Tuesday, February 24, 2004

What to Write About

In this month's column I have several letters from readers to respond to. I'll start with two readers having similar troubles...


Im just a teen and i have a band i love to write songs..... just none of them are that good.....i dont know what to write about anymore.....my band is pop and punk so i dont know what to write about!



- Sara

i am only 11
i want to write a song because if I want to start a band, I want a good song. Every time I sing a song it is all nonsense. I could say i like green eggs then say have you ever read a book in my lyrics. Could you please give me good tips on writing a good song.

- Miriam

Hi Sara and Miriam,

First of all, as a beginning songwriter, you are allowed to write songs that are "not that good" as you say. Songwriting is something you get better at as you go along, but you have to write the bad ones before you get to the good ones. That's the way the world works. So don't let it discourage you. If you feel you haven't written a great song yet - just keep working at it and sooner or later you will!

Now, if there is one piece of writing advice I've heard a million times it is this: write what you know! As a young person you probably don't know much. This is not an insult. What I mean is just that you don't have much life experience. The longer you live the more you learn and the more you will feel that you have something to say with your writing. (I myself have been writing for many years and am just beginning to feel that I have worthwhile things to tell the world.)

But lack of experience should not hold you back, because on the flip side of the coin you probably know more than you think you do. (Even if your parents say it's the other way around!) Read on for a suggestion that will help you discover what stuff you know.

A second consideration, especially if you want your band to accumulate fans, is to write about universal feelings and experiences - things everyone can relate to. A song is by nature a personal statement, but if a song is too personal, people won't relate. The best songs present a universal message in a personal way.

So, for example, suppose I loved anchovies (those nasty little salty fish that some folks put on their pizza). If I wrote about how great anchovies are, very few people would relate to the song. However, if I wrote about how my love for anchovies makes me feel like a weirdo, a lot of people would relate. Almost everyone has some kind of quirk that makes them feel like a weirdo at times.

If all you listen to is top 40 radio, you might get the impression that songs have to be about being in love or getting dumped. But people write songs about all sorts of things. The Beach Boys started off writing about surfing and cars - those were their hobbies. What are yours? The Beatles wrote a song based on a circus poster ("For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" on the Sgt. Pepper CD). Maybe you can turn some piece of artwork that you like into a song. The group They Might Be Giants wrote a hit song about a night light! ("Birdhouse in Your Soul" on the Flood CD). What object in your room might inspire a song? I recently saw the movie School of Rock - great movie! The kids in that movie write a song about what makes them angry. What makes you angry, sad, happy?
Here are some assignments:

1) Listen to your favorite CD and write down the topic of each song. Then go back and make a guess at what real event in the songwriter's life might have inspired each song (it doesn't matter whether your guesses are right or not). Write down your guesses. Finally, for each song ask yourself if there is a similar event, object, or person in your life who could inspire a song.

For Example: This is a song about loosing a close friend; Maybe the writer had a friend that died; My good friend moved away last year - I could write about that.

2) Figure out what you know. Start with a blank page and write "I know what it's like to..." at the top. Now make a list of items that could finish that sentence. Some examples: make a friend, lose a friend, stub my toe, fight with my sister, swim in a lake, fly in an airplane, stand on my head, step on a frog - whatever!! It doesn't matter if your items seem trivial or silly. Write as many as you can. Fill the page. Don't think about it very much - write as fast as you can. See if you can fill the page in two minutes. When you just can't come up with any more, take a break. Then go back and look at each item and ask yourself how you might expand it into a song. You'll probably have enough material to keep you writing for weeks!!

3) This is the same as number 2, but with a different start. Write at the top of your paper: "Things that make me angry!" Or you can try "sad" or "happy" or any other emotion in place of "angry."

Try these exercises - they are guaranteed to find you something to write a song about or your money back!!


Amy Conley said...

Great blog, Monty! You are a wonderful teacher and inspiration to many!

Monty Harper said...

Hi Amy, thanks for checking out the blog! Glad you like it!