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Song writing is a MADDENING, MAGNIFICENT, HIDEOUS, LIBERATING, BEAUTIFUL, TERRIBLE, FANTASTIC, ANNOYING, DELIGHTFUL, CONFUSING, STUPID, GENIUS, CONFINING, EXPANSIVE, RIGID, FREEING, COMPLICATED, SIMPLE, THRILLING, TERRIFYING, UNMANAGEABLE, PORTABLE, PERSONAL, UNIVERSAL, CRAZY-MAKING AND ALTOGETHER SATISFYING

Habit songwriting101.org


I got this cheap little empty plastic notebook at my local drugstore, and bought a little slab of filler paper and the very first title I wrote in it was ‘Proud Mary‘. I had no idea what that title meant. John Fogerty

Write down the thoughts and even more, write down a specific line. If you don’t, it’ll fly away forever. Margaret Atwood

I’m always writing ideas down and then I stick ’em in my pocket and put ’em in that folder so I don’t lose them. Like, somebody might say something, and I’ll go, “Oh, that’s a good line.” And that goes in the folder, too. It’s kind of an ongoing process for me. Lucinda Williams

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Keep lists. Carry your notebook everywhere you go, and write down every interesting thing you see, hear, do, smell, taste, touch remember or imagine. Be a notebook scribbler. Titles Keep a list of titles on the back page of your notebook. Then graduate them to the front when you start writing. Colorful words Jot down words that catch your ear. Make note of words that are in the vocabulary of an emotion. Ideas for stories Take note of story lines that appeal to you. If you have an idea you think you might want to write about, jot it down. These notes don’t have to be beautiful. They’re just reminders of interesting ideas. Interesting songs you hear Hear a song on the radio that makes you sing along? Make a note of it. Don’t copy the song, but learn from it. Did the melody catch your ear? Did the lyrics capture your imagination? Did it move you? Why?

Songs are made of ideas, and ideas don’t sit still. Capture them before they get away. 3


Inspiration is a word used by people who aren’t really doing anything. I go into my office every day and work. Whether I feel like it or not is irrelevant. Nick Cave

I like myself better when I’m writing regularly. Willie Nelson

When it’s raining you can’t find enough things to catch it in. When it’s not you can stand out in the middle of the street in a dress and a funny hat and nothing’s gonna make it rain. Tom Waits

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Just write. Make time for writing. Commit to the process of writing, and then honor the commitment. Inspiration is for amateurs. Inspiration is a wonderful thing, and it is a magnificent gift when we are inspired by a fantastic idea. But inspiration is fleeting, and songwriting is work. So you need to work on it. Don’t wait around for lightning to strike. Build your songwriting muscles constantly by writing all the time. Then when lightning actually does strike, you’ll be so ready. Write on a schedule. Maybe you can write 20 minutes every day, or one hour twice a week, or all day once a month. Whatever works. Just find a schedule that works for you and stick to it. Turn off your phone, turn off Facebook notifications, turn off the TV. Turn on your amazing brain and your rich imagination, and start building those songwriter muscles.

Writing songs is fun, but it’s serious fun. You’ve gotta work at it. 5


I’m writing all the time. And as the songs begin to coalesce, I’m not doing anything else but writing. I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is. Leonard Cohen

You write a hit the same way you write a flop. Alan Jay Lerner

You just write and you don’t try to make sense of it. You just put it down the way you got it. Tom Waits

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Write without inhibition. Kick your inner editor out of the room when you write. Your fussy, persistent, perfectionist, persnickety editor (that’s you!) will come along later, after the writing has had its chance. Write like a pirate. Your writing time should be free and uninhibited. Let it flow. Don’t try to keep it tidy. There’s plenty of time to clean up later. Write everything you think or feel. Put it all on paper and sort it out later. Write bad songs. What if you realize that the song you’re writing is a real clunker? Hey, you’re still writing. And that builds your songwriting muscles. Even when one of our songs is kind of weird and lumpy, we still learn from it. So finish your clunker and take pride in the fact that you finished it – and then put it away in a folder somewhere. The lessons learned are valuable, and that weird, lumpy little song just might be useful someday. You can always strip it down later for spare parts.

Be an interesting mess. 7


You might write from the heart, but you’d better polish with your brain. Margaret Atwood

Sometimes they work, and sometimes they just won’t. Sometimes you get hung up on them. When that happens, you just throw it back, and maybe come back to it two or three weeks later. Loretta Lynn

Lyrically, ‘less words mean more’ is a pretty good rule of thumb. Try to cut out the fat and get to the meat of what you’re saying. Chris Stapleton

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Edit without mercy. Banish the writer from the room while you edit and rewrite your songs. The messy, uninhibited writer (that’s you!) has had their input, and now it’s time to comb out the tangles. At this point, it’s all about the audience. How can you make this song perfect for its listeners?

