A young boy running on a beach.

Jeff Tweedy’s tip for writing better lyrics – and the holes in my verbs

In his book, ‘How to write one song’, Jeff Tweedy outlines a useful exercise for finding ‘exciting’ new ways to pair words – to help you be more creative when writing your lyrics. In short, Jeff’s tip for writing better lyrics is to list verbs and nouns and then pair them in unusual ways. I’ll come back to explore that technique in greater detail. But first, a short diversion, to allow me to educate myself.

I understand and agree that Jeff’s is a good idea. For me, though there is a problem; it is a problem that I’m sure most people probably can’t get their head around because I suspect this stuff is so easy, and so obvious, that it seems impossible for anyone to fail to understand it. The problem is that I missed a lot of schooling as a child because I had severe asthma and I did not learn the basics of grammar.

So when someone says ‘pair a verb with a noun’ – I don’t naturally know what these things are. ‘You could look it up Jim’ – I hear you say. Well I have looked it up so often that when I hear the word ‘verb’ my brain has a conversation: I ask myself the question, ‘what’s a verb’ and I reply – ‘It’s an action word’. I’ve done this so often that the phrase now has it’s own deep rut ploughed into my neural pathways. But still, this isn’t enough for me to reflexively know what it is or automatically understand one when I see it.

In Jeff’s example, he listed the following verbs:

Examine
Thump
Prescribe
Listen
Write
Scan
Touch
Wait
Charge
Heal

Truthfully – I didn’t know these were all verbs. That’s because the phrase, “it’s an action word” is always accompanied by – in my mind’s eye – someone running. The word ‘action’ to me suggests things like – jumping running, walking, hammering – or whatever. If I had put some effort in – I would have picked out the words ‘Charge’ and perhaps ‘Thump’ as being the verbs in this list. The words heal, wait, touch – don’t seem very actiony (sic) to me.

Clearly, that sticking plaster I used to get around my early learning issues has been a problem rather than a cure. My definition of ‘action’ was too narrow. If I widen it clearly all of the words on the list can all be described as actions. Though to ‘wait’ is a difficult word to squeeze into that description – given that there is still an image of someone running in my head – they can’t be simultaneously running and waiting – can they?

This morning I looked it the definition of a verb once again. The BBC’s bitesize page tells me ‘A verb is a word used to describe an action, state or occurrence.’. I’ve only had the ‘action’ bit. I need to add the ‘state’ and ‘occurrence’ bit to my education. You might think – well that’s you sorted Jim.

Maybe it is. But there’s something about learning these basic ideas when you are young that make them part of your mental armoury of techniques – that seem difficult to replicate later in life. Or is that just an excuse?

When someone says to me ‘use a verb’ – I now need to remind myself that a verb can be a state and an occurrence as well as an action. I need to think – what is a ‘state’ what is an ‘occurrence’? Right now – they seem to be pretty abstract words. None of the words in Jeff’s list are states or occurrences – are they?

Ok – that’s my diversion over. It was a learning opportunity for me. You want to get to the useful stuff – let’s get to it.

Jeff Tweedy’s creative writing technique for lyricists

For songwriters wanting to learn about this new technique, the verbs and nouns that Jeff listed are as follows:

Verb Noun
Examine Cushion
Thump Guitar
Prescribe Wall
Listen Turntable
Write Sunlight
Scan Window
Touch Carpet
Wait Drum
Charge Microphone
Heal Lightbulb

Now, metaphorically, take your pen and draw lines to connect verbs to nouns. Choose those that would not normally be paired together.

You could ‘prescribe a cushion’ for someone who needs hourly hugs or ‘charge the guitar’ to ensure an electric performance. Or ‘touch the sunlight’ for a bright future. I’m sure you get the idea. If you are thinking these combinations are absurd and inappropriate, that is what we are after. We want to avoid using boring cliches and it’s great to know we can turn those cliches into something much more interesting.

Uncouple the clichés for better lyrics

The big idea is to be aware that verbs and nouns tend to be used in clichéd ways – and to uncouple them – so you can recouple them in novel ways. The cliché Jeff mentions as an example is, ‘a smattering of applause’. Uncouple smattering with applause and perhaps you get a ‘smattering of windows’ or ‘a smattering of lightbulbs’ – or some other unusual combination.

I hope that has been helpful for you. The process of writing it has been helpful for me. I still don’t have a clue what an adverb is or a pronoun – but that’s for another day. That aside, I’ll try Jeff’s tip – to help me write better lyrics in the future. Give it a go yourself. Use the comments form below to give me your feedback on this article, and to tell me how you got on with this technique.

Image: “Running to the North sea” by Alexandre Dulaunoy CC BY-SA 2.0

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