Free Workshop

10 Songwriting Tips from a Grammy-Winning Pro

how to write better songs

Sometimes you have a great song idea, maybe even lots of life experience you can turn into more than just a single song, but you're looking for ways to improve your songwriting skills and help you get past the initial idea. Perhaps you're great at developing song structure but want to branch out with your lyrical ideas. Here are tips from Grammy-Award-Winning songwriter Steve Leslie that even professional songwriters can use to elevate their craft of songwriting. 

1. Avoid Unintended Ambiguities

“That’s not what I meant!” is not an adequate answer to someone's interpretation of your lyric. They heard what they heard regardless of what you intended. It’s our job as songwriters to control the message as much as possible unless your intention is to be intention-less; you know, “The listener can interpret it anyway they want to.” But for me, at least, vagueness is not a songwriting virtue.

No matter how clear we think we’re being, sometimes the listener will imagine it differently. These unintended ambiguities can range from harmless (not worth changing) to profound (OMG! I didn’t mean that at all!)

It's where I drank my first beer, it's where I found Jesus,
Where I wrecked my first car, I tore it all to pieces.
Red Dirt Road (Kix Brooks, Ronnie Dunn)

(How many cars have you wrecked?)

I drive a John Deere from five to nine,
I try to get ahead but I stay behind.
Why I Never Will (S. Leslie, S. Stephens)

(You only work for 4 hours?)

Mom would read us Old Yeller before we’d say goodnight,
The hallways rang with laughter, every room was filled with light.
Kitchen Table (S. Leslie, Z. DeVette, G.Reamey)

(Wait a minute! Old Yeller was not a funny book!)

Just look around the room,
So much of her remains.
She Can’t Be Really Gone (Gary Burr)

(Are we talking murder and dismemberment here?)

Tinsel twinkling everywhere, 
Holly hanging from the stair
Candy Cane Christmas (S. Leslie, F. Rogers, D. Rucker)

(We saved Holly’s life by changing it to …on the stair!)        

And my all-time favorite from literature:

“Swedenborg was fond of the society of ladies, and we have several charming pictures of his intercourse with them.”

To avoid, as much as possible, these mixed meanings, play your song for several people. If someone mis-interprets a line, better to change it than risk a lengthy (and potentially expensive) explanation later.  

2. Building a “Style File”

If you’re looking to pitch a song to a (Country) artist for their next album project here’s a tip: By the time most of us have the opportunity to pitch a song for a project over half the album is already spoken for. That leaves 2-3 open song slots to be filled. Unless you have the killer up-tempo radio smash that is better than what they have already, your best bet is to pitch something they most likely don’t have, but need in order to fill out the record.

Not your typical song types would include:

  • Texas Swing
  • Cajun Country
  • Reggae Country
  • Gospel
  • Bluegrass
  • Island-y
  • Train-beat
  • Cowboy Cha-Cha
  • Shuffle
  • 3/4 Shuffle
  • Waltz
  • 6/8
  • Western
  • Tex-Mex
  • Swampy
  • Country Blues
  • Minor Key
  • Jazz Ballad

Or a unique combination like:

  • Minor Key Texas Swing
  • Cajun Gospel
  • Island-y Shuffle
  • Reggae Bluegrass
  • Swampy Waltz

Be creative. Think outside the song. Add to your own “Feel File”. It may be the only shot you get.

3. “The Glass Shakes, the Wine is Spilt!”

The above quote by Emerson refers to “that dangerous little moment” when an insight wells up from its deep mysterious place, and we’re celebrating before we write it down. Often, in our excitement, we completely forget what we said. It’s best to treat these gifts from the gods with prudent detachment until we commit them to paper (or recorder). Many a great line has been lost to the Abyss of Enthusiasm.

