During a performance for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series last year, Taylor Swift addressed something I’ve known for quite some time: her best song is “All Too Well.”
Several media outlets have ranked Taylor’s songs over the years, and “All Too Well” is almost always at #1. Here’s a quote from a write-up in Rolling Stone by Rob Sheffield:
“You can schaeden your freude all over the celebrity she reputedly sings about, but on the best day of your life you will never inspire a song as great as ‘All Too Well.’ Or write one.”
And this is not an unpopular opinion. Every Swiftie knows that “All Too Well” is an absolute masterpiece. It’s on her fourth album, RED, and it happens to be one of her longest songs at 5 minutes and twenty-seven seconds.
From the first line, you cling to her every tragic word. Taylor said she loves screaming the lyrics together with her fans at her shows.
As someone who has always been in awe of Taylor’s writing, I wanted to analyze what makes “All Too Well” her best work. She has over 150 songs in her catalogue, so what’s different about this one?
Storytelling Through Lyrics in “All Too Well”
I recently read a book called How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark, which has an entire chapter about storytelling through song lyrics. It’s fascinating to see how songwriters are able to paint storylines, evoke emotion, and illustrate such vivid details through a single line or verse.
But it was another book that really helped me understand what “All Too Well” gets right.
In Stories That Stick by Kindra Hall, she explains the components that make a great story. One of them is this: great stories ZOOM IN on the details.
A common storytelling mistake is speaking in generalities, which makes our writing too vague. When you zoom in, you drill down to the specifics. This is where the magic happens.
It’s one thing to write a song about love or heartache, but the story escalates when the listener can envision the details — faces, places, objects, and everything in between.
This is the entire premise of “All Too Well”. The title itself speaks to how Taylor remembers specific moments of her relationship “all too well.”
Rumor has it, the song is about Jake Gyllenhaal.
Right from the first verse, Taylor sets the scene and tells us about a scarf she left at Jake’s sister’s house.
I walked through the door with you, the air was cold
But something’bout it felt like home somehow and I
Left my scarf there at your sister’s house
And you still got it in your drawer even now
She could have simply mentioned that she left some of her stuff there, but she zooms in on the scarf. It inspires us to think about what the scarf represents. Why would he keep the scarf? He must miss her, and the memories they made. This simple item now has meaning.
Taylor continues to illustrate objects and moments in the lyrics:
We’re singing in the car, getting lost upstate
Autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place
And I can picture it after all these days
‘Cause there we are again on that little town street
You almost ran the red’cause you were looking over me
Wind in my hair, I was there, I remember it all too well
Photo album on the counter, your cheeks were turning red
You used to be a little kid with glasses in a twin-size bed
And your mother’s telling stories’bout you on a tee ball team
You tell me’bout your past, thinking your future was me
‘Cause there we are again in the middle of the night
We dance around the kitchen in the refrigerator light
Down the stairs, I was there, I remember it all too well, yeah
And then, in a heart-wrenching turn of events, Taylor zooms back in on the scarf:
But you keep my old scarf from that very first week
‘Cause it reminds you of innocence and it smells like me
You can’t get rid of it,’cause you remember it all too well, yeah
Although it may seem like a small detail, the scarf adds so much color and context to this love story. It helps us gain a deeper understanding of the characters and their feelings.
This same logic needs to be applied to your own writing.
You may think no one cares about a scarf, or the minute details of your experiences, but they transform a story from ordinary to extraordinary. Don’t leave them out.
How significant can a small detail be? The Rolling Stone article said Taylor’s scarf should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
A Swift Tip: How to Zoom in on Your Own Storytelling
Whether you’re writing a novel, a song, or the copy for your “About” page, details are powerful.
So how do you pack more of the them into your writing?
It starts with remembering them… all too well.
This is why Taylor Swift has been journaling since she was a teenager. She writes entries about her daily life, which makes every moment and emotion crystal clear.
All of her songs start off as rough drafts in her journal, including “All Too Well.” With the purchase of her latest album, Lover, Taylor included scans of her original entries. As a fan, it was fascinating to see her process, chicken scratch and all.
Take it from one of the best songwriters of our generation: journaling is one of the simplest things you can do to improve your writing and your life.
The Secret to Effective Journaling
Does anyone else have a bunch of empty notebooks lying around?
I admit, I’ve picked up journaling many times in my life, but it never stuck. I’d get super excited, and write every day for a week, then stop.
That all changed when I received a journal as a gift for my 30th birthday. I hadn’t recorded my twenties the way I wanted to (or maybe that’s a good thing!), but my thirties would be different.
Here’s how to make your journaling habit stick:
Get a journal you like.
This is another small detail that makes a big difference. I felt so uninspired to journal in ratty spiral notebooks and composition books.
There are so many beautiful journals that suit your personality and get you in the mood to write. Choose a color, style, and format that you love.
Do it your way.
Most people perceive journaling all wrong. It’s not meant to be stressful — it should actually reduce your stress. But it starts with giving yourself permission to do it your way.
No, you don’t have to write every day.
No, you don’t need long entries.
Yes, you can draw and add stickers and have bulleted lists and do all the things that make it yours.
Set a trigger.
If you really want journaling to be a habit, you need to keep your journal in sight and incorporate it into your routine. Maybe you keep it next to the coffee maker, so you write after you make your morning coffee. Or after you make your bed, you place it on your pillow so you write at the end of the day.
Attach your journal to something else you do every day, so it remains top of mind.
Still not sold on journaling?
Here are some of my favorite quotes that may inspire you:
“Journal what you love, what you hate, what’s in your head, what’s important. Journaling organizes your thoughts; allows you to see things in a concrete way that otherwise you might not see. Focus on what you think you need to find in your art.” -Kay Walkingstick
“A personal journal is an ideal environment in which to become. It is a perfect place for you to think, feel, discover, expand, remember, and dream.” -Brad Wilcox
“Journal writing, when it becomes a ritual for transformation, is not only life-changing but life expanding.” -Jen Williamson
“People who keep journals have life twice.” -Jessamyn West