Writing songs is hard. Identifying a creative process that works for you is hard.
Sometimes, the words just don’t come out and you can’t think of anything to say.
I think the challenges associated with writing and creating aren’t talked about enough. Everyone wants it to be easy, or maybe just look easy, but a lot of the time it isn’t.
And it’s frustrating! Trying to create and getting stymied by your own brain is hard to deal with.
Many people (myself included) start to feel antsy if their output wanes. I always feel like I should be churning out at least a few songs every month. Otherwise, what am I doing?
It’s hard to know how much you should be writing, how much you should expect to get out of it, and it’s also hard to feel productive if you’re trying to write but end up with nothing.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, so I wanted to share some thoughts on the creative process, how much you should be writing, and different ways I’ve found to increase my output.
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The More You Write, The Better You Get
In general, the more you write, the better you’ll get at it.
Some people disagree, and that’s totally fine, but for most people songwriting is a muscle, and the muscle must be exercised. You must practice. The only way to do that is by writing.
Therefore, the more you write the better you'll get.
However, it is totally possible that songs you force yourself to write will be worse than the songs that come to you in a flash of inspiration. I’ve written a couple things that I like after sitting down to purposely write a song, but most of my favorites have been off the cuff, inspired writes.
The point of writing consistently is not necessarily to write good songs consistently, it’s more about honing your skills, working out your songwriting muscles, so that when inspiration hits, you’re ready.
I believe that when it’s time to write something very meaningful and inspired, it will turn out better and happen faster if you’ve been writing a lot.
On top of the practice you get from writing consistently, you’ll also inevitably get some good ideas.
Even if you force yourself to write something, don’t like the song as a whole, but like the pre-chorus, that’s awesome. You can always use the pre-chorus in a different song, or even take bits of pieces of it and transplant it.
The more you write, the more ideas you’ll have. Period. That’s a good thing, and it’s reason enough to write more.
So, How Much Should You Be Writing?
Everyone’s process is slightly different, so it’s almost impossible to prescribe a set amount of songs to write.
Personally, I want to be writing as much as I can, so that it remains fun and exciting.
I think sitting down every day and trying to write a full song would get tiring and potentially less fun.
Trying to write a song every week, on the other hand, is a lot easier for me.
I don’t even try to write a full song, just get a bunch of ideas out and pick at one or two.
This often results in a full song coming out either all at once, or over the course of a week.
If you can stick to a song every week or so, you’ll end up having written 40 to 50 songs in a year, and of those, you’ll definitely have some good ones. Even if it’s only 30 songs every year, in every 30 songs you’ll probably have five to 10 that end up being good.
If improving your songwriting is important to you, writing a new song every week or so is a great place to start.
If you try this and hate it, cut back. Songwriting should be something you want to do.
Open Your Mind To Other Kinds Of Songwriting
Writing a full song every week will be hard. There will be busy weeks and busy months and you’ll have to push through.
To commit to writing a song every week, you should open your mind to writing songs in different ways, as you’ll need to try new things to reach your goal.
Here are some ways to increase your output, exercise the songwriting muscle, and keep your routine fresh:
Co-writing a song is a unique challenge, especially if you’re writing with someone for the first time.
Getting to know someone else’s songwriting tendencies and process is an interesting experience, and trying to blend two processes together can go either way.
That said, co-writing is one of the best ways to get better at writing songs.
Writing with other people will push you to think of lyrics you wouldn’t normally write, play chords you wouldn’t normally play, and steal from influences that aren’t your own.
You also have to make important songwriting decisions when co-writing.
You’ll have to decide between verse ideas or chorus ideas. You’ll have to make arrangement decisions that you wouldn’t otherwise have to make.
Making these decisions pushes you to think about what makes a song “good” and “bad” and what you want out of a song.
Of course, if you’re co-writing you have a much better chance of finishing the song, because eventually you’ll both have a limit on the amount of time you can spend on the song. There’s more pressure to finish a co-written song.
Try Writing Short Songs, Poems, Or Instrumentals
I often forget that music isn’t just verse-chorus, verse-chorus, bridge-chorus, repeat.
There are many ways to write a song, and it's unnecessary to subscribe to any given formula.
If you’re having trouble writing the kind of song you normally write, switching up the type of song can work quite well.
Try writing a short song, 45 to 60 seconds long. See how much you can accomplish within that time frame.
Try writing something without a melody. Spoken word, poetry, a rap. Set it to music. Make something weird.
