Editor’s Note: This is the second part of an article on re-writing, written by hit songwriter Jon Ims. “Professional songwriters take re-writing for granted,” Jon Ims says. “All the songs you hear on the radio have been thoroughly sifted through to remove any obstacles that might hinder their ability to communicate clearly and effectively.” Toward that end, Ims offered “Tools For Successful Re-writing,” a pro teaching lesson presented at Thursday’s Nashville Workshop. He told the assembled songwriters to complete thoughts before moving to the next thought in the verses, and to be sure all the verses lead to the chorus without distraction. “You want the audience to say, ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, OK.’” NSAI members can watch his presentation in our video library to hear his thoughts on “Tah-da,” “Kaboom” and other effects.
TOOLS FOR SUCCESSFUL RE-WRITING
By Jon Ims
Professional songwriters take re-writing for granted. All the songs you hear on the radio have
been thoroughly sifted through to remove any obstacles that might hinder their ability to
communicate clearly and effectively. What many pros do instinctively during this process can be
learned. What follows is a song-sifting guide in the form of questions.
EMOTION: If your listener is not emotionally involved, he won’t be your listener for long. Start by
underlining the peak emotional moment in the song. Then follow with questions:
1. Does the lyric clearly express an emotion? Example: love, passion, warmth, remorse, worry,
fear, desire, sorrow, sympathy, pride, ecstasy, thrill, joy, elation, tenderness, etc.
2. Is the emotion authentic and moving?
3. Is the intended emotion or attitude consistent throughout the lyric? A mixed emotion is a mixed
4. Is the emotional peak contained in the summary section?
5. Does the emotional message peak with the melody?
6. Is the emotion overplayed or introduced too early? Create a context for the emotion first before
Introducing the emotion. Example: In a four-line verse, try introducing the emotion in the last line
of the verse.
COLOR AND DETAIL: All the universal themes have been written many times. What will make
your song stand out is the WAY that you say it. In this section, circle areas of the lyric where color
or detail can be added (or subtracted.)
1. Is there a distribution of images or picture words throughout the lyric that keeps the “movie”
going in the mind of the listener so he can “see” the song?
2. Is there too much description? Eliminate unnecessary details. Details are not story. Sprinkle,
3. Does the lyric “show,” rather than “tell?” It should “show” through description. Example: Don’t
tell us he was mad, show us by describing what he looks like when he’s mad. Underline all “tell”
lines to be reworked.
4. Is there an original stamp of writing style so that you’re saying it in a way that differs from the
writer next to you? Has the audience heard any of the lyric images too many times before in other
songs? Example: The word “ragtop” to describe a convertible, although colorful, has been used to
death lately. Eliminated tired images.
5. Has the lyric borrowed cliches as a substitute for originality? Eliminate cliches or rework them
to present them in original ways.
6. Is the language appropriate to the characters and tone of the subject? Eliminate nonconversational,
formal language. Does the lyric use the appropriate vocabulary for it’s subject and
characters? Is there any colorful use of language? Examples: Alliteration. Assonance. Word play.
Metaphor. Simile. Double meanings. Check to see if there are any opportunities.
7. Is there too much of any of the above? Don’t over-season the food.
MOMENTUM : Hit songs are all about momentum. They are always moving toward something.
Whether a slow ballad or an up-tempo, they never drag, but rather, build continually to their
payoff. They pay off at the title. In this section, start by circling all the verbs. Then, in answer to
the questions, circle areas in the lyric where momentum is slowed down or stopped.
1. Does the first line grab the audience’s attention and intrigue them into wanting to hear more?
2. Does the second verse develop or just rehash the first verse idea? Swim on, don’t tread water.
3. Are there passive verbs in the lyric that could be replaced with action verbs? Liven up all verbs
4. Are the verbs sitting on or off the beat? Try putting them on the beat when appropriate.
5. Is there an ascending order of the development of the idea, leading up to the chorus?
6. Are the verses taking too many lines to do their job? Condense thoughts, striving to say a lot
with fewer words. Example: Try reducing a six-line verse to four lines.
7. Does the chorus have a beginning, a middle and an end? Three-section choruses have
8. Does the chorus peak lyrically, with the title in the most powerful position?
9. If the chorus starts with the title, does the rest of the chorus prove that title, and have a strong
10. If the chorus ends with the title, does the chorus lyric begin with a strong statement and build
sequentially to the strongest statement, which is the title?
11. Does the title complete a perfect rhyme? The Neon-Light effect. Near rhymes dull the lights.
12. If not, does some other device set it up so that it commands the listener’s attention?
About Jon Ims: Singer-songwriter Jon Ims moved to Nashville in 1991, and immediately came in to prominence when Trisha Yearwood became the first female country-music artist to have a debut single reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts with Jon’s “She’s In Love With The Boy.” This was quickly followed by Reba McEntire taking Jon’s “Fallin’ Out Of Love” to the top of the charts as well.
“She’s In Love With The Boy” was named BMI’s Song Of The Year in 1992, and is now one of BMI’s Top 20 most-performed Country songs of all time. As a result, Jon received BMI’s Robert J.Burton Award, and Music Row Magazine’s Breakthrough Writer Award in 1992.