Songwriters can easily fall into a trance about their lyrics, and not realise that the lyrics don’t make sense to the listener (that’s assuming the singer is enunciating clearly enough for the listener to make out what the words are …). The lyricist may be making too many assumptions about what the listener knows or will be able to work out; the listener doesn’t have the full background story that the lyricist may have in mind. The lyricist may have …
- broken rules of grammar (how sentences need to be constructed),
- muddled syntax (word order, and small and large units of meaning), or
- undermined good style (clear ideas, consistent voice/register, appropriateness of content and vocabulary for the message and intended listener).
My father, a UK civil servant for 50 years, was fond of saying, “The most common error in communication is the assumption that it has taken place.” Through keen observation and analysis, it is almost always possible to express something more simply. That is as true for lyric writing as for any other kind of writing.
This blog entry takes some tips from some masters in communication:
- Sir Ernest Gowers (author of The Complete Plain Words)
- the lyricist Gene Lees (in his excellent introductory chapters of Modern Rhyming Dictionary: A practical guide to lyric writing for songwriters and poets)
- George Orwell (Politics and the English Language and Other Essays)
- William Strunk (in his famous work, The Elements of Style)
One of my favourite quotations on the use of words comes from an anonymous civil servant quoted in The Complete Plain Words (Sir Ernest Gowers, HMSO, 1987):
“What appears to be a sloppy or meaningless use of words may well be a completely correct use of words to express sloppy or meaningless ideas.”
Making ourselves find a simpler way to say something, without dumbing down, is a great discipline. It makes our ideas more accessible to other people. It forces us to find out what we really think, and whether we really understand what we are talking about. I love words. But I know I mustn’t get lost in them. And I know it doesn’t help my reader or listener if I get too flowery or abstract.
“It has been said that we whose primary language is English speak Anglo-Saxon until the age of three and then begin learning French. From that age onward, by some deep untuition, we use the old language for matters of the heart and things of the earth and things close to home, and French to soar into imaginative abstraction. A child first learns words like hand foot, arm, let, mouth, smoke, burn, feel, touch, rain, sun, moon, sleep, wake, love, fish, kiss, sky, stars. It is only later that he entertains such abstractions as nation, inflation, infatuation, superstition, liberty, confidence, assurance. Ever after, the simple Anglo-Saxon words one learns during the dawning of consciousness will have far more powerful effect.”
Gene Lees (1987) Modern Rhyming Dictionary: A practical guide to lyric writing for songwriters and poets, Cherry Lane Music, p.48
The Complete Plain Words that I mentioned earlier is a valuable resource for anyone who wants to communicate with plain and simple language. William Strunk’s The Elements of Style (1920) is also helpful. An excerpt from the contents page alone provides a handy set of guidelines on composition:
8. Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic
9. As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning
10. Use the active voice
11. Put statements in positive form
12. Use definite, specific, concrete language
13. Omit needless words
14. Avoid a succession of loose sentences
15. Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form
16. Keep related words together
17. In summaries, keep to one tense
18. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end
Is there a shorter word? Is there a word that more people would understand? Could the sentence be made into two shorter sentences? We need to become editors of our own writing, and, most importantly, imagine we are the reader who does not necessarily know what we know.
Here is some advice from another great English writer:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language’, April 1946 issue of the journal ‘Horizon’, volume 13, issue 76, pages 252–265 – now published in Politics and the English Language and Other Essays
The final word goes to Strunk, in his Introduction:
“It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.”