The Mantra Every Lyricist Should Live By
The following is an excerpt from Song Journey by Mark Cawley
As a songwriter, what’s a good place to start once you have a title or an idea of what you’re going to write about? Prose. But, instead of jumping right in, try closing your eyes, thinking about your idea, and then writing what you see.
Don’t rhyme, don’t worry about cadence or how cool it looks on the page, just write.
If you’re writing a song about meeting the love of your life, talk about the time of day, name the place you met, what the weather was like. Color of her hair.
Even the smallest detail can make the difference between a generic lyric and one that comes to life. If it’s a car, what’s the make? These details make up the real stuff. Write the real stuff because it’s the good stuff. You can make it pretty later.
If you have one mantra as a lyricist, let it be “Show. Don’t tell.”
I wish I’d invented this, but I’m not that smart. Any Nashville writer knows this truism, and it applies to every kind of lyric. If you’re telling, you’re just reporting.
“Just the facts” is not a good idea here. You want to paint a picture, and you do that with color and detail. Make the listener see what you want them to see.
The late John Braheny wrote one of the best books on songwriting I’ve ever read called The Craft and Business of Songwriting. In it, he uses this example to illustrate the point:
Look at three objects — a car, a book, and a musical instrument:
My great 1982 Porsche 928 with a broken right taillight.
My paperback with a blue cover and the words Gift from God printed in gold.
My old white Telecaster with a broken B string and a missing volume knob.
Now you see ’em…
The book I’m reading
I play an instrument
…and now you don’t. That is the power of “Show. Don’t tell.”
How much color and detail is too much? In Jimmy McDonough’s biography of Neil Young, Shakey, he wrote a piece where he compared a good lyricist to a “stager.”
My daughter, Morgan, has her own interior design business here in Nashville and gets called in occasionally to be a stager. Her job is to look at a house that’s on the market and put herself in the buyer’s shoes. Is there too much of the owner’s memorabilia or tchotchkes in the house? Is it too sterile? How can she make the house inviting so the buyers can pick up on the vibe but also see themselves living there?
A good lyric writer adds just enough color and detail so the listener sees what you want them to see. If there is not enough color and detail, the listener is left to only imagine.
I know you’ve heard a song and felt it was telling your story. That’s good lyric writing. Too much detail and it’s only the writer’s story. Just enough and it becomes yours.
For more advice on writing good lyrics, you can find Song Journey on Amazon.
Mark Cawley is a hit songwriter who coaches other writers around the globe through his one-on-one, online service iDocoach.com. His songs have been on more than 16 million records with cuts ranging from Tina Turner to Wynonna Judd to The Spice Girls. Mark is a judge for the UK Songwriting Contest, Nashville Rising Star, Belmont University’s Commercial Music program, and West Coast Songwriter events. He’s also a contributing author to USA Songwriting and Songwriter Magazine, a sponsor for the Australian Songwriting Association, and a mentor for The Songwriting Academy UK. Born and raised in Syracuse, New York, Mark now resides in Nashville, Tennessee.