The Best Writing Tip: Cut with a Razor

songwriting at The Writers College

BY AMELIA RAY

Don’t ask me where but once I read that Keith Richards reportedly has a unique songwriting approach. Supposedly, he writes down every word that he feels and then goes back and cuts out every third, tertiary, word. This tidbit fascinated me, even though I had never paid much attention to exactly which specific Rolling Stones songs Keith Richards wrote. 

Truthfully, I’m a mediocre, somewhat minor Rolling Stones fan. As a young, budding rocker in high school, I naturally spent hours fastidiously studying the guitar licks from quintessential Stones’ songs like “Satisfaction”, “Heartbreaker”, “Angie” and “Shattered”. Undercover, Sticky Fingers, Exile and Aftermath undoubtedly rank among my favourite albums stored in my personal record collection. And I remain wholly impressed by October 1994’s Oakland Coliseum concert. But no, I am definitely not a devoted, die-hard fan.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t necessarily take an ardent admirer to fully appreciate the effect lyric economy makes in the Rolling Stones’ songs. Just look at the lyrics to “Complicated,” “Miss You”, “Citadel” and “Dance” closely and the delicate art of careful omission becomes crystal clear. Richards’s songwriting method lingered somewhere in my blossoming mind when, later, I began earnestly to take studying songwriting seriously, consciously considering the cruel concept of searing self-editing.

My love affair with substantial words began many years ago. As a precocious, quiet, timid child, often I hid myself away, devouring classic works by Dickens, Asimov, Austen, Christie and Woolf, avidly searching for the meaning between the inscrutable lines. Writing assignments were terribly easy, and generally served as waiting opportunities to overtly flaunt my complicated, educated lexicon. Pray, why write “You Better Move On” or even, perhaps, “Get Off of My Cloud” [sic] when the loquacious phrase, “Pardon, but would you kindly remove your stately figure from within my sight presently?” stands at the ready?

Things today are different; yet I admit, now as an old-fashioned, ageing rocker that I still regularly speak, and certainly write, windily. A simple conversation quickly morphs into spoken art when a “Come again?” deftly replaces “Sorry?” just before “No” cleverly transforms into the melodic, agreeable, “I shouldn’t think so.”

I write numerous letters. I thoroughly enjoy penning lengthy missives to distant friends, and, frequently, when preparing myself to write correspondence, the scene set is utterly, verifiably Victorian. A brimming cup of hot tea at my left, and just beyond that, heavy curtains drawn carefully with ribbons, deliberately revealing tall, robust, lush trees, graciously sheltering birds aplenty, whose songs episodically drift in along with the redolent season’s fragrance, effortlessly, through the partially open windows. 

Now, such beauty inherently stimulates thoughts profound, and inspires recondite phrases benefitting from colourful adjectives, archaic verbs and sophisticated adverbs; but for the flowery, ornate language of the befitting prose, it serves little functional purpose in contemporary songwriting. Songs of today require an immediate connection. Modern lyrics often must double as knockout punches, delivering familiarity, emotion and significant meaning in quick, succinct jabs.  Too many lyrics can leave the unsuspecting listener feeling oh so empty. And weary listeners will resent feeling that you’re wasting their time.

So the next time that you’re writing breathtaking lyrics to accompany your hit song, remember Richards’s presumed advice. Less really is more. Consequently, if you can’t get your desired point across clearly in 394 straightforward, everyday words, then chances are that another 194 conjunctions, determiners, interjections, unnecessary nouns, pronouns, excess adjectives and dispensable adverbs would just be superfluous drivel. Make every single word count. And be absolutely, positively sure every third word doesn’t.

About the Author

Amelia Ray (b. 1977, San Jose, CA) is a writer and composer. As a polyglot, she has spent decades examining how similar concepts are expressed differently across languages and cultures. Interpretation is a running theme in her work, which includes several cross-genre albums and singles, performance art projects and a one-act musical about cultural appropriation entitled “The Five Impediments”.

Ray wrote her first song at age eight and released three albums before ushering in the digital era with Mr Gibson Scores Again. Ray performed all vocals and instruments on the 2001 release, which title is a tribute to the great baseball player Josh Gibson. The albums Music for Autistic People and ON  soon followed, along with a string of festival appearances in Austria, Spain and Slovakia.

In the 2010s, Ray began writing lyrics in other languages and experimenting with film and electronic music. Following a brief stint working as a soloist aboard cruise ships, she developed an interest in performance art. In 2020, Ray joined longtime collaborator Jake Wood to produce “Hambone Says,” a performance piece that uses contemporary past aesthetics to explore race relations, rage and role reversal in the U.S.

Also in 2020, Ray organised and hosted The Quarantuned Music Festival – a series of 24-hour, worldwide, virtual music festivals to benefit artists affected by Covid-19 concert cancellations. She is currently organising Europe for Ukraine – an initiative to gather musicians from 50 European countries to record an original composition in support of Ukraine.

Amelia Ray is the December 2022 winner of the My Writing Journey Competition. Read more about her work at https://ameliaray.net.

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