8 Bad Habits That Hinder Your Songwriting

5524665971_bc73ab6a3f_z by Cali4beachIt’s easy to unknowingly (or subconsciously) sabotage your own progress as a songwriter. These self-defeating behaviors often stay under the radar until somebody else points them out.

In the article below I’ve gathered together eight of the most common songwriting pitfalls. I’ve recognized these over and over in my students and in myself.

Do any of these sound like somebody you know? Somebody who’s reading this article right now, maybe? Hmm?

Image credit: Cali4Beach

Mistake #1: Relying on your memory.

Never think you can hold an idea in your mind even for five minutes; any one of a thousand distractions could arise within that five minutes. Capture any new song idea immediately in writing or on a recording—and be sure to collect all these scraps together in one place for later reference.

Mistake #2: Leaving your phone on.

Cell phones are always beeping and flashing and otherwise pulling at your attention. Writing a song requires concentration, and if you’re always being interrupted there’s no way that you’ll write as well or as often. I recommend that you silence your phone and leave it in a separate room when you’re writing. For similar reasons, turn off the TV and sign out of Facebook.

Mistake #3: Never reviewing your notebook of ideas and drafts.

Remember how I told you to write everything down? That bears repeating. But I should also point out that this is only worthwhile if you’re also committed to going back and reading all these fragments and ideas from time to time. Reviewing your own ideas provokes you to think about them and build on them. Make sure you keep a pen handy in a distinct color so that you can write in your thoughts and new ideas. Circle any passages that seem promising. Learn to take pleasure in hunting through pages of your own rough work to find the diamonds.

Mistake #4: Never finishing songs.

Most songwriters work on quite a few songs simultaneously. Some could invent new lyric ideas all day, but can’t seem to focus and finish any of them. If this sounds like you, pick up your notebook right now and choose one of your song fragments. That’s right–one. Set a kitchen timer and apply your butt to the chair until the timer goes off. If it’s not done by then, repeat the process at first opportunity. And so on.

Mistake #5: Perfectionism.

Don’t expect your first drafts to be perfect! Writing a great song from scratch takes time. Just write down the best lines you can to finish the song–you can always judge and rewrite later; then at least you’ll have the advantage of having a foundation to build upon.

Mistake #6: Never recording your finished songs.

It feels good to have a demo of a song you’ve written, even if it’s rough–remember, a demo is just for reference purposes. I’ve personally found this step of the process hardest of all. Recording to me is a chore. But when I revisit all the ideas I’ve recorded in the past, I find myself really energized and excited about songwriting all over again. Fire up that digital workstation or a recording program on your computer and get some sounds down–later on you’ll be glad that you did.

Mistake #7: Letting the dog eat your homework.

Learn everything you can about the craft of songwriting! Check out books and online articles. Analyze the lyrics of your favorite songwriters. Follow songwriting blogs like this one. Every song is unique, with its own set of challenges and opportunities–so there are no rules that can apply to every situation, but lots of little techniques that all work together to form a piece of art that really works. Acquire as many tools as you can. You never know when an obscure songwriting technique will bail you out of what would have been a dead end. This is the premise behind the Gears Index of Songwriting Techniques that I’m building.

Mistake #8: Waiting for inspiration to strike.

If waiting is your main writing strategy, expect to wait a long time between songs. We’re talking weeks, months, or even years. But why would you want to wait? Ten minutes of freewriting might turn up a new idea. A songwriting prompt could set off a chain reaction that leads to a completed song by midnight tonight. Rather than waiting for inspiration, actively pursue it. Words on the page–any words at all–are better than none. endsign

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Click the sprocket to the right to read the follow-up to this article: 6 More Songwriting Pitfalls

Posted on May 23, 2011

6 Responses to 8 Bad Habits That Hinder Your Songwriting

  1. Muse-in-Despair May 24, 2011 at 08:50 #

    Guilty, always waiting the right time and inspiration, always expecting the first chords and verses to be great, perfect, breathtaking. *facepalm*

    • Nicholas Tozier May 24, 2011 at 19:36 #

      Haha I’m guilty of both of those too, especially the perfectionism.

  2. Jeff Shattuck May 24, 2011 at 13:05 #

    Great list. LOVE the first one. I have forgotten way more songs than I have written. Of course, as John Lennon said, if you can’t remember it, it probably wasn’t very good!

    • Nicholas Tozier May 24, 2011 at 19:39 #

      I don’t know, Jeff; I’ve forgotten (and eventually remembered) some of my better ideas.

      I’m good at writing down almost every lyric idea, but terrible at writing down melodies and chord melodies. I really need to set some time aside to write down all of the ideas that’re eating up my mental RAM; some of them are ten years old at this point.

  3. Matt Blick May 25, 2011 at 18:19 #

    eating up my mental RAM – that’s my new favourite Tozier quote after the standing in a giant hat one!!!

    • Nicholas Tozier May 26, 2011 at 06:20 #

      I can’t say exactly where I picked that expression up, but I know I didn’t originate it. Mental RAM–isn’t that great? Strikes me as good and true. I write things down so I don’t have to hold them in my head. Ahhh, freed-up mental RAM. Feels so good.

      I used to have a songwriting hat, but then I turned it upside down and punched leg holes in it. Now I have songwriting pants, and whenever I wear them people know I am not to be disturbed any more than I already am.