How To Master The Art of Rewriting Lyrics

re-writing lyrics for songs

One of the biggest things most people could do to improve their writing is to really master the art of rewriting lyrics. For my whole career, I’ve heard the saying, “Good songs are written but great songs are rewritten.” I have found that to be true in most cases. Sometimes, a song just falls out of the sky and it’s perfect by the end of the session. But, most of the time, they require a little more work to become great!

I’m going to give you a practical checklist of some common issues that can be fixed in the rewriting process. I’m also going to give you a way to look at rewriting lyrics that I think will help you be more effective. So, let’s dive in!

Let’s start with some of the most common problems that I see when I mentor writers:

Pronouns On The Loose

Almost weekly, I encounter a song in which the writer is talking TO someone in the first verse, using pronouns like “you”, “us”, and “we.” Then, all of the sudden in the chorus, they start talking ABOUT the person, using pronouns like “she” and “her.” This is really confusing to a listener, but it’s an easy fix. Just make sure in the re-writing process that you are consistently using the same way to reference the person you are singing to. Stick with talking to or talking about throughout the song for the most clear communication.

Time Jumpers

Another common ailment is moving through time in a confusing way. Recently, I was mentoring someone and looking at one specific song. The first line was in future tense. The second line was looking back. The third line was in the present moment. There was no way to follow that train of thought. The simplest form of time movement is to just keep things linear. Let events in the song unfold in sequence, as they occurred in your story. Sometimes, that method doesn’t work and you do have to tell something happening in the moment and then look back. Just make a note to look at the way you move time in each song as you rewrite and you can catch a lot of those time movement errors before the song leaves your hands.

Missing Backstory

I don’t know how many times I have told a writer, “I don’t understand what is going on here”, only to have them give me a 10 minute description of the story behind the song. Of course, after the 10 minute explanation, it all makes sense, but often the writer didn’t tell me ANY of that information in the song. Always make sure that you have given the listener enough information to keep them engaged and following along with your story. At times, I write out the crucial plot elements I have to introduce in verse one so that I can make sure I cover them all.

The “Twin” Verses

One of the most common mistakes writers make is just making verse two a twin of verse one. Writers come up with a way to set up the first chorus, then they just say the same thing with different words for verse 2. If your second verse is the same message as verse one re-worded, your song isn’t going anywhere. Like I talked about in my American Songwriter article “Blueprinting,” your second verse needs to take the song somewhere new.

If you check on those four things each time you go back to rewrite and spruce up a song, you’ll fix a big proportion of the major problems that occur in lyric writing.

Now, let’s talk about a new way of looking at writing so you can master the art of rewriting lyrics.

In order to master the art of rewriting lyrics, I like to think of the writing process as one in which I’m wearing my “creator” hat. And, I think of the rewriting process as me putting on my “editor” hat.

My creator is the fun, off the wall guy who dreams up crazy opening lines and super cool lyrics. I like to give him 90% of the power in the original writing room. My editor is still in the room, but he’s only looking at those four issues we discussed earlier. If I’m getting WAY off track, or leaving something important out, he can speak up. Otherwise, he waits his turn.

When I rewrite, my editor gets the power. This is his chance to bring out the red pen and mark things up. After he’s pointed out all of the ways the creator got out of control, the creator comes back in to creatively fix the problems. Then it goes back to the editor for final review.

I have found that keeping those two roles separate (if only in my head) helps stop my editor from slowing down the flow when inspiration is coming. And it stops my creator from arguing for his favorite “really cool” lines that only make sense to him.

So, try out the different hats and let your creator and editor work together to make your song the best it can be.

With this simple technique, you’ll be able to master the art of rewriting lyrics!

Write on! MD

Marty Dodson - pro songwriter/instructor - SongTown

Marty Dodson is a multi-hit songwriter, co-founder of SongTown, and co-author of  The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Cowriting and Song Building: Mastering Lyric Writing

13 thoughts on “How To Master The Art of Rewriting Lyrics

  1. Great article!!
    I have a song that leaves the subject ambiguous. Immediately in the first verse, I express that I love and support someone who lost their Mom, that their Mom came to me in my dreams, and that I’m meant to care for this person and tell them “it will all be ok”. This song could apply to an adopted child, an adult, or really anyone the listener assigns as the subject in their minds. I’ve always loved more universal songs like this, where there is room for interpretation for the listener. However, it doesn’t make for a clearly defined story, which is more typically expected in country music. What are your thoughts on this?

  2. Hi Marty, Thank you for this very helpful information (like all of your information). Now to get to my rewrite 🙂

  3. Indeed!
    I sometimes run in to this ‘problem’ in cowrites where a writer is on an edit rampage and it slows down the creativity. At least for me, for sure.
    I then may suggest we just write and then come back to it but at times it isn’t heard, or understood. Have you found a good way to broach this issue and can you suggest ways to keep that creative flow going in the room and keeping the ‘editors brain’ in check for a bit?

  4. Thanks Marty. It really helps to have this short checklist. Keeping the creator and editor separate is so important and so hard to do!

  5. Good tips, as always, Marty. For folks that haven’t read his “Mastering Lyric Writing”, it’s a must-read. A small investment to make in advancing your lyric writing chops. Good stuff.

  6. Yup – re-writing is the key it seems and it isn’t easy.

    I have found rewrites are difficult and I am trying to make that as essential as the initial idea and creation – re-writes seem to add a lot of value.

    I appreciate how you structurally take it apart but still leave plenty of room for the creative process.

    Thank you, Marty!

  7. Exactly well said here , very high points here and If we follow this process with a good lyric ,open minds , and hard work I’m thinking a good or a great song can show up ! Thanks for the Tips !

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