Saturday, February 16, 2013

How I write a lyric.

Most of what I write is rubbish. But CJ asked [in comments below] about my writing process. So here it is - for what its worth - in list form.

1. I go to a coffee shop (I find home too quiet and distracting.) I take my computer which has a bible on it, a pile of books on my kindle reader and many sermons that I've downloaded. I also take my mobile internet thingy (which doesn't work brilliantly in Cairns) so I have access to a thesaurus, a rhyming dictionary (which gives you a great list of obvious rhymes to AVOID) and anything else I might need.

2. I read the bible, pray, listen to a talk or read a book while I'm having lunch, jotting down any ideas that stand out.

3. Then I start my cup of tea and try to decide WHAT I want my song to be about. I write a few lines - not necessarily sequential - but they are all pretty bland.

4. I decide that I need to FIND A WAY IN to the topic. This is the hard bit. It needs to be something that people can latch on to. It needs to be fresh - not a path that a billion other songs have trodden. I think about what I need to hear. How does this topic apply too me? What are my misunderstandings / temptations etc? How does my disbelief find expression? If I really believed this, how would it change my life? Then I think about my friends (xn and non-xn) and think about how it relates to them. What do they need to sing.

5. I quickly pick a meter. Doesn't matter much at this stage which one I pick - I'll probably mess with it as I go anyway. [If you are a newby to this try 8888 (when I survey) or 8686 (amazing grace). They are easy to work with. Double them for 8 line verses. If you are a newby, try to faithfully stick to the syllable pattern and the emphasises to start with.]

6. Then I try writing stuff. I sit with my pot of tea until it has all gone, then start on a jug of water. Often I have headphones in. I'm not listening to anything, but it sends a message to people that I don't want to talk. I play with my hair until it is a complete mess. I write rubbish lines. I don't erase anything. I write more rubbish lines. At some stage I will write a line that (is probably still rubbish, but) has something. It's an idea. An in.

7. By this stage I've been in the coffee shop for 2.5 hours. There have been four lots of people at the table next to me. (I've heard all of their conversations. It's amazing how quickly children grow up. Most mothers are also astonished and slightly concerned about the rapid advancements that their baby is making compared to everyone else's. Perhaps they are gifted?) I have 45 minutes left until school pick up. In that time I also have to do the shopping. I decide to keep writing. I quickly spin my idea into a verse and then go and grab enough groceries to get us through the next 18 hours. Then I do school pick up. I feel satisfied that I've written something.

8. Later that night or the next day I read through my verse and decide that it sounds exactly like everything else that's ever been written. I didn't capture my in very well. I try again. If I'm lucky, I'll have more success and end up with maybe 3 verses that do something. If I'm not lucky, I'll end up with nothing. Oh well.

9. I put my verses on my blog. My blogging friends tell me what I need to hear. Normally you pick me up on the lines I hoped I could get away with.

10. After a few weeks or months I get a tune for my song. Alas, the tune doesn't fit the words properly so I have to do a re-write. Then the tune changes a little (or a lot) so I do another rewrite. And then another, and then another. Then we submit the song for a cd and it gets rejected or accepted. Then people listen to it once and say 'oh that's nice' and never think about it again! [Sigh.]

So that's my process.

Overall, I'm after:

Fresh Expression - Not cliche ridden. Interesting language. Subtle but satisfying use of rhyme (not just end of line rhymes, but alliteration and assonance) and metaphor.

Crafted Ideas - It's not just random thoughts. There's an internal logic and development of ideas that runs through it.

A Natural turn of phrase - Subject, verb, object. Not like this.

A Disciplined use of meter - Syllables matching between verses etc (makes it easier to sing)

Emotional Engagement - It needs to do something for people. Move them somewhere. Make then feel something, realise something. Otherwise, why bother?

Anyone want to try? 2nd year MTC students have to write a hymn or a prayer for doctrine assessment this semester. You could give it a go too!


  1. Yes, I understand Isaac Watts pretty much followed your method too. Minus the grocery shopping.

  2. This is great Simone - thanks. I think I rush my lyric-writing process, so it's helpful to see the time you're willing to spend on it.

  3. Pardon my ignorance, but where can we find some of your finished songs, please?

    1. Hi David. Here are a few

  4. What a great post.
    Been a LONG time since I was a song-writer.

  5. Thanks for that Simone - fascinating. So disciplined!