Finishing a song can be a struggle, but it doesn't have to be. In this piece, we hone in on key pre-writing techniques to help you get straight to the words, music, and emotions you're trying to convey on your listeners.
Pre-writing: the new pre-production
Spending time prepping before you hit the studio makes a ton of sense, so why don’t more people do it before their pen hits the paper? The short answer to this is that songs often happen TO us. When we’re caught up in the moment, it can be hard to differentiate an idea which is good and one that could be better, so it’s easy to land on something that could be a lot stronger given more thought and examination.
Pre-writing is for those moments when we want something to happen TO our songs; when we’ve got a clear concept and want to build the strongest possible structure to support it, or when it’s time to edit and refine those initial moments of inspiration we encounter.
2. Choose your senses and emotions
A clear understanding of the underlying emotions and feelings you’re trying to get at is step one of listener communication. Sensory bound writing exercises help you shoot an arrow right into the bullseye of your emotional target by focusing on all of your five senses.
To use an old writing adage, “Show, don’t tell”. Telling is arm's-length, but showing is up-close and personal, which is the proximity from your listener you want your songs to be at. Most showing requires you to give someone an idea of what something feels like, sounds like, tastes like, smells like, as well as looks like.
Start off by doing a quick writing exercise to dive into all of your senses and springboard your pre-writing process. Object writing is a great way to activate your senses and start showing everyone how you feel. Think of this first step as adding tension to the bow as you pull back on the arrow.
3. Create an environment for your lyrics
Your song should take us on a journey, which means it takes place in a specific environment: perhaps it’s your home town, maybe it’s a fictional future or an emotionally dark place in your mind where others aren’t invited. Wherever your song lives, identify it and then create a list of words that live in that same environment. Not there yet? Try to use dummy lyrics as emotional placeholders.
Let’s say I’m writing a song that lives in outer-space, which I’m using as a metaphor for the uncharted parts of my life and what comes next. Words in the key of "outer space" would include stars, planets, the final frontier, galaxy, spaceship, vacuum, expanse, light years, exploration, meteor, black hole, and so on and so forth. Make this list long and as tangential as you’d like.
Armed with that list of words you now have immediate options to use in your lyric writing. You don’t need to use all of them or any of them for that matter, but just by thinking about the environment your song lives inside of, you're aiming that arrow more accurately towards your target and giving your brain creative fuel.
4. Options, optimum, outdone, home run
When you know you want to land on your title with all the spotlights shining upon it, rhyme is one of your most malleable and effective tools. Writing to a title is a technique many writers swear by and when you’re doing so, brainstorming powerful rhyme options can really change the game and keep you in a flow state once you get going.
Take the most important words in your title and write down a bunch of rhymes for each of them. This list should include perfect rhymes, family rhymes, additive rhymes, subtractive rhymes, consonance rhymes, and assonance rhymes. The real meaty ones come when you dive deep into consonant and vowel relationships.
For some of us, this process of pre-writing might seem counterintuitive to being the vessel your creativity naturally flows through, but rest assured that much inspiration can come of this process and the reward will likely be better writing.
After going through this process a number of times, pre-writing can become first nature, and you’ll be able to connect a lot of these dots during the writing process as opposed to beforehand. So next time you sit down to write a song, before you start…pre-write!