Looking for writing tips? Listen to music

If you want to make your writing stronger, put down the dictionary. Instead, crank up the volume and listen to some of your favourite singers.

Good popular music is a great place to refine your writing skills. Good songs convey the maximum meaning with the minimum words. Verbs are strong and there’s no room for clutter. So if books on grammar don’t turn your crank, put on some music or listen to poetry.

Take a look at these four lines from Texas singer-songwriter Joe Ely (from his song All That You Need, about the loss of family farms to corporate agriculture).

Sow the seed in the ground below
Fall to your knees and pray real slow
That rain will come and kiss the seed
And bless you with all that you need

Those four lines are a great reminder about the strength that comes from simplicity. Of the 31 words in that chorus, 30 are just one syllable. The odd-word-out is ‘below’, clocking in at two syllables.

Sometimes, when we seek to impress, we reach for the bigger words, the longer, grander words. We drag out some of the polysyllabic monsters that we rarely use in conversation with friends.

Popular music, or poetry, reminds us that if you want to deliver a powerful message you can always say more – and say it more powerfully – by saying less.

Once you’ve simplified the language, take a look at the verbs you are using. Hire the active ones. Fire most of the passive ones.

‘Joe wrote the song’ is active.

‘The song was written by Joe’ is passive.

Any time you see a verb construction using ‘was’ you need to consider a re-write.

Verbs are your writing muscle. Strong active verbs push the writing along. Weak passive constructions slow you down like a tired four year-old in a supermarket.

Don’t settle for the first verb that pops into your mind. Take a few minutes to find the verb that energizes your writing.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Mark Twain

‘Joe walked into the room’ is active – but can we raise the stakes a little? How did Joe walk in? Did he:


Beefing up a verb can be much more effective than reaching for an adverb.

One other element is essential to good writing: heart. Honest feelings lead to honest writing. Let your writing be elevated by your commitment to the subject matter. 

Which brings us back to Joe Ely. In the last verse he writes:

The ways of the cities makes no sense
Strapped to dependency
I’d rather be sweating ‘neath a clear blue sky
Plantin’ cotton with my family

To me, those four lines are a great summary of these writing tips: 

  1. Simplicity: Mostly short, simple words of one or two syllables. 
  2. Interesting, strong verbs: Look at the emotion, the horror, the despair that he conjures up when he complains about cities ‘strapped’ to dependency. That one word says such a lot.
  3. Written from the heart: Ely’s song is based on the loss of his uncle’s farm and the consequences for those who had worked there.