Songwriting

9 Things Skilled Songwriters Do Differently

by Clay Mills
Feb 8, 2020

So, what does it take to be a world-class writer? Early in my career, a Hall of Fame songwriter offered me an invaluable piece of insight. He said many people make it 95 percent of the way to greatness, but very few finish the last 5% of the journey. That statement has fascinated me, and throughout my 20 years as a professional songwriter, I’ve noticed there isn’t necessarily a large difference in talent level among creative people. 

Why, then, do some songwriters seem to have an over abundance of fans buying their music while others struggle to sell the first song? Why do recording artists record every song writer X writes, but writer Y can’t get arrested? 

The answer is…there is not a huge difference in skills between writers who get either 95% of the way or 100%, but there is a little. And, that extra 5% makes a BIG difference. What these skilled songwriters share are common mental habits. For me, it took a lot of trial and error to discover these success principles; but, the good news for you is that these skills can be adopted easily through practice. Here are the nine traits that help us over the hurdles to accomplishing our songwriting goals.

1.  Skilled songwriters write whether they feel inspired or not.  

We all know how easily the words and melodies flow when a life event inspires us to create. We go through a break-up and feel raw emotion. And, that emotion has a focus. It could be heartbreak, regret, or relief. When you combine an inspirational occurrence with focus and direction, it is easy to get it out. 

But, skilled writers know to be a master of their craft, they must write whether they feel like it or not. They are in love with writing and enjoy writing nearly every day.. Skilled creators realize they don’t have to wait on inspiration to strike in order to creative. They begin the task and invite inspiration to join them.

2.  Skilled songwriters are process-oriented.

Skilled songwriters are focused on the act of writing. They are caught up in the moment while they are writing, able to block out external, as well as, internal distractions. They trust the process to stay focused and use the rudder to steer their efforts. Therefore, they are deliberate in their work, which allows them to avoid being over-emotionally attached or judgmental when it comes to the song at hand. By blocking out all daily distractions of email, text, and social media, they can dive into the process more deeply and focus on writing while they’re writing.

3.  Skilled songwriters can write what they feel in ways that make sense to others.

Skilled songwriters think about what they are writing in terms of how others might interpret it. Songs are a conversation with the listener. Have you ever talked with someone, but you get the feeling they don’t care what you think or feel? They just go on and on about something that happened to them? Don’t be guilty this yourself by writing a one-sided conversation in a song. Always keep in mind who you are writing the song for. What are they thinking and feeling when they hear your words and melody? 

If, as a writer or singer, you are feeling the impact of the song, but the audience is not, then it’s not an effective song. You want the audience to feel the same emotion you are feeling as you are writing. It’s also a good habit to consider feedback from pro mentors and people, who you respect, to make sure your songs are received in the way you intend. SongTown has monthly hit writer song feedback for members, as well as, publisher listening events. These help you to know if your songs are hitting their intended target.

4.  Skilled songwriters appreciate different perspectives.

It’s difficult to be a skilled songwriter if you are not open to ideas that differ from your own. This doesn’t mean agreeing to everything; it simply means being open to all sides. The ability to look at a situation from all angles gives the skilled writer extra depth when writing a lyric and affords the creator options to writing the song in the best way possible. This ability also helps you to avoid sounding “preachy” to your audience. You can show an audience how you feel but you can’t tell an audience how they should feel or act. No one likes being told those things and instinct will them to tune out your song’s message.

5.  Skilled songwriters keep learning.

It’s reported that people who learn to juggle increase grey matter in their occipital lobes, the area of the brain associated with visual memory. When the same individuals stop practicing their new skill, this brain matter disappears. Similarly, when songwriting, there is a “use-it-or-lose-it” phenomenon that occurs. Skilled songwriters are always learning more about their craft. They study other songs and songwriters. They take classes, read books on writing, AND write often. 

Remember that all teachers are not created equal. No matter what you are learning, seek out those who have walked the walk. In the internet world, there are thousands of self-appointed experts and gurus who have little track record to back up what they are teaching.  Ask questions that tell you if they know first-hand how to accomplish what you want to learn. You will save yourself much time, money, and heartache by learning from the best.

6.  Skilled songwriters cultivate a curious nature.

How do you cultivate curiosity? Simply, by asking questions and refusing to accept things at face value. Skilled songwriters want to know how, what, when, why, and where? It’s this curiosity that drives them to dig deeper into understanding human nature and write songs that resonate on a deeper emotional level.

7.  Skilled songwriters are good observers.

Skilled songwriters study the many details of life around them and pick up on the things that are most useful while filtering out the rest. They observe whether they are reading a text or listening to a sermon at Sunday morning church. They know that truly great ideas for their art come from every day life. I can’t tell you how many times I have overheard conversations while waiting in line at a Starbucks or a concert that become ideas for a new song. My first number one hit was a song called “Beautiful Mess.” I heard the phrase spoken in two movies and wrote it down in my hook book. The song has been a mainstay on radio for two decades—all from being observant and having my antenna up for song ideas.

8.  Skilled songwriters are frequently trying things.

Getting out of your comfort zone is one of the biggest things you can do for your songwriting and your health. Why is this important? Trying new things keeps the brain sharp, forming new pathways instead of digging deeper into old familiar ruts. But, it also keeps your creative channels open. We are most creative when we are exploring, trying new grooves, rhyme schemes, chord changes, etc, that lead us to new creative places we never imagined going. 

When we are first learning to play an instrument or sing, everything we learn is brand new. But, after a time, it’s easy to slide into comfortable patterns and  fail to continually challenge ourselves. Name a world-class musician who hasn’t spent thousands of hours learning songs, riffs, and chords. Why should a songwriter act any differently? I challenge you to sit down today and learn a song that is completely out of your wheelhouse. This practice is especially important for breaking out of a writing rut—and it’s simple. Skilled songwriters know that doing the same thing over and over again leads to out-dated and boring songs.

Skilled songwriters also know it’s even more important to apply this to living life. Learning new hobbies and exploring the world around you leads to more fodder for your art. You’ve probably heard the phrase that great writers write what they know. Therefore, living an interesting life of trying new things ultimately leads to more interesting songs. My motto is “Live life, then write about it.”

9.  Skilled songwriters always keep the big picture in mind.

Skilled songwriters know that writing is often a roller coaster of victories and valleys. Some days the creative juices are overflowing and other days you can feel like a frustrated beginner. There are times when the world is applauding your art and times when even your closest friends question why you do it. It’s the ability to look at the big picture that allows the skilled songwriter to ride the highs and lows while having faith that, in the end, the world is a better place because of music and art. And, that struggle is often  a necessary ingredient for creating great music.

Write On!  ~Clay

Clay Mills

Clay Mills

Clay Mills is a 16-time ASCAP hit songwriter, producer, and performer. He is the co-founder of SongTown and has 2 Grammy nominations for “Beautiful Mess” by Diamond Rio and “Heaven Heartache” by Trisha Yearwood. Clay is also the co-author of Mastering Melody Writing and The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Co-writing.

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