Will McLean Festival 2017: Lyric Writing Workshop: The Art & Craft Of Lyric Writing”

Moderator: Keith Hope

My Belief: Songwriting is a combination of art and craft. It is not some mysterious thing that only “artists” can do. Creativity is universal in humans, though some are more in tune with their creative side than others. But how to craft a good lyric can be taught and learned. An average song idea, well crafted, might end-up a good song. A great song idea, excellently crafted, can be a great song.

I. A GOOD IDEA generates emotion; strikes a common cord; has universal appeal; is easy to relate to. A “new” idea is rare—but great! An old idea, with a fresh treatment can also be great. Sources:

--A good songwriter is a good reader and a good watcher

--read deep and wide: newspapers, magazines, on-line stories/articles, books, advertisements, “words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls”—in short anything!

[My copy example: “Beaten In A Dash To The Door” magazine article title.]

--movies, tv shows [my copy Ex. “Let Something Wild Go Free,” Movie: “Electric Horseman”]

--real people, examples: “Acrefoot Johnson,” “Abraham Washington,” “Jim Brevis,” (Will McLean); “Stetson Kennedy” (Frank Thomas; Steve Blackwell); “Marjorie Stoneman Douglas” (Steve Blackwell); “Vincent” (Don McClean).

--your own life. the richest and strongest idea source of all. No one on earth has your precise point of view, history, set of values, life experiences, emotional makeup, thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs [“Key Biscayne Cowboy,” “Hard Times Florida Man.”]

--imagining from your own point of view how a particular emotional situation would feel or a special place would look. “Taxi” Harry Chapin (never drove one); “Shangri-La” (doesn’t exist)

--conversations—keep your ears open, “people say the darndest things!” good also for titles.

--keep a pen and paper, labtop, tablet, smart phone etc with you at ALL times; you never know when that good idea will come along; and no, you WON’T remember it if you don’t save it in some fashion. e.g., wake up at night with a good idea and say “I’ll remember that in the morning.” No.

II. A MEMORABLE TITLE—can also be, but doesn’t have to be, the hook.

--“a title is vital”, work hard finding and writing a good title. Make them interesting, unusual, intriguing, beguiling, fresh, distinctive, suggestive, controversial—anything to draw attention. Not: “I Miss You,” “I Love You,” “You and I,” “Baby, Baby.” Yes: “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Sources for Titles:

-- Antonyms—words of opposite meaning. “You’re So Good When You’re Bad,” “The Last Thing I Needed the First Thing This Morning,” “The Night We Called It A Day.”

-- Alliteration—hook the ear with repeated consonants (also good in verse lines and choruses).

“Day by Day,” “Time After Time,” “The Look of Love,” “Blue on Blue,” “Magic Moments.”

-- Conversations 3 famous lyricist examples: Ira Gershwin: “When Do We Dance,” Rogers and Hart: “My Heart Stood Still,” Johnny Mercer: “Any Where I Hang My Hat Is Home,” 1 not-famous lyricist: Keith Hope: “What Every Man Wants To Say To His Woman (What Every Woman Wants to Hear From Her Man.” All titles came from over-heard conversations.

--Familiar Expressions & Book & Movie Titles. A title cannot be copyrighted. “Now Or Never,” “Your Place or Mine,” “Sooner or Later,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” Tip: google “familiar expressions” or “colloquialisms”; check out the indexes of ASCAP, BMI, SEASAC; “Pocket Dictionary of American Slang.” Many song titles are written over and over (and over!). It’s legal.

--Movie/Song titles: http://www.listal.com/list/film-title-song-title Book/Song titles: http://www.songfacts.com/category-songs_inspired_by_books.php

--Common observations, general truths, witty, paradoxical sayings: “Don’t Talk To Strangers,” “One Day At a Time,” “Easy Come Easy Go,” “When in Rome, Do As the Romans Do.”

III. A STONG START The importance of the first line cannot be overstated/same for first verse. It must quickly (1) grab attention and make contact with the listener; and (2) make the listener want to hear more. Examples/Devices for first line:

--Question: “How many roads must a man walk down?” “What good is sitting alone in your room?”

--Greeting: “Well, hello there, good old friend of mine” “Hello young lovers, whoever you are” “Hey good lookin’”

--Suggestion/request: “Don’t go changing, to try and please me” “Take out the papers and the trash”

--Provocative statement: “I’ve been alive forever, and I wrote the very first song”

--Time frame: “It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday” “It’s quarter to three” “Wednesday morning at five o’clock” “It was the third of June”

--Situation: “All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go” “My child arrived just the other day”

--Setting: “On a train bound for nowhere” “Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun” “It was raining hard in ‘Frisco” “Met my old lover on the street last night”

--Visual image: “The autumn leaves fall past my window” “Starry starry night”

--Occupation “I am a lineman for the county”

Consider which device or devices with strengthen your start.

