Writing Tips from George Orwell

One of the most incisive essays I have ever read on the art of writing is the short and stunning piece, ‘Politics and the English Language‘, written by George Orwell in 1947. Here, Orwell described a cliche as a ‘dying metaphor’. Orwell follows up with a succinct list of guides to follow:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

If it hasn’t crossed your desk yet, I highly recommend it. You can access it here.

The Secret Life of ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen.

The song ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen is now thought of as a glittering jewel of genius. But the story of its rise to recognition reveals that it was the thinnest thread of circumstance that brought the song to the attention of the public imagination at all.

Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of the song in his wonderful new(ish) podcast Revisionist History. You can listen to the episode here:

Gladwell traces the history of the song (starting around halfway through the episode). Hallelujah was first released by Cohen in 1984. Cohen performed the song, but would constantly alter verses, sing verses that didn’t get recorded, eliminate biblical references (then bring them back), and generally move the pieces around like an Escher jigsaw. Very few people beyond fans paid attention to the song.

However, a singer-songwriter, John Cale, heard Cohen perform a version at a club in New York, and recorded his own version, taking Cohen’s sombre, dramatic, gospelised version and turning into a melodious piano-vocal that extracted the emotional core of the song and put it into a stark, haunting light. It was released on a small French label. Still, very few people paid any attention.

One of the few people who happened to have the record was a woman who was friends with a young man, a young and little-known singer-songwriter, by the name of Jeff Buckley. While house-sitting, he happened to put the record on. He happened to like the song, and happened to perform his own cover of John Cale’s cover in a tiny club in the East Village.

This happened to be heard by an executive at Columbia Records, and the version was released on Buckley’s debut album Grace. Grace also missed its target and fell disappointingly short of the public’s attention—until Buckley disappeared into the Mississippi River in 1997, and the rest in history.

What is astounding about this chain of events is how fragile and circumstantial the links of the chain really are. This was the farthest from an inevitable outcome. The song could very easily have remained in obscurity, a gem buried in the sand.

The journey of genius is complex; creativity is an impossible web of personality, circumstance and damn hard work (it’s well known that Cohen wrote between 50-70 verses in the process of crafting Hallelujah); and the recognition of genius is never guaranteed.

We just got lucky this time.

 

I Have a Confession to Make

I have a public confession to make. I have a serious problem—a profound weakness, and it only gets worse with age.

I am completely, totally, helplessly in love with reading. But not just one book. I find myself embroiled, entangled, enmeshed, ensnared, and ensnarled in reading sometimes more than 10 books at a time. It’s not healthy. If I read one at a time, I could probably read more in a year. But I can’t. It doesn’t work like that.

IMG_8498 (1)

I now play mental tricks with myself to justify the habit, creating different ‘categories’ of books. It started out simple: Fiction and Non-Fiction. And then I started reading books about writing. Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Writing. And then I picked up a few on interesting psychology research: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Writing, and Psychology (sub-category, Non-Fiction). Next came books not just on writing, but on specific grammar and style. Fiction, Non-Fiction (sub-category: Psychology, and also Science snuck in there somehow), Writing (sub-category, grammar and style). And then Poetry. And then Short Stories. And, um, Krista Tippett (maybe, Books by Podcasters?).

I feel good now, though. I feel lighter that I’ve let you know about my problem. Maybe I can add a few more books now that I’ve shed the weight of this secret…

In the spirit of National Book Week, I am going to post the 5th sentence on page 56 of each of the books I’m currently reading:

If you ask someone to recall a seemingly random assortment of words verbatim, starting with the first word— “was smelled front that his the peanuts he good hunger eating barely woman of so in could that him contain”—the average person will remember only the first six of those words. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.

“When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not in the story.” On Writing, Stephen King.

I have never felt so terrible. Tenth of December, George Saunders.

“I’ve recently been thinking more and more that it’s so astonishing that the Old Testament prophets hardly ever discuss an “issue.”” Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett.

