Free Workshop

10 Songwriting Tips from a Grammy-Winning Pro (Part I)

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

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 songwriter ready to hone your craft, artists can always learn more about getting musical ideas into a refined songwriting process and become successful songwriters. Check out our course from Grammy-winning songwriter Steve Leslie, The Fine Art of Songwriting, at the link below!

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The Fine Art of Songwriting

Join Grammy-Award Winning Songwriter, and renowned songwriting instructor, Steve Leslie as he shares his songwriting process that has resulted in recordings by artists such as George Strait, Darius Rucker, Mark Chestnut, Kenny Rogers, Rhonda Vincent, Ricky Skaggs, Darryl Worley, and others!

The Fine Art of Songwriting