Rachel in Brisbane, Australia, asks: I’ve noticed a lot of writers coming through with poor spelling and grammar. Not so bad if they’re just learning English, but many seem to just throw things together. How polished should one’s work be?
Rachel — As with so many questions, the answer is, “it depends.” If I’m just playing with ideas, they’re usually more or less like sketches that a painter might make, and as such I’m not too worried about spelling and grammar. Those can be fixed later. But if I’m presenting the song, it makes sense for things to be spelled correctly (unless the misspellings would be in character for the protagonist). Of course, a song is meant to be heard, not read, so it’s sometimes hard to say whether spelling mistakes would be in character or not, but I do try to use spellings that reflect the way the protagonist would say or sing the line.
A finished song should make sense in the voice of the singer or main character. With that in mind, my songs often include “ain’t” or “gonna” or double negatives (“I don’t need no part-time love”). I sometimes speak that way, but only in certain situations. And when I do use those words in a song, they fit the character or narrator. You want your song to feel real within the context of the lives and situations it describes, even if that’s not the way you would normally talk. And to get to that point, the real work is often in the rewriting. I typically rework lines in my songs for weeks or months (sometimes years) before I feel they really reflect the voice of the character or the nuance of the situation while also having the formal structure (rhythm, rhymes, alliteration, etc.) needed for a song.
The Lyrics Doctor