It's not that songwriting is so simple, it's incredible hard to write a great song. Song lyrics however follow the rules of good writing. I'm talking about rules that apply to a song, a joke, a speech, a newspaper article, a play, or a book. They're all the same.
Ready? Here are my Five Secrets for Writing a Great Song.
1. Have a beginning, a middle, and an end.They don't have to be in that order though. Like a thriller you can have the last scene first and then flash back to the rest of the story.
2. Make use of time.This is like a beginning, middle and end but within the context of the piece. Example: "Yesterday - I met you, Today - I hurt you, Tomorrow you will probably call your lawyer for a restraining order." Or it can happen within one evening as in "I Saw Her Standing There" by Lennon-McCartney. He sees her, She sees him, They dance through the night. It sets up your verses perfectly, 1-2-3. Genius right?
3. Use visual stuff, get furniture in the story, paint a picture for the listener.In "City of New Orleans" by Steve Goodman, he puts you right on that train with "Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders, three conductors and twenty five sack of mail." I can see it in my mind. I can taste it I can feel it, "Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle, feel the wheels rumbling neath the floor." Add a show stopper line "The sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers ride their father's magic carpets made of steel" and you have a work of art.
4. Don't make me think too hard.I get sidetracked very easily when I'm listening so stay on point. If I have to analyze a cryptic second verse, I won't be able to concentrate on anything after that. Example: "She said, you look like a electrician on the seventh journey into my soul." What? Well maybe it sounds cool, but what the hell does it mean? Why an electrician, why not a prophet or a trail guide... Oops I just missed the third verse and now I'm totally lost. I wonder, did I remember to lock the door to the car?
Last secret (for now).
5. Write about one thing.I can't deal with your entire life story, just tell me what you did to get in jail, that's the good part. I once heard a guy give a fascinating introduction to a song and then the song was totally forgettable. He should have put that intro into the song.
If you follow just these basics, your lyrics will make much better sense as stories, ask any Fifth Grader.