“There is deep meaning in the mad notion that it is necessary to act in silence in order to raise and take possession of a treasure; it is not permitted to say one word, no matter how shocking or delightful it may appear.” Joseph Pieper 

4. Rhetorical Schemes

In songwriting, we have an unlimited number of ways to do a limited number of things. Paradoxically, this limitation can offer us freedom that can lead to discovery.

Self-imposed limitations offer a framework in which to work. One such limitation is the Rhetorical Scheme. The most useful for songwriters are Anaphora, Epistrophe, and Epanalepsis.

1. Anaphora is the repetition of the same or similar word(s) at the beginning of each line:

Hold me even though I know you’re leaving
Show me all the reasons you would stay
Give me just one part of you to cling to
And keep me everywhere you are 
One Moment More (Mindy Smith)

At the beginning of each clause:

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag
Drifting in the wind?
Do you ever feel like a house of cards
One blow from caving in?

2. Epistrophe is the repetition of the same or similar word(s) at the end of successive clauses or verses:

I was raised off old Route Three, out past where the blacktop ends
We'd walked to church on Sunday morning
Race barefoot back to the Johnson's fence
That's where I first saw Mary on that roadside pickin' blackberries
That summer I turned a corner in my soul
Down that Red Dirt Road.

It's where I drank my first beer, It's where I found Jesus
Where I wrecked my first car, I tore it all to pieces.

I learned the path to heaven is full of sinners and believers
Learned that happiness on earth ain't just for high achievers

I’ve learned I’ve come to know there’s life at both ends
Of that Red Dirt Road.
Red Dirt Road (Kix Brooks, Ronnie Dunn)

3. Epanalepsis is the repetition of the same or similar word(s) at the beginning and the end of successive clauses, verses, or choruses:

Did you ever have to make up your mind?
You pick up on one and leave the other one behind
It's not often easy and not often kind
Did you ever have to make up your mind?

Did you ever have to finally decide?
And say yes to one and let the other one ride
There's so many changes and tears you must hide
Did you ever have to finally decide?
Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind? (John Sebastian)

Various combinations of Anaphora, Epistrophe, and Epanalepsis result in some interesting lyric forms:

Here Lately, I’ve noticed how there haven’t been fresh roses
Sittin’ on the windowpane, there’s just empty space
That old blue vase is gone

Here Lately, I’ve noticed how I haven’t heard her laughter
As it echoed down the hall, and I recall
A house that was a home

Here, Lately, been thinkin’ just how much I miss my baby
And I’d do anything she wants me to
And I’d say, “I love you” again
But she ain't been Here, Lately
Here Lately (Steve Leslie, Chris Stapleton)

Recommended Exercises

1. Write two 4 line verses, using Anaphora at (1) the beginning of each line, and (2) the beginning of each clause.

Come up with your own word or group of words or select from the following:

  • Wasted 
  • Dear John
  • I remember
  • Do you remember?
  • This is why
  • I told you
  • It was
  • We were
  • Seems like only yesterday
  • Was it just me?
  • You know what I’m thinking
  • Remember when?

2. Write a song using a combination of Anaphora, Epistrophe and Epanalepsis.

3. Invent your own Rhetorical Scheme.

5. Understatement

A powerful device available to songwriters, Understatement minimizes or downplays the importance of a given situation which is likely to evoke a strong emotional response from the listener. Consider the following examples:

Each time I see a crowd of people
Like a fool I stop and stare,
It’s really not the proper thing to do
But Maybe You’ll Be There

I go out walking after midnight
Along a lonely thoroughfare
It’s not the time or place to look for you
But Maybe You’ll Be There

Someday if all my prayers are answered
I’ll hear a footstep on the stair
With anxious heart I’ll hurry to the door
And Maybe You’ll Be There
Maybe You’ll Be There (Allen & Marilyn Bergman)

There’s a dress in the closet I remember when he bought it
How his hands fit wrapped ‘round my waist
His kiss was so sweet then he smiled when I held him
In my mind his face doesn’t age
His Memory Is Funny That Way 
His Memory Is Funny That Way (Steve Leslie, Erin Enderlin)

