Lyrics can make or break a good song, but they are so easy to do wrong! It’s surprisingly simple to create something tone-deaf, cringey or just plain boring. It’s a lot more difficult to create lyrics that draw the listener in and hook them to your message.
As a session singer and voice actor, it’s my job to make people’s lyrics come to life. However, I can promise you that no amount of vocal talent can make a bad song good, as we will see in my case study below. I’m going to give you some of my best tips to improve your lyrics, or to start fresh and have great lyrics right away!
How to Write Good Song Lyrics
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As we go through this, please keep in mind that lyrics, like all other art forms, are subjective. You don’t have to take my advice; in fact you can choose to do the exact opposite things here and some people will love them. However, these tips should vastly improve any lyrics you are currently working on!
Our case study in bad lyric writing is a song called “All Alone” by Kathy Lee Gifford. I had no idea KLG was a songwriter (I don’t know much about her, admittedly) but this travesty of a song was written about two high school kids who formed an “unlikely friendship.” Here is the video, but be forewarned, it’s pure cringe:
To see the song, skip to 6 minutes in. Here’s the synapsis: A popular high school kid befriends an autistic high school kid. Cute, feel-good story. It’s not really “news worthy” imo (or at least it shouldn’t be, am I right? I mean, being friends with an autistic boy should not be SO MIND BLOWING that it’s front page news, but apparently it is). The two kids are then dragged onto the news, where they are serenading by a song Kathy Lee Gifford wrote about them.
I think we can all agree that this song is bad, right? So, what makes this song so awful? There are several key lessons from this song that can help you become a better songwriter. Here is a video I made about the song:
Here are my best tips to write better lyrics that don’t cause a tidal wave of awkward cringe:
1). Write to a Melody
Think about all of the pop songs on the radio right now. Many of them have pretty bland lyrics, but the melody is catchy. A good melody can make up for less-than-stellar lyrics.
Also, when you write to a melody, your words will have more of a flow. They’ll have something to guide them into being memorable. When you write lyrics first, you then have to force a melody to fit them, and we can see from “All Alone” that it doesn’t often sound great.
If you’re primarily a lyricist, you may not have melodies ready at your fingertips. I recommend “borrowing” famous melodies you know. You can always change them later, but your lyrics will have the benefit of a working melody.
2). Get Feedback on Your Lyrics BEFORE Moving to the Next Step
Many songwriters wait until their song is finished or nearly finished before getting feedback. This is a bad idea, as a). You’re less willing to change things once it’s “finished” in your mind, and b). People will be more afraid to give honest feedback on a finished song than a work-in-progress.
Get feedback from your peers or someone above your level. Asking friends, family members or musicians you hire is a bad idea. Friends and family are usually heavily biased one way or another, and hired people are in an awkward position and don’t feel comfortable being honest. Here is a post I made on how and where to get your songs reviewed.
3). Consider How Others will Perceive Your Message
Let’s say you’re writing a song to someone you have a crush on. You write about it entirely from your perspective, which is a totally fine and normal thing to do. However, I would urge you to pause and consider how it comes across to others who aren’t involved in the story. Do you give off creeper/serial killer vibes?
In Kathy Lee Gifford’s song, she only thought about how *SHE* felt about the story. She wrote it entirely from her own perspective (how sad it must be, etc). She didn’t take into consideration how the subject of her song, the 9th grade boy, would feel. She also didn’t think about how the rest of us would feel, which is where the cringe comes in. We are all either feeling for the 9th grader or we are helpless bystanders, cringing on the sidelines as KLG drowns in her own feel-good tears.
4). Be Authentic with Emotions
Gifford’s song was inauthentic because she’s describing a life she hasn’t lived. She really doesn’t know what it’s like to be “all alone,” and I will bet you $500 she also doesn’t know what it’s like to go out of your way to be kind to someone.
It’s okay if you haven’t ever lived the experience you’re writing about, but you HAVE to have felt those emotions before. If you’re writing about death, but no one close to you has died, you can tap into your feelings of loss and grief elsewhere. If you truly haven’t experienced a situation or felt certain emotions, I would just tell the story from a different perspective, or skip it altogether. We can all tell when emotions aren’t authentic.
5). Set the Scene with a mix of Physical & Emotional Detail
Either describe the view from the window in detail, or what’s going through your mind in detail, but not both. Pick one aspect to focus on. Don’t be bland with both, but don’t be too detailed with both either.
This may be overwhelming, and that’s okay. It’s okay to make mistakes! This is all a creative learning process. Try writing the song in different ways. Focus on the window view first, then your thoughts. You might like one way more, you might combine them. You might hate both, but you’ll learn along the way!
writing Lyrics is tough, but the creative process is rewarding and totally worth it! Keep working at it. If you’d like to share your lyrics with us, please leave them in the comments!
Also, feel free to join us in the Melluminati, where you can get all kinds of VIP writing resources, checklists, and a cool community of music lovers. ❤️