Writing Song Lyrics
Your calling to write great songs for Jesus is real, but sometimes it’s difficult to put this passion into words and know just how to write song lyrics.
You feel so strongly about sharing the love you’ve felt from God and you want to draw others into deeper worship, yet often struggle with finding fresh words to express what you feel, often wondering…
How do the pro songwriters come up with great lyrics over and over again and seem to capture the hearts of worshipers all over the world?
Take heart. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you understand the process of how to write song lyrics and begin to write at your highest level yet, winning more listeners for your songs, and worshipers for the Lord you love so much.
#1 Always start with a strong hook or title. Just because you love Jesus doesn’t mean listeners will love your songs. A strong title like “What a Beautiful Name It Is” (Fielding, Ligertwood), “Who You Say I Am” (Fielding/Morgan), or “Living Hope” (Johnson/Wickham) is the first hook that will grab your listener and pull them into your song.
Powerful hooks are made of fresh combinations of words as you write song lyrics that express something timeless, memorable, universally appealing, and interesting enough to catch the ear in fresh ways.
Try to use rhyme and alliteration in your title to make it even hookier (think “All About That Bass” Trainor/Kadish, for example). The mind remembers better with rhyme and alliteration, so use it as often as you can to make your songs sticky.
Finding a crafty title isn’t aways easy, but it is the first crucial step in attracting listeners.
#2 Create a word cluster around your central idea. Once you have a strong hook or title, gather all the words you can think of that relate to it. Don’t be afraid to use the dictionary or a Thesaurus.
Take a moment to think of all the words that relate to rain, for instance. Water, drench, soak, puddle, ocean, stream, and thirst come immediately to mind. Make a list or an actual word cluster of all these words from which to build your verse material to support your chorus in your song lyrics, being careful never to mix metaphors or add words that don’t relate to your primary idea.
#3 Plot the song structure before you write it. Take some time to pre-write, or plot, your song. Instead of diving right in to writing, spend some time journaling and pondering what you could do with the song.
Instead of letting it tumble out and settling for a first draft, be committed to crafting a great lyric by spending the time necessary to make sure that every word is poignant, important, powerful, and points to the heart of your song.
#4 Find a model song to help you structure your own as you discover how to write song lyrics. Researching an existing song that expresses a similar idea is often helpful. You’re not stealing or even imitating, but modeling the language and stylings to help craft your song lyric.
If you’re writing an Urban Gospel song, study the genre and pay attention to the tone of the lyrics used in the most popular songs. Use that as a model for yours in order to appeal to that particular audience, paying attention to song structure, verse length, and exactly what makes the chorus singable and memorable.
We learned everything we know about life from modeling adults in our childhood. What makes us think we’ll automatically know how to write great songs if we aren’t modeling the styles, principles, and processes of hit songwriters?
#5 Target the genre and type of artist who would sing your song. Similar to #4, further clarify the type artist or congregation that would love your song. Imagine that artist or group singing in your ears as you write.
The clearer you become on who the end user might be for your songwriting, the closer you get to the target.
Like anything else, practice makes perfect, and the more time and study you put into understanding how to write song lyrics the more effectiveness and joy you get out. Know your target and you’ll hit it more often.
#6 Pay close attention to the “economy of words.” One of the most common mistakes aspiring songwriters make is overwriting. As greater skill comes, songwriters learn to use fewer words to express powerful emotions, images, and concepts to grab listeners.
As you write, ask yourself, “Could I say this in fewer words?” and “Which words are meaningless or unnecessary in this line?” Learning to lose expendable words and phrases is utilizing an economy of words and does your listeners the favor of making your song memorable for their brevity.
Droning on and on about your feelings or even about spiritual truths doesn’t make your song workable. Every listener is looking for the truth and the message that can help them with their problems right now. If they don’t easily understand how you’re helping them, they’ll tune out quickly and you’ll never win them back.
#7 Avoid trite phrases and be original (without being weird). Worship songs are notorious for rehashing the same few phrases over and over. You will stand out from the crowd if you find interesting ways to talk about being in the presence of God without using that phrase ever again.
Throwing in strange phrases doesn’t mean you’re being original. It means you’re being weird and that never works. Christian music is message driven, so if you’re being bizarre, no one will get it and want to use your songs.
#8 Maintain the same voice and perspective throughout your lyric. Have you ever noticed worship songs that blend perspectives? In the verse the writer might be speaking directly to God, but the chorus seems to be addressing the congregation or individual worshiper without any warning.
This is called “mixing perspectives,” or confusing the focus and “voice” of the lyric. It’s easy to do if you’re not watching the pronouns you’re using like I, you, He, and we. For instance, if you start the song out by addressing God directly, stay in that “voice” or speaking from that perspective.
Changing the focus/voice/perspective in the Bridge to make it seem like God is speaking instead of us confuses the listener even more. Be careful to maintain your perspective throughout your lyric for the greatest clarity and usefulness of your song.
#9 Make every word point to your “OBI” (One Big Idea). When you’re learning how to write song lyrics, remember that there’s never room in a song for more than ONE big idea, so support it throughout your verses and funnel every syllable to the payoff in your chorus.
You have a lot to say, but discipline yourself to saying one thing per song.
Start your first line with the end in mind and focus each line successively down to the explosive payoff when you hit the chorus. Be brutal to toss any line, phrase, or word that doesn’t support your “OBI.”
#10 Employ “conversational poetics” to get your point across simply, yet elegantly. There’s a fine line between cheesy lyrics and interesting ones that hook listeners.
Lauren Daigle’s opening line in the mega-hit song, “You Say” (Daigle, Ingram, Mabury), “I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I’m not enough” just wouldn’t have been the same if they’d written, “Demons scream in my head every day that I’m ugly, fat, and dumb.” The subtlety and nuance of the real lyric makes it poignant and personal, engaging us in the song from the very first phrases.
Learning how to write song lyrics is the effective process of choosing one idea, expressing it in a catchy title, and supporting it with pithy, economic lines and phrases that stick to the point and deliver a single message with an ear-catching melody.
While this is no small feat in itself, practicing these ten tips will make your songs more appealing for their efficiency and brevity. Don’t overwrite. Stick to your OBI and your listeners will thank you with rapt attention, CD sales, downloads, likes and shares, and hearty testimonials on your social media.
And, if you’ve done your job well, they will never know the blood, sweat, and tears you’ve put into making your song great. They’ll just know they feel closer to God, or happier, healthier, hopeful, and whole as they sing your powerful words.
Nashville Christian Songwriters exists “to empower Christian songwriters worldwide,” and that includes our inner attitudes and beliefs about ourselves and God. To go even further, consider joining NCS Membership to access monthly masterclasses and join a growing community of dedicated Christian songwriters seeking to change the world one great song at a time.