In this series, I’ll go through my all-time Top 5 Exercises for generating lyric ideas, whether I’ve got a song idea going already or not.
These exercises don’t require inspiration. They mostly require 10 minutes and a pen. Just like anything in life, you can get better at writing great lyrics with practice. I hope these exercises give you something to practice with.
- Sense Writing
Sense Writing is a timed, 10-minute prose-writing exercise that I learned from Pat Pattison, and is beloved by a cavalry of incredible songwriters, including Gillian Welch, John Mayer, and Liz Longley.
Here’s How it Works.
- Find a random prompt. At the beginning, using an ‘object’ prompt is best (something tangible you can see/feel/hold/touch). You can find random prompts on any day in these spots:
You can also collect prompts yourself, by simply coming up with a long list of objects (ie things) that you can draw on whenever you sit down to write. The key here—at the beginning of your Sense Writing journey—is randomness. The prompt must be something unexpected.
- Set a timer for 10 minutes, and write continuously. Don’t edit yourself or censor your writing. You’ve got to let the rusty water run to get to the clear stuff. This exercise isn’t lyric writing per se; it’s exploration. It’s a walk in the woods. Don’t worry about how good your shoes look. Look around and see what’s on the path instead, without judgment.
A few tips.
Do not try to write lyrics in this phase. No rhyming. No rhythmic meter. It will slow you, and put handcuffs on your ability to truly explore what arises.
Don’t write for longer than 10 minutes. It’s really easy (and common at the beginning) to get into ‘flow’ around minute 8, to hear the timer go off, and to think, “Oh I’m in it now; I’ll just keep going”. Don’t. You won’t get stronger unless you keep that 10-minute wall to push against. What you will find, if you stick to 10 minutes, is that you get faster at hitting flow.
You will also find the exercise more sustainable over the long term. If you let it spiral out to 20 minutes, it becomes a ‘20-minute exercise,’ which is infinitely harder to convince yourself to do on a regular basis than a 10-minute exercise!
- Stay Sense-bound. This is the most crucial part of Sense Writing—this is what we’re really here for.
The most important limitation on this type of writing is that you are deliberately trying to use all of your senses to paint a vivid picture of whatever scene, situation, event, or memory arises. Sometimes your writing will start out as a series of fleeting associations with the prompt—this is you pushing the jenga pieces of your mind, until you find one that moves a little more easily, then going deeper into that one.
When you find one that moves, your aim to is be descriptive with all of the senses:
SIGHT SOUND SMELL TASTE TOUCH
Make sure you move around the senses, touching on all of them through your writing.
A few tips.
Try starting a few Sense Writes in the week with a sense other than sight or sound. Those are our dominant senses, and starting with the other senses pushes our mind and memories into different places.
Turn the dial up on the level of detail you go into. Instead of ‘the kitchen smelled like dinner cooking’, keep going. Fill it with the specifics: “the kitchen smelled of dinner cooking: rosemary, thyme, and a pinch of chilli.”
There are two other ‘senses’ that we can tap into as well: the ‘inside body’ sense (which is the physical sensations happening inside our body), and the ‘movement’ sense (where describe the way people and objects move in space). For more detail on these senses, check out this video.
Sense Writing works best if you do it every day for at least 2 weeks (and then, at least 3 times a week for…ever 🙂 ).