I could settle on nothing. House of Light, Mary Oliver.

That man was Tycho Brahe. Cosmos, Carl Sagan.

From the people comes political support or opposition; from the public comes artistic appreciation or commercial patronage. The Elements of Style, Stunk and White.

Better yet, the genetic sequences could be recorded by feeding samples into machines, taking the DNA strands apart one base pair at a time, and preserving them as strings of data that could easily be archived and replicated. Seveneves, Neal Stephenson.

 

Driving Around the Road Cones: Two Easy Strategies for Moving Beyond the First Verse

Almost all songwriters I know experience a type of road block in the process of writing songs. Paradoxically, this block seems to happen when you have a really good idea that you are particularly excited about. Put your hand up if you’ve ever written a verse and a chorus…and can’t seem to write a second verse! (Okay – hands down.) You labor for the next hour, week, month, but everything that comes out feels like you are simply dressing up the same idea in different clothes. Or worse – you are taking off the ball gown and putting on the jeans.

Thanks to ASCAP for once again publishing this article I wrote on two easy strategies for moving beyond the first verse. You can read the article in its entirety at the ASCAP We Create Music Blog.

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What Can Business Learn from Songwriters?

I was kindly invited by Soren Trampedach and Work Club Global, in collaboration with the Sydney-based organisation Affectors, to present an information session on some of the Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 4.13.55 pmcraft and process of a songwriter and musician. The audience were entrepreneurs and culture creators. The discussion that came about found fascinating interplays between language in song and language in all types of communication.

An excerpt is provided below, but you can read the whole article and listen to the discussion by clicking HERE.

Keppie played with language, testing us all on our ability to recall certain words, she shared the theory and the practice of song craft and she played some beautiful indie folk tunes that were open to interpretation.

And in the space of 2 hours, relaxing on a lounge enjoying wine and cheese, I learned three business relevant insights:

1. We must show people what we mean, rather than tell them, even if it’s with their imagination. We can do this by painting a picture with words that our audience can relate to.

2. Sense based language is far more memorable than task orientated words. When I talk about a strategy and use words like ‘approach’ and ‘task’ they don’t stay in the mind as easily as nouns (Keppie proved this with an audience participation experiment). So I’m going to re-evaluate my language and look to bring more colour to ‘strategic dialogue’ in future.

3. Evocative words, memorable language, losing yourself in the music – all of these create an experience in music that’s carefully crafted around notes, but also silences, pauses and spaces. We can be afraid of silence and so keen to fill it – but what if we don’t? What if we allow people to create meaning and to connect with us in the same way they connect with a piece of music. Wouldn’t this allow us to have far more interesting relationships?

I was recently interviewed for online songwriting publication, “Success for your songs”. You can check out an excerpt of the interview discussing the importance of ‘power positions’ here, or watch it below. Enjoy!

 

Great Question

Hi Keppie,

 

I have a question.

 

I recently had a singer adapt one of my poems into a song (the verses and chorus were already written, she came up with the melody and then we added a bridge). This experience got me really interested in the songwriting process. I would love to try my hand at it. I’ve started reading Pat Patinson’s “Writing Better Lyrics” and have implemented a daily object writing practice. I am ready to put in the time that it takes to learn the craft. However, although I took piano lessons when I was young and started learning guitar about a year ago, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to create my own music. And while my voice is not horrifying (I hope), I definitely would not be the one singing the songs. So that would leave only lyric writing, with the hopes of someone coming up with a melody to fit the words and tone. Given what you wrote about your time with John Mayer (whose lyrics and music I greatly admire), I am wondering if it is worth pursuing:

 

“…ideally the way to write a song is doing music, melody, and lyrics as an entwined process, so that you’re not ultimately twisting one to comply with the other.”

 

That makes sense. He says ideally, but I would assume that my songs would not be as strong if I cannot even envision a melody. Are there many people who do only the lyric portion of songs?

 

I would appreciate any advice.

 

Thank you!

 

 

Hi Anita,

Great question!

