My aim here is not to help you or me or anyone write commercially successful songs. I also know very little about song formulas and music theory. What I do know about is how to write songs that are satisfying to me; songs that capture and express what I think, feel and experience in my life. Whether other people like them or not is out of my control. I write primarily because I have to. Writing songs is just something I must do in order to feel like myself. My tips will hopefully help you write songs that are satisfying to you; songs that will express your thoughts and feelings in ways that connect your life to the lives of those around you, or if you choose not to share them with others, will be satisying to play for yourself.
These tips are just my opinion. I invite you to try out some of them and see if they feel right. If they do not, let them go. If they feel right and you get results you like, try some more. Experiment, live, learn, keep writing and your songs will improve.
Tip 1: Accept the idea that there is a part of you which knows a song that feels right to you from one that doesn't. You can say this song is good, that song is bad, but really no one knows what a "good" song is. Everyone has their own criteria. But you do know when you like a song, when a song feels right to you or expresses something in a way that resonates with you. You can use this same sense to edit or evaluate the songs you create. In fact, I would say that songwriting is basically editing from the flow of words and music that just pops into your head. No one knows where these ideas come from, they just appear. Creating is mostly editing. And who is the "editor"? Your Genius, that's who.
Tip 2: Learn to play an instrument. I know there are people who can write songs with just their voice, but in my opinion, the songs written by people who can play an instrument are much more moving, interesting, varied and affecting. You don't have to master the guitar or piano. You don't have to be classically trained. You can be a self-taught, by-ear player like me too. But my advice is, if you want to write songs, learn to play an instrument. I would recommend the piano or guitar, since you can sing while playing them.
Tip 3: Read. Your Genius is wise but it needs information. Specifically it needs words and ideas. So read. Read fiction, novels, stories, poetry, non-fiction, whatever interests you. And read with a dictionary nearby. Look up words you aren't sure you know the meaning of. Give your genius lots of words to work with. If your only descriptive words are "cool" and "sucks", your songs will suffer. Also, reading will give you insights into other people's experiences and give you all kinds of subconscious tips about how to express yourself.
Tip 4: Develop interests outside of music, writing and romance. These are all great things to be interested in. I'm not knocking them. But if all you know about is being a musician, writing songs and your boy or girlfriend issues, your writing will suffer. One of the great tools of writing is metaphor (look it up). If you study shipbuilding for example, you'll have all kinds of ideas for how some aspect of your love life is like some part of a ship. Pursuing interests outside of music itself is a great way to generate a wealth of ideas, metaphors, connections and knowledge that will inform and improve your songwriting work. It will also incidentally make your life a lot more interesting.
Tip 5: Listen to other people's music. Not while you're driving or studying or cleaning your house. I mean really listen. Not only will you be learning, gathering information about how someone else writes but you'll also be developing the generosity of spirit that you would like from other people. If you don't listen to other people's music, if your life is basically a cry of "Listen to me!", that selfishness will poison your best efforts. Listen critically too. Listen for what works and doesn't work for you. Listen for what you'd do differently. Listen just for the pleasure of listening.
Tip 6: Take notes. Keep some scratch paper with you at all times. Not a notepad necessarily. I like small separate pieces of paper ( 4 X 6 is great). That way each idea or line or verse can be put on it's own piece of paper. Any time you have an idea for a song, a line in a song, an insight that grabs you, a connection worth developing--write it down! Later, when you are actually writing, these notes can really come in handy. What I do is to separate my notes into catagories: Strong Ideas and Great Lines, Possible Ideas, and Food For Thought. The stuff I like the best goes in the first catagory. When I want to write, I start by getting a groove or chord progression on the guitar that feels right or good and then I look into my pile of Strong Ideas and Great Lines and see what might match with it. From there, I build my song. I look for themes or common patterns in my notes. I look for an idea that fits this music and then just start singing things until something sounds right. I keep what sounds and feels right and dump anything else.