Examples of Sense Writing
Here’s one I did recently, with notations on the different senses:
I was 8 years old – beach holiday in the australian summer – sleeping with sand in my toes, crusting in my hair, and behind ears (touch). The salt of the sea, warm and moist in the air (touch and smell). The evening buzzing and alive with the rhythmic pulse of cicadas, together creating a screeching high pitched whistle that filled the air…(sound)
That afternoon, I learned to wolf whistle. Two fingers of each hand shoved into my mouth (visual, touch, inside body) – the tongue has to be curled back like Elvis’ hair (visual), then blow. At first, spit dribbling down my chin, and hot air just wheezing out (touch, sound). And then a short sharp sound. My heart racing, thumping against the cage of my ribs (inside body) – some kind of possibility opening up. I could taste the seaweed of the beach on my fingers and the spit glossing my lips (taste), as the sound sharpened, until finally shooting out as the loudest most ear rattling sound – a wolf whistle! (sound)
The sheer power of being 8 years old and able to create that sound! The sound waves hurtling past my lips and crashing through glass, sweeping out onto the street (movement) and joining those damn cicadas…as the indigo twilight started to wash its ink over the day, turning the street gray, the blanket of the sky sweeping closed (visual), but the sound of those cicadas still droning into the salty night…(sound)
How to Use Sense Writing to Write Lyrics
- Keep the best lines for later. Mine your writing for gold nuggets—lines, phrases, or even words that are interesting and evocative. Put them into a list:
sleeping with sand in my toes
The salt of the sea
The evening buzzing and alive
curled back like Elvis’ hair
thumping against the cage of my ribs
hurtling past my lips and crashing through glass
sweeping out onto the street
wash its ink over the day
turning the street gray
blanket of the sky
Here’s the secret:
I can use any of these lines in any song I like. It doesn’t have to be a song about learning to wolf whistle. Or even a song about childhood (though I like that idea…more on that in a moment). But there are some lovely descriptions here of a summer evening that I could use for any song at all.
In fact, sometimes keeping this list of lines in a doc without the prompt, then leaving them alone for a few weeks can help detach the lines from their original context, and allows me to use them for absolutely anything. What I find is that a few weeks later, I might read a line like ‘sweeping out onto the street’ and it will attach to an idea that I have been wanting to write about…so I might get something like:
In fading moments of indigo twilight
We are wrapped in the blanket of the sky
And spilling out onto the street
You are I are a bottle of wine
- Writing to find out what we are writing about. One of the primary benefits of Sense Writing is that our subconscious comes out to play. We can’t help it. Our brains are meaning-makers. The most seemingly random prompt almost always associates with a memory, scene, or situation that has an emotional imprint on us—and this is the stuff of song.
In my example above, the line that really stands out to me is: “The sheer power of being 8 years old and able to create that sound!” To me this is a short story about finding a voice as a young kid, which is also a story about feeling powerless. About needing voice. About needing to make a sound loud enough to be heard. There’s something in there worth exploring.
- Use it to write a section idea. I use Sense Writing when I have a song on the go, and specifically when I know what I want a section of lyric to be about (or how I want it to function in the song), but I don’t actually have lyrics for it yet.
Let me give you an example. I was working on an album project for Penguin Random House audio, writing an album of songs about motherhood. With the particular song I was working on at the time, I knew what I wanted the song to be about: the early stages of being mostly confined at home with a tiny infant.
I also had a title—Cocoon—and a Song Map: an outline of where the song starts, develops, and how it would finish.
Here’s the outline for Verse 1:
The outside world has never looked so beautiful. But I can’t go out. I’m stuck inside, wrapped up in this cocoon.
Here is a part of the Sense Write I did based on that idea (the prompt I gave myself was: “summer day”):
The sky outside so wide and blue, is sparkling, twinkling, glittering, a giant blue ocean whose tide is pulling on us, like a sapphire in the crown of cosmic gods
But the sky and the sun can both go away because we’re not going outside today, we don’t need to go outside today…
Here is the lyric to Verse 1:
The sky outside’s a sapphire sea
Whose tide is pulling me out
But the sun and sky and ocean too
Will all just have to wait
Because I’m not going outside today
I’m happy alone with you
Wrapped up here inside this cocoon
- Clearing the decks. The final way I use Sense Writing as a lyric writer is simply as a daily writing practice. A way to start my day, to put my mind into gear, to power up my songwriter brain, so that I am more primed to notice: notice details, pay attention to senses, become aware of how one thing connects to another. Even if I use nothing from a particular Sense Write in a song’s lyrics, it is always worth it.
Why Sense Writing?
Sense Writing trains you to turn ideas into imagery, and imagery is the most powerful way to connect with the minds and hearts of someone else.
As Leonard Cohen said: “We seem to be able to relate to detail. We seem to have an appetite for it. It seems our days are made of details, and if you can get the sense of another person’s day in details, your own day of details is summoned in your mind in some way rather than just a general line like “the days went by” (from Songwriters on Songwriting, ed. Paul Zollo).
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