In On the Job Training, Thoughts on Writing

(If you’re reading this blog you should own this book!)

One of the most common goals of beginning songwriters is to collaborate. We want another writer’s ideas to spur us on to new heights. We want a partner whose creative gifts complement our own. We want somebody in the room to tell us how awesome we are. (Admit it – that last reason is the Main One.)

For the songwriter who has never before collaborated, the process may seem daunting and, perhaps, unnerving. Fear not: There is no absolute right or wrong way to collaborate. When it works, it’s great. Just know not every co-writing relationship will be a delightful success. (Take this from a writer whose own co-writers share war stories with one another about writing with him.)

Let’s assume you are new to the collaboration game. First, of course, you have to ask someone to the dance. (And it can be just that scary a thing to do.)  Then once you’ve made an appointment for a sit-down session with this other writer, whose work you already know and admire, what can you do to better ensure the session is a success? Here are a few tips:

Come prepared. Show up to the session with at least three or four solid song ideas. If you both do that, you will have six to eight ideas to start working from.

Choose an idea and get to work. Sometimes a single idea will grab you both. Other times, your co-writer will be much more passionate about an idea than you are. In that case, give serious consideration to her point of view. Remember, you chose to work with this person because you believe in her talent and ideas.

Consider the writing room a “safe zone.” There are no dumb ideas. Both writers need to feel free to express whatever comes to mind without fear of hurtful criticism. The wrong idea may lead to the right idea. Lyrics that don’t fit the verse may work in the chorus. A casual remark by one writer may result in a brilliant insight from the other.

Be honest with each other, but remain kind. There’s nothing gained in saying that a lyric or a melody is brilliant if it is, in fact, mediocre. Condescension won’t make the song better. Speak your mind without being harsh. Whenever you say “no” to an idea, try to offer an alternative.

Encourage one another. Songwriters are an insecure lot. We need to know if somebody likes our work. Let your co-writer know you appreciate his talent.

Pull your own weight. Make sure you are working every bit as hard as your co-writer. There are stories in Nashville about people who got co-writing credit on a song for simply being in the room when it was written. Don’t be one of those people.

Share. Don’t hold back your ideas for fear that your collaborator will steal them. That’s not a good way to build a creative partnership.

Keep the goal of a finished song in front of you. Stay focused on your work. Don’t allow unimportant things (cell phones, e-mails, the nearby Starbucks) to keep you from working.

Be generous with the credit. There are no hard rules about how to split the credit on a co-written song. The assumption is generally that the credit will be split 50-50 unless otherwise discussed. If you believe you deserve more than 50 percent of the credit, keep this in mind: The song would not be complete if it weren’t for your collaborator’s contribution. Be generous with your co-writers. Doing so will make them want to write with you again.

What if You Fail Chemistry 101? Co-writing is like any human relationship. Sometimes it simply doesn’t work. Not everybody can be your best friend. Not every writer can be an effective collaborator. Be open to co-writing with anyone at least once, but don’t feel pressure to stay in an unproductive writing relationship. That doesn’t help either writer to grow. Learn from the experience and move on with no hard feelings.

That’s it for now. I’ve gotta get back to work. Happy writing.

(Excepted and edited from “The Craft of Christian Songwriting” by Yours Truly, the Author.)

Showing 4 comments
  • Ed Rush

    I totally agree with everything you said in this post. However, one problem I have is that I live too far away from anyone I would like to, or already have collaborated with, for us to sit down in the same room. Those collaborations I did last year were all done through email. None of those songs have been picked up at this time, except the ones you and Brad arranged which have been published. Now, I would love to collaborate with people like you and Brad and Joseph and Mary and Joel and Lloyd and Craig, etc., but all of you are so busy, I hesitate to ask. Thanks for listening.

    • rsterling

      Hi Ed – You’re right – the post is focused on an “in-the-same-room” collaboration. But the same basic principles apply for long-distance collaborating – except that the long distance co-write takes a lot longer. 🙂 You bring up a good point about whom to ask to collaborate. We all want to move up the ladder and work with writers more successful than ourselves. But, honestly, that approach is not always the best over the long haul – for the very reason you mention: More successful writers tend to be very busy and largely unavailable. My most successful collaborations over the years (measured in terms of productive output) have been with writers who I considered to be my creative peers, rather than those I thought were more successful than myself.

  • Deborah ( O' Carroll Huntsinger) McKinney

    Hi Robert ! Thank you so much for sharing the songwriting tips ! I am always so excited to glean more knowledge about the passion of my heart for creating & singing music ! Always ready to learn & share ideas with others ! Keep the tips coming ! God Bless my friend ! By the way, i am also on Linkedin. Are we connected on that site ? Send me a request there if you want to !

    • rsterling

      You are welcome, Deborah. I always hope the songwriting blogs will be helpful.

Start typing and press Enter to search