The poetry of songwriting: 10 top writing tips

Updated April 19th, 2020. Poetry and songwriting are very closely linked – especially for songwriters who start with lyrics and develop those into a musical interpretation. Please welcome the one and only Rhiannon Georgina Daniel, writer, musician, psychotherapist and philosopher extraordinaire. Here she is …

Rhiannon and her band in action

Do you long

To write a song?

Well here are a few tips.

Follow them,

You can’t go wrong

It will trip right off your lips.

In this (when this article was written originally), the year of Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, I’m able to reflect that he is my ultimate songwriting hero, so I guess I would modestly aim to emulate his philosophical approach to the craft, although unlikely to replicate his success! Like Bob I am a spontaneous writer, it’s never been an effort for me, the songs just show up and get written, but I can deconstruct the process enough to suggest things to get you started.

There is a distinction between musical composition and songwriting for me. If I think about it I don’t really ‘compose music’ at all, which is a strange thing for someone who has created an original band to say. Certain keys, chords and intervals seem to work with certain lyrics, music does follow cultural rules; we cannot totally divorce ourselves from influence. You need to decide what you want to convey. If you want to make beautiful music, that’s one thing. Some people can compose music then overlay a lyric.

But I have strong views about what my songs are ‘for’.  I suppose I take the creed from my days as a newspaper reporter – Inform, Entertain and Educate. Inform: state facts. Educate: encourage and inspire people to begin thinking outside of the box. Entertain: fun is crucial to mental health! Some of my songs are supposed to be satirical or plain comical, even the serious ones have nice music attached.

Others are intended to shock, but never in a gratuitous way; all are designed to evoke emotional responses. If there are good songs inside you dying to get out, maybe these tips will help.

Tip 1 – Do some research

If you want to write a satisfying, meaningful song that will enable you to connect with the listener and create some mutual understanding, you must write about something you know or you have observed and care about, so do some research, get your facts straight! Example from my song, “Barrio Blahniks” – I was very moved by a documentary about poverty in Rio, so I read up on the country and the city, and facts about Barrio life before I wrote:

Favelas are full of hope

But the Andes Christ is blind

Living on the edge

In whatever they can find.

Divide of rich and poor

Wide as Guanabara

Too busy picking rags to see

The goals at Maracana

Tip 2 – Keep your eyes open

Remember to be mindful as you go about your day. Anything that raises your eyebrows, including your own responses to situations and people, anything interesting you see, on TV, in the street, just a chance remark from someone, an encounter which makes you think about life, is material. Example from my song Dawn of Crack:

The door was slightly open and it didn’t smell too fresh

The windows were all cracked behind the burglar mesh

He was lying on the floor, vacant smile upon his lips

She rolled him over with her Geiger heels, hands on her hips

There were cans, some foil and works going on

Christ you’re forty five years old man, what the hell is wrong?

But you remember, he said, we go way back

I always got up at the dawn of crack.

Tip 3 – Catch a dream

Not all my songs are about shoes, of course! Mindfulness and catching that little daydream – or even sometimes writing down a real dream if you can – make fantastic material, so for me there’s NO staring at a blank page. It can stay blank until I am ready, I will go do something else. My song Visitation came all in one go and barely needed editing.

Tip 4 – Lyrics first

For me, the lyric comes first, because I only write stuff that I care about. The vocal line, arrangement and instrumentation all jump off from that point. If you want dynamics – light and shade, the instrumentation has to match the lyrics, so I start with them.

If you’re enjoying this, don’t forget to check out more than 50 further poems and articles on writing music here on HTWB 

Tip 5 – Don’t copy

Sadly, lots of people do. There’s lots of format-ey pop and rock. Some of it makes amazing amounts of money. If you want to do that, it’s like Mills and Boon writing; there are set rules, there are people who know what sort of production values it is going to be given and what sells. If you are young and want a career doing that, fine, but that’s not my idea of songwriting. If you deliberately copy, you might get contempt at best, sued at worst. Things do sound like other things sometimes  – there are only 12 half tones in the Western Scale after all! Here’s an example:  not great video quality nevertheless, my song Tibet, a very serious piece, only two chords, but my partner always jokes that I have rewritten Wham’s Club Tropicana……!

Tip 6 – Use the alphabet

If you’re not a spontaneous, natural wordsmith or rhymer, one way to develop your songwriting is to take your subject, write down the salient points in lines, and you’ll begin to see how to turn it into a song. If you want to rhyme a word at the end of a line, just run through the alphabet and find a relevant word that matches. This is a little clunky but if you want to do it badly enough listen more closely to the metres and rhymes others have come up with, it will definitely help turn your narrative into a song.

Tip 7 – Who to write for

Are you going to be a singer-songwriter? Or write for others? Writing for others, unless you find a fellow performer who needs lyrics, is pretty much a professional pursuit. You can advertise, network and promote yourself as a songwriter if you think your stuff is really good but don’t want to perform it yourself. But if you believe in what you’ve written and you’re a singer or musician, you will usually be the best person to deliver it, though not always – Dylan has always said Hendrix’s version of his All Along The Watchtower was way superior. And who remembers Badfinger’s Can’t Live … it’s better than Harry Nilsson’s!

Tip 8 – Use opportunities

If you have musical skills but haven’t written and presented your own material yet there are plenty of friendly places nowadays where you can try it out. Open mic nights, where you just get up and do your thing, happen in most towns and cities. People at open mics will all be in the same position as you and the tacit understanding at most of them is that musicians support one another. It is definitely not a competition.

Tip 9  – Trust your own style

There is only one rule: does this work? If you want your intro in 7/4 time, and have a different chorus lyric every time, or only want to use two chords, if it sounds good, who cares. Remember, we live in a culture of envy and negativity. Believe in the uniqueness of your material. Don’t be afraid to write about things that push people out of their comfort zone. Be passionate! Example: My song about the death of my second husband: Killer Dream:

Underneath a stony faced angel

You’re just cold bones now

I could have held you tighter

Oh God, yeah, I was such a cow

And as my own flesh starts to crack

And I travel to my own grave

I’d jump inside with you if I

Could have, could have, could have saved…you

Tip 10 – Believe in your performance

Lots of really famous successful musicians had quirky voices, or weren’t brilliant musicians to start with. But when they delivered a song they totally meant it. People who were watching and listening were touched by the shared experience and its authenticity.  That really is the key! Remember, the first time anyone heard Mick Jagger growling in a cockney accent they just loved the charisma, the energy – they weren’t standing there comparing him to Caruso!

Rhiannon Georgina Daniel is in her 60s. She has been playing music for more than 50 years and has been in bands playing folk, rock, country, covers, cabaret and even live drum ‘n bass, since 1971.

Rhiannon plays electric violin, guitar, percussion and some keyboards and has written a lot of material performed by her various bands through the years. She is also involved in songwriting with her partner, Alan Daniel, and is a regular at Brighton open mic nights.

Main photo of Rhiannon and her band – with many thanks for the loan to Adam White.




  1. Very nice topic shared by you it will be very helpful to a beginner who is going to start a song writing.

  2. Arvind Pal says

    Enjoyed this, just starting out my musical journey, amazing read! Thanks so much for the etiquete advice. I am more into writing than playing, you’re the one person focusing on lyrics for music rather than chords and notes, thank you, thought i was the only one.


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