A THREE-STAGE ROCKET TO WRITING LYRICS
by Robin Fredericks
When NASA wants to blast a rocket into orbit, they do it in stages: There’s the big lift-off, then one or two smaller stages to get the payload into orbit and then fine tune it. So, what’s this got to do with writing lyrics?
You can think of the lyric writing process in three stages:
1. Getting started. (Lift off)
2. Developing your idea. (Getting into orbit)
3. Rewriting to fine tune your lyric.
Just like a successful launch, you need to go through each stage. Don’t expect a song in the “getting started” phase to be at the final stage! Too often songwriters confuse the very first idea with the final goal. I do it. We all do. Next time you sit down to write a lyric try this three-stage writing process.
STAGE ONE: GETTING STARTED
Beginning the lyric writing process with a TITLE can give you a central beacon that will keep your song lyric focused – very important if you want to keep listeners involved. OR…you can start with the first line of your song. Let’s say a terrific line occurs to you that launches a whole string of ideas. Write them all down, then go back and look them over. Do you know what this song is about? Can you put the lines in some kind of order that develops an overall idea? By the time you write the second line of your first verse, you should have a good idea where your song is headed! OR…find any short phrase that’s emotionally intriguing for you. Something you WANT to write about. Then, make a list of questions the phrase suggests. These are the questions you’re going to answer in your song. Try questions like: What does this mean? Why do I need to say it? How does it feel? How did it happen? What do I think the consequences will be? Every phrase suggests different questions. And every songwriter will find different ones to ask.
STAGE TWO: DEVELOP YOUR IDEA
Decide on your song structure. For most songs, it’s a good idea to write in a form that has a chorus section, such as… VERSE/CHORUS/ VERSE /CHORUS/BRIDGE/ CHORUS. Feature your title prominently in your chorus section. It will provide an anchor to which you and your listeners will return again and again. Surround your title with lines that support it. For example, you might choose to answer the question you feel is the most important. Or describe the emotions that are going on. Remember, the chorus sums up the heart and soul of your song. Be sure to keep it focused on a peak emotional moment. Don’t try to explain too many specific ideas in the chorus—save that for the verses—you’ve got to make your listeners FEEL what you feel! (See Stage Three.) Lay out your verses around the chorus. Try answering one of your questions in each verse and the bridge. If you run out of questions, think about going deeper into one of them. By laying out your song instead of just writing whatever comes to you, you’ll stay focused on a single idea in each verse and you won’t wonder what you’re going to write about when you get to the bridge! If you’re writing songs for the film & TV market, keep the focus solely on a peak emotional moment and try to avoid a specific storyline. The script will take care of the story details. For film & TV, the VRS / VRS / BRIDGE / VRS form can work well. Try using your title in the last line of each verse. If you repeat that last line each time the verse comes around, it will add weight and create a chorus-like feel.
STAGE THREE: REWRITE AND POLISH
Fill in more lines around the ones you’ve written. Use images, comparisons, and physical expressions of emotion to make your listeners really feel it! Don’t just tell them what you experienced; make them experience it, too. Replace a cliché with a fresh idea. Punch up your language. If you wrote “I NEED…” try “I HUNGER…” or “I CRAVE…” Go through your lyric and make certain you’ve answered the important questions about the emotional situation. Did you say something in your lyric that raised more questions or hinted at something else? You’ve got to deal with that—either answer the question or change that line. You don’t want to leave the listener feeling frustrated. Now is the time to “encourage” some rhymes. Don’t force them; never change the natural word order of speech to accommodate a rhyme – you’re likely to lose the authentic, believability of the lyric. Look for a rhyme that feels easy and natural. if you use “vowel rhymes” you have a huge selection to choose from. Like the name implies “vowel rhymes” merely rhyme the vowel sound. Fine/time, now/house, love/stuff are all vowel rhymes. Check out www.WikiRhymer.com and www.B-Rhymes.com for lists of near rhymes.
ONE LAST THOUGHT… At times during this process, there’s likely to be a strong line that “just occurs to you,” a line you really want to use. If you laid out your song as a rough sketch first, take a look to see where the line might belong and put it there. If it doesn’t seem to belong to any section, then it might provide the germ of a new song. Write it on a separate sheet of paper and put it to one side. You can come back to it later to see where it leads. In Song writing, no good line is wasted – you just have to find the right place for it.
REALLY… ONE LAST THOUGHT… If you write melody and lyrics together, try letting the natural melody of speech suggest a melody as your write. Record it onto whatever’s handy – a handheld recorder, or even your phone. Just as a lyric goes through three stages, so a melody gets started, develops, then goes through a rewriting stage. Use what comes to you initially and rewrite it later by changing phrase lengths, playing with the rhythm patterns, and altering note pitches. You can read more here: www.robinfrederick.com
Robin Frederick has written more than 500 songs for television, records, theater, and audio products. She is a former Director of A&R for Rhino Records, Executive Producer of over 60 albums, and the author of “Shortcuts to Hit Song writing” and “Shortcuts to Song writing for Film & TV.” Both books are available at Amazon.com