Some Thoughts on Writing (a rather long post)
Lately I’ve been doing more writing workshops than shows, so this rather long post is mostly for my writer friends. I’m working on a formal write-up of my songwriting workshops (aimed mostly at K-8 teachers and their students), but before I start looking into publishing anything I’d really like to get some feedback from others who have tried their hand at writing music. If you have time, please read below and then share your thoughts with me on Facebook or via the CONTACT button above. What have I left out? Do you have any good tips to share about how you write? Any specific problems you’ve struggled with? Favorite poets or other sources of inspiration? Mistakes to avoid? I really, really want to know so I can make my workshops better. What follows is aimed mainly at kids aged 12 and up who would like to try writing their own songs or lyric poetry.
Songwriting for Beginners
Here is an outline of how I write songs and lyric poetry, along with some suggestions for putting the process into practice. Bear in mind these are guidelines, not rules, so do whatever works for you. Having said that, give these ideas a try:
Step 1: Choosing a Topic
What will you write about? You want to choose a subject you understand well enough enough that you could write a few paragraphs about it if you had to. If you know enough to write a whole book about your topic, maybe you should narrow your focus. For example, writing a song about “Science” is probably too broad. “Biology” is better, but “Cells” is probably about right.
Now ask yourself what the MOST IMPORTANT THING about your song is: if the listener remembers just one phrase or thought, what should it be? Everything else in the song should be directed toward that one idea. In a regular essay we call this the topic or thesis and you usually state it in your first paragraph; in musical lyrics it is often called the hook and it usually happens in the chorus (the part that repeats several times, which technically ought to be called the refrain). When you get to the revision step of your process (NOT during drafting!), you’ll want to identify and then change or remove anything that’s off topic. By the way, this is true for any type of communication; if you want to be clear and convincing, stay on your topic!
Step 2: Big Ideas
Each verse (there are usually 3 or 4 of these) should develop one important aspect of the topic, just as each paragraph in the “body” of a multi-paragraph essay would. Write down all of the important things you want people to know about your topic. It’s fine to write down more than 3 or 4 for now, but then go back and identify the 3 or 4 you think are most important.
If you can’t think of enough really important things to say about your topic, try making your topic broader. If you have too many important things to say about your topic, consider narrowing your topic down.
Step 3: Key Words and Rhymes
For each of your 3 or 4 big ideas, write down several key “detail” words you would use to discuss that idea. Write down some rhyming words for each of them, preferably words that relate to your topic somehow; for example, “Galileo” rhymes with “mayo” but I’m not sure how they relate. Rhymezone is a great resource. Even if you already have some good rhymes, you may find better ones here:
Don’t worry if you can’t find rhymes for all of your words, you just won’t use those words on the end of a line.
Step 4: Draft
Now the scary part: just start writing. For each key word you identified to go with a big idea, try to make a rhymed couplet. Here’s an example from a song I wrote with a class studying inventors:
Robert Baker took a chicken
Made a nugget finger lickin’!
James Gamble was no dope
He invented floating soap
Marconi, you should know,
Gave us all the radio
Volta lived in Italy
That’s where he built a battery
Note that the rhyme pattern here is AABBCC etc. because the rhymes are arranged in simple pairs. If you want to do something more elaborate (and maybe more interesting), try for a more complicated rhyme scheme. For beginners, though, I recommend simple rhymed couplets as above.
As you write, think about how many “beats” you have per line and what kind of rhythm you’ve got. Does it go DA-da-da-DA-da-da or maybe DA-da-DA-da-DA-da or what? Don’t worry about this too much for now, but later you may want to fiddle with the words to make the song “flow” more smoothly. There’s a lot of technical language for meter, but really it’s all about choosing words that carry a comfortable, steady beat when read aloud.
If your first few lines look really lame (and in my experience, they usually do), try to leave them alone for now and just keep writing. Very often, the next few lines will spark new ideas that will show you how to go back later and fix the whole thing.
You don’t always have to start with the beginning of the song. Maybe you’ve got an idea you like for the chorus or even the ending? Fine, write that first.
When you are drafting, there are no bad ideas. In reality, of course, there are plenty of bad ideas but for now you should pretend that every idea is a good one. Just write them all down; you can sort out the junk later.
If a song just isn’t coming together, don’t beat your head against the desk; take a break and do something else for a while. A lot of creative work goes on at the subconscious level, so some part of your brain will keep turning the ideas over while you are doing your math homework, brushing your dog, baking cookies, or whatever you do to relax. I think I baked about 30 apple pies while writing songs for my last album! My wife thought I had gone insane but she appreciated the pie.
Step 5: Revise
If possible, take a break before doing this so you can look at your work with fresh eyes. Then go back and start changing things. Words, lines, and even whole verses can and should be examined, dissected, and rearranged. If drafting is the time to let ideas flow freely, revision is the time to be merciless with your work.
Anything that doesn’t clearly address the topic should be changed or removed, no matter how awesome it sounds. If you have a really good verse or chorus that just doesn’t fit this topic, save it for another song.
Read your lyrics out loud while keeping rhythm with your body; do any lines break your rhythm or just sound odd? Try finding another way to say the same thing. If you just can’t make a word “fit” properly in a line, maybe a synonym will work. Note that sometimes you may want a word or phrase to “stick out” of the rhythm for emphasis.