The simple answer is, yes, there are TONS of people who are lyric-writers, without necessarily being the best singers or melody writers. As far as the ‘industry’ goes, co-writing is a huge part of the business and craft of songwriters. In fact, I would say that a really important quality in a songwriter is knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are, and seeking out co-writers who can fill in your gaps.

That said, not being ‘the best’ singer should in no way inhibit you from coming up with melodies. There are tons of lyric writers who also have a great sense of melody without being stellar singers…to name a few: Steve Seskin, Steve Diamond, Dianne Warren, Jason Blume…all incredibly successful songwriters who don’t sing a note of the songs that get recorded. Developing your melody chops is the same as developing your lyric-writing chops. It just takes practice, perseverance, and keen observation of melodies that work and figuring out why they work.

If you want some material on melody-writing, I would suggest an audio-CD series of lessons by Jason Blume on melody writing called ‘Writing Hit Melodies’ (http://www.jasonblume.com/221643.html).

If melody writing just really isn’t your thing, it is always good to try writing with someone who is a good melody writer. Or, if you have already written a good chunk of lyrics without having any particular music in mind, just be open to a few changes to your lyrics that might be necessary in order to make them more singable to a melody.

Another resource I would highly recommend is a subscription website called Songwork.com. It was built by Pat Pattison and Steve Seskin, and contains a huge number of amazing videos talking about all aspects of songwriting. I don’t know of a better resource out there.

Hope that helps!

Lessons that still ring true

In 2008, I had the unbelievably good fortune to spend a whole week with John Mayer, talking about songs, and finally being in the studio with him. I blogged in detail about it on an old website, but the things I learned still come up almost daily. I was recently asked about it, so I thought I would post it again here. Enjoy!

OCTOBER 2008

This week, I’m one of a group of ten singer-songwriters who are lucky enough to spend a few intensive evenings with John Mayer. I wanted to write a few thoughts, reactions, and anecdotes from the sessions, as a way for me to process the experience and information, as well as sharing the experience with other people. I know I’m in a position that about 4000 other people in the immediate vicinity would sell limbs to be in, so I thought I’d share a bit of it as faithfully as I can. Obviously the things I remember most are the things that resonate with me currently. A few of his stories and points I will obviously be paraphrasing, and they might already be infused with my own perspective. Hopefully my friends and colleagues who are also in the room can chip in some of their memories and insights.

Firstly, John Mayer is cool.
Cool in the best, nerdiest way, which is to say that he was totally present with us in the room. There was nowhere else that his mind was other than completely focused on us and our songs. He had also spent the day checking out our Myspace pages, googling us, listening to our music, and seeing what we were up to.

Habits of success.
I think this was the first symptom of a habit that is most likely one shared by successful people: being prepared, doing your research, and knowing your audience – whatever it is. Throughout the evening, it was obvious that this permeates his whole mode of existing. He has an incredibly broad vocabulary on popular music over the past 40 years. He referenced artists, bands and songs, could play most of what he was referencing, and was obviously literate in it, not in an academic way, but in the way of someone who has a ‘sticky curiosity’ – a genuine interest that is aggressive and passionate. He makes it his business to know EVERYDAY what is in the Top 20 – not to imitate by any means, but to know what the trends are. To know what people are listening to, no matter what you think of it. Ultimately you’ll have your tastes and preferences, whatever they are, but a good exercise as a musician and songwriter is to listen to everything (especially the popular stuff) and think to yourself: ‘What is one thing that is good about this? What’s one thing that’s bad?’

His Berklee backstory.
He talked a little about his experience studying music at Berklee. Initially he arrived in the Fall of ’97 as a guitar player, wanting to be ‘the best guitar player’. In the break between Fall and Spring that year, he did some serious thinking about exactly he wanted as a musician – what did he need to SAY and DO as a musician, above everything else? Maybe unsurprisingly, it was not wanting to be a guitar wanker (my paraphrasing there). He recalled having a very distinct and transformative realization that he literally referred to as an ‘epiphany’: that he essentially wanted to be ‘listenable’. He wanted as many people as possible to listen to his music. He then spent the Spring semester not so much in the classroom, but rather in his dorm room, writing songs and recording them. At which point the rest is history (somewhat). He had got what he needed out of that experience, and then left to pursue it.

