Creative lessons from Sondheim

August 1, 2011 · 1 min read

Last Christmas I got a book of lyrics by Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, titled Finishing the Hat. The book is only for die-hard Sondheim fans, but the preface contains this gem:

There are only three principles necessary for a lyric writer, all of them familiar truisms. They were not immediately apparent to me when I started writing, but have come into focus via Oscar Hammerstein's tutoring, Strunk and White's huge little book The Elements of Style and my own sixty-some years of practicing the craft. I have not always been skilled or diligent enough to follow them as faithfully as I'd like, but they underlie everything I've ever written. In no particular order, and to be written in stone:

Content Dictates Form

Less Is More

God Is in the Details

all in the service of


without which nothing else matters.

If a lyric writer observes this mantra rigorously, he can turn out a respectable lyric. If he also has a feeling for music and rhythm, a sense of theater and something to say, he can turn out an interesting one. If in addition he has qualities such as humor, style, imagination and the numerous other gifts every writer could use, he might even turn out a good one, and with an understanding composer and a stimulating book writer, the sky's the limit.

Good advice for writing lyrics that (mutatis mutandis) goes equally well for writing code or designing a product.

These days I do most of my writing at The Roots of Progress. If you liked this essay, check out my other work there.


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