How do you write a song? It might seem like a mysterious process, but there are some tried and true methods for getting into the mystery and emerging with a new song. A lot of artists and writers I've listened to say that every time they complete a song, they don't know how they're going to do it again--but they always do. I've compiled a few tips that I’ve discovered along my songwriting journey. Get my free Songwriting Cheat Sheet here!
1. Write (Don’t Edit)
Start writing what you are thinking about or feeling right now. It doesn’t matter if it rhymes, sounds stupid or silly, or is stream of consciousness and makes no sense. Just
keep your pen going and don't stop to edit. “Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down” said famous novelist, John Steinbeck. If you try to edit while you write, it’s like putting the brakes on while you’re accelerating. Don’t do it! Writing reminds me of the improv acting technique of “Yes, and…” where you agree and add to what your partner says. Normally, this is used between two people when improvising a scene. You have to agree with the premise your partner gives you, and keep going. In this instance, you are doing this with yourself (or your partner in a co-write). As Shonda Rhimes writes in her book, Year of Yes, say “Yes to everything that feels goofy. Yes to everything. Everything. Say yes.”
2. Steal Like An Artist
Creation is two things coming together to make a third. Maybe you love a rhythm from one song and a topic idea from another. Combine them and make your own, new thing. This is how I wrote my first song, by taking a fingerpicking pattern from my favorite Indigo Girls song and writing about meeting my first love. Writer and visual artist, Austin Kleon, notes, “Every artist gets asked the question, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ The honest artist answers, ‘I steal them.’
3. Done Is Better Than Good
Creativity guru Elizabeth Gilbert knows that “Done is better than good” (and her inspirational book, Big Magic, about the creative process, is a gem). Sometimes it’s hard to let go of something or to know when it’s finished. Do one pass, and then come back around. Take a break if you need to.
Sometimes things take a long time and seem out of control, but nature is wild and so is creativity. The creative process is a spiral, like a seashell, fern, or the cycles of nature. It takes a bit of balance to know when something needs more editing, and when it is truly finished. It might never feel complete, but try being finished and see how it feels. After doing this a few times, or a few dozen times, you’ll know in your gut when something is done.
4. Use Song Prompts
Feeling stuck or uninspired? Use song prompts when you’re out of ideas. It’s a way to start, a catalyst. Get my list of song prompts and the rest of these songwriting tips with my free Songwriting Cheat Sheet!