The Art Of Revision In Songwriting

All serious songwriters learn at some point that songwriting requires revision, the ability to cull and distill the best work out of what emerges from your songwriting soul.

“The thing is,” Leonard Cohen explained, “before I can discard the verse, I have to write it … even the bad ones took as long to write as the good ones … I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light.”

He then summed it all up with symbology as pure and telling as those in his songs: “The cutting of the gem,” he said, “has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.”

In other words, it takes a whole lot of work to write anything, and then more work to determine if that writing is worth keeping or editing. Because unless you work on your song until each and every aspect of it is not only good, but as close to perfection as possible, you are not bringing everything you can to this work. A strong song, as Sammy Cahn often explained, has solid architecture. It holds up to repeated performances for decades because it is so finely and perfectly constructed. As Van Dyke Parks said, “A song should not fall apart on the street like a cheap watch.”

But how do you know, when a song is right and requires revision and when it does not?In my experience, this judgment seems almost to be made for me. In that every time I play the song – or listen to a home recording of it – there are often certain aspects, often lyrical lines, that are irksome. They feel wrong. It seems as if the song itself is telling me what is wrong. Often it feels as if I can sense the ultimate, finished version of the song, and any lines that jive with that vision stick out. And as time has passed, I have learned to trust and honor this determination.

Paul Simon said the same thing, both in terms of lyrical revision as well as the production:

“I remove the irritant,” he explained. “If anything sounds irritating in any way, I remove it.” What that requires, however, is a keen assessment of the song, which means being removed from the easy triumph of song completion to climb instead to the next level.

An extreme example is Simon’s iconic, “The Boxer,” recorded by Simon & Garfunkel, the original working draft of which is reprinted in his first big songbook. In that handwritten draft, there are the famous and now iconic lyrics which possess that brilliant Simon spark of colloquial and poetic language merged, such as “I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles, such are promises …”

Yet right here among these gems are lines he wisely discarded, including several lines about being in a train bathroom wondering “how many men have crapped here before me.” Being Paul Simon, a savvy songwriter, he knew to rid the song of all crap. Yes, it’s an extreme example, and most of what he wrote and discarded was not as egregiously unsuited to song. But the truth remains: The songwriter needs to open the creative gates, and allow the current of creativity to flow unimpeded by judgment or fear. To even write down a line like that one. It’s always easy to cut later. But necessary to get it down.

Levels of necessary revision are different for every songwriter. While many still believe old-fashioned and traditional song craft – such as perfect rhyming, perfect meter, syllabic stress and more – are always necessary, other modern songwriters do not subscribe to craft issues as much, and feel expression matters more.

That determination is up to you. Jackson Browne told me he used to feel perfect rhymes mattered more, and would not even rhyme a singular with a plural – such as “fog” and “dogs.” But, perhaps influenced by his good friend Warren Zevon’s ingenious use of false rhymes, Jackson revised this idea.

“I don’t think it’s important to rhyme perfectly,” he said. “I used to be pretty obsessed with it … So it would be perfect. I would go to great lengths to change the line … But I’d say that most great music is fine without that kind of obsessive detail … You can only rhyme ‘world’ and ‘unfurled’ so many times …”

Which means every songwriter must make this determination individually. But regardless of where one sets that bar, the truth remains: A song is a fusion of both craft and art. Both inform and inspire the other. Rarely is a perfect song written without some level of revision, and it’s at that juncture of work and creative flow that greatness is achieved.

As Jackson Browne concluded, “That is the most powerful combination, when the craft contains so much commitment that it becomes art. When those two things come together – craft and art – that’s where the magic comes from.”