Overcoming Writer's Assumption

I've noticed a recurring problem among some of the writers that I've been critiquing and teaching lately. I call it "Writer's Assumption." Mr. Webster calls it "anything taken for granted; supposition," and believe me, it can be terminal for any song infected with it.

Listeners Aren't Mindreaders

If a stranger walked up to you on a busy street and said, "He left her," would you care? The answer, of course, is no. Well, that's exactly what happens when you write a lyric that assumes the listener knows all about the people who populate your mind. When you come up with a song idea, characters and situations immediately spring to life in your head. So when your pen hits the page, your tendency may be to describe the RESULT of the situation you've just invented in your brain-- i.e., "He left her." Your listeners, however, won't care about the result because you haven't created any characters to care about.

Avoid the "Living Room" Syndrome

There's a reason why there are so many "living room" hits. When you sing a song to your friends and family about Uncle Fred joining the Navy, you don't have to explain to them that Fred, who was bitten by a dog, lost his job, and had his foot nailed to the floor by Aunt Martha, who subsequently ran off with an encyclopedia salesman. Because your listeners already know the background of the story, they are prepared to laugh when you sing "Uncle Fred has a hammock for a bed and makes gravy for the Navy." Any stranger stumbling upon a family laughing hysterically at this ditty would probably consider commitment papers, not publishing contracts.

Your First Verse May Not Be the First Verse

Remember, all songs have a beginning, a middle and an end. Some great old writers beat that into my head 30 years ago. It was the rule then, and it's the rule now. At least 50 percent of the time, when I sit down to write an idea, I mindlessly write the second verse first. Just as I smile in smug satisfaction at a verse well done, the ghost of one of my old mentors jabs me in the brain with a sharp stick and asks, "Well, Shakespeare, just who are these people, and why are they doing this?" Of course, the ghost is right, so I'll write another verse that answers those questions, and I'll make it my new first verse.

A lot of things change in 30 years: vocabulary, idioms, situations and attitudes. The craft does not. Making a living from what you love doing is a wonderful thing. Half of love, however is respect. You'll earn respect by doing your job properly, and your job is to communicate the WHOLE story...besides, you'll hate that sharp stick.