This is a pretty general attempt to aid just about anyone who sings/writes in any medium. I would like to note that the path this article takes is for writing lyrics that the general public/audience could appreciate. I do however realise that lyrics do not have to make a lot of sense all the time, and that for many people, these suggestions may simply not work.
A good example of this is Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), who wrote lyrics that in a logical, or even illogical, manner of thinking didn't make any sense at all. And yet, these songs conveyed immense feeling and meaning to thousands of listeners. (If you don't like Nirvana, the same could be said for many bands). So, take this information with a grain of salt. Some of it is probably a repeat from previous articles, and some of it is probably common sense, but I've read too many pointless lyrics from random users on the forums, and some things need to be repeated.
I've read a lot of lyrics in which the writer has used beautiful imagry, metaphors, and every other lyrical device under the sun to depict a certain setting or feeling. These lyrics have a great feel to them, and you can read them and think, "Wow, that guys knows how to write." However, in 90% of such, the writer forgets one important thing: Flowery words should still say something. Anything! I'm not about to suggest the order in which a person should write a song, but I would suggest that having a general point to your writing about would be a idea.
Often people simply decide they want to write, and do their best to just write something "epic" or "deep." I've done it, and chances are every other serious writer has done it. However, most of the time if you do not have a point to what you're going to write, or an idea to convey, the writing simply isn't honest and ends up seeming fake, or the listener may like the song, but then thinks about the lyrics and says, "And.... so what?" or something similar. So simply put, if you are going to write, you should have a vague idea of what point you are trying to get across, and make sure you do that by the time you are done.
Tell A Story
As much as I've fought this idea throughout my youth, I would say that a large percentage of the "good" songs out there tell some sort of story to say what they are trying to say. If you doubt me, bands like Soundgarden, Rage Against the Machine, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, The Strokes, Incubus, and almost every band does this regularly. Take a look at some of your favorite songs and you'll see what I mean. This story can be fictional, be roughly based on truth with added ideas from you, or it can be brutally honest and perfect truth. The reason good lyrics often contain a story is because listeners become submerged within the song much more easily this way. It's like reading a book or a short story, with a soundtrack. This can be much more effective then flowery words that may make a lot of sense, but without listening carefully, the listener may miss. Simply put: A story in your writing that YOU can connect to in some way and helps get across your point will in turn make your song more attractive to the listener.
A good example of this is from the forums is shown here.
The writer has a pretty clear point (repeated in what I'm assuming are choruses): The way the world is currently is not working due to violence, greed, etc. To help get this point across, the verses reinforce it by telling short stories of a few different individual's experiences and how their lives ended unfortunately. This is much more effective then 50 lines saying in a new flowery way each time, "We are ruining the world. I hope somebody fixes it."
I am not going to go on in detail because this has been captured in a dozen other articles and threads, but there are simple things you can do to make a series of lines more appealing:
A. Rhyme: Every line does not have to rhyme, however (based on a section of 4 lines) things typically flow well if lines 1 & 3, and 2 & 4 rhyme. There are many variations of this (just rhyming the 2 & 4), and sometimes good songs don't rhyme at all, but in general, if the song will flow in a natural way through rhyming, it's not a bad idea.
B. Verse Melody/Syllable Count: This is not set in stone, but a lot of the time verses maintain the same melody in each verse. (If you remove the words and just look at the melody, each verse would more or less sound similar). To help you do this, try to maintain *about* the same amount of syllables in the corresponding lines of each verse. Adding variations to this melody in the middle/end verses, or even completely changing the final verse melody, can make the song much more interesting. For example, in the Raconteurs's Steady as She Goes, the final verse maintains some of the original melody, but addition other melodies are overdubbed, creating something interesting and attention grabbing.
C. Choruses: I have some pretty simple common sense points here. Repeat your main idea in the chorus, as your "proof" per say, or supporting explanations of your theme, are usually in the verse. The chorus is always the same, so this is a natural spot for the main idea.
D. Bridges/Outro's etc: Almost every writer does these differently, but generally the melody is switched up completely in a bridge, and outros are usually similar to verses but cut short or made slightly different to give them a finishing tone. As far as getting across your theme, you can use the bridge in any way. Some writers will write from a general point of view for a section of a song, and then switch to their own, or something that they personally experienced for the bridge. A good example of this is Your Time Has Come by Audioslave. The verses voice confusion over why so many people must die in wars and similar events, but all in a general point of view. Then when it comes to bridge, Chris Cornell tells a small story of something he has personally seen and reflected on. When I think of this song, I almost always start thinking about the bridge/chorus movement, and I think it is mostly a result of the sudden change in lyrical tone and melody change, (not to mention a good instrumental change from Tom Morello, Timmy C., and Mr. Wilks).
I call it flowery writing in sarcasm, but what I'm talking about are interesting ways in which to communicate an idea. How you relate an idea does not have to match the complexity of the message. For example, there are exactly 3 billion songs about somebody's love for a significant other. And yet, these songs still do wonderfully and reach thousands of ears. Why? It's not simply because the instrumentation is really freaking awesome that it makes up for the lacking in lyrics. Often these lovey dovey songs have really simple backup to be honest (Try The Reason by Hoobastank. Simple riffs, but some decent writing to back it up).
There are more ways to say, "You complete me in every way" then actually saying "You complete me in every way." Take Amber by 311 for example. The lyrics in this song basically say that the writer (Tim Mahoney in this case I think?), has some deep feelings for this girl. And yet, he never once says anything even close to "I love you" or anything like that. Instead he accomplishes this through what I think are some very original, very well written lines:
Whoa, amber is the color of your energy whoa, shades of gold displayed naturally you ought to know what brings me here you glide through my head blind to fear and I know why
(Full lyrics at this location.)
Oh, and you can be simple too if that works for you. Johnny Cash pretty much just tells it like it is, and his songs are ingrained in memories from his arrival in music to our current day.
Write What You Feel And Be Honest
Almost everything I have advised you upon thus far can be made completely irrelevent if you don't follow this rule. It ties in to almost every other tip for writing, and it is both clich and corny: Write as honestly as you can. The best writing is writing that comes from you, who you are, and the heart. You can always fix it up later if it doesn't quite fit, or if you don't quite get your message across, but some of the most original ideas come out at the highest points of emotion: rage, love, lust, etc. etc. If you follow some of the more logical rules stated above in your general writing, eventually any good ideas you develop in writing become part of who you are and how you think, and even during brutal honesty, these good writing techniques can come out.
One of my favorite vocalists, Chris Cornell (Audioslave, Soundgarden), claims that he doesn't even change his lyrics after inital writing now, other then to fix up minor little things, and Audioslave has had a steady stream of good songs for the last few years. If you write honestly, and do not let yourself become fake, or say something that just isn't you, chances are your writing will turn out alright, and you can always edit later.
Anyways, I apologize for the length, hope I didn't repeat too much, and that I helped even a small number of people in some way. As a note to keep the comment board clean, do not start a war about the quality of the above mentioned bands unless it is in a useful manner (You guys know what I mean). The bands and lyrics suggested are only to help you understand what I'm talking about.
Keep working. It's a long road. Revalk
firstname.lastname@example.org for questions/comments etc.
For more on structure and "flowery writing," please check out The Lyrics Tips Thread.