After writing hundreds of songs and reviewing and critiquing thousands of lyric submissions, these are the most common mistakes I’ve seen and made myself.
The hook sums up the central idea of the song. Typically, but not always, it is at the end of the chorus. Not all hooks have to be heartbreaking or clever. It can be one word like Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic.” But the point is that the song remains focused toward that hook. If our song is not focused, how can we expect the listener to focus on it?
Remember when you were in grade school learning how to write a paragraph? You had a topic sentence that states the point of the paragraph followed by all of the supporting sentences. Same idea for how to write a hook. The hook is the topic sentence of your song. All other lines should support or “point” to your hook.
I co-wrote a song called “Raised by the Radio” with Mitch Rossell. The point of the hook is that the radio taught him everything he needed to know. Every line had to be a lesson learned from a song on the radio when he was a kid. We had a couple lines that were killer but missed the mark in the context of the hook. So we had to nix some of our favorite lines. It was a drag, but the song as a whole was much better. And it went on to be the title track of the album, produced by Garth Brooks. And Mitch performed it in front of 15,000 people every night opening for Garth that year. So, needless to say, I don’t miss those lines very much.
Rhymes are important in songwriting. Most songs rhyme. They do so because our ears love hearing the pattern of familiar sounds while we soak up the song. But just because a line rhymes doesn’t mean you’ve struck gold as a songwriter. It is the story that keeps us interested and listening.
I’m not talking about just the songs that are literally a story like “Cats in the Cradle” and “Boy Named Sue.” All songs have a story to tell of some kind. Even if it is just about a feeling or a moment, there is a story there. And it is our job as songwriters to move that story along.
If we ignore the story for the sake of a rhyme, we’ve digressed and diverted the listener to potentially being confused or not caring anymore. So, I always like to read through each line and consider – Does this contribute to the story? If not I’ll rework it. Usually I’ll chase the existing rhyme. But if I can’t get it with the same rhyme I might have to adjust another line or 2 as well. And oftentimes, I’ll land on something altogether better.
Form is the roadmap of our songs. Listening to a song without a clear form feels like a flea riding a Labrador in heat. We have several elements at our disposal to break up the song into digestible pieces: verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge. Most songs have at least 2 of these: Verse and chorus. And the goal is to repeat them in a way that best delivers your lyric.
A couple years ago I was commissioned to write a song for a Bayer commercial that had only one verse and one chorus. Sia’s songs have as many as 5 choruses in them. My buddy, Grammy nominated songwriter Adam Wright, wrote one of the best songs I’ve ever heard called “Billy, Get Your Bike” that has no chorus at all. You can put your song together in whatever form you want, but it should be clear to the listener which section is which.
You can feel the groove of a good song when you read the lyrics. There’s a pocket of stressed syllables that allow us to just ride the words and phrases. It is a powerful tool for us songwriters because it creates expectations for the listener.
As an example, here is the first verse of my song “Armadillo”. The underlines show the stressed syllables on each line:
When the standing joke just stares
Making faces at the mirror
While your nose and ears count the years
And you’re stuck on what to wear.
That has a 3-3-4-3 groove of stressed syllables. When that groove is established it is best to stick with it. Sometimes that thing you want to say just doesn’t quite fit. So we speed up a word or 2. Or, in the case of the example above, we can add a pick up, loading them up at the beginning of the line before the first stressed syllable.
All of this is fair game. But if you find yourself with too many lines that don’t follow a stressed syllable pattern it can be hard for the listener to follow. Imagine if it was this instead:
When the standing joke just stares at you
Making funny faces at you at the mirror
While your nose and your ears keep counting all of the years
And you can’t decide what to wear.
That says almost exactly the same thing. But it is a 4-4-5-3 pattern. The groove is nowhere to be found. And it feels funny reading it doesn’t it? When possible, try to commit to the number of stressed syllables in a line and you’ll keep your listener in the groove with you.
If you wouldn’t say it like that, don’t write it like that. Or, if the song’s narrator wouldn’t say it like that, don’t write it like that. Some songs are written with more poetry than others. Some have simple language. Great songs are written from both sides of that spectrum and in between. But randomly using words that don’t fit with the language and dialect of the narrator can feel like hitting a pothole to the listener. Your speaking voice is the best guide for how to write lyrics.
Another example is “Yoda talk” – putting the subject after the verb. Usually we do this to force a rhyme. You wouldn’t say “So in love we were.” Or, “Of all my ghosts I am free.” It sounds backwards. Yoda might speak like that but most of us don’t. So as a listener it can feel odd and difficult to follow. Write it like you’d say it. You might have to tweak a line or move something around to make it work. But you’ll make the job of the listener much easier.
The number one tip to writing lyrics is to write them. And write often. Sit down. Stand up. Use a pad and paper. Use a computer. Play a guitar. Play a piano. Just do the thing: write! You’ve got to put pen to paper if you’re going to learn how to write lyrics!
Start with a riff, a cool lyric phrase, a drum loop, or a hook. Personally, I like to write from a hook. I haven’t always done it that way. But ever since I started writing from a hook my songs have been more focused.
Whatever you do, just get started.
Your hit song ain’t gonna write itself. Yes. Some songs come to us in dreams. Some feel like they pour out of us as if we’re just vehicles for the song angels. But I believe that even those moments are the result of being open, practiced, and ready for when a great idea shows up.
So, write! And then write again.
We don’t need another Ashley Gorley or Finneas. They’ve got that covered in spades. And you’ll never out Brandi Carlile Brandi Carlile. She’ll beat you every time. But, No one anywhere is going to be as good at being you as you can be.
Your truth, your story, your life experiences are a well to draw upon. And collectively they are 100% unique to you. Write what you know. You can never go wrong with the truth. When you can write your truth you will do a much better job of writing someone else’s. And when you can write your truth and make it feel like someone else’s truth…well, that’s worth paying money for.
If you want to hear your songs on country radio, listen to country radio. If you want to write for tv and film watch shows and movies. I don’t mean exclusively. But even if you just check in from time to time you’ll keep your finger on the pulse of what is succeeding in your target market.
It’s like basketball players watching game tape. You don’t have to copy everything everyone else is doing. But know your competition. Figure out what is working in the top tier of songs so that, if you’re inspired to, you can adjust your writing accordingly. If nothing else, it will keep your eyes on the prize.
This can be a tough threshold to cross for some folks. Myself included. Initially I didn’t want to co-write at all. I had released 4 albums and performed 1000 shows of my own songs. I thought “I don’t need anyone’s help.”
But co-writing is more than just asking for help to write a song. It is:
2 collections of ideas
2 imaginations carving out the story
2 jukeboxes of influences
2 lives of experiences to draw from
But more than that, co-writing is a front row seat to seeing someone else’s writing process. Some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned have been takeaways from a co-writing session. Maia Sharp taught me to consider every idea. Chase it down the road a ways. Say it out loud. And then make the judgement to keep it or kill it. Lori McKenna taught me to follow the energy and not to edit while you’re getting inspired. Michael White taught me to have the patience to wait for the best hook in the room.
They didn’t sit me down and teach me any of this. I observed it while I was writing songs with them. If you’re lucky you’ll not only leave a co-write with a great song but you’ll have a new tool to utilize when you write your next song.
Did I mention this? What are you waiting for?
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Dean Fields is a singer/songwriter who has released 6 albums and performed over 1000 shows. His songs have been #1 on the Texas radio charts, recorded by Lori McKenna, performed by Billy Currington, and produced by Garth Brooks. Aside from his personal success, Dean has reviewed thousands of lyrics and supported a wide array of writers (from beginners to experts) in their creative process.