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As a songwriter, you're frequently searching for ideas from your own experiences. Some songs come quickly, while others seem like they don't want to be born. In either case, you need to train your idea-building muscles so that when you're ready to write, your ideas are ready to be accessed.
One of the best exercises you can do to strengthen your lyric writing is through object writing, also called sense-bound writing.
What is object writing?
Object writing is a writing exercise that focuses on describing an object and any related experiences, using all of your senses. I originally learned about object writing from brilliant lyric guru Pat Pattison.
If I were to ask you to tell me about the room you're currently in, you'd probably describe its physical attributes, using only one sense—sight. Something like: "It's a large, rectangular room. It's bright, with two windows on each of the side walls. There's a TV hanging over the fireplace, and across from it, a sofa sits against the wall."
You would probably unconsciously omit other sensory details, skipping how the room smells, how it sounds, how the old sofa feels when you run your fingers on it, how it feels when you sink into it. But these details can make stale songwriting come to life, and that is exactly what object writing can help you strengthen.
There are a total of seven senses that you can use: Sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste, organic (body), and kinesthetic (motion).
The first five you probably know, but the last two may need an introduction. The organic (also called body) sense relates to your own body and what it's doing. Are your muscles aching? Is your heart beating fast? Is your breath shallow? All of this relates to your organic sense.
Listen to the chorus of Fifth Harmony's “Sledgehammer” and you'll see that it's all about that organic sense. Rather than saying "I'm excited, I'm excited" they're taking your hand and letting you experience how they're feeling.
The seventh sense is kinesthetic (also called motion). It's what defines your relationship with the world around you and your sense of motion. This could involve feeling trapped, feeling free, or feeling empty, as well as any actions like falling, moving, crawling, running, floating, spinning, etc.
Listen to “State Lines” by The Shires and you’ll hear a lyric that taps into the kinesthetic sense.
One of my favorite songs that uses vivid imagery is Faith Hill’s “When The Lights Go Down.” See if you can find all the different senses are that are being triggered.
Follow that old writing tenet—show, don't tell. Don't just tell us about a room/object/moment; let us experience it.
Try it out
In its principle, object writing is a short exercise that is supposed to help you engage all of your senses. Getting started with object writing is simple:
1. Grab a piece of paper (or create an empty document in the text editor of your choice on your computer)
2. On the top of the page, write out the seven senses so you can reference them easily as you're writing.
3. Choose any object: something on your desk, something outside, a baseball hat, a watch, a paperclip, a light switch, confetti, asparagus...
4. Set a timer for 10 minutes and start writing about the object using the different senses
Write anything that comes to mind. The writing doesn't have to be pretty. In fact, you don't even have to write full sentences. Don't try to give it rhyme, rhythm, structure, or reason. It should just be a constant flow of thoughts that are coming to you. Don't stop to think or try to make things sound nice. Don't go back to correct typos or the grammatical mistakes. Occasionally look back up to the top of the page and reference the different senses to make sure you're using all of them.
As you're writing, you don't have to stick to the object you started from. Let's say your object was "watch." It may remind you of a watch your grandfather used to carry. You may write about the first time you pressed your ear against it to hear it ticking. And that may lead you to the memory of how time would feel like it dragged forever when you were waiting for test results at a hospital. Which may take your mind to the day your nephew was born.
Needless to say, let your mind and pen/fingers wander wherever they want to go. You never know where interesting ideas may be lingering.
When that timer goes off: stop.
If this was your first object-write, you were probably just starting to scratch the surface of some interesting stuff as the timer went off.
When to use object writing
Just like with working out at the gym, a regular routine is the only way you can guarantee solid results. So if you really want to improve the imagery of your lyric writing, you should do an object writing exercise every single day. Do it as the first thing in the morning, before you even shower. There may be some great object inspiration to pull from your dreams (if you remember anything).
Do exactly 10 minutes. No more, no less. If you give yourself permission to write more today what do you think is going to happen tomorrow? You will tell yourself "Well, I really don't feel like getting out of bed. Plus I wrote for 25 minutes yesterday, so I'm really set for the next day and a half."
This is how people stop with their routines. Stick to 10 minutes, and do it every day.
Once you complete your object writing exercise, I recommend you grab some highlighters and do two things. First, highlight the different words/phrases that belong to different senses. This will help you visualize which senses you prioritize and which ones you need to work on.
Take a look at this object writing example that I did on the topic of wind. The first page showcases the original writing I did within my 10 minutes. On each consecutive page, I highlighted the various parts that correspond to the different senses. Clearly, I need to work on my sense of smell.
Secondly, copy (to another journal, or another document) the most interesting parts. When you're looking for song ideas, you'll have a whole document filled with memory-stirring imagery.
From my object write I pulled the last sentence: [...] it swayed the same way coral in the ocean moves on endless repeat - back and forth under rolling waves which thunder above. I ended up turning it into the following song lyric:
She keeps tugging at his emotions
Pushing and pulling like waves in the ocean
As you can see, I didn't even stay within the original positive intent. I really liked the imagery of the rolling waves and used that in a song about a broken relationship. So save those great snippets as you never know when they may prove to be useful.
I hope you give object writing a try. If you stick to the routine and do it daily, you'll soon notice a couple changes. For starters, you'll be waking up the writer within you early in the morning, and by consequence, (s)he'll be joining you for the entire day ahead. Always listening, always observing, always looking for inspiration for your next songs. And with time you'll also notice that your song lyrics may become more interesting, as you'll no longer just be talking about a moment. You'll be sharing that moment with your listeners. Inviting them to experience it with you.
If you need help in choosing an object for your next object-write, you can visit objectwriting.com and each day find a new word-of-the-day to write from. You'll also notice that there are dozens of users who participate and share their daily object writing's on the forum. I know people who have now been continuously doing a new object write every single day for years.