What Pop Songs Teach Us about Voice

We’re going to play a game: Name that tune. Can you name the songs listed below? No cheating! I picked a variety of decades and artists. See if you can name them all.

  1. You may say I’m a dreamer / but I’m not the only one
  2. A singer in a smoky room / a smell of wine and cheap perfume
  3. Hanging out the passenger side /of his best friend’s ride / trying to holler at me
  4. Gold teeth and a curse for this town were all in my mouth.
  5. We count our dollars on the train to the party.

What Pop Songs Can Teach Us about Writing Voice

That first song has a line which grabs your attention.

The second line sets the scene with sensory details.

The third comes from a song that defined a term for a generation. But it doesn’t tell us the [Urban] Dictionary definition straight out—it shows us through a scene.

The fourth song uses a handful of similes and other fresh imagery.

The fifth song characterizes the singer and her friends.

Together, these five songs show how important a unique voice is—and how popular a strong one can become.

How do you improve voice?

The opposite of strong voice is a generic, impersonal one. To create a strong voice, do the following.

  • Be relatable and understandable. (Don’t write in a way that the reader can’t follow. Don’t try to spell out dialect or accents phonetically.)
  • Use sensory detail that your character would notice.
  • Show what you mean using people or situations unique to your character’s experiences.
  • Use similes and metaphors. Revise cliches into fresh imagery.
  • Characterize through specific word choice.

Writing Exercise—Fifteen Blinks

Option One: Read this to find out what a Fifteen Blinker is. Choose five to ten specific words or images from one of the songs below and write a Fifteen Blinker using those words.

Option Two: Pick a song with memorable lyrics. Look up those lyrics. Rewrite the song by swapping out the words and imagery for those of another character’s point of view. Some ideas:

  • One of your characters
  • Romeo, the lovestruck Shakespearean teenager
  • A pothead (e.g. one of Cheech’s, Chong’s, or Seth Rogen’s portrayals)
  • A proper British lady trying desperately to impress her in-laws
  • A man who has been cryogenically frozen through several decades and just woke up
  • A seven-year-old who wishes to be a princess
  • A toddler

Want more writing exercises? See my tag. Want some critique partners to exchange work with? Join the community at StoryWorldCon. Want a writing workshop tailored to your work and your budget? Choose your course at StoryWorldCon. Subscribe to my blog for course dates!


Click on the links below to read the full lyrics.

  1. “Imagine,” John Lennon
  2. “Don’t Stop Believing,” Journey
  3. “No Scrubs,” TLC
  4. “New Slang,” The Shins
  5. “Royals,” Lorde

I’ve been listening to The Shins for years, but I never actually paid attention to the lyrics in “New Slang” until today. As I referenced above, they’re full of great imagery:

  • Turn me back into the pet I was when we met.
  • I’d ‘a danced like the king of the eyesores
  • New slang when you notice the stripes, the dirt in your fries.
  • Hope it’s right when you die, old and bony.
  • Dawn breaks like a bull through the hall

Every time “Royals” comes on the radio (which is very frequently), I am awed by the fantastic diction. This was written by a fifteen year old: 

  • I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh / I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies
  • We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams
  • And we’ll never be royals. / It don’t run in our blood, / That kind of luxe just ain’t for us.

What song has your favorite lyrics? I remember in tenth grade English needing to bring a song in to share with the class. I brought Fiona Apple’s cover of “Across the Universe.”

Self Publishing or Traditional: Which is Better for You?

Are you trying to decide between self-publishing or traditional publishing? Both have pros and cons! Here’s a quick summary of the differences.

Traditional publishing is about collaboration and takes time.

Self publishing is about control and costs money.


Traditional publishing pays you some thousand dollars* at the beginning and some pocket change per book once the advance is paid off.

Self publishing costs some thousand dollars to put together your publishing team, but you earn a bigger percentage of your book.

Either way, you need to market your own book if you want to be successful. Traditional publishers will handle 40–60% of your marketing. The rest is up to you. That’s why people with huge followings are easy deals. Publishers know they’ll sell books.

*The average advance for a first-time novelist is $10,000. See the link to the SFWA post for more information about small presses and vanity publishers.


Self publishing is starting your own business. You make the hires, you pay everyone before the book hits shelves (physical or digital).

Traditional publishing is working in partnership with agents and editors. Freelance editors and agents work for you, but you only pay the former out of pocket. The latter gets a cut of your pay. If you don’t get paid, your agent doesn’t get paid, so she will fight for the best deal. But you work for the publisher when you get a book deal. It’s up to the acquisitions editor and publisher how much you get paid and how many of your books they’ll publish.

If you’d like to see more of a breakdown between the differences, read below the break.

Time vs Money

Traditional publishing

After writing, revising, sending to critique partners, revising, querying agents, hiring a freelance editor (optional), getting an agent, and editing based on their notes, your agent starts sending your book out to acquisitions editors, looking for the best fit and the best deal. If you get a deal, then your acquisitions editor gives you editing notes, you edit, and then you give it to your publisher’s in-house team to proofread, layout and format, and design the cover.

You will have some input on the cover design and will make a marketing plan with your publisher. You pay for only a freelance editor—everything else is covered by the publisher, who invests in you.

Self publishing

After writing, revising, sending to critique partners, revising, hiring a development editor (optional), and editing based on their notes, you begin putting together a team. You hire a freelance editor who specializes in fiction to copyedit your entire novel. You hire a designer to make your cover. You hire a designer to layout and format your text. You hire a publicist. You hire a proofreader to make one last pass at the final proof. You put your book online. You buy paperback copies to sell and give to reviewers.

You pay for everything because you are investing in yourself. You have control over every aspect of your book (though for the sake of editors and designers everywhere, I’ll tell you that if you’re hiring actual professionals, give them parameters but then let them do their job and pay them for their work).

You get what you pay for. A $100 cover design isn’t going to get you what a $1,000 cover design would, unless you buy a pre-made design. However, dishonest people might have high prices in an attempt to appear professional, but then don’t deliver.

So you also need to do research. I see lots of designers and editors online charging a lot of money for unprofessional work. Do your research, start small (with a free sample edit from editors or seeing past, complete novel covers from the designer), read over their contracts and design briefs, and then hire them to do the whole work. Do not waste your money or shortchange yourself by hiring unprofessionals.

Contracts and design briefs protect freelancers and protect you. They ensure that the freelancer will be paid for his or her work and ensure that you receive the work you’re paying for.

Other options

Traditional publishing and self-publishing are two different routes. However, there are other options.

You can submit to some publishers without an agent. If you do, rather than giving an agent a percentage of your sales, you should hire a lawyer to look over the publishing contract before signing. Repeat for each book sale. The last thing you want to do is hand your book over to a con artist or crooked business.

If you can handle NSFW language, Chuck Wendig’s post talks about hybrid authors—authors publishing some books themselves, others with publishers. Wendig talks about his experience with self publishing and traditional publishing here.

This excellent post from SFWA explains the difference between big publishers, small presses, and vanity presses, warning about the latter.