idea in a single line or two. The perfect lyric is clever yet simple to grasp and encompasses a deep meaning or feeling about an idea. That’s extremely difficult to do well.
Writing a REALLY great lyric can be a little like catching lightning in a bottle.
There is no formula to a well crafted song lyric – but the concepts we shared in this article are a great guide to how you should approach your lyric writing.
Again, the most important thing for you to do is to consume some inspiration (music, movies, literature, ideas, etc) and then write a LOT of lyrics. But remember – always be producing more than you’re consuming.
The only way to get better at this is to do it often.
Try to schedule daily songwriting sessions, even if you only end up having 10 minutes. The idea is to just keep building that lyric muscle in your brain.
Use the tips here to help refine your song during your re-writes, and you’ll learn how to write better lyrics in no time.
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Thanks for reading this guide! I hope it was helpful.
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