On studying music
He was incredibly positive and affirming about being knowledgeable about the technicalities of music – at the same time as being obviously very intuitive and knowing how and when to ‘turn it off’. The point of study is to develop instincts that become like muscle memory. But that it is brilliant to be able to ‘reverse engineer’ songs; ie, being able to identify the ‘DNA’ of songs so that when you hear something you like, knowing how to do it yourself.

On a technical point though, he also encouraged caution about doing things musically just because you can, now that you know about it. Musical ‘events’ in a song should serve a purpose and function. If they don’t, then sometimes you risk doing things that come off as being showy, and alienate listeners. Ultimately, the majority of people don’t know what that chord is, they just know how they feel when they hear it. So if it is a musical moment in the song, save it for when you are actually making a point!

John Mayer as ‘critic’.
Which brings me to another point. I was feeling a combination of trepidation and curiosity about how he would fare in the role of ‘critic’ of other people’s songs. Part of me wondered whether people who do something at such a level of proficiency just have an innate intuition about it, but not necessarily the diagnostic capacities that make for a good teacher.

The answer in this case was pretty clear. His experience gives him a pretty powerful insight into other people’s writing, and he was able to see into the anatomy of our songs with the expertise of a surgeon. He approached each not from any formulaic idea of songs, but first understood what was the character of each artist and song, and worked from there. Rather than going into laborious detail about that, I thought I’d write a few of the main points that I learned that I related to my own writing:

– The chorus is the most important part of your song. If it has no chorus, then there has to be some main idea, main image, that should have neon lights around it that lets a listener know that it is the bit they should walk away singing in their head.

– A song title is your best friend. It will define the chorus or hook, and is the point of the whole song. The title is the gold nugget you’re looking for at the first available moment. You can even work backwards: if you’ve got a great title, and you find a way to sing it that feels good, then you’ve got a chorus. Once you’ve got a chorus, you’ve almost got a song. Also, a song’s title should make you want to listen to that song. If someone picked up your CD in a shop and looked at the back, would they want to hear the songs?

– Phonetics. The way a song feels in your mouth should be natural. It shouldn’t require aural aerobics to get the words out. Some of the best songs are great because of how good it is to just hear the sounds of the words – and how satisfying it is to sing along. The extension of this is that ideally the way to write a song is doing music, melody, and lyrics as an entwined process, so that you’re not ultimately twisting one to comply with the other.

– A song is 3 things: lyrics, melody (which includes harmony), and pulse (or rhythm). If all three of those are strong, then your song has the potential to be a hit.

– Oats and marshmallows. There are words and images that convey detail, emotion, and power (the ‘marshmallows’ in the cereal box). Then there are others, that we’ve all heard a million times, that are blunt and dry (the ‘oats’). People like the marshmallows. Find and use ways to say things that are evocative and personal.

– Be patient and cautious with melody. Once you open your mouth and start singing an idea, it’s very hard to ever sing anything else over a rhythm part you’ve laid down. Take a few extra moments to just listen to any music you’ve written before committing to a melody.

– Listening from a distance. Listen to songs you’ve written as if they just came onto the radio – as if you hadn’t written it. Is it something you’d want to keep listening to?

– Leaving a trail of treats. Songs are essentially a series of ‘events’, whether that event is lyrical, or it’s drums coming in or dropping out at key moments, or it’s vocal harmonies, or it’s the subtle way you change the chorus at the end, or it’s the way the melody lifts in verse 2. These ‘event’s are like a trail of treats for a listener throughout a song. And you don’t have to deliver the treats all at once at the front end, but pick key moments for them.

