"Don't be afraid to write crap - it makes the best fertilizer."
- Pat Pattison
The marketing around this book calls itself a “timeless classic”, and for good reason. It’s filled with tools and ideas focused on lyric writing and includes everything from free-writing, making metaphors, meter, perspectives, and song forms.
It feels more like a workshop with actionable exercises rather than a book like “Tunesmith” (see honorable mentions) where there’s an overarching narrative and a personal story. That can be challenging for some readers, but it’ll be a challenge in the best of ways and put you well on your way to becoming a better writer.
While not a book for those looking for a single guide on comprehensive songwriting (there’s little talk of music theory and chords), this book is an excellent addition to any musician’s bookshelf looking to improve their lyric writing skills. Personally it was one of the books that really unlocked my understanding of writing as a skill - one that can be learned just like any other instrument.
"You have a writing voice, something that feels the most like you. Your job is to find it.”
- Pat Pattison
While very similar to his first book “Writing Better Lyrics”, the strength in this book lies in the many examples written out by the various contributing songwriters such as Gillian Welch and Andrea Stolpe. More of a book of exercises/challenges rather than an in-depth guide, I found it helpful to see the way the various songwriters used the different prompts to craft lyrics.
It’s structured in a 14-day challenge where you’ll be asked to free-write on objects, dive into the sensory world of metaphors, and try your hand at rhythm and rhyme.I especially enjoyed the third challenge “Object Writing With Metaphor” where you take an object from your free-writing and ask the questions:
- What interesting quality does my idea have?
- What else has that quality?
It’s a clear way to hone in on metaphors and really spotlight ideas you might not have come up with on your own.
"Effectiveness is not contained within the plot, but in the ability of the story to connect emotionally”
- Andrea Stolpe
Another one from the Berklee crew, I found this book to be a very effective learning tool - emphasis on tool. It is filled with well thought-out exercises and examples leading you towards becoming a stronger and more confident writer. At 135 pages, it’s a manageable read and one that you’ll want to keep close on the shelf, at least in the beginning stages of learning your craft.
There is a solid discussion on the ‘building blocks of a song’ including the different types of detail, perspective, rhyme, form, contrast, and structure. It’s written in a very accessible tone that takes the vague desire of “I sure wish I knew how to write a song” and gives it some structure and a clear path forward.
One of the exercises specific to this book was the idea, as Stolpe calls it, of “toggling.” A strategy for organizing song content she shows the different ways you can switch between using internal and external details within a verse to add dimension and interest to the lines within your songs.
External detail = describing what is going on around the main character
Internal detail = what’s going on within the thoughts/mind/heart of the main character.
"You’ll find no formula for writing a hit song because there is no formula - any more than there is one for writing a hit play or a hit novel.”
- Sheila Davis
One of the greatest bits of wisdom comes in the first paragraph on the book flap. “Contrary to a popular misconception,” says Sheila Davis, “songwriting is not an inspiration business. It is a craft: technique supporting talent.”
Warning: the first book is fairly dense and contains a lot of references to older songs used as examples which makes it hard for the modern audience to follow. If you can get past that hurdle, this book has a ton of useful information on song form, point of view, wordplay, and rhythm. However as one reader put it, it’s “the sort of book that would reward careful rereading and study and consultation” so it’s not going to be for everyone.
Her second book “The Songwriter’s Idea Book” felt more actionable as it essentially is a complication of 40 different songwriting prompts. There is an overview of lyric-writing principles included in part one that gives a wonderful summary of many of the concepts covered in the first book.
“Successful Lyric Writing”, the third book by Davis, is much more of a workbook than the other two. Complete with space to write in your own answers and exercises to strengthen your writing muscles, I really loved the idea of this book, but it felt so strange to write in the pages. One of the inspirations for the Lyric Workbook came from this sense of how strange it was to write in what essentially felt like a textbook. If you’re looking for exercises similar to this book I’d recommend checking out exercises such as the Figurative Exercise or Take It Apart.
More by Sheila Davis:
The Songwriter’s Idea Book
Successful Lyric Writing: A step-by-step course & workbook
“Don’t be a fussy perfectionist about it. Try out new ideas. Be ridiculous and unoriginal. Let yourself fill the pages with ugly verses and cheesy rhymes so you can shape your story and learn from your mistakes.”
- Half Shy
While instructional books are perfect for getting a solid understanding of the terms, methods, and basics of songwriting, the biggest hurdle many of us face is actually sitting down to write. To continue to practice getting better at the craft this monthly workbook is broken up into three sections:
- A morning “boot up” routine to clear your head and organize your thoughts
- Thirty-one days of practice through daily writing exercises
- A song-writing toolbox to turn practice into a finished project every month
I recommend it as a perfect companion to the lyric books above so that you don’t get stuck in the ‘research’ mindset, reading more and more books instead of practicing and writing songs. Afterall, one of the best ways to improve is by consistently finishing your songs.
“Not one of these legendary songwriters divulge a secret or a trick that would make songwriting easy. Because it’s not easy."
- Paul Zollo
These books are a wonderful compilation of interviews with some of the best known musicians and songwriters around. With a 2-3 page introduction for each artist it’s best taken in small chunks rather than sitting down to read all at once. At around 700 pages each, Zollo himself calls it “an enormous tome of a book” and they’re more of a coffee table read than something to pour through for practical advice.
