What is a verse?
The verse is my favorite part of the songwriting process. It’s also arguably the most difficult. The verse is where you tell your story’s details. I know we’ve done this already, but let’s examine Shake It Off by Taylor Swift. Her chorus is a very catchy hook:
“Cause the players gonna play play play play play
and the haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate
I’m just gonna shake shake shake shake shake
Shake it off, shake it off”
So, it’s something you can dance to and remember easily. But what if that was it? What if the song was nothing but the chorus? We’d all wonder what the hell she’s talking about and think she’s gone off the deep end. The verses clue us in as to what she means:
“I stay out too late
got nothing in my brain
That’s what people say”
So we know now what she is trying to shake off (haters). When you write a song, your chorus should be the “hook” or the part that ties all of the thoughts together. The verses are the thoughts themselves. Therefore the verses should be a lot more detailed.
So how can I write a great verse?
Unfortunately, I don’t have a strict method to give you to write a winning verse. If one existed, there would be no bad songs and everyone would be hit songwriters. I can, however, give you advice I’ve acquired from years of attending industry meetings, pitches and songwriter workshops:
1). Show, Don’t Tell
This has been drilled into my head so much I probably say it in my sleep. What they mean is, don’t say, “I walked down the road.” Show us what is happening. Is it snowing? Are you on a desert road and the sand is blowing in your eyes? Is your thumb out to hitchhike or are you walking for fun? Are you on the side of a freeway because your car broke down or is this a back road no one knows about? Things like that. Make us “see” the story with your words. If you’re describing emotions, think of physical manifestations of “sad,” “happy,” or “excited.” You can’t see through your tears, you feel free for the first time in years, etc. (I totally rhymed that on accident, and now I feel like I have to write about it.)
2). Fit the Words to the Melody (or Vice Versa)
I’ve seen many songwriters who are so committed to their lyrics, they’ll cram way too many words into a melody and it doesn’t fit. Or, I’ve seen songwriters love their melody so much that they’ll make words fit that don’t belong. I’ve actually seen songs rejected by major publishers because of this. The correct syllables should always be accented. For example, “nothing.” When you say that word, you probably emphasize “NOthing.” In a song, the same should apply. You don’t want something weird like, “noTHING makes sense I don’t unDERstand these lyRICS are diFFIcult.” I hope this makes sense, but I made a video to explain if reading it is hard. Basically, you want the words and melody to flow together and not compete with each other.
3). Make the Story Personal
You don’t have to have lived every single story you put into a song, but the feeling should still be there. There are certain artists that I just don’t feel a connection to their lyrics. I then read articles about them “writing what women want to hear” and I’m thinking, “ohhhh so that’s why you sound so fake.” If you haven’t felt it personally, don’t write it. Again, some fiction is totally fine, but you should have felt those emotions. If you’ve never gone through a divorce, you can still write about it, but write about the heartbreak involved. Amy Tan wrote a book on how she writes fiction and she states that the stories are all based on actual emotions she felt, she just chooses the outcome differently from what happened in real life. You could try this with your lyrics. Write about a real event, but replay it using different choices and see where the story takes you.
4). Accept Feedback and Make Edits
If your session singer tells you it’s too hard to sing, make changes. They’re a pro (hopefully), so they’re telling you something you need to know. If you get a critique from your publisher or co-writers, you don’t have to agree. You can keep anything you want, it’s ultimately your song. But I would encourage you to remove your emotions from a critique and hear what people are saying. Maybe take some time away from it and come back with a fresh mind. Being willing to make changes, adjust and improve are all signs of a great creative mind.
Here is a video explaining parts of what I talked about above:
Okay, those are TIPS. What are the STEPS to write a great verse?
I’m going to give you a quote from Neil Gaiman about writing:
“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”
This is true for all forms of writing. When you write a song, you just have to begin. You can start anywhere you like. Some people start with the chorus and work backward. Personally, I don’t like writing this way. I start at the beginning of the story and let it unfold. Some people write the title first, but I don’t like that either. I don’t want any limitations when I’m starting out. This is just a personal preference and you might have a different opinion; that’s totally fine! It might take you a while to decide how you want to do it so try different techniques until you get your method down. If you’re new to songwriting I would try it my way first, just because starting at the beginning will make a lot more sense to you. Later on, you can switch it up if you don’t like it!
So, the TL;DR of how to write a great verse is: Make it the details of your story, leading to the catchy chorus. Be descriptive, be honest, and make it fit with the melody. Take feedback and use it to improve, but ultimately follow your heart.
Here are some other helpful sites on writing a good verse!
Essential Secrets of Songwriting gets into more detail on verse writing: http://www.secretsofsongwriting.com/2015/03/30/the-secret-to-writing-a-great-song-verse/
My Song Coach talks about differentiating the verse from the chorus: http://mysongcoach.com/develop-a-verse-from-a-chorus/
SongTown discusses how to write a great 2nd verse, which I didn’t touch on at all here so this is a good resource if you nailed your first verse but aren’t sure where to go next! https://songtown.com/tips-for-writing-a-great-second-verse/