By Ahava Leibtag published January 4, 2019

Rock Your Content With These 7 Songwriting Secrets

Songwriters are storytellers. And if you’re a content marketer, you’re also a storyteller. We’re trying to do the same thing – to capture the most elusive thing we can with words: a feeling.

Here are seven songwriting secrets that will help you make your content stronger.

1. Storytelling structure

Writers know strong stories capture audiences and bring concepts to life. Sometimes it’s hard to suss out how to tell a story in a way that will achieve the goal – to keep the reader reading.

Songwriters use the same storytelling structure over and over in their writing. They understand that the strongest components of a story structure are exposition, conflict, and resolution, as Bon Jovi illustrates in Livin’ on a Prayer:

Songwriters know the strongest story components are exposition, conflict, and resolution. @ahaval #content Click To Tweet

Exposition

Once upon a time not so long ago
Tommy used to work on the docks, union’s been on strike
He’s down on his luck, it’s tough, so tough

Conflict

Gina works the diner all day working for her man
She brings home her pay, for love, for love

She says, we’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got

Resolution

It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not
We’ve got each other and that’s a lot for love
We’ll give it a shot

Woah, we’re half way there
Woah, livin’ on a prayer
Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear
Woah, livin’ on a prayer
 

Billie Jean also follows this storytelling structure. When you examine the lyrics, you realize that Michael Jackson used exposition, conflict, and resolution out of order to bring even more tension to the story.

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2. Understand how the human brain processes sound

Songwriting is different than our type of writing, as songwriters must find a melody and lyrics that work together. But content writers also need to bring rhythmic qualities to their work.

The brain has a natural delight in melody, rhythm, and repetition, which begins with the first sounds we hear: the sound of our mother’s heartbeat in the womb. The snack food industry calls it the bliss point – the moment when the movement of your hand to the bag and back to your mouth and the rhythm of chewing become one. When the spoken or written word mimics a rhythm, you get happier readers.

How do you achieve that rhythm in your writing? Do these three things:

  • Read your content out loud: I evangelize this all the time. Nothing will give you a better sense of how your content sounds than reading it out loud. If you can’t speak and listen at the same time, and I know I can’t, record it on your phone and play it back. Immediately, I can tell where I need to add commas, etc.
  • Use long and short sentences: Intersperse long sentences with short sentences to vary the rhythm.
  • Clap it out: Think about how you’re clapping. What does punchy sound like? What does serious sound like? What does human sound like? Experiment with those cadences.
Clap out your #content to experiment with cadence. What does punchy sound like? Experiment, says @ahaval Click To Tweet

Part of reading comprehension is prosody – how does the content sound in the readers’ heads? Finding rhythm to your content will keep your readers engaged.

3. Be open to collaboration

We sometimes think writing is something birthed alone, by ourselves. And sometimes, that is true. But for many of us, we have editors who comb through our work to make it stronger.

What if we took the approach of pair writing, popularized in the UX community? Instead of seeing ourselves as the writers or original content creators and then having editors review it, what if we saw ourselves as collaborators, building pieces together?

In the ’70s Glenn Frey lived in the apartment above Jackson Browne’s. One day, Frey heard Browne trying to compose a song. Browne composed the first verse and chorus, but then he got stuck and couldn’t move forward.

This video explains what happened next.

Too often we put our writing on the shelf and forget about it or don’t realize its potential. Instead, we should send it to a friend or colleague, someone who could be a co-creator to produce something of merit.

Think for a moment if Glenn Frey didn’t live near Jackson Browne? The Eagles’ first hit, Take It Easy, may never have been considered one of the top rock n’ roll songs of all time.

Taylor Swift doesn’t just walk into a studio, sit down with her diary, whip out her guitar, and create a song. She brings ideas into the studio and works with a producer (which is maybe what we should start calling our editors) to help her fine-tune a song.

Maybe we should start referring to editors as producers like singers do, says @ahaval Click To Tweet

Here we watch her build the bridge for the song Delicate:

She collaborates with her producer, Max Martin, who has written and produced 26 No. 1 songs. They work off of her energy and build the lyrics together. Notice how Taylor claps out the rhythm and, when she loses her momentum, Max urges her forward. This is a classic example of pair writing – they are producing content together. We need to work toward that model, instead of an adversarial editor vs. writer relationship.

4. Beg, borrow, and (don’t) steal

When we work with editors and content producers, the goal is to collaborate to make it a stronger piece of content. When we make reference to previously published content, we connect our readers and consumers to something familiar and resonant. References and winks add major color to our writing.

However, we want to be careful that we’re doing attribution right for our references. “Stealing” is rampant in songwriting. With almost every popular album that comes out there’s an accusation of thievery. And this is true in our profession too – no one wants to get dinged for plagiarism.

We’re going to look at two examples of references and one of straight up plagiarism.