IV. THE PAYOFF Draw a conclusion for the listener. Example: a good play or movie develops through story, character, details and rising action to a climax and a conclusion. First we see, then we feel, then we know. A good song does the same--it makes the listener feel they’ve experienced something—it evokes an emotional response, a smile, a laugh, a tear, anger or stunned silence! Devices:

--Tension create interest/drama by engendering, sustaining, increasing and resolving tension. Establish the singer’s or listener’s present emotional state, amplify it, reflect on it, draw a conclusion. State the least important facts first, the most important—last. “What’s it all about Alfie” “I believe in love, Alphie” “Without love, you’re nothing Alfie”

--A question plot: sustain suspense by withholding the answer to the end. Ex: 1st line: “Who stole my heart away” Last line: “No one but you” 1st line: “Guess who I saw today” (through the window of a dimly lit café where she sees her husband with another woman) Last line: “I saw—you!”

--Conflict: why do sad songs outnumber happy ones? Happiness lacks conflict. Ex. lyrics that dramatize mixed feelings connect strongly. “Torn Between Two Lovers” “Me and Mrs. Jones” Try to resolve conflict. Keith’s tip about sad songs: I try toward the end, perhaps in a bridge, to suggest the possibility of a hopeful, positive outcome.

--The Turnaround: The final line in a turnaround can be a simply reversal of the title. Ex. 1st line: “This is the end of a beautiful friendship” Turnaround: “but just the beginning of love” or “In a way I'm glad it's over, in another way it turns me inside out”

--The Twist: Jolts the listener with the unexpected. 1st line: “I love to curl up in bed with a good book” the “twist” at the end: same—“or with the gal who wrote it” 1st line: “Long distance operator give me Memphis, Tennessee, help me find the party trying to get in touch with me, she could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call;” the “twist” at the end: “Marie is only six years old, information please”

--Coming full circle: the lyric returns at the end to a significant word or theme by repeating it. 1st line:

“Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses—you’ve been out ridin’ fences for so long now” Last verse: “Desperado, come down from your fences . . . before it’s too late”


the chorus contains the main message of the song that is worth repeating, usually contains the title and/or hook; then a another verse where new details are revealed, followed by a repeated chorus; then a

--verse/chorus: most common: ABAB, variation: ABABCB where C is a bridge.

--chorus/verse: Advantage—it gets the listener to the title/hook immediately, especially if the first line is the hook and it’s repeated in the last line.

--simplest: AAA. just verses, no chorus/no bridge. Ex. “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” “Blind Willie McGee” “Where Have All The Flowers Gone”


--The verse: think English paragraph. Opening line introduces the theme; each line thereafter reinforces that theme. No wasted words, make them all count. Ex. “She Thinks I Still Care”

----the first verse sets-up the theme or story with the last line offering a natural progression, or “set up” for the chorus.

--Prosody: the conversational flow of a lyric: not ten-der-LY, but TENderly. use the accents on the words as you would speak them in a conversation. One way is to “count your syllables” Ex. “Mrs. Robinson”

--Don’t tell the whole story in the first verse; it makes the other verses weak and almost impossible to write because you’ve already said everything in that first verse and now with other verses adding nothing new, the listener loses interest.

--Tip: write the chorus first! then write that killer 1st verse only: make it the 2d verse! Now go write an even stronger 1st verse, or at least as strong.

-- Each verse should be strong and continue the storyline or further develop the theme.

--Length: 4-6 lines, not more, why? Publisher saying: “don’t bore us—get to the chorus” Exception: He Stopped Loving Her Today-4 verses before the chorus!

--The Chorus: first line—the hook, can be the title. repetition is good, e.g., in a 4 line chorus—make lines 1 and 4 the same. Then you have stated the hook twice in the chorus. Ex. [Beaten In a Dash]

It should stand out both lyrically and musically; It’s the message of the song that is worth repeating

--use of a question with payoff line: Ex. Bee Gees 6 questions then payoff! “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart”

--The chorus must be strong, it’s the “payoff” for the verses, “the ear wants to hear” it repeated


--The bridge: what is a bridge and what is its purpose? It is a third part, different from verse or chorus. It makes the lyric more interesting by making a new lyrical and musical statement; it is usually shorter than the verse; and it offers a reason why the chorus needs to be repeated one last time.




True rhymes: moon/June; Slant: heart/star, thumb/gun, in love/enough

Double: same vowel sound in second to last syllable: single words: breezes/cheeses, battered/shattered, winters/splinters, magic/tragic

Triple: same vowel sound in third to last syllable: greenery/scenery

Count syllables: doesn’t have to be in one word: don’t know/ to go, raising hell/loves to tell, falling stars/where we are

Interior: rhymes in same line or sentence: “with his shrimp skinned boots and his cheap cheroots,

“what he lacked in ambition, he made up with intuition” “who caught what and who sat on his butt”

“from a bronco ride to a ten foot tide” “a lean lanky gringo who don’t speak the lingo”


The Craft of Lyric Writing, Sheila Davis http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=the+craft+of+lyric+writing

If They Ask You, You Can Write A Song, Al Kasha & Joel Hirschorn


Glossary of Rhymes: http://www.public.asu.edu/~aarios/formsofverse/furtherreading/page2.html

Online Rhyming Dictionary: http://www.rhymer.com/

Nashville Songwriters Int’l Florida Workshops: http://nashvillesongwriters.com/news.php?NewsSectionId=57