by Vince Wilcox
Over the years, I’ve co-written dozens of songs which have been recorded by myself or others. These days, my role as a publisher requires me to review and critique songs for our company’s catalog. Whether you're just beginning to write or already signed to a publishing deal, here’s the best advice I can offer aspiring writers about improving your craft:
- Keep a “hook book.” Great lyricists are keen observers. They get inspiration from books they read, sermons they hear, movies they see, and conversations they have with others. If a phrase or idea resonates with them, they figure it might resonate with others. So, they have a system to capture these “hooks” before they’re forgotten. Some of my writer friends have dozens of journals filled with potential song ideas. Other songwriters keep an ongoing list on their mobile devices and still others use voice-recorders to capture lyrics and melodies while on the go. Whatever your particular strategy, managing a “hook book” helps you collect the building blocks of words, phrases, and imagery for future writing sessions.
- Learn to play and perform songs that move you. Whatever the genre, learning compelling songs from proven songwriters will help you become a more competent writer. I realize that every songwriter isn’t an accomplished vocalist or accompanist, and many songwriters can’t sing hit songs in their original keys. No problem: just transpose the song into a comfortable key (or capo up a few frets on the guitar) and begin learning it. As you memorize the song and perform it live, you’ll experience the song from the inside out. You’ll appreciate the specific word choices, clever internal rhymes, artful alliteration, and subtle lyrical differences that may exist among different choruses—not to mention the genius of a brilliant, singable, unforgettable melody. When you “inhabit” someone else’s songs, you’ll become more proficient at helping other artists inhabit your songs one day.
- Move from imitation to innovation. Learning other people’s songs is just the beginning, however. In both songwriting and artistry, it’s essential to move from imitation to innovation. Many new artists want to be the next Taylor Swift or U2. They fail to appreciate that the world already has awesome versions of both of those acts. The goal in commercial artistry and songwriting is to master the last big thing in order to make the next big thing. Most of the time, audiences are looking for something fresh yet familiar. If it’s too fresh, it takes too much effort to appreciate. If it’s too familiar, it’s not interesting enough to keep their attention. If you want other people to sing your songs, it’s not enough for your songs to be as good as the other songs they’ve already sung —they must be better. Imitation gets you to the starting line; innovation makes you competitive in the race.
- Be intentional about learning your craft. Some people seem to be born with an infinite amount of innovation and output. But these creative savants are exceptional. As a rule, most successful songwriters work hard and long to hone their craft. They’ve studied music theory, dedicated years to singing or playing, and consume a voracious amount of music. They read and watch artist and songwriter interviews. They read “how-to” books and songwriter biographies. They attend songwriter showcases, seminars, and workshops. They compulsively write down song ideas and hooks. They don’t stumble upon success; rather, they hunt it down and wrestle it to the ground.
- Dedicate specific time to writing and co-writing. The best way to eventually make a living in songwriting is to treat it like a job before you receive the first royalty check. Songwriting is work, and work isn’t always fun. But you put in the hours because you anticipate a payday. Your life probably has other legitimate priorities: a day job, family, friends, church, fitness—but until you commit specific time to writing and co-writing, you’re sabotaging your career.
At the beginning of each month, as you budget your money, you can also budget how you’ll spend your time. Set aside specific time to write on specific days. Put actual appointments on your calendar. Be prompt and prepared for your session, whether it's with a co-writer or just by yourself. There’s something intensely satisfying—even spiritual—about the process of creating a new song. You’ll look forward to these times.
- Create and meet your own “delivery requirements.” If you had an exclusive writer’s agreement with an established publishing company, your contract would typically state how many songs you had to turn in each month (or year). So, while you’re working toward getting “signed,” it’s good practice to set a goal of completing a specific number of songs during a certain period. Most publishers wouldn’t be satisfied with a writer who only wrote a song or two whenever he or she felt like it. That pace would constitute a nice hobby, not a viable business. But completing a song or two each month is a respectable pace, even for a professional songwriter. Write down some goals and see how much more productive you’ll become.
- Collaborate with better writers with different skill sets. It’s valuable for writers to assess their individual strengths and work toward improving their weaknesses. For example, I believe every songwriter should be able to play a musical instrument, have a basic understanding of music theory (notes, chords, rhythm), and be able to carry a tune vocally.
In my experience, individual writers tend to either be better with words or better with music. So, if you’re better at composing melodies, it might be beneficial to collaborate with a superior lyricist (or vice versa). You’ll not only experience someone else’s creative process, you’ll probably end up with a composition that’s better than either of you could have written on your own.
