Do you ever have trouble finding the right words for your songs? Do you find it difficult to chose words that convey the meaning, mood, and connotation you’re going for and while fitting into your rhythm and rhyme scheme?
I know I do. For me, word choice is by far the most time consuming aspect of songwriting. Topics, imagery, and melodies flow from me freely, but putting everything into words can be a slow, painstaking process.
I can’t say I’ve found a way to write thoughtful and well-written songs in 20 minutes or less, but I do have three super simple strategies that help me pick the perfect words for my songs.
1. Check a Rhyme Dictionary
Use this strategy when your rhyme scheme is giving you trouble. Of course, you can brainstorm rhymes on your own, but, there may be times when you’re just not thinking of the one perfect word. The rhyme dictionary will help you find it quickly.
Rhyme dictionaries can also show you when it’s time to consider changing your wording. You might look up a word you’re trying to rhyme and find only two or three other words that rhyme. More often than not, the available options won’t quite work with your song. Though you probably love your original line, and it’s tempting to write a convoluted line that sort of makes sense, I recommend rewording. Every time I’ve tried to force a rhyme, the line has come out awkward and weird.
Way back in elementary school, my teacher discouraged us from using rhyme dictionaries when we wrote poetry, thinking is somehow squashed our creativity. I couldn’t disagree more – I use a rhyme dictionary nearly every time I write songs, and it helps tremendously. But you do need to use your rhyme dictionary intelligently and not let it limit you. Be aware that typically, rhyme dictionaries don’t list every word in the English language: they might leave our slang, or unusual, archaic, or “advanced” vocabulary words.
And, remember that rhyme dictionaries list rhymes on a one-to-one word ratio, but you can make great rhymes by combing two words. At the end of “Save a Dolphin,” for example, I rhyme “In fact, or” with “trash compactor.” If a search in the rhyme dictionary proves fruitless, it might be worth spending a little extra time brainstorming for a rhyme before you change your wording.
If you’d like to try using a rhyme dictionary, here’s a link to the one I use: http://www.rhymezone.com/?loc=bar. I use it mostly out of habit and there may be better ones available, but it has helped me write some great songs.
2. Use a Thesaurus
A thesaurus is most useful in two situations. The first is when you know exactly what mood and meaning you want to convey, but you aren’t able to come up with the right word. You can probably think of a word that’s close to what you mean, but not quite right. If you look up that word in a thesaurus, you’ll find a list of synonyms. Some of the words will be more or less interchangeable with the word you looked up, but many will have different feels or connotations. With luck, one of them will be just the word you’re looking for.
The second time a thesaurus is useful is when you already have the perfect word, but it doesn’t fit in with the rhythm of your melody. Maybe it has two few or too many syllables, or maybe the inflection is on the wrong part of the word. A thesaurus will help you find alternate words that fit in better with your rhythm.
One word of caution about the thesaurus: if you find a word you don’t know, don’t use it in your song. Looking up the definition of a word is not always enough to get a full sense of how it’s used in context. You may think the word sounds good in your line, but you may be using it in an awkward and unusual way, or it may have a connotation you’re not aware of. It’s best to use of a thesaurus to remind yourself of words you already know, not to learn new vocabulary.
When I need a thesaurus, I consult either the one built into Microsoft Word (which is not very good, but it’s convenient) or thesaurus.com.
3. Make Word Lists
Making word lists might be my most-used songwriting technique. As I’m writing a song, I make lists of related words off to the side to help me create the right sounds and tone. On one of the pages I used to write “Dragon’s Song,” for example, I see three lists:
- seen, green, mean, clean (rhymes)
- lantern, torch, candle (synonyms)
- mardi gras beads beads, tinsel, mood ring, dollar store (related imagery)
Writing down lists such as these helps me easily compare words and weigh my options. It also helps show me if I need to make changes in what I’ve already written to make the song work. (I didn’t use any of the words rhyming with “seen” in “Dragon’s Song” for example.
Here are the five most common types of lists I make, with examples:
fun, sun, done
salty, stale, spongy
tall, towering, giant
- mood or atmosphere words
dim, creepy, deserted
- related imagery words
creek, moss, fern
The great thing about word lists is you can make any type of list that’s useful to you. And if you’re doing all your writing in one place, such as a song journal, you can flip back to your older lists and use them when writing new material.
Next time you get stuck choosing words for your song, use these tips to get your pencil moving. They work for me every time.