Edit like a ninja. Editing needs to be brutal and precise and merciless. Clean up your untidy writing with heartless precision. Clean up the meter. Clean up the rhymes. Sort out the pronouns, and make sure the action is happening in the right order. Does it make sense? Is it hard to follow? Fix it now. Work to find exactly the right word. Mark Twain said that the difference between exactly the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lighting bug. Trust that your writing is good, but be persistent in finding exactly the right words. If it’s too long, make it shorter. If it doesn’t make sense, rewrite it. If it needs a bridge, write a bridge. Your song deserves a good reception from its listeners, and your audience deserves your best work.

The editor’s job is to love the audience first, the song second and the writer last. 9


Here’s some free advice; like the folkies of yore, you need to be not just a writer of songs, you need to be a lover of songs, a listener of songs and a collector of songs. Michael Kosser

Songwriting is like fishing in a stream. I don’t think anyone downstream from Bob Dylan ever caught anything. Arlo Guthrie

Schedule a little time to listen every week. All chefs must eat; all painters must paint; and all songwriters must listen. Nicholas Tozier

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Listen up Take time to listen to music. There is so much to learn – especially when we open our ears and minds to new ideas and unfamiliar patterns. Listen to your favorite songs. Transcribe the lyrics by hand. Analyze the lyrics, the rhymes and rhyme schemes, the story. How did they put it all together? What did they do that made you fall in love with the songs? Because you can do that too. Listen to unfamiliar music. Listen to music that is outside your ordinary experience. We tend to live in echo chambers, where we surround ourselves with the same old things we’ve always listened to. Stretch your songwriter’s mind with new, exciting, unfamiliar, intimidating sounds. If you like Hank Williams, listen to some Stevie Wonder. If you like Fleetwood Mac, listen to some Nine Inch Nails. If you like Adele, listen to some Johnny Cash.

Be adventurous. Break your mold. Kick your way out of your echo chamber. Exercise your ears. 11


Being a good songwriter means paying attention and sticking your hand out the window to catch the song on the way to someone else’s house! Nanci Griffith

You can’t write about stuff you don’t know about. You have to live it. You have to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Live life to be a good songwriter. Dierks Bentley

I listen to the radio and I like all kinds of music, you know, but I like to hear from people who have been there. Hank Williams has been there. Leonard Cohen

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Live your life. Immerse yourself in experience, and let that experience be the stuff your songs are made of. Take a break and ... Go fishing. Or go to a diner or a flea market in a nearby town. Or call an old friend. Or take a dance lesson. Or strike up a conversation with a stranger. Or volunteer at a soup kitchen. Or go to your local coffee shop and eavesdrop. Or help somebody carry their groceries to their car. Or mow a neighbor’s lawn. Or break a plate and glue it back together. Or ask a stranger to help you pick out a hat.

Do anything to make this day new, different and fun. Don’t live a life that’s boring. Creative people live creative lives.

If you want to be interesting, be interested. 13


There’s a basic rule which runs through all kinds of music, kind of an unwritten rule. I don’t know what it is. Ron Wood

Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art. Claude Debussy

I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m damn well gonna do it! Geri Halliwell

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Break the rules. There are a lot of diets out there that are very strict, with stringent rules about what you can and can’t eat, and how much, and when you can eat it. Those rules are the gospel for six days each week – and then you get a “Cheat Day.” On your Cheat Day, there are no rules. You can eat ice cream for breakfast and waffles at bedtime and beer for lunch, and it’s all just fine because it’s Cheat Day. Try this approach with your songwriting. You’re doing solid work. You’re making great progress, and you’re paying attention to the guidelines and rules that make for a productive process. But every once in a while, just forget about the rules. It’s okay to spread your wings now and then, even if you fly a little too close to the sun. And then tomorrow you can get back to these habits and processes that you’ve come to trust. It’s this discipline that gives you a fine, keen edge. It’s this creative work ethic that coaxes that little extra bit of sizzle from your work. Remember, there are patterns, there are guidelines and there are good habits. But there really aren’t any rules except for this, The Golden Rule of Songwriting:

Write songs that people want to hear again and again. 15

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Songwriting 101 booklet  

This booklet was designed to be produced for pennies. It's an inspirational giveaway piece for an introductory songwriting workshop.

Songwriting 101 booklet  

This booklet was designed to be produced for pennies. It's an inspirational giveaway piece for an introductory songwriting workshop.

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