Tech Tip:Rewriting: Your Essential Tool Kit
Before demoing any song, you'll want to be sure it's the best it can be. Usually the first draft of any song can use improvement. So before your ecstasy about finishing it compels you to spend your hard-earned cash on a demo, it's well worth putting your song away for a few days. Being able to look at the song more objectively may spare you the frustration of hearing a publisher or producer say, "This is really good but the second verse needs a rewrite," and knowing you'll have to spend even more to re-record the vocal. Not that a rewrite is a guarantee that it won't happen anyway, but at least you'll know you gave it your best shot.
It's often said that writing successful songs is 10 percent writing and 90 percent re-writing. In interviews with hundreds of hit songwriters, I have rarely heard them say that their hits came out all at once in their final version. The ones who can get close to the finished song the first time around have been at it so long that their creative flow and critical faculties practically work in unison. Even relatively inexperienced writers will find they can occasionally write a song in 15 minutes that's practically in its finished form. But for most writers, those times are rare.
One of the differences between a pro and an amateur writer is that the pro usually recognizes from the beginning that he or she will probably be able to come up with rewrites to improve the song. The amateur tends to think that everything that comes out of the original, inspired state is wonderful and shouldn't be tampered with.
The latter attitude is the enemy of professionalism. Most writers go through this stage of development with great difficulty. The first time a publisher or producer rejects a song and suggests a rewrite, the writer usually rebels, thinking, "Who are you to criticize my work? Nobody knows better than I when it's finished or not!" I've watched many writers go through this stage, take the suggestions, rewrite and be forced to admit to themselves that they really liked the changes they made and felt the songs had become much stronger. Once they have gone through that experience, the perspective makes them much more open to change, particularly if the end result is getting a song recorded or published. This doesn't mean that every criticism you receive is valid just because it comes from a so-called authority, but it is necessary to keep an open mind even if you eventually decide to leave the song unchanged.
Although it may be important to your livelihood that you rewrite for commercial considerations, it's most important to satisfy yourself that this is the best work you can do. Hopefully, you want to create something that will continue to be enjoyed for a long time. Five or twenty years from now, you don't want to be embarrassed to hear that song and know that if you'd just been a little harder on yourself, you'd be proud of it.
Sometimes it's valuable to imagine your toughest critic reading your lyric or hearing your song and picking it apart. It may point up some flaws that you hadn't noticed before.
Here are some areas to look at for possible rewrites:
1. Make sure your lyrics and music work well together and you haven't placed accents on the wrong syllables or tried to fit too many words together in a short musical space. Words need to be easily sung and comprehended. No successful artist will risk awkward phrasing.
2. Can you substitute an image or action or dialogue line that will condense and heighten the impact of the song? The less wordy a lyric is, the more room an artist has to phrase it in his or her style.
3. Is every line important and every word necessary? If you can omit a line or a word without affecting the meaning and flow of the lyric you need to replace it with a stronger one or drop it. Every line should contribute to the overall meaning.
4. Does your song contain all the dynamics necessary to hold a listener's attention? Does your chorus stand out melodically from your verses? Can you rearrange rhyme schemes or meter to enhance the difference between sections of your song? Try some alternate melody lines while imagining an appropriate singer performing them. You may find something better than your first idea.
Jack Segal, hit lyricist, super craftsman and revered teacher, lays out some tools for rewriting in his lyric class and they're well worth knowing: Reduction, Inversion, Insertion and Rhyme Relocation (see inset).
Reduction is the shortening of sentences or lines. Specifically, making fewer syllables and fewer metric feet. Let's take a line that's seven metric feet. (U= unaccented / = accented)
And there I was just hang - ing on to all those worn out lines
Take out the useless words and cut it down to five feet with a one-syllable pickup:
I was hang - ing on to all those worn out lines
Always look for ways to streamline your lyrics. If the above line was locked into a musical pattern that accommodated the first version, the reduced version would lend itself to a variety of new phrasing possibilities that the first version didn't offer.
Next: More rewriting tools in your kit: Inversion, Insertion and Rhyme Relocation.
This excerpt from John Braheny's book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting (2nd edition, 2002, Writers Digest Books) has been edited for length. It's available at bookstores everywhere. For info about John's critiquing and consulting services, go to www.johnbraheny.com.