While they are a great set of books for any musician’s shelves, I would be mindful not to use them to procrastinate sitting down to work on your own music. I know that trick well myself.
However, there is absolutely a great deal of benefit in reading through the interviews. Zollo touches on the idea many of us know well that the business of songwriting can be a “very solitary, and even lonely undertaking.” Seeing the work of others can be just the motivation needed to push through the creeping isolation and self-doubt artists are all too familiar with. For the author, “the act of conducting the interviews was more an exercise to realize that these famous songwriters who have created incredible bodies of work, are “regular folks who dwell in our ordinary world.”
Side A includes interviews with artists such as Bob Dylan, Carole King, Joan Baez, Yoko Ono, Leonard Cohen, Suzanne Vega, K.D. Lang, Madonna, R.E.M. , Alanis Morisette, and more.
Side B: Loretta Lynn, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Aimee Mann, James Taylor, Sia, Matisyahu, and more.
“There’s a point where one finds one’s own voice and that’s when it really starts to matter. The things that inspire me as a thirty-seven-year-old are very different from what inspired me as a twenty-year-old.”
- Jimmy Webb
I’d seen this book on so many of the “best of” lists for musicians and songwriters and I can see why so many people enthusiastically recommend it. It has many great insights into the writing process and is full of entertaining stories from his life in the music industry. However reading through it myself he took a few too many tangents, jumping around from topic to topic, and got a bit too far into the weeds on many subjects without notice.
It’s both memoir and textbook and while some people enjoy that, I appreciate the two being separated so that I know what I’m getting myself into. For example in chapter six he goes from recalling a dream he had about a “bevy of naked chorus girls” step kicking and singing one of the funniest songs he’d ever heard into a dive on chordal composition:
“Most writers will no doubt be aware that it is childishly simple to create a major triad or chord of three tones from the root, third and fifth tones of any of the twelve diatonic scales”
...I don’t know about you, but my brain checked out halfway through that sentence. I just wasn’t in that textbook brain mode and the tone of that sentence makes my mind want to revolt a bit.
Being about 20 years old, much of the advice on the music business in the later part of the book doesn’t help today’s artists and is a bit on the pessimistic side, but it is an interesting look into the past. While a difficult read to get through fully, there are lots of little gems throughout that make it a worthwhile read.
“You can’t be taught inspiration or imagination. You can be taught ways to get in touch with what you have to say and how to effectively communicate it.“
- John Braheny
I have the 1988 version of this book (there’s an “updated” 2006 version), and I found the “Craft” portion surprisingly useful. The first chapter starts with a discussion on creativity, overcoming barriers to motivation, and developing good work habits then moves onto more specific chapters on lyric writing. Many of the topics discussed, like in all books on the creation of art, are subjective, but it’s always good to hear a variety of different takes on the subject in order to figure out what works for you.
One of the most important chapters that stayed with me was the one titled “The Media and the Listeners.” A common error many people make in writing lyrics is to assume it’ll be like writing poetry, or that songs are essentially “poetry put to music.” Sure there are some lyrics that would work well as poetry, but as Braheny says “ a good poem does not necessarily make a good lyric.” A good tip to remember for budding songwriters that’s also covered in length in the book above “The Craft of Lyric Writing” by Sheila Davis.
In Chapter Six, the songwriting teacher Cat Cohen jumps in to say a few words about writing the melody, harmony, and groove. Many of the titles in this list do not contain much on the musical side of songwriting and I found this section rather hard to follow (especially when I first read it as a beginning songwriter). If you’re going to delve deep into music theory, I’d opt to choose a full book or course on the subject as this chapter just doesn’t have the room to really get into the right amount of depth.
The “Business” portion of the book understandably reads more like a time-capsule. There’s a lot of good information in there about royalties, marketing, and publishing but a book like Ari Herstand’s “How To Make It in the New Music Business” might be a better bet if you’re looking to dive into the business side of things.
Overall, if you can pick it up used/on the cheap, it’s a good book to flesh out your understanding of songwriting, but I wouldn't prioritize it above sitting down to write.
There are two books I recommend having on the shelf whenever you’re sitting down to write:
You'll hear some people (mostly overconfident people barfing information on the forums) say that using a rhyming dictionary and thesaurus is cheating. Well you can decide that for yourself, but I think of it similarly to using a calculator. Sure, you could come up with the answers in your head…eventually, but this is going to make things go sooo much faster. Not only that, but you’ll have so many more ideas at your fingertips than just the ones you happened to remember at that particular time of day.
I love the tactile feel of flipping through physical books, but if you’re on the go or prefer the digital page I’d highly recommend the software Rhyme Genie (not an affiliate link). It’s a stand-alone program I use myself that you can install on your iPhone/iPad or Mac. This keeps it much less distracting than, for example, opening a browser tab, searching for “rhyming dictionary,” blacking out, and realizing you’ve somehow gotten yourself into a YouTube rabbit hole for 45 minutes instead of writing.
When you're in the mood to procrastinate ...*cough cough*...be inspired.
INSPIRING BOOKS ON WRITING AND THE STRUGGLE TO MAKE ART
Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
by David Bayles & Ted Orland
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
by Steven Pressfield
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
by Natalie Goldberg
Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life
by Natalie Goldberg
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
by Anne Lamott
TWO BOOKS MEANT FOR FICTION WRITING BUT I LOVE THEM FOR SONG PROMPTS