Fifth Harmony, an all-girl pop group, sang a feminist anthem called That’s My Girl. The lyrics include a reference to Destiny: “Destiny said it, you got to get up and get it, get mad independent.”

Who is Destiny? Destiny’s Child. And the lyric is a direct reference to Independent Women. By creating that connection with the audience, Fifth Harmony was saying, “We’re the heirs to this incredibly popular woman’s group who changed music.”

But references can be dangerous if they’re too close for comfort.

TLC wrote a smash hit called Waterfalls. The chorus may be intimately familiar to some of you, “Don’t go chasing waterfalls …”

Now, listen to this song by Paul McCartney.

When McCartney heard TLC’s hit, he said, “In fact, somebody had a hit, a few years ago, using the first line … then they go off into another song. It’s like, ‘Excuse me?'” McCartney later received a writing credit. Songwriters call this “change a word, get a third” because the publishing rights are so valuable.

There’s value to begging, borrowing, and stealing, but only if you attribute properly.

5. Be open to all sorts of inspiration

There’s a lot to be said for picking up other writers’ work and using it as a reference or a way to make a connection to your audience. But what about when you want to create something original or inspiration strikes?

Chris Martin from Coldplay described to Howard Stern how the smash-hit song Yellow came to him.

He expressed doubt about whether yellow was the right word. Stars aren’t really yellow, but it was an amazing hit for Coldplay. Yellow remains its most popular song. When inspiration strikes, don’t question it. Follow it along. Who knows where it will take you?

This next story blew my mind. Kathleen Hanna, who was the lead singer of the band Bikini Kill, was good friends with the male lead singer of another band. The two were engaged in a massive conversation about anarchy and politics. Later in the day, he saw that she had scrawled on the wall, “Kurt smells like teen spirit” and a revolution in music was born.

Kurt Cobain (yes, that one!) thought Smells Like Teen Spirit was a perfect anthem for what he was trying to express. However, what Kathleen Hanna really meant was “Kurt smells like his girlfriend’s deodorant Teen Spirit.”

What if he had known that? He may not have written this song that changed a generation. When you hear inspiration calling, follow it.

What if Kurt Cobain had known Teen Spirit was deodorant? Hey, if inspiration calls, follow it, says @ahaval Click To Tweet

6. Break all the rules

When we’re original we can really try to move outside of our comfort zone. Sometimes, when we’re lucky, we’re inspired to break all the rules. The song Baby One More Time was written by the Swedish songwriter/producer Max Martin. He didn’t have a native speaker’s command of English when he wrote the song for Britney Spears. He used the word “hit” because he thought “hit my phone” was another way to say “call me.” When you listen to the song, imagine “call me” replacing “hit me” in the lyrics.

It’s not just in the creation of content where people can break the rules. In 2013, Beyoncé released a self-titled album without any fanfare. Releasing 13 songs and 17 visual pieces without any fans knowing was an impossibility until then. Beyoncé said she chose that approach because she didn’t want anyone telling her how to release her record to her fans.

A lot of us follow best practices when it comes to distributing content. But what if we experimented? Instead of dropping on every channel every day, what if we decided to do it differently? What if we used the drip philosophy instead of the flood philosophy and tried it on different channels at different times like Andrew Davis suggests?

I mean if everyone is sending out an email at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, the content gets lost in the noise. What would happen if we followed Beyoncé’s model by breaking our content distribution and promotion models?

What if you followed Beyonce’s song-release model and broke all the content distribution rules? @ahaval Click To Tweet

7. Be brave enough to follow your own process

Every content creator has their own process for making content great. Some people procrastinate. Others like to write at certain times of the day. But what almost every artist says is that their motivations and process work for them.

McCartney describes, in this clip, why he and John Lennon decided to start writing their own songs:

And finally, this artist, perhaps America’s greatest known songwriter, was under tremendous pressure to create a hit right before his seventh album was released. His manager, Jon Landau, demanded that he write another hit, and Bruce Springsteen went home and in fury wrote Dancing in the Dark.

A song that we all consider a love story? Turns out he is describing the process of writing.

When Springsteen sings, “Come on baby, just give me one more look,” he’s talking about that elusive thing we all strive for, wait for, demand – inspiration to keep creating.

Don’t let anyone tell you content is easy. It takes practice, collaboration, inspiration, sweat, blood, and tears. Songwriters know discipline is the way to bring ideas to life. So do content marketers.

Want to hear the “live” version of Ahava’s rock star writing secrets (it’s worth it – she sings) or any of the other Content Marketing World presentations? Subscribe to CMW video on demand.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Ahava Leibtag

Based in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, Ahava Leibtag is a Web content strategist and writer. She leads AHA Media Group, a Web and content consulting firm, and authors the blog Online it ALL Matters. She thinks 60 words is way too few to communicate why she’s interesting. You can connect with Ahava on Twitter at @ahaval.

Other posts by Ahava Leibtag

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