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Write Less, But Say More

Edit your lyrics to focus them... tell the story and evoke emotions in your audience. Everything else is distraction!
Write Less but Say More

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Are Your Songs Getting Stuck Because You’re Trying to Say Too Much?

Ever listen to someone, wishing they would just get to the point?

Ever listen to a song, thinking the same thing?

If it’s your song and it takes too long… you just lost a listener!

Most people are too polite to tell you, so you have to figure out the problem on your own.

You need to Write Less But Say More!

This Isn’t A New Problem

I went through this years ago… I’ve done all of these:

  • An introduction that’s more than 10 seconds (Shorten it!)
  • Written a killer second verse, that should be first verse (Cut the first and move the second up)
  • Written a second verse that doesn’t continue the story (Trash it and start over)
  • Overwriting, using too many words and syllables… 
Mistakes are okay as long as you learn from them... border collie trying to get ball unstuck

Overwriting

Writing too much, either too many ideas jammed into a verse, or too many syllables on a line is an easy trap to fall into.

You’ve got a million ideas and you try to put them in the same song. 

This happens especially if you’re writing in the singer-songwriter genre, where you’re writing songs you’ll sing (instead of trying to write a hit for someone else to cut). This deeply personal style of writing is often “wordier” and more introspective than commercial popular songs.

Years ago, I realized I was overwriting when I was reading lyrics of a classic song I’ve known forever. There were less than a third of the words in my latest song!

The next song I wrote: “Need Your Love” used only the 3 words of the title in the chorus.

When you overwrite lyrics:

  • It’s hard to sing with too many syllables in a line
  • It’s more difficult to remember your own lyrics
  • Your audience doesn’t have time to absorb your ideas 
  • Listeners get confused and overwhelmed by your lyrics…

The Result is

Your audience gets turned off because they can’t easily understand and remember your lyrics.

They may not even realize why they don’t like the lyrics!

Songwriting is more than randomly mixing up the ingredients... musical instruments in a pot

Think About It Like This:

A song is typically 3-5 minutes, typically you have:

  • 2 verses
  • 1 pre-chorus
  • 1 chorus
  • 1 bridge

At 4 lines for each song section, you have about 20 lines to create an interesting story and an emotional journey.

My Personal Rule…

If a song lyric is more than one typed page, I’ve written too much!

Write Less but Say More… Overwriting: Action Steps

Accept that you have more to say than space/time permits in a one song. You’ll have ideas that don’t fit, or might fit better in another song. Finding the great lyrics often means leaving some good lyrics out

Imagery / Figurative Language 

Put your audience in the action, there’s an old songwriter’s expression: “Show don’t tell!”

Use figurative language (metaphors, similes, analogies) to convey more than the literal words in your lyrics.

Analyze Songs Your Love

Listen to and look at lyrics of songs you love. Reading the printed lyrics in print can help you recognize patterns and give you insights for your songs. Consider:

  • Song Themes, how a theme or an idea is approached
  • Rhyme Schemes, especially using different rhyme schemes in each section
  • Lyric Pacing (how many words & syllables in a line or section)
  • Contrast between song sections, differences in the lyrics, melodies, chord progressions, arrangement
  • Story in the song, how it progresses through during the song
  • Emotional Journey, how the emotions evoked in the song change during the song

Compress The Lyrics

Pick a verse that needs rewriting

  • Remove every little word (and, the, I…), listen to hear how it improves the flow
  • Circle phrases that use more than 5 words… find new phrases with fewer words
  • Compress your lyrics, eliminating extras to reduce the word and syllable count

Note: don’t count the number of syllables, focus on the accent patterns because accented syllables become higher, longer and more prominent notes in the melody.

Note: compare the accented syllables in each verse, when they patterns are similar it’s easier to use the same melody for each verse.

Stretch The Rhythm

Pick a verse that needs rewriting. Stretch the vocals, double the length of each phrase, or some phrases. For example: use 2 bars of music instead of 1, use 4 bars instead of 2. You’ll often have to change the melody notes to fit the chord progression.

I’ve fixed many lyrics by singing them slower while keeping the same music tempo.

You can sometimes increase the speed of your vocal melody but I usually have to slow it down.

Change the Tempo

Record yourself playing and singing your song at many tempos. The best speed for fastest vocal sections is usually best speed for the whole song

Burn and Rebuild

Pick a verse that needs rewriting. Describe the verse (the action or the underlying story) in a sentence.

  • Ignore the original verse
  • Try different images to tell your story
  • Try different word rhythms and accent patterns
  • Create a new verse

(I wrote this post three different ways before publishing this draft. I also updated and rewrote entire sections of the article a year later…)

Slow your song down so they can sing it with you, blurry photo of a border collie running

Write Less but Say More: Summary

Songwriting is more effective when you stay compact, using fewer words to express your story…

  • Make every word count
  • Pace your lyrics
  • Cut unnecessary words
  • Edit and cut good lines to get to the great lines…
  • Get to the point, and
  • Keep to the point!

If lyrics don’t highlight the title, the story or your main idea… cut it!

Leave a comment to help other songwriters…

How do you write less but say more?

More Articles to Fine Tune Your Lyric Writing

Trevor Dimoff

Trevor Dimoff

Trevor Dimoff has taught, played and written music professionally for the last 25+ years.
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