– Thanks for listening. John mentioned a technique that he uses to keep people listening til the very end, which is essentially to always do something slightly different at the end of a song that a listener wouldn’t have expected. It gives them a reason to keep listening to the end, and also a reason to listen to the whole song again.

Final notes…
One very awesome thing about being in an intimate session with someone I know at an intellectual level has success that has brought him fame and celebrity and all that extra stuff, is being aware that he is just a dude, doing his thing, doing it really well, and has made some good decisions. At a sort of ‘dharmic’ level (if you’ll let me go there for a moment), I appreciate the spirit of someone who inspires people to broaden their own imagination about themselves and their possibilities. He genuinely made us feel like there is an achievable bridge that links what we’re doing now to the vast world of possibility in music. That’s cool, in my books.

————–

We recorded my tune, produced by John Mayer himself, last Thursday. It was one of the smoothest, hassle-free, to the point, snag-less recordings I’ve ever done. It was a testament to the process that this whole experience was meant to demonstrate: that if you have a good song, and a concept for production, then you can produce something beautiful without much complication.

(Also having the head of the songwriting department at Berklee write a full string quartet arrangement overnight, and then having the Boston String Quartet play on your recording helps a little).

John was great as a producer, by the way. My song, of the three that were recorded by three different songwriters, required the least technical detail or instruction or tweaking, being the most acoustic. But that was also very much part of good production, and being a good producer. As a producer, the stuff that John wanted to maintain was the subtle way my voice cracks, the hesitation in certain parts that is so much what the song is about in essence. The concept from the beginning was that the tune should be organic and acoustic, played without a click track, the time pushing and pulling with the lyric and the feeling of the song. With the string quartet, the idea was that they would have to play with the feeling of the song rather than playing to a click.

One of the most important technical things I learnt from him was that when you are recording a song, you need to maintain the melody in its purest, ‘dumbest’ form. The point of a record, other than being beautiful and listenable (and of course, and expression of your musical identity), is to communicate clearly, and from that clarity also generate familiarity for listeners. There is a temptation (that I was subconsciously caving into) to vary and embellish the melody and delivery of a song, particularly after having sung it 4 or 5 times. John noticed, and when I sung just the melody in its simplest form, the song truly started to sound like a record rather than the ‘late night acoustic lounge’ version.

The whole experience, as well as watching him produce two other completely different tracks, was exceptional. As a producer, as well as a musician — and most importantly, as a person, he is direct, on the level, inclusive, open-minded, humble, smart as hell, generous, sensitive, and hilarious. Even when he played and sang on two tracks, he was never gratuitous. He was gracious enough to actually lend his guitar and voice for these tracks, but made sure everything he did was in the service of the song, and not just sort of a ‘Ladies and gentlemen — John Mayer!’ kind of moment.

All twelve of us went into this not totally knowing what to expect, and not knowing who he was as a person. I think we pretty unanimously think the world of him, which says a lot about a person. He was a true demonstration that success and fame don’t give you license to be a dickhead. And when it comes down to it, it’s pretty simple and logical. As John put it himself, when you’ve worked with the full spectrum of talented people, and you see the effect of people who are selfish and mean, as opposed to those who are talented, generous and kind, there is no reason to not be that way. Amen.

SPECIFICITY #2: Getting Specific About Images

A while ago I started an article about SPECIFICITY in lyric writing (see post: Specificity #1: Getting Specific About Ideas). The main conclusion of that article was to pick a central idea for your section, and make sure all the images and language are working towards supporting that main idea.

Another aspect of ‘getting specific’ with lyrics is the specificity of the images that you present. That’s what I’d like to have a look at right now!

SPECIFICITY #2: Getting Specific About Images

THE PROBLEM:

  • Your images are too broad, vague, or generic.
  • The images do not fully use your totally unique perspective of the world.

THE SOLUTION

  • Use Sense Writing to describe the scenario.
  • Sift through your Sense Writing for unique images or word combos.
  • Use a Worksheet to find interesting word and rhyme pairings.