Or just make an instrumental.
Sometimes instrumental tracks will end up begging for lyrics, and then you’ll have a cool new song.
Sometimes instrumental tracks will end up being “filler” on an album, which is also super cool.
Either way, the point is not to make a traditional pop song every week, it’s just to create something every week to get better at creating.
Try Different Writing Prompts & Methods
I don't like writing prompts myself, but they can be a great way to start your creative engines.
There are all sorts of song writing “hacks” or prompts that are designed to kick-start the process.
Ryan Adams uses a fairly famous writing prompt.
He’ll open a book at a random page and read until he finds a line that inspires him, and then he’ll open up another book and find a word that inspires him.
He’ll take those two things and try to connect them, and he’ll sing them over and over again.
The idea is that eventually your ego will take over the meaning of the words and you’ll be able to write something personal, but perhaps in an out of the box way, as you used a different starting method.
Using these hacks should be viewed as ways to start the process when you’re having trouble. They certainly aren’t the only way or best way to write.
How to Write More
The key to writing more music is basically just doing it.
Making creation a priority is hard, because it feels so flexible. But putting your creative time on a pedestal can only be positive.
I always make a point of grabbing onto the nights that I’m just feeling inspired. I won’t waste those rare moments. I’ll grab my guitar and play until something happens.
Of course, it’s not always that easy.
It’s hard to write when you’re not inspired. That’s why it’s sometimes important to have methods and “hacks” in place to write more.
Here are a couple ways to write more music:
Start A Song Club
Song Club is so fun, you should start one.
The idea is: get four to eight good songwriters together, and commit to writing a song every week for a month.
When you write the song, you upload it to a shared Dropbox folder or email thread, so that everyone can hear it.
If you miss a week or are late, you’re out. There are no consequences, you just don’t get to hear anyone else’s songs.
The Song Club provides an environment that forces you to keep you writing – accountability, inspiring peers, and way to have your songs heard by others immediately.
For those interested in starting a song club, here are the rules:
- Email your group anytime before you go to sleep each Sunday night.
- Don't share other people's songs with anyone outside of the writing group.
- If you miss a weekly submission deadline, you're out.
- No late submissions.
- No joining the group after the first deadline.
- No criticism.
- Don't be too precious, the goal isn't to write a great song every week, just to complete one.
- No one can say what a song is for sure. If you call it complete, it's complete.
- Instrumentals, poetry, spoken word, etc. are all acceptable.
- Finishing an old song counts, so long as the work is done during that week.
- Listening to everyone's songs is an important part of it, so don't just take – give too.
I’ve been hosting a Song Club every month for the past several months, and I love it. I’ve written mostly bad songs, but a couple good ones, and I’ve heard tons of cool stuff that my friends are making.
What’s great about these Song Club rules is that it encourages all sorts of spontaneous creation. The idea is just to make stuff.
Prioritize Your Creative Time
I used to have a lot of trouble prioritizing creative time.
There is always so much to do on the business side of a music career that it’s easy to let your songwriting efforts lapse.
You must be watchful of this, because your music career will go nowhere if you don’t have good songs. It won’t matter how hard you hustle!
My life was changed when I decided to work on music and then do business when I’m done working on music.
I always planned on doing business stuff, getting it out of the way, and then doing music, but most of the time it didn't happen that way.
Business stuff takes up a lot of time and makes me tired and numb. It’s hard to write a song in that state.
The best thing you can do for yourself is make the time and don’t make excuses.
Start A Side Project
Having side projects is important.
It gives you something to think about when your main project isn't progressing or simply feels overwhelming.
For me, having a side project allows me to get back to the pure, fun creation side of music.
There are no industry considerations, no pressure to tour, just me and the music.
On top of that, you get to be creative with different people. Side projects are great for making friends and pushing your musical envelope.
And sometimes, even in your side project, you’ll come up with something amazing, and end up playing it all the time! You never know.
How Many Songs Should You Be Writing A Month? There Are No Rules
I say it all the time, but there are no rules to songwriting.
If you can’t write a song every week, don’t. If you want to write a song every day, do it.
If you take one thing from this guide, it’s that there are lots of fun ways to be creative, so there is never any reason to be stuck.
Just do something creative, and then you’ll feel better. The guilt trip doesn't work, so don't even go there. You can't guilt yourself into doing things. This creates a bad cycle of not doing, feeling guilty, not doing, feeling guilty, and so on. Stop trying to be perfect, and instead be creative.