by Marty Dodson
Mar 22, 2021
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!
Chapters For Rewriting Lyrics
- Pronoun Check
- Time Jumping
- Missing Backstory
- The “Twin” Verses Problem
- How Are You Portraying The Singer?
- One Idea
- Fighting The Hook
- Trim The Fat
Let’s start with some of the most common problems that I see when I mentor writers:
Believability: Is your lyric believable?
Does the song sound natural and honest, or does it sound like someone sat in a room trying to rhyme? I like for my lyrics to sound like something someone would really say. (With rare exceptions)
Pronoun Check: Are your pronouns consistent through the song?
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. Switching from “you” to “she” can really confuse a listener.
Time Jumping: Does the timeline of my song make sense?
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.
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 Problem
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.
How Are You Portraying The Singer?
Whether it’s you singing it or some famous artist, you want the audience to sympathize or like the singer. If your song makes the singer appear to be a jerk or horrible person, not many audiences will want to hear it– and rarely will a singer want to sing it!
Focus On One Idea
If everything in the song points to that one idea (or title), you are well on your way to a really good lyric. If you wandered all over the place, you probably need to re-write and focus in a little more on the hook.
Is Anything Fighting The Hook?
You’d be amazed how many times I critique a song and there are lines that actually say the opposite of the hook. That makes your song confusing. If your song is about how much you love someone, it doesn’t need to say “I hate you sometimes.”
Trim The Fat
Do you have any extra or useless words in your song? If a word doesn’t add to the song, take it out. Doyou really need that extra “and,” “but,” “just,” or “cause”? If not it goes.
Do you have any words or lines that are hard to sing? If so, try to fix them so that the song sings easily and naturally. Singers pay close attention to this, so writers should too.
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!
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