Songwriting Part 5 - Honing Through Rewriting

by SaskMusic

July 30, 2009 in Songwriting & Copyright

Okay! So far we've covered…

  • Whipping the Muse (finding inspiration)
  • Speak Softly & Carry a Big Metaphor (creative writing)
  • Anatomy & Form and
  • Keeping Your Songs on Track (grammar & consistency)

Thank you for the positive feedback thus far. If you missed these articles, you can find them in our archives.

Here we go!

Of all the songs you’ve written, how many have you kept in their original version, without making changes to words, sentences, melody line or structure? Chances are, not very many. Chances are you have a stable of half-finished and/or unsatisfying songs which you’ve abandoned because you were stuck on how to make them work. Often it’s just easier to start with a fresh song than to fix one that’s going nowhere.

Every song requires a point where you must stop editing. The most important step in songwriting is deciding when a song needs further rewriting, and when to put down your pen.

Fine tuning your songs can be made easier by finding a compatible co-writer. (That’ll be the subject of an upcoming article). But whether you edit on your own or with a partner, you can turn an impossible song into your pride and joy.

Keep EVERYTHING you write. Even if you think it’s crappy right now, you might have a revelation of how to fix it in the future. Maybe one of following is the key to solving your song’s problem.

There’s no more satisfying feeling - for me, at least - than taking what was once a really weak song, and rewriting it into one of my favourites.

1. What emotions are you trying to evoke?

The urge to write a song is usually spurred by a strong emotion. In the initial rush of creating a new song, you might just write down all the things you are feeling or thinking. Maybe none of the words you jot down will make it into the final version of the song, but they'll help you determine the focus of the song. Once your mood has been captured you can come back to it for an objective editing session. You might begin a song with a certain feeling in mind, but notice a new spin on it after setting it aside for a few days.

2. A song should have a consistent flow of thoughts and time passage.

Do you know someone who you dread running into, because they insist on telling stories that go on and on and on and never seem to have any point to them? That's what happens in some songs. There's no order to the information.

Even "idea" songs need to be organized in a way that makes sense.

"You look at me like you want to say goodbye
But you don't say a word, just slam the door (we assume he just left)
I can't take the look of betrayal in your eyes (but yet he's still there!)
Maybe I'll be first to leave, can't take anymore."

Use the "and then?" rule.

I had two jobs I had dishwater hands
And on the weekend in a rock & roll band
One Friday night in my hometown bar
In walked a girl who looked like a movie star
She stared at me and it was turning me on
She said she worked in a beauty salon
I heard a voice inside me say
She ain't pretty, she just looks that way
(She Ain't Pretty, The Northern Pikes)

3. Structure

The structure of your song is one of the most important things to get right. Say too much and bore the listener, say too little and leave them confused.

Your chorus, if you have one, should sum up the emotion and central idea of the song. If you try to introduce a new concept in the chorus, it may feel disjointed.

If your song is monotonous, aside from an obvious rewrite like a new chord progression, a bridge might be the solution. Your bridge is where you can introduce a new idea, flow briefly into another key or subtly different mood, and make the return back to the chorus extra rewarding.

Take a hard look at the structure. Did you write verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus because you always do? Is the third verse actually saying something meaningful, or is it rehashing what’s been said in the second verse?

Don't be a slave to your usual format. If your verse melody is engaging, has a natural climax, and wants to lead back into another verse, maybe you don’t need a chorus. Maybe a bridge, with a perfect little instrumental break between verses, is all it needs to be complete.

Always keep in mind your storyline when considering the structure. It may not be as obvious as "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back", but there should be a plausible order of events.

4. Getting rid of filler

After you’ve focussed in on the emotional message and point of the song, you may find that some of what you’ve written just isn’t needed. Any words that don’t go towards furthering the story you’re creating should be discarded. Maybe you’ve thrown in a few lines as placeholders until you can think of a new second verse. Don’t be satisfied with filler - put the song aside until you come up with the next part of the story. Verses that you force out "just so the song is finished" usually get discarded later. (But don’t throw these bits away, either - the lines that weren’t needed in one song might fit another perfectly.)

Maybe you’ve written a few different songs on one topic. One has a great verse melody and weak chorus, the next has a mundane chorus and solid verse, but they share a message - and lo and behold! if you put them together and do some tweaking, you’ll have one great song from two weak ones.

Check for extraneous words like thing, the, then, there are, it is, when, who, which, and, those, that, a, an, kind of, actually, and take them out if they’re not necessary to the meaning of the phrase. The same goes for modifiers that are redundant - e.g. "past history"; "more better"; "very unique"; "I cried wet tears"(of course tears are wet); "size large" (size is not necessary); "the colour pink" ("pink" always refers to a colour). If you’re adding filler to make the line work with the melody, why not change the vocal phrasing, or add a useful word instead, maybe a descriptor ("I looked up at the sky:" "I looked into blue sky."

Remember, you only have a few minutes to tell a full story. Choose words that carry meaning.

Don’t repeat yourself. You might think you’re giving new information because the words are different, but look at their meaning instead. If your first verse begins with "she sat at the table crying her heart out", then saying "her eyes were wet with tears of pain" in the second verse is just repeating what we already know.