Try singing the song in a completely different way than you first imagined it. If you conceived it as a rap song, try singing it as a country song or a slow romantic ballad. Try singing it like Kelly Clark or Justin Bieber; advice: do this when other people are NOT nearby… I find that new and better lyrics often come when I do this.
I am a bit hesitant about this next idea. If (and only if) your ego can take it, figure out whom you can ask for honest, thoughtful feedback about your work. Most people are reluctant to criticize, but a few friends will tell you what they really think if you ask seriously. Listen to what they say and consider it. Note that you do not have to agree with what they say, nor do you have to take their advice: after all, they may be wrong. But you should listen.
If you can, come back multiple times for another look at your work. The more time you allow for revision, the better your work will probably be. I usually spend more time on this step than on all the rest combined.
Step 6: Publishing
There are plenty of ways to share your work: school magazines, live shows, YouTube, CD’s (surprisingly cheap nowadays), etc. Be creative.
If you’re too intimidated to perform your own music, maybe someone else will do it for you. There’s probably a garage band somewhere near you that would be happy to have some original music to play. Bear in mind the way they play it will probably be different from the way you heard it in your head. That’s okay; it’s called collaboration.
I suggest you share a song “live” a bunch of times before you commit it to a published recording. This allows you to go back and revise it some more if you want. Once it’s on the web or a CD, it’s hard to change things.
You may be amazed at how much your audience loves a song you think is totally dumb, so get a second opinion before tossing it in the “fail” pile. I once wrote a very silly song about boogers and people still ask for it all the time… Of course, the opposite may also be true: you pour your heart and soul into a song and it flops with the audience. Don’t take it personally.
Remember, you don’t have to publish everything. Write lots and share your best stuff! However, you really should keep your “failures” (I have piles of these) someplace where you can come back to them later; you may find that in a week or a year, you will look at that “failed” song and see a way to make it work, or maybe just take the best piece of it for a new project.
Some Suggestions for Writing About…
One cool thing when we write about science is that the topic and vocabulary are usually pretty well defined for us. If you don’t already have a list of the key vocabulary, check your science book or ask your teacher.
The hardest part about science songs is that you can’t just make stuff up. It’s okay to put some gibberish lines in the lyrics while you’re drafting, but during revision you should probably try to replace lines that say things like, “A cell is a shell that smells like a bell.” Even worse is to use vocabulary incorrectly, so check your definitions if you’re not sure. I get stuff wrong all the time, but I have friends who know more than I do and I always get a second opinion before I publish.
The biggest trick here is to choose (and stay on) a suitable topic without going too broad or too narrow. If you want to write about the American Revolution, for example, maybe you should choose one specific aspect of it. One of my workshop groups wrote a good song that was just about the tax protests. Another approach is to tell about the whole thing, but from the perspective of one individual.
For a complex math procedure, first write the steps of the operation without worrying about rhyme or meter. Then go back and see if you can paraphrase the steps in a way that fits a rhythm.
Another approach is to make up a story where a character has to use the sort of math you are addressing.
Two problems here: first, it has been done and done. Second, it’s such a broad topic. If you must write a song for your beloved, try comparing them to something novel (You’re the ketchup, I’m the fries/The whipped cream on my pumpkin pies) or, as would a good novelist, find a “telling detail” that implies, rather than states, important things about the beloved or the relationship. When Ingrid Michaelson sings, “I’ll buy you Rogaine when you start losing all your hair,” this tells us in a subtle but powerful way that not only is she willing to run mundane errands for her beloved, but also that she’s in this for the long haul, even though she knows her beloved will not always be young and beautiful. That’s a lot to say in one line! Plus it does not sound all sappy and embarrassing the way most love songs do.
I cannot say this enough: make sure you separate your drafting from revision. If you get caught up in “fixing” everything before you write it down, you are likely to psych yourself out and not finish anything.
It’s fine to write lyrics to the tune of another song if you like; you can even download a karaoke version of a song from the iTunes store and sing your song to that! Be aware that there are rules about publishing songs with other people’s music, but as a general guideline it’s okay as long as long as you’re not making money from it.
Keep some writing tools (a journal, laptop or tablet computer, etc.) nearby at all times, including when you sleep. Ideas should be written down now and evaluated later.
The description above may make writing look like a clean, linear process, but in practice most writers jump back and forth between the steps quite a lot. As you draft, you may find you need to go back and fiddle with your topic; you may perform a song and then realize you need to go back and revise or even rewrite a whole verse. This is a messy, imprecise craft.
Good writers also read a lot. If you want to write lyrics or poetry, find some poets whose work you enjoy (they need not be “great” poets) and immerse yourself in their work. Read it out loud! Some favorites I would recommend are Rudyard Kipling, Robert Service, Wallace McRae, and Les Barker. Your taste will differ, of course.
Just write *something* and don’t fret too much about what people will think of it. Most people will be impressed if you finish anything at all regardless of how good or bad it is, while the people who will make fun of your work will do so even if it’s brilliant. BTW: do not waste time or energy trying to please people whose only joy is in tearing others down. Ignore them.
Here’s the most important thing: don’t take this (or any creative task, I think) too seriously. It’s okay to create junk! I spend most of my writing time doing exactly that. You are probably your own most severe critic, so see if you can get the negative voices in your head (“you can’t do this, you’re not good enough,” etc.) to shut up while you write. Try to make a deal with those voices by promising you’ll let them have a turn later when you are revising your work.