Expert Advice: Show, Don't Tell

Excerpted from PARTY LIKE A ROCKSTAR: The Crazy, Coincidental, Hard-Luck, and Harmonious Life of a Songwriter ©2022 J.T. Harding and reprinted by permission from Twelve/Hachette Book Group.

Here are some tips to make your songs stand out: Whether it’s words rolling off your tongue as you play your guitar, being typed by your thumbs in your phone, or scribbled in a notebook, your lyrics are expressing yourself but also expressing the feelings of the listeners. Not everyone knows how to say what they feel, and even if they do, a lot of people don’t have the courage to say it. When a person can’t explain how they feel, they’ll find a song that can.

 No one’s as tongue-tied as I am when a beautiful girl is standing in front of me. The hardest thing for me to say to a person is that I’m falling for them. Equally difficult is when someone hurts my feelings. That’s why I’m a songwriter. I write when I feel alone, I listen to music when I feel alone—so always remember, your listener may feel alone too. Write for them. They need songs about heartbreak as much as they need songs about joy and romance. They need you to put into a song how they feel, because it’s hard for a lot of people to put matters of the heart into words.

To me, one of the cleverest things to do with lyrics is to say something simple that people can instantly relate to but that no one has said in a song before. It’s similar to hearing a comedian tell a joke, and you think, “That’s me!” It’s not easy, but dig deep and you can wow the world. The lyric in that Alison Krauss song “When You Say Nothing at All,” written by Keith Whitley, says, “Old Mr. Webster could never define what’s being said between your heart and mine.” How many times have you looked at a dictionary or heard the term Webster’s Dictionary but never once thought to put it in a lyric? It’s so simple and yet so universally understood.

In the song “Bette Davis Eyes,” Kim Carnes sings, “Her hair is Harlow gold.” Jean Harlow, the original Blonde Bombshell, started the trend for bleaching hair in the 1930s. Ask a hundred people to name a hair color, no one will say “Harlow gold.” That’s why it’s such a stellar lyric! It also reinforces the song’s title, singing about another feature of a person with “Bette Davis Eyes.” In “A Woman Like You” recorded by Lee Brice, writer Phil Barton came up with “I probably never would have heard of yoga”—so straightforward but so smart in describing living with a girl.

“Show, Don’t Tell” is the motto in Nashville. Show how you’re feeling with imagery. In “Sangria” we say “wrecking ball dancing down the hallway.” Our description is so much better than simply saying “we were tipsy.” Use lyrics like Michelangelo used a paintbrush to paint the Sistine Chapel.

In “Heartbreakers,” a song I co-wrote on the latest Kenny Chesney album, the lyric is “Jenny had the devil in her smile and a cross on her neck, first girl I ever saw smoke a cigarette.” Once again, the imagery is so much better than a simple “Jenny was a girl I liked.” In “Sweet Child o’ Mine” Axl Rose recounts his childhood: “Her hair reminds me of a warm safe place where as a child I’d hide”...he’s imagining a wheat field or bushes to describe his lover’s hair, and it’s really brilliant. Show, don’t tell.

When thinking of a song title, imagine seeing it on a T-shirt. Ask yourself: Would this make a good T-shirt to sell at concerts? you make me smile is a great T-shirt; your lips taste like sangria is a great T-shirt. Blake Shelton sells wineglasses and decanters with that printed on them now. The song I wrote with Darius Rucker says, “The only BS I need is beers and sunshine.” I can picture that as a bumper sticker and a T-shirt!

On the come-up in L.A. I was playing a lot of shows, and I learned that people looked up from their dollar beers and people they were flirting with when a song I sang had a cool lyric in the beginning. It’s something I now try to do in every song, and you should too. Try to grab the listener’s ears like a single girl grabbing a flying bouquet at a wedding. Get a lyric in the first line or two that makes people stop and turn up the radio. Make people look at their friends and say, “Whoa, did you hear that?” In “Different for Girls” I wrote “She don’t text her friends and say ‘I gotta get laid tonight’” in the first few lines. It caught people’s attention. Country radio even bleeped it out on some stations. Double win!

In “Smile” Uncle Kracker sings “Cooler than the flip side of my pillow” two lines into the song. People mention that line to me all the time.

J.T. HARDING has written several chart-topping hits, including the three-million-selling “Smile” with Uncle Kracker, “Somewhere In My Car” with Keith Urban, “Somwhere With You” and “Bar at The End of the World” for Kenny Chesney, Dierks Bentley’s “Different for Girl,” Jake Owen’s “Alone With You,” and Blake Shelton’s No. 1 song “Sangria.” Check out @jtxrockstar