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

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 is Part II of 10 Songwriting Tips from Grammy-Award-Winning songwriter Steve Leslie. Even professional songwriters can use these to elevate their craft of songwriting! (Click here to check out 10 Songwriting Tips Part I.)

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 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