Be advised, sometimes it takes a session or two for co-writers to “click.” But it’s usually worth your time and effort, especially if your co-writer is an experienced writer who can help you become more competent at your craft. Likewise, if you can collaborate with a writer who has a formal writing agreement with a publisher, you’ll get the benefit of having your song professionally critiqued as well as pitched. Be aware, however, that your co-writer’s publisher may pressure you to sign your portion of the song with them. My advice is to hold on to your publishing indefinitely, if not permanently.
- Find a trusted mentor for constructive critiques. One of the main benefits of working with an established publisher is the opportunity to have your songs critiqued by experienced professionals. While they can’t always guarantee that a song will be successful, they can certainly point out areas for improvement. This is invaluable.
Even if you’re not signed, it’s still possible to get this kind of input by finding a trusted mentor who has the insight and skill to critique a song. This might be someone in the music business like a local radio station music director or someone outside of the industry like a music teacher or choir director. Look for someone who can offer honest and practical feedback. Usually, a family member or close friend who adores everything you do won’t be that helpful. That said, my wife (who’s a NICU nurse with absolutely no musical aspirations) has offered very effective critiques of my music over the years. And she’s not afraid to tell me what she really thinks. . .
- Learn to accept criticism gracefully. Because songwriters are understandably passionate about their songs, they’re often resistant—or even hostile—to feedback. I get it. You pour yourself into a song, carefully crafting each syllable and note, only to have someone tell you that your baby’s ugly (or at least this is how it feels). Successful songwriters learn to accept criticism gracefully. This doesn’t mean they take every word of feedback as “gospel,” but they’re receptive to the idea that the song could be improved. If you want to get better at songwriting, you can’t be hostile to people who can help you move from good to great. Rather, you have to be open and grateful.
- Re-write based on specific critiques. When a writer brings a new song to his or her publisher, it’s not unusual for the publisher to suggest specific areas for improvement. Based on that feedback, the writer reworks the song and brings it back to the publisher for review. It’s not uncommon for this process to go on for weeks or months until both parties are confident the song is the best it can be. Publishers aren’t always right, but they’re the publisher, and they don’t like working with writers who ignore their feedback and refuse to rewrite. In fact, publishers look for openness and flexibility in potential songwriters, so this is a good habit to cultivate.
- Hone a handful of five “undeniable” hits. Your reputation as a competent songwriter is based on quality rather than quantity. It’s far better to have written five jaw-dropping hits than to have five hundred mediocre songs languishing in your catalog. In Nashville, really good songs are a dime a dozen, but truly great songs build careers, businesses, and mansions. When you’re playing material for A & R people or prospective publishers, you want them to be blown away by your songcraft. So, one of your first goals as a songwriter should be to write (or co-write) five undeniable hit songs that will not only open the right doors but keep you in the right rooms.
- Play writer’s nights for visibility and networking. Most cities have venues where aspiring songwriters can sign up (or audition) for a slot on an “open mike” night. [If there’s not one in your town, consider starting one!] Granted, there’s usually no pay and the audience may not be paying much attention; but playing writer’s nights makes you work up your songs, lets you test them in front of a real audience, and creates networking opportunities with other writers, potential producers, and other industry people. Remember: these venues are counting on the songwriters to help fill the room with their friends, so don’t be shy about bringing along your own cheering section. And the better the audience response, the greater the chance of getting a paying gig at that venue.
The good news is that songwriting is a skill that can be cultivated. Though some people may be more musically gifted than others, what you may lack in raw talent can be made up with training and self-discipline. If you love songwriting, then you owe it to yourself to pursue this calling with intentionality and professionalism.
PS: If you're interested in submitting a song for use by Discover Worship, please note that – in order for us to consider leasing it from you – you'll need to have a commercial quality demo and accompaniment track version of the piece as well as own (or control) both the master recording and the underlying copyright. Unfortunately, we're not creating new studio versions of tracks these days. Having the arrangement available in Finale or Sibelius software is also helpful.
Check out these other helpful Discover Worship blogs about songwriting and creativity:
- 7 Proven Strategies to Write Better Songs
- Three Essential Tools For Your Songwriter's Tool-Kit!
- 3 Things That Inspire and Energize Great Christian Songwriters
- How Can I Find A Worship Music Publisher For My Songs?
- 10 Things to Consider When Submitting Your Worship Song to a Publisher
- An Interview with Writer/Arranger Wes Ramsay
- An Interview with Writer/Arranger Robert Sterling (Part One)
- An Interview with Writer/Arranger Robert Sterling (Part Two)
- An Interview with Arranger Luke Woodard