Tip 7: Once your song is "done", go on what my brother Allison calls a "cliche hunt". In other words, ask yourself: "Have I ever heard this phrase before?" "Has anyone else ever said what I'm saying in these same words?" Everything you say doesn't have to be original. Sometimes a cliche is the best you can do. But at least try to minimize them. You might change "Is anything what it seems?" to "Is anything at all, at all what it seems." You might change "She ran like the wind." to "She outran the wind." Just see if you're relying on some easy, lazy way to say something in someone else's words and see if you can replace that with something fresh, something yours, something that really feels right.
Tip 8: Avoid easy rhymes that don't advance the meaning of your song. I hear so many songs where the writer is just going for the easy rhyme. I often wonder, if that is what he or she really wants to say, or is that just what rhymes easily? If each line isn't what you want to say, think about it. Find words that say what you want to say. Don't just settle for the easy rhymes. Here are some easy rhymes that should be illegal: thinking and drinking, fire and desire, change and rearrange, girl and world. I've used 'em all and probably will again. But I'll do my best not to and if I do use them, I'll try my best to spin them a little differently, to make them somehow say exactly what I want to say and nothing more or less.
Tip 9: This is related to tip 8. Make sure each line advances your meaning and doesn't just repeat what you've already said. Sometimes you just can't avoid this. You're in a corner and the only way out is to repeat what you've just said in slightly different language. If that's the case, so ahead. I'm just saying try to avoid doing that. If my first line is "I can't change you" and my second is "Or rearrange you." I haven't really said anything new. This also relates to pet peeve of mine. As our attention span and tolerance for difficulty go down, we tend to not want to have to think at all. Many songs are like collages of emotional phrases. Each phrase can be taken by itself like a short little poem. Then the big unifying chorus comes. I'm not against this kind of song. I've written some like that myself. But there is another kind of song. The kind of song that tells a story, or where the person singing changes over the course of the song, or where what comes later in a song changes the way you relate to the first verse. These kind of songs require that the listener pay attention and actually remember what was sung before. Another reason to pay attention and listen to songs like this is to find out how it's done. Try "Idiot Wind" or "Shelter From The Storm" by Bob Dylan. If you want to write emotional collage songs that's fine, but I also recommend writing songs that extend and deepen their meaning as the song goes.
Tip 10: Be willing to not know what the song is about yet while you are writing it. Keep feeling into what feels right and editing what you come up with with that in mind. Keep studying what you've come up with. Sometimes a song will not be clear to me until it's almost done and suddenly I'll see it. This seeing can effect how I end the song, or it can get me to go back and change certain elements from earlier verses. It's fine to not know yourself what your song is about, but if this happens again and again, chances are you've lost touch with something important. A song can have multiple meanings or an obscure meaning, but most songs that continue to move people have at least one clear meaning. So look for your song to have meaning, but be willing for it to emerge as you write as well as be clear from the outset.
Tip 11: It's the song not YOU that's important. In this era of narcissists and cult personalities this can be overlooked. If something you love about your song is in it's way: KILL IT! What counts is the work, not what you love. If you can't add anything to improve something, don't add anything. I heard that B.B.King once played a solo that was so "tasty" he didn't play anything! He couldn't improve on what his band was doing so he just shrugged and played nothing and the crowd loved it. This may be a myth, but it's a useful one. If you can add something to improve the song, do. If not don't. And remove anything that doesn't work no matter how in love with it you are.
Tip 12: Live and learn, (cliche, I know) and keep writing. Sometimes it's better to write a bad song than no song. Just keep at it. Don't force yourself, but do nudge yourself. If you get stuck and can't write, just write something. "The I'm Stuck And Can't Write Blues." You can have the goal of just writing something better than the last song you wrote. If you keep failing at this sooner or later you will succeed because your songs will be so bad that you can't help but write a better one the next time out! Don't compare yourself to The Beatles, just try to come up with something that feels right to you, that says it for you, that's fun to sing and play. Let other people decided who "good" or "valuable" it is. Just write. Listen for what feels most deeply right to you, not what you think other people will like. Write what you like and things will work out.
Well, that's it for now. I Hope some of what I've written is helpful to you. I've written over 300 songs, starting back in 1975. I'm most happy with my very latest stuff. It's a never ending quest to nail an inspiration down, create something I'm happy with and proud of, and then put it out in the world. Good luck to all of us!