Write first, think later. For songwriting, as well as any other kind of creative writing, I’m a firm believer in this simple motto. Most songs come together in two stages: the creation, when the initial inspiration takes hold; and the editing, when you identify the good stuff, cut the bad stuff, and try to improve the stuff somewhere in between. The creation stage is all about writing whatever comes out, without filtering or second-guessing yourself. The editing stage is more rational and pragmatic, as you use your craft and any tools at your disposal to make your song as good as it can be.
Many songwriters find that it’s relatively easy to get into the spontaneous creation mode for writing music—just explore on your instrument and let yourself get swept away by the sound. For lyrics, writing freely can be trickier, especially because school has taught most of us to write according to logical, preplanned outlines. But the payoff is huge for developing your ability to write words without editing or analyzing what they mean. The more words, phrases, rhymes, and images you can spill out in the creation stage, when you are caught up in the moment, the more material you will have to work with in the editing stage. In this lesson we’ll look at some techniques and games that will help you generate lyrical ideas.
Keep a Daily Journal
It sounds paradoxical, but you can get good results by planning to be spontaneous. Christen a notebook as your journal or idea book (or designate a folder on your computer if you prefer to go electronic), and sit down daily to write anything that comes to mind, for a short amount of time—even 10 or 15 minutes. Don’t worry if what you write seems trivial or nonsensical. Just write, and then put it away and go about your day.
The point is to generate material and get into the habit of opening the spigot and letting the words out. Judgments about what you wrote and whether it’s worth keeping will come at a later date.
Choose an Object
You may find that you need more direction than just a designated daily writing session. One great exercise, object writing, is nicely described by Berklee College of Music songwriting teacher Pat Pattison in the book Writing Better Lyrics (Writer’s Digest, 2010). In object writing, you choose an object—sand, map, refrigerator, potato, you name it—and write for 10 minutes about any sense memories you associate with it. Don’t worry about composing complete sentences, and try to engage as many senses as possible: not just sight, smell, taste, feel, and sound, but organic sense (what’s going on inside your body—for example, nervous jitters or fatigue) and kinesthetic sense (which Pattison describes as your sense of relation to the world around you, like seasickness or drunkenness).
One of the benefits of object writing is that, on the surface, you’re writing about an object, not yourself, so you’re less self-conscious. And yet, when you do this well, you reveal a lot about yourself through your perceptions and memories.
Make Word Lists
In my recent interview with Jeff Tweedy for Acoustic Guitar magazine, the Wilco frontman described randomly opening books of poetry; making lists of interesting words on those pages, with one column for nouns and one for verbs; and then mixing and matching and trying to write using those words. Compiling lists like this brings an element of chance to the writing process, helping you discover strange and compelling combinations of words you wouldn’t have thought of on your own.
Try making word lists using two stylistically different books—they don’t need to be poetry or even literary. (My university songwriting class recently had fun doing this with one batch of words from a social-science textbook and the other from Tina Fey’s Bossypants.) You can, as Tweedy did, collect nouns and verbs, or mix adjectives and nouns (a little like Mad Libs), or you can ignore the parts of speech entirely and grab any words that seem juicy. It’s even better if your list includes words not normally found in songs—that will certainly steer you away from songwriting clichés.
Speaking of making lists, as you go about your normal routine, keep your ears and eyes open for intriguing words and phrases, and record them in your journal. Just a few words can suggest a whole story and musical feel. My own songs “Stop, Drop, and Roll,” “The Day After Yesterday,” and “My Life Doesn’t Rhyme” all started with their title phrases popping up in conversation.
For this classic writing game, created by French surrealists nearly a century ago, you need a group of writers—the more the merrier.
Take a blank sheet of paper and have one person write a single line of verse at the top. If you like, use a word list to get started; pick some words randomly from a book and use those to compose the first line. Then pass the paper to the next writer, who reads the first line, adds a second line that responds somehow to the first, and then folds the paper so that only the newest line is visible. Pass the paper to the next writer, who does the same: reads a line, adds a line, folds the paper so that only the last line is visible, and passes it again. Keep going until you’ve filled a page, and have the last person write something that feels like an ending. Move fast so no one can deliberate—give each writer no more than a minute to read and add a line.
This kind of group creation, in which no single person knows where the writing has gone and where it’s going, never fails to be funny—and it can come out unexpectedly deep. When each writer follows the drift of the previous line, the whole piece often seems to have a plot and dreamlike logic.
One variation on exquisite corpse is best played in a noisy and distracted environment, like a bar, in which it’s impossible to concentrate. With a partner or a small group of friends, pass a sheet of paper or napkin back and forth, writing a line at a time without talking about what you’re doing—you can even do this while carrying on a conversation about something else. With all the distractions there’s no need to fold the paper. Again, the point is to write quickly, without thinking, and to let serendipity take charge.
Let It Rest
However you go about free writing, don’t try to do anything right away with the results. Let time pass, so you can read over the words as if they were written by someone else. That distance will help you shift into the second phase of writing, when the editor sits down and says, “Alright, let’s see if there’s anything good in here.” Plenty of what you wrote will seem dull or pointless, but here and there you may discover the seeds of new songs.
Free writing serves as a reminder that, subconsciously, you know more than you realize at the time. I’ve found that I can express feelings and thoughts long before I recognize or understand them. Approached in this open-ended way, writing becomes a process of discovering what you want to write about. So let go of the steering wheel and see where you end up.
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers (jeffreypepperrodgers.com), a grand prize winner in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, is author, most recently, of the video series Learn Seven Grateful Dead Classics for Acoustic Guitar (Homespun, 2010) and the multimedia guide Songwriting Basics for Guitarists (Stringletter), from which this article is excerpted.