Let’s use another dummy lyric to work with:

EXAMPLE:

[Verse 1]

The party was loud when

You walked into the room

I caught a glimpse of you

And thought ‘you’ll be mine soon’

Okay, so the lyric presents a decent opening idea, presenting the scenario, but in a very ho-hum kind of a way. It could use some spicing up. This is where I (and many many many songwriters) use Sense Writing to delve into our senses and uncover unique and compelling ways and words to describe a common or universal experience (see Post: Juicy Details for a description of Sense Writing).

DO IT NOW: Spend 5 minutes sense writing on ‘party’.

Here is my writing…

Party… Slumped on the distended belly of a couch in the corner, bored. The satisfying pop of opening wine bottles followed by the gulp gulp gulp of filling glasses, the woody snap of beer bottles being hammered onto the table. Cigarette smoke mingled with the high pitched female laughter bubbling sneaking through the opening in the sliding doors. I am sitting sipping on a beer that somehow becoming more watery, more bitter and lemony as I reach the bottom. Accidentally moving my lips to the memory of conversations I’ve had at parties before, possibly letting out a stifled laugh, the people in my field of vision, who swim in and out of being characters in a movie that I am watching from the couch, to being secret agent spies with hidden personal worlds of mystery and ambiguity, and sneaking layers of depth caked in a crust of party-induced silliness. And then you enter the room, and it feels like the decibels descend and there is a warm hum in my eardrum, and it seems like you are taller than everybody else, that there is a spotlight somewhere above you melting light into your immediate orbit. I am looking at you trying to use eyeballs as magnets, sure that if you look at me that particles will connect and you will feel the energy like a string of fate, like a tightrope strung up between us…


Now I am going to ‘mine’ my sense writing for words, images, and phrases that I like.

belly of a couch in the corner (bored in a rhyme)

the woody snap of beer bottles being hammered onto the table

moving my lips to the memory of conversations I’ve had at parties before

being characters in a movie that I am watching from the couch

layers of depth caked in a crust of party-induced silliness

the decibels descend

warm hum in my eardrum

spotlight somewhere above you melting light

eyeballs as magnets

tightrope strung up between us


Let’s see if I can use what I have here to write a new verse:

I’m slumped in the belly of a couch in the corner

At a party full of people playing out a movie scene

I’m moving my lips to the memory of conversations

….

At this point, I am looking for my final line of this verse. I am going to create a Worksheet for two rhyme options: scene, and conversation.

What is a Worksheet? A worksheet is basically a list of possible rhymes for key words in your lyric. It is not ALL the available rhymes, but rather rhymes that are evocative, or related to the idea or image you are playing with. Here we go:

Scene: screen, sheen, clean, Al Green, pristine, routine, Codeine, beguine, marine, machine, slot machine, obscene, magazine, tambourine, trampoline, nicotine, quarantine, seem, scheme, redeem…

Conversation: narration, creation, fixation, vibration, dilation, inflation, location, relocation, rotation (heavy-rotation), relation, flirtation, affectation, speculation, decoration, mediation, celebration, revelation, patron, saying, staying, playing, shaken, taken, takin’…

Now I am going to use some of these to see if I can come up with a satisfying line.

I’m slumped in the belly of a couch in the corner

At a party full of people playing out a movie scene

I’m moving my lips to the memory of conversations

Removed from the hum of the celebration

……………………..

I’m slumped in the belly of a couch in the corner

At a party full of people playing out a movie scene

I’m moving my lips to the memory of conversations

Falling into my usual routine

……………………..

I’m slumped in the belly of a couch in the corner

At a party full of people playing out a movie scene

I’m moving my lips to the memory of conversations

Stuck in the rounds of mental quarantine

I could write another 20 of these, but I kind of like the last one, and more than that, any of these three is a drastic improvement on the original. It is much more evocative of the environment, and the narrator’s state of mind and mood, and sets it up nicely to develop the story from there.