Writing Better Lyrics, by Pat Pattison – book review

I’ve just finished Writing Better Lyrics.

Let me try that again: I’ve just finished reading the book entitled Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison. This book has already cropped up once or twice on the blog. It was recommended to me (and a room full of other starry-eyed songwriters) by Graham Kendrick – the father of modern worship songwriting, and I am ever grateful to say, my cowriter on ‘Holy Overshadowing‘.

Pat Pattison is a professor at the Berklee College of Music, and has clearly obsessed about lyrics in ways only a professor who turns up in jeans and a leather jacket can. (That link is a YouTube video of a seminar Pat did at IMRO.)

Seeing as you might only be interested in this book if you yourself are a songwriter (or perhaps a poet, or even just a ‘writer’ (I know . . . no one is ever ‘just’ a ‘writer’ . . . )), well, given that, I’ll cut to the chase.

Object writing

Pat begins right away, with what in many ways seems to be the most important practice he avows, and which many of his students have testified as to having made the most difference to them: Object Writing. One of the posts I wrote last year was one example of my attempt at this: taking a ‘deep dive’ through my five senses into a particular object (or perhaps a place, as in the example with the Planetarium), and just write freely about it for 10 minutes only. In Pat’s words:

If I asked you to describe the room you’re in, your answer would be primarily, if not completely, visual. Try spending a little time alone with each sense. What’s there? How does the kitchen table smell? How would the rug feel if you rubbed your bare back on it? How big does the room sound? . . . (Writing Better Lyrics, p.4)

Working out

From the first chapter, Pat also includes Exercises regularly throughout the chapter and the book. There are a total of 50 in all. I began doing each one religiously, but perhaps inevitably some of them fell by the wayside as I progressed through the book and my short attention span got the better . . . ooh, squirrel!

Truly, though, the exercises are invaluable. The other post I wrote was an example of one that entertained me so much I had to share it; through a series of exercises Pat’s simple cues morphed my innocent, rhythmic and fairly tame four lines about a coffee shop into a gasping, bloodshot-eyed begging for just a half-ounce of caffeine that clearly has nothing at all to do with my love of all things roasted, ground and brewed . . . 😳

Diving deeper

He then plunges through several other humdingers in the next few chapters – taking in discussions of metaphors, clichés and ‘worksheets’ (this last being something that revolutionised my thinking about songwriting such that I already find I can’t do without making one when I have a new song idea that I want to seriously develop).

Things then slow down as you dive deeper and begin to breathe slower, and Pat shows you every possible which way to do rhyme, rhythm and metre, position ideas in the song, use repetition (or not), structure your song, and so much more besides. The exercises can become a bit tedious here if you are just out for kicks, but for the serious student of songwriting wanting to do better, finding the best time and place to work on these and keep yourself motivated and creatively inspired will surely pay dividends. I worked through many of them, often surprising myself with the results.

Treasure for those brave enough to go down the mine . . .

This book will have to be revisited, I think, every year perhaps for the next few years. I certainly haven’t got my head around every concept. One thing I can tell you: there were a couple of songs that emerged as I was in the first few chapters, and they are (in my humble opinion) some of my best work. Because I followed Pat’s advice. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until I have an opportunity to record those songs to hear them.

One other thing: this is only for the unafraid. To move sideways from the diving metaphor: those ready to suit up; to chip away at the rock-face of every bland idea they’ve ever had that used to be ‘good enough’. Those who aren’t precious about their initial ideas but know there is a better song, a ‘better lyric’ somewhere in there. You might become convinced that your 3-stress line here really needs to have 4 stresses; what will that do to the great melody you had lined up? This book will be your headlamp, your pick and your harness. Start digging.

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