4 ways to write lean, mean songwriting.

What do I mean by lean? Simply, to convey as much meaning in as few words as possible.


When you look at the lyric sheet of an album it can be underwhelming how few words are actually used. I remember being disappointed to get a band’s latest and reading the lyrics before my first listen.

But good songwriting is lean. When you’re trying to gush out your angst and pain onto the page, trying to be fully understood, and to also emulate greatness, it can become very easy to write well… fat!

So here are 4 tips you can try to lean out your lyrics:

  • Try replacing a weak verb with a strong one. If you had a lyric such as “I walked through the long grass” trying replacing “walk” with “stalk” to bring menace to the lyric, or maybe “wander” to bring a lazy vibe. By adding the strong verb it frees you to drop other words and still pack a mean punchy lyric. Eg. “I stalked the long grass” or “Wandered through long grass”. A thesaurus is good for this.
  • Be deliberately ambiguous. This allows the listeners to take your words and apply them to their own situation. Ben Folds Five wrote the song “Brick” about abortion, but the lyric “She’s a Brick and I’m drowning slowly” meant something completely different to me. Who hasn’t been drained by a bad relationship?
  • Turn a verse into a half verse. The first and second verses can come quickly when you’re writing but a pesky third verse can be a real pain. If writing 4 lines to a verse, try making the 3rd verse only 2 lines. By the time the listener gets to the 3rd verse they know what structure of your song so a little jarring can surprise them nicely.
  • Drop a complete section and re-use a part. This is similar to the last point but subtly different. Maybe your song is starting to look like an epic. You’re onto your 4th musical part and the lyrics are lame but the music good. Try singing lyrics you liked from an earlier section over the new part. It can help guide the song to a natural ending too before you start a 5th section!

What tips do you have for leaning out your lyrics?

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