(Until I catch my) Second Wind
Get back up and gain control again
Find the strength I lost back when you stopped loving me
Second Wind (S. Leslie, D. Worley)

Just one more thing before I go, I don’t mean to put you down
But you don’t love him and that’s a fact, girl I’ve seen you around!
The Fool (C. Stefl, E. Ellsworth, M. C. Goodman)

Understatement invites the listener to participate, via the imagination, in the creative process itself. Intentionally leaving something incomplete, or downplayed, the listener enters into the work and completes it herself by filling in the empty space. Responding to something that is both recognizable (pain/joy) and distant (someone else’s), empathy and catharsis is achieved.

“I’m attracted to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. Thoroughness is an enemy of the imagination…like a thoroughly cleaned room, it paralyzes activity, lacks magnetism.” Louise Gluck

6. Thou Shalt Not

There’s a rule in Nashville that borders on the Eleventh Commandment that songs stay within 3 1/2 minutes start to finish. I’ve written songs that were a good bit longer and some a good bit shorter. Nowadays, if you’re banking on getting your songs played on country radio, it’s not a bad rule to follow.  

The real time constraint should be governed by effective writing with all the fat carved off:

  • Can you start with action or place?
  • Are you using devices of figurative language that can do more than one thing at the same time like ambiguity and metaphor?
  • Can you shorten the Intro.? Cut the Solo out? Is the Repeat Chorus necessary?
  • Does the Tag do something new?

As long as your song tells the whole story, and avoids any extra clutter, you should be fine as far as song length is concerned.

Hemingway’s inspiration was the telegraph, which taught him that every word costs something.

7. Functional-vs-Decorative Similes & Metaphors

Functional Similes and Metaphors make comparisons that are consistent with the lyric context, contributing to the believability of the lyric.

Decorative Similes and Metaphors are inconsistent with the lyric context. They contribute nothing to the believability of the lyric and can work against it. They function solely as isolated images.=

So, if your song contains the simile “Love, like a rose”, the lyric should be about flowers, or thorns, or red…

An original verse to a student’s song went like this:

They ought’ a forward my mail to this parking lot
Got to get back home before my name’s forgot
I been so long workin’ these county fairs
Feels like I aint been livin’ nowhere’s
Stuck here like a jet plane on the ground
When Will I Ever Get Out’ A This Town?

We changed the Decorative Simile to a Functional Simile:

Stuck here like a tent peg in the ground
When Will I Ever Get Out’ A This Town?

More Functional Similes and Metaphors:

It’s the thing that makes you nervous
When she walks into the room
The way you fit together like a dust-pan and a broom
It forgives and it forgets and it’ll sweep up any mess you make
And it’ll tell you just which road to take

The poster on the lamp-post brought a springtime marching-band
Now its too hard to take it down with mittens on your hands
Snowflakes dance like fingers on a flute

On a bus to St. Cloud, Minnesota
I thought I saw you there
With the snow falling down around you
Like a silent prayer

She rolled from New York to California
And I was just a Station On That Line

Recommended Exercises

  1. Write a verse or chorus using the following similes and metaphors. Make sure they are functional by furthering the intention and believability of the lyric, and not used merely as an isolated decorative image:
  • Like a broken wheel trying to roll uphill
  • A thief returning to the scene
  • His weathered soul could use a little paint
  • Just paper in the wind
  • A sink full of dishes and more broken wishes
  • Loving you is quite a gamble
  • A dance on shaky ground
  • Like bare feet on hot concrete
  • Like a Key West hurricane
  • Empty as a rocking chair

8. Career Path

I came up with some questions that may help you articulate your career path, where to find it, and how to stay on track. Remember: you must allow for course correction, the occasional miracle, and the inevitable brick wall. And good luck!

