What to do if you’re a ’lyrics-only’ writer

James Linderman Technique in Songwriting Magazine Summer 2019

Professional songwriting coach James Linderman was asked what to do if you can only write song lyrics. Here’s his answer…

There are a few very successful ‘lyrics only’ writers. Historically songwriting duos in the jazz era prevailed with a composer and a lyric writer and performing rights organisations like SOCAN, still to this day, separates songwriting into composer and author categories when you register
your work. Bernie Taupin would also be a great model of how the get a lot of mileage out of lyrics only. In that regard, it does not so much come down to whether there are a ton of ‘lyrics only’ writers making a go of a career in the world, but more about determining…

How great can I get at my craft so I can attract the best opportunities, regardless of what parts of the song I write? Can I write with the largest number of collaborators to determine what works best with my way of writing, and determine what kinds of music writers capture what I am imagining my songs to sound like? And can I experience enough kinds of collaborations to, perhaps, find a writing partner that I can write with for a long time, to try and maximize our chances of writing great work together, over time?

Starting to collaborate locally is a great way to start. Find songwriters at an open mic night or songwriters in a round event and arrange to write face to face in a room.

Put together a small portfolio of your lyrics to show that you have finished work and that you have some writing experience behind you. This will help your collaborators determine that you are likely to produce some good ideas in the collaboration ahead.

Have a writing book with some single song lines, song concepts in prose form, titles and hooks and even fully formed single verses or choruses. Work you have started, but not finished, will help you go into the collaboration not having to start from a blank page.


Always write songs with a pencil and paper and not on a device. The human brain has to slow down when you write with a pencil and paper and it will help you write better work to have your brain taking time to really look at the ideas as they hit the page and use lots of paper.

If you are in a collaboration and words are just not happening, ask your musical collaborators if you can record the music idea on your phone and take it away with you where you can really think about it without all the pressure of them watching you write it and then send it to them or bring it into the next session.
Not every collaboration works out, especially initial co-writes and so be ready for songs that are not that great, sometimes not even worth finishing and some that are brilliant, but still do not gain any traction with a larger listening audience.

Art does not always get celebrated in its time and sometimes not even in the artists lifetime but if you are built to create then you will build art regardless of where that takes you and regardless of what you might get in return for your investment.

It is the “ask not what your songs can do for you but what you can do for your songs” kind of idea and just write.


Also learn the craft, which can involve reading some books on the topic and there are plenty of good lyric writing books out there.

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Remember that lyric writing is primarily a literary task and so read lots of poetry and other writers lyrics and also high-end prose like you might find in The Atlantic, The Walrus or The New Yorker. You can learn a lot from magazines that pay a lot of money for top-quality writing.

If you want to break writer’s block then one of the first things to do is to put down the pencil and pick up a book. Words in equals words out.

Since I have never been paid for my magazine articles, that writing should be avoided at all costs [Ahem!]

There is always work for the best-in-class, so the secret to being successful is simply to be the best at it. It is a simple concept that is obviously not easy to achieve but hopefully you will have fun on the journey. And if luck and your skill decide to collide with the help of fate? Well… it’s a great journey and a brilliant destination!

Read more features like this, along with artist interviews, news, tips, reviews and gear in Songwriting Magazine Summer 2019 out now > >

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