How to Write a Song: Why Writing IS Rewriting
How to write a song? Well, songwriting is one part creativity, one part craftsmanship.
When you turn an idea into a song, the feeling is such a rush. Isn’t it enjoyable to sing it over and over again, to savor the feeling of creativity?
Even though it feels great, we encourage you to think of your new song as a first draft instead of a finished product. Your new creation, while valid, fun, and surely awesome, still needs to be crafted.
Craftsmanship is a term usually applied to a carpenter or shoemaker, but as a songwriter, you should start to think of yourself as a craftsman as well.
In your first writing session, you practice creativity. In your rewriting sessions, you practice craft. Usually, it takes 1-3 rewriting sessions to craft your first draft into a song that you know in your gut is “finished.”
Ernest Hemmingway famously said, “The only kind of writing is rewriting.” Keep reading, in this post we’ll discuss why your songwriting MUST include rewrites, and give you some tips and how-to’s.
Let’s jump in!
“Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.” – Johannes Brahms
What is Rewriting?
Rewriting consists of 3 degrees of change:
1. Edit: Maintaining the structural integrity while making small changes
2. Replace: Cutting existing material, and creating something better
3. Cut: Removing any material that does not serve the song
While it may seem self-explanatory, it will be so helpful to use these practical actions as you wrap your mind around rewriting.
Use the craft of editing to fine tune your existing material that is really working. When playing through your song, you’ll know in your gut which lyrics, melodies and sections are real keepers.
Look honestly at these elements and ask, “how could this be better?” Perhaps it is the change of one word, a couple notes, a single chord. An edit could be more macro as well, like increasing your song’s tempo, changing the key, or giving it a new title.
Think of this as a gut-renovation for a line or section of your song.
When you step back and look at your song objectively, intuition will tell you what isn’t working and what could be better. Sometimes while writing, we’ll put a “placeholder” lyric where we should be laying foundation, we use a cliche ineffectively, or we simply write a boring, bad melody!
It’s extremely important to think of these as “stepping stones to your final draft,” instead of “terrible mistakes that prove you’re an awful songwriter.”
When you identify an element or section of your song that should be replaced, muster the courage to cut it. Once it’s gone, get back to your creativity and come up with something better.
Here’s a simple example/metaphor:
Say I’m making a chair out of wood. I made four legs for this chair, but I accidentally cut one too short. To finish my chair, I have to replace the faulty leg and carve another that is the correct length. This will make the chair perfect height for sitting.
This is simple: What don’t I need? It could be that long introduction or instrumental section. Or, it could be the repeat of the second chorus. It could be those extra 16 bars of the bridge, or maybe even the entire bridge! Trimming the fat is a great way to make sure your song is the best version of itself.
“There is a saying: Genius is perseverance. While genius does not consist entirely of editing, without editing it’s pretty useless.”― Susan Bell, The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself
“How do I know what to edit, replace, or cut?”
We often feel so attached to our new song as-is that it’s impossible to hear it another way.
This is an obstacle we just have to learn to override. Here are a few tools to develop objective listening:
Time may prove to be your greatest asset when asking yourself what to rewrite. Let the magic of your creative moment cool down a bit. Give it a day or two. Come back fresh. It’ll feel like you have a new set of ears.
2. Listen to The Songs of Others
When the radio’s on, become aware of your state of mind while someone else’s song plays. You’ll notice that you’re much less intoxicated, and your ability to listen critically is enhanced. Practice this and apply the same objectivity as your rewrite.
3. Develop an Unattached Perspective
Try to find a balance between being married to your song and extreme self criticism. As you rewrite and listen to your song, say to yourself: “This is just a first draft. I can let go of anything I’ve written so far, and I trust my intuition when deciding what to keep.”
Objective listening will erase both preciousness and perfectionism. It will release you from an emotional frame of mind, and allow you to relax into the flow of the process. This healthy point of view will reveal exactly where your song needs to be changed and edited.
“A song is an ever-changing, ever-evolving and morphing thing.”— Simon Tong, The Magnetic North
What I Meant VS. What I Wrote
Go through your song with a fine tooth comb.
Take an objective look at every element: lyric, melody, and harmony.
When analyzing that section, ask yourself, “What did I mean when I wrote this? “. Then ask yourself, “Is that actually what I wrote?”
More often than not, themes and stories are muddled in the first draft. Usually due to a need to rhyme, or to fit into a certain melody. Sometimes we get swept up by a catchy lyric and stick it where it doesn’t belong. In first drafts, there is often too much going on.
To find out “what you meant,” answer this simple question in one sentence: What is this song about?
This is your “theme”.
Remember that your theme is your north star. Every element in your song should serve, not fight or distract from, your theme.
As you listen objectively to your first draft, pinpoint the sections where “what you wrote” does not match “what you meant.” Be honest with yourself, but avoid ineffective self-criticism.
Create a list of changes that need to be made, then, jump into your rewrite session.
“I tried to look at writing a song almost like solving a mystery. The song was there, buried somewhere in my brain. All I had to do was follow the clues until I figured it out.”― Jon Skovron
The Dos and Don’ts of Rewriting
Give every moment and element of your song its due. Focus on one word at a time if that is what your song is calling for. Keep your eyes on your work, stay disciplined in your craft.
Rush. You are the vessel through which this song is being born. It will reveal itself when it’s good and ready. Be patient, be tender, be receptive.
“You just play the guitar and look for something that suggests a melody and perhaps some words if you’re lucky. Then I just fiddle around with that and try and follow the trail, try and follow where it appears to be leading me. And sometimes it leads me down a blind alley so I have to retrace my steps and start again down another road.”― Paul McCartney
Keep your standards high. Perhaps you decide on a replacement, but then realize it is too similar to another line in the song. Or, your newest idea doesn’t fit your theme quite right. Maybe you decided to cut the bridge, but then you’re missing essential character details. Don’t let these things slide! Expect the highest quality from yourself and you will achieve it a task at a time.
Get attached. If you leave today’s rewrite session satisfied, perhaps tomorrow will reveal today’s small errors. DON’T say “I do” to any new lyrical or musical change until you’re sure the song is done.
“These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth.”―Bob Dylan
Trust your intuition. Intuition is deeper than your ego, pride, fear, and talent. If you ask your intuition a rewriting question, get quiet, and release the mind’s ‘shoulds and shouldn’ts,’ a solution is bound to be revealed. Try anything and everything!
Succumb to insecurity. As you listen objectively, be careful not to drift into unproductive criticism. Think that your greatest challenge should be solving the puzzle of your song, not enduring negative self-talk. Writing should be a beautiful, fun, playful process shaped by discipline and persistence.
“Serious art is born from serious play.”― Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
Take breaks. Don’t deplete your energy. Sometimes you have to step away to intuitively receive the next right step. We’ve written about some wonderful ways to enhance your creativity in our blog: Songwriting Exercises: How to Improve Songwriting by Using Constructive Rest.
Quit. Do. Not. Quit. Don’t call your song finished until you know in your gut it expresses what you have to say. Cut the fat, stay true to your theme, mean what you write, and write what you mean.
“Making the simple complicated is a commonplace. Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” — Charles Mingus
Demystifying songwriting and hit-making means learning how to rewrite.
Sure, talent and inspiration are important. But “talent means next to nothing, while experience acquired in humility and hard work means everything.” (Giuseppe Baldini)
Your growth depends squarely on how much time you put into your craft.
Also, you never have to work completely alone! Consider the power of the co-write, and read about it in our blog: 5 Reasons Why You Should Be Co-Writing Your Songs.
Time to get to work. We can’t wait to hear the greatest songs of your life!