1. Overview

  • In 15 words or less define your current career goals.
  • With as much detail as possible, describe your imagined day-to-day activities pertaining to your current career goals.
  • How saturated is your industry?
  • Whose career would you most like to emulate?
  • Are you living in the right city to make it happen?

2. Personal

  • What personality traits do you possess that will help you succeed?
  • What personality traits may hinder your progress?
  • What, if at all, are you willing to do to change these negative traits?
  • Are your current personal relationships helpful or harmful to the realization of your goals?
  • What are your unique artistic traits?
  • Who might you compare yourself to? (“I’m a James Taylor-meets-Leonard Bernstein-meets-Robert Frost kind of guy.”)
  • Who do the majority of the people you’ve met say you remind them of?

3. Resources

  • Who do you know on your career path that would be willing to help you?
  • What equipment do you own that is integral to your career path?
  • What equipment do you need to help you achieve your goals?
  • Who do you know that you could hire (or solicit free) to help you? Friends and acquaintances with parallel goals of their own: web designer, marketing person, manager, video producer, band-mates, social media expert, etc.
  • What are your social media platforms that directly enhance your career objectives?
  • What literature (online, print) concerning your business do you subscribe to?

4. Strategy

  • Who would be willing to help you financially?
  • How could you pay them back?
  • How can you adapt your business model to take advantage of current and developing technologies?
  • How are you supporting yourself while moving toward career objectives?
  • What other interests do you have outside your career path?
  • How will you make time for them?

 “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” Henry David Thoreau

9. The Pareto Principle

The Pareto Principle (80/20 Rule) states “For many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes (the vital few).”

The Pareto Principle can be seen in such diverse phenomenon as:

  • In Vilfredo Pareto’s time approximately 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population.
  • It is an adage of business management that 80% of sales come from 20% of clients.
  • The richest 20% of the world's population receives 82.7% of the world's income (1992).
  • In the US, the top 20% of earners paid roughly 80–90% of Federal income taxes (2000, 2006, 2018).
  • 20% of products usually account for about 80% of dollar sales.
  • Microsoft noted that by fixing the top 20% of the most-reported bugs, 80% of the related errors and crashes in a given system would be eliminated (20% of the code has 80% of the errors).
  • 20% of exercises and habits have 80% positive impact.

The Pareto principle is an illustration of a "power law" relationship, which also occurs in phenomena such as bushfires and earthquakes.

We're all tempted to try and accomplish everything instead of the most important (lucrative?) ones. We’re all conditioned to respond to the stimulus around us. So if you try to obey the 80/20 rule, you are always going to feel as though you are ignoring something -- because you are. But it can go a long way in helping us with time management. 80% of our day’s output can come from only 20% of the time spent towards generating that output so:

Concentrate more time and resources on the most productive 20%.

Omit the least productive 80%, work less, and have more free time.

  • List 10 career tasks you’re currently involved with. (Situations change)
  • What are the most productive 2?
  • Concentrate more time on these.

“He cuts off every branch in Me that bears no fruit, and every branch that does bear fruit, He prunes to make it even more fruitful.” John 15:2

10. Don’t Forget to Stretch

Come on! Stand up! Take a deep breath. Take another deep breath. One more deep breath. Bend at the waist and gently reach for your toes. Do not strain. Hold for twenty-seconds. Repeat 10 times.

About the Author

Steve Leslie is a multiple BMI Award Winner, former Adjunct Professor of Songwriting at Belmont University, Nashville, TN, and in 2013 was one of four internationally selected candidates considered for the Chair of the Songwriting Department, Berklee College of Music, Boston, MA.


Whether you're a beginner songwriter or an experienced one, we're here to help you along your journey. Check out our free resources, at the link below! 

Placeholder Image

The Indie Vault

Inside the Indie Vault, you'll have complete & unlimited access to Essential Music Industry Contracts, and our music industry resources such as the Spotify Playlist Gameplan & our Music Royalty Collection Guide

Get Free Access