How do you know when you’ve written a good lyric?

Diana de Cabarrus

How do you know if you’ve written a good lyric

When I started out with songwriting, my approach to lyric writing was to begin with the first line of the first verse and just try to write some lines related to the mood or subject I was exploring.

Sometimes, I did manage to complete a full set of lyrics that I was reasonably satisfied with, which I kept. But - often, one of these things would happen:

  1. I was writing from a mood or feeling, so the lyrics were vague and abstract, and if there had been no music you wouldn’t know what they were about, specifically.

  2. And that’s if I even managed to finish the song. A mood or abstracted passage can sustain you for a section or two, perhaps, but then it becomes really hard to know what to say next. Almost every songwriter has experienced the scenario of writing a section or two and then running out of steam.

  3. I would would write a bunch of lines, and feel a buzz for having completed a new song. Then I might return to the material the next day or at a later point and be underwhelmed by it. But I didn’t know how to define what was wrong.

In this video I explain the commonest myths we tend to carry along with us in our songwriting, and I share a simple idea that can transform your approach to lyric writing.

I had two main obstacles back then that are common to most of us: I wasn’t even aware of what was missing from the way I was going about lyric-writing, so I couldn’t define in any way what was and wasn’t working in a lyric I was unsure about. This meant I had no systematic way of revising and refining and improving drafts. I didn’t know how much of a difference some simple tweaks could make. It was a matter of - throwing the whole thing out and experimenting at random, or keeping something I wasn’t really satisfied with.

There is a subtle but significant disincentive we face when reviewing and evaluating our work: it’s very personal! It can feel extremely vulnerable committing anything to paper, and considering flaws in it afterwards can easily be too close to the ‘maybe I am useless at this and should stop’ emotional territory. So, without being fully conscious that we are doing this, we often just settle for what has come out and take that as the measure of our ability. ‘This is just my level as a lyricist’.

When you break this down, it makes no sense. This would be like someone with no experience cooking going into the kitchen, trying some random combinations of temperatures and ingredients and saying ‘this is just my level as a chef’ and repeating the experiment every time they needed to eat - as if there were no way of knowing how to improve the result.

Or getting in a car with no instruction and trying to figure out how the controls work to get the car going in the correct direction and concluding ‘well, I must just not be talented at driving’ if we crash the car into a wall.

Not only might you sometimes get a decent result and sometimes get a bad result; but also each time you go back to write a lyric, there’s the same randomness as to whether you’ll end up with something you can feel satisfied by.

Over time, this can really sap your motivation. In a worst case scenario a person might end up giving up on their lyric writing and songwriting because they don’t feel satisfied with their work and don’t have a sense of making progress.

When you don’t like something you’ve written, every time you perform it, there’s something dubious about the energy you bring to the performance and that undermines you a bit, and the audience can sense it on a subtle level. You are a tiny bit less present in that moment and it affects the connection with the audience, your enjoyment and their enjoyment.

I probably spent about a decade operating in this trial and error way until I finally started learning more about the nuts and bolts of how I could use language more deliberately. Before that, it was as if I expected that my first draft would be the best expression of my idea, every single time. If you’d asked me directly whether that was a reasonable expectation, I’d have said no. If I asked you whether you thought this was a reasonable expectation for lyrics you might write, you’d also probably say no.

But I had simply never asked myself this - no one else asked me - and I was slightly in the thrall of the idea of creative activity as being a little bit magical. (Which it IS, but not in the ‘struck by magical inspiration’ way that’s such a cultural trope).

These things were the biggest game changers for me:

  • There’s a path already: Realising there were frameworks that I could use to define what it was I did and didn’t like about a lyric draft, and that using these frameworks to revise my lyrics was a completely standard part of the process.

  • It’s not just you: Discovering that pretty much all creative struggles I had experienced over the years writing songs were not just harsh reflections on my ability, or unique to me - they were standard challenges inherent to the form that most people who write songs will encounter at some point.

  • There are solutions that one cannot easily deduce or learn just by repeating the same approach: I still know songwriters who are signed artists with record deals, release schedules and tours whose approach to creating their next release is to hurl themselves at the page and hope they come up with something that their fans will appreciate it. I’ve coached songwriters who had studio time booked and were panicking about how they were going to come up with material, because no matter how many years they had been writing songs, the way they went about it was the same and the results they had were inconsistent. The process is also pretty fraught if every time you start you’re not quite sure how it happens and whether you’ll ever be able to do it again.

What changes things is focusing on the fact that in a song, lyrics provide meaning information and musical information.

  1. The meaning information includes the subject matter, how the ideas develop, and what type of language is used to express the ideas. Small adjustments to how you use language can have very big effects on what the listener experiences from the lyric.

  2. The musical information includes melody but also rhyme scheme, stress patterns, phrase length and rhythm. Sometimes all it takes is changing a three syllable word to a one syllable word for a line to sit comfortably and an entire section to work better.

You may be thinking ‘hmmm, meaning, development, use of language, melody, sound and rhythm of a lyric…that sounds like a LOT to get across…I’m overwhelmed just considering that those things even exist!’

Of course, it takes time to acquire deep fluency in any skill area, but there are two or three simple, profound changes in perspective that don’t take a long time to absorb which you can start applying to your songwriting and lyric writing straight away.

I wish I’d known these things when I started out - and I have collected them along with a series of writing activities you can use to develop a rich creative practice in my free e-book, Five Ways To Write Great Lyrics. Even if you just read it, I promise the way you think about your lyrics will change in a way that improves your lyric writing..

Get it here - it has resources in it that will really help you elevate your lyrics.