5. Lazy Writing

How much thought do you put into your lyrics? If you’re writing down the first words that popped into your head - especially rhymes, such as "blue/true", "way/stay", etc., it’s time to get creative. Are these common rhymes actually saying what you had in mind, or did you write them down because they were the first things that popped into your head? Take a hard look, and if they are actually saying what you want to say, find a unique way to say it.

Finding a lot of clichÈs in a song may be an indication that you’re not really emotionally connected to the story. If you really believe in what you’re saying, put the effort into finding lyrics that people will want to listen to.

Having trouble recognizing clichÈs in your writing? Take your lyric, sing it to a couple of friends and stop before the second rhyme. If they immediately finish the line with your word, you’ve got a clichÈ to bust!

"I rented a boat one night in June
I romanced my girl __________________." See?

6. Fixing grammar

When you’re writing out lyric, make sure your grammar is correct! Nothing screams "unprofessional" louder than a lyric filled with "yous", "theres", or misspelled words.

We’ve covered some rules of grammar before, but here’s a reference guide to fix some commonly seen mistakes:

its: indicates possession, such as "Love reared its head."
it’s: a contraction of "it is", such as "It’s a nice day out." "Do you know where it’s going?"
your: indicates possession, such as "Is that your coffee?" "Your ship has come in."
you’re: a contraction of "you are", such as "You’re not allowed in here." "I’m in the same mood you’re in."
there: a place, such as "Can you move this chair over there?" "There goes my heart."
their(s): indicates possession, such as "They played their guitars on stage." "Is this house theirs, too?"
they’re: a contraction of "they are", such as "They’re not ready for guests." "Do you know where they’re going?"
to: a preposition, such as "I am going to leave now."
too: means "also" or "very", as in "Do you want a piece, too?" "I am too tired to walk."
two: the number 2. That’s it.
accept: to receive/agree. "I accept your offer."
except: a preposition meaning "all but", as in "Everyone is invited except Bob."
affect: change, as in "How does music affect you?"
effect: a result, or to make happen, as in "What effect will the rain have on the party?"
all ready - fully ready, as in "I’m all ready for my closeup."
already - indicates time, as in "She left already?"
alright - okay, as in "Alright, I’ll come along."
all right - an adverb, as in "Your responses were all right."
all together - as a group, as in "We walked, all together, to the store."
altogether - completely, as in "Altogether, we made $500."
awhile - adverb meaning "for a short time", as in "It’ll take awhile to fix."
a while - a noun meaning "a period of time", as in "I’ll stay for a while."
anyone - any person, as in "Does anyone have the time?"
any one - a specific person or one item in a group, as in "If I brought candy, would any one of the kids not eat it? (Same applies to "everyone" and "someone")
anyway - regardless, as in "It might be raining, but I’m going anyway!"
any way - any direction, as in "Is there any way I can get there faster?"
maybe - perhaps, as in "Maybe we could see a movie?"
may be - might be, as in "There may be enough time to stop for lunch."

Noun/Verb Harmony

two or more nouns connected by "and": use a plural verb, such as "Tom and his dog are going for a walk."

two or more singular nouns connected by "or/nor": use a singular verb, as in "The blue shirt or red sweater is fine."

a singular AND a plural noun/pronoun joined by "or/nor", the verb agrees with the part closest to it, such as "Nick or his brothers are going to drop in." "Either the seats or the dog is wet."

"doesn’t" is singular, "don’t" is plural, such as in "She doesn’t like fishing", "They don’t like her."

If there’s a phrase in the middle of the sentence, ignore it. i.e. "The conductor, as well as his musicians, is ready to begin." Not "The conductor, as well as his musicians, are ready to leave."

7. Being kind to singers

Do your lyrics flow off the tongue? The English language in particular is abundant with not-very-pleasant or harsh-sounding words. Placed them in the wrong spot, they’ll ruin the cadence of your lyric and make singers hate you.

Words with a lot of syllables can also be hard to sing. Watch the ends of your lines. Some words cannot be held gracefully - such as "Bob".

8. Titles

If you’re having trouble deciding what your title is, it might indicate a bigger problem with the song, such as a lack of focus. If that’s not the case, again the best way to solve your problem is to sing the song for a few friends and ask them what the title is. They’ll tell you what jumps out at them. If they’re drawing a title that does not match the theme or emotion of your song, your hook is emphasizing the wrong thing, and you may have some rewriting to do…

9. The final test: memorizing

Okay, your song is complete! You’re walking around with it in your head, but whenever you hit the third verse you can’t remember your own lyrics. Possible reasons: simply boring lyrics; the line is hard to sing; the phrase does not fit with the rest of the verse; structure problems/the verses are out of order (did he meet the girl before he lost her?), or that you don’t actually need a third verse.

10. When are you done?

The reality is to watch your listeners and pinpoint where they start to lose interest, look confused, walk out, etc. Even non-musician friends and family can tell you when something just isn’t right with your song yet (although they probably couldn’t tell you precisely what it is). This is also where a co-writer or songwriting buddy comes in real handy. More on that in a future issue.

Learn to take criticism with an open mind. You might dismiss one suggestion, but take it seriously if you're hearing the same thing repeatedly. Most importantly, the best way to improve as a writer is to KEEP WRITING!

By Lorena Kelly for SaskMusic. Originally published August 1999.

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