Little known fact about me: I am a massive Taylor Swift fan. I like her style and her music, but above all, I like her writing:
I could build a castle/ Out of all the bricks they threw at me
You keep his shirt / He keeps his word
She’s a lyrical genius. And these lines are both from bonus tracks, aka songs she deemed not good enough to make it onto the actual album. Wild. So you can imagine my joy when I read Taylor’s recent article in Elle UK Magazine about writing pop songs. It turns out that Taylor Swift and I give out the same writing advice.
I’m a content editor for three different magazines, and the most common comment that I leave on papers is: “Can you be more specific?”
Writing can easily slip into general words and ideas. It’s so much easier to say
She loved driving with him
The floor of his car was littered with empty Poland Springs and chip bags, but when they were cruising along the Pacific, she was only looking at his hands. The way his left loosely gripped the leather steering wheel and the way his right was intertwined with hers. Even when he pulls up to the curb of her parent’s ranch to drop her off, she lingers, staring at the boy who smells exactly like the ocean.
I timed myself: it took me .5 seconds to write the first sentence and eight minutes to write the second. When you’re working on a longer project, that seems like a pretty lengthy time investment. But which sentence made you feel like you were in the car? Which sentence introduced you to characters?
Details anchor a reader in your writing. It gives them something concrete to hold onto as you bombard them with characters, action, and themes. Being specific applies to both poetry and fiction – and songwriting. It is the concept of making every word count.
Don’t believe me? Take it from Taylor Swift. In her article, she writes,
“You’d think that as pop writers, we’re supposed to be writing songs that everyone can sing along to, so you’d assume they would have to be pretty lyrically generic… AND YET the ones I think cut through the most are actually the most detailed.
This glimpse into the artist’s story invites us to connect it to our own, and in the best case scenario, allows us the ability to assign that song to our memories.
It’s this alliance between a song and our memories of the times it helped us heal, or made us cry, dance, or escape that truly stands the test of time. Just like a great book.”
Yes, Tay Tay shouted out books at the end there. No, it didn’t make me excited. Okay. Maybe just a little. (She respects books, y’all!)
So, how do you learn how to be specific? What type of details should you include? Well, I have some advice and some Taylor Swift lyrics, so buckle up. It’s detail time.
4 Tips For Writing Details, With Some Help From Taylor Swift
I know, it seems obvious. Adjectives describe something, therefore making it more specific. But the right adjective can completely transform a sentence.
Take this example from Taylor’s song Clean:
you’re still all over me like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore.
Can you even imagine that lyric without the word “wine-stained?” It completely elevates the image. (Not to mention that the song Clean relates recovering from heartbreak to recovering from substance abuse, so to mention “wine” is a smart move, using a simile to reinforce the overall song theme. Every. word. counts. Also, have I mentioned that I think Taylor Swift is a genius?)
There’s also this line from Swift’s Mine:
You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter
I love this line because it sort of smushed an entire book plot into a country-pop chorus, and “careless” and “careful” are really pulling their weight here by explaining the dynamic between the father and daughter. I usually hesitate to use adjectives for character development (show us he’s angry, don’t tell us) but this is a great example of being specific and concise.
2. Put A Name To It
Taylor Swift’s first ever single started with a name: Tim McGraw. She continued this tradition by mentioning her crush (Hey, Drew!) in Teardrops on My Guitar and shouting out her friend Abigail in Fifteen. When Taylor drops a name, you know it’s serious. Sometimes a name resulted in a solid bop (any other Hey Stephen fans out there?) and sometimes, like in the case of Dear John, it created a media storm of people arguing about exactly who Taylor Swift was. A man-eater? Someone who loved playing the victim? An actual victim? Or a really, really good writer?
A name is so specific that the reader feels like they can trust the narrator. Sometimes writers use pronouns instead of names to try to make a character more ubiquitous, but this often ends up backfiring. The most universal thing we know is having an identity. When the reader has a name, its easier to develop empathy for a character.
Anyone who listens to Taylor Swift knows that 2AM is a magical time. So far, Taylor Swift has fallen in love, gotten into a blow-out fight, and ridden around in a truck at this time. (Or at least, the characters in her songs have.) A simple sense of time and place can make a scene seem much more concrete.
Here’s an example from the Taylor Swift song most likely to make me cry, Ronan:
What if I’m standing in your closet trying to talk to you?
What if I kept the hand me downs you won’t grow into?
This song is essentially a eulogy for a young boy named Ronan who died from cancer, told from his mother’s perspective. In these lyrics, adding a setting in the first line – the closet – makes the second even more impactful.
My favorite writing prompt to give is, “Write about a time you were vulnerable.” This often forces us to write down an emotional truth on the page, a truth we may be embarrassed by. Even if you’re writing fiction, telling the truth is important. Not the truth about your life, but the truth about the human experience. It means revealing that life isn’t always so glamorous, or that sometimes people aren’t mysterious and witty – they’re just disappointing.
In Out of the Woods, Taylor takes a break from her extended metaphor about being lost in the woods to talk about an accident in a vehicle:
Remember when you hit the brakes too soon? / Twenty stitches in a hospital room / When you started crying / Baby, I did too
What makes this line work for me is the twenty stitches. As someone who has gotten stitches, I can vouch for the fact that they have very little to do with the woods or heartbreak, and much more to do with being in a lot of pain. This detail reminds the listener that even though Taylor is in the woods, we are right here, listening to this song. Tay might be singing in metaphors, but the feelings are real. This is real. This is true.
Another example I like is from the song 2nd most likely to make me cry, Never Grow Up:
And don’t lose the way that you dance around in your pj’s getting ready for school
This feels honest to me. The fact that the kid still has to go to school, even though they’re being featured in a Taylor Swift song. The fact that I used to dance around in my pjs. The fact that the kid is still in their pjs, clearly not ready for school. These are all facts; this is all true.
Finally, there’s this gem from We Are Never Getting Back Together:
And you would hide away and find your peace of mind
With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine
There are a lot of villainous ex-boyfriends in Taylor Swift’s discography, which are all bops, but what I particularly love about this guy is that he’s not evil. He’s just some lame dude who’s snobby about music. This guy – annoying, disappointing, but ultimately harmless – I’ve met him before. He’s real. (Unfortunately.)
Here’s some extra T-Swift lines for your viewing pleasure. Get inspired.
“This is a big world, that was a small town there in my rear view mirror disappearing now.”
“No amount of vintage dresses gives you dignity”
“Our song is the slamming screen door, sneakin’ out late, tapping on your window.”
Thanks so much for reading. What’s your favorite Taylor Swift lyric? How do you include details in your writing? Let me know in the comments! Until next time, you can find me on Pinterest , Etsy, and Instagram.