9 Things Skilled Songwriters Do Differently



Throughout my 20 years as a professional songwriter, I’ve noticed there isn’t always 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? The answer is there is not a huge difference in skills most writers possess, but there is a little. And that extra 5% makes a BIG difference. Skilled songwriters share some common mental habits. The good news is that these habits can be adopted through practice. Here are 9 traits that can 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 we’ve been inspired by a life event to create. 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 on a near daily basis. Skilled creators realize they don’t have to wait on inspiration to strike. 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 distractions as well as internal. They use the process to stay focused and the overall goal as 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.

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

Again, skilled songwriters think about what they are writing in terms of how others might interpret it. Songs are a conversation with the listener. If the writer/singer is feeling the impact of the song but the audience is not, then it’s not an effective song. It’s also a good habit to get feedback from mentors and people who you respect to make sure your songs are received the way you’ve intended.

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; it simply means being open to all sides. The ability to look at a situation from all angles give the skilled writer extra depth when writing a lyric and affords the creator options to writing the song the best way possible.

5.  Skilled songwriters keep learning.

It has been reported that people learning to juggle increased the grey matter in their occipital lobes, the area of the brain associated with visual memory. When the same individuals stopped practicing their new skill, this brain matter disappeared. 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. The take classes, read books on writing, AND write often!

6.  Skilled songwriters cultivate a curious nature.

How does one 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 to them while filtering out the rest. They are observant 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.

8.  Skilled songwriters are frequently trying things.

Why is this important? Trying new things keeps the brain sharp. But it also keeps your creative channels open. We are most creative when we are exploring. Trying new grooves, rhyme schemes,  chord changes, etc, lead us to new creative places we never imagined going. Skilled songwriters know that doing the same thing over and over again lead only to creative ruts and boring songs. Skilled songwriters also know this is even more importantly applied to living life. Learning new hobbies and exploring the world around them can only lead to more fodder for their art.

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 to creating great music.

Write On!  ~Clay


Clay Mills is a 16-time ASCAP hit songwriter. He has 2 Grammy nominations and is the co-author of  The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Co-writing. 

43 thoughts on “9 Things Skilled Songwriters Do Differently

  1. Great list – a wonderful balance of precepts and practices. One excerpt along makes this worth it’s weight:

    They realize they don’t have to wait on inspiration to strike. They begin the task and invite inspiration to join them.

  2. I would have to say that hanging out with people who are where you want to be in any area of life is good for motivation as well as education. Being part of Songtown has done that for me in a huge way.

    If a rising tide lifts all boats then a buoyant engaged collaborative community can lift all spirits and help each of us to become better songwriters and better people.

    Thanks for the daily reminders Clay and Marty!

  3. All the above are things I have lived my creative life by.
    A brilliant consolidation of useful information for all aspiring songwriters.
    I might add a couple of thoughts that I have found to be helpful in composing a #1 song—
    A great songwriter once said to me–
    If you want to have a hit–Start with one!
    And keep it simple and infectious……
    L.Russell Brown

    1. You can absolutely learn to write songs! The greatest gift each of us has been given, is the ability to learn new things 🙂


    1. We have producers who are members on the website. They offer suggestions on other members demos and get to know the songwriters in our community. It’s a good way to work with people rather than “advertising” that you are looking for clients.

  4. Thanks for the help! I’ve considered myself an intermediate songwriter soon after I started because I was/am extremely good at it but I never was able to take it up to the next level. Hopefully now I’ll be able to.

  5. I just attended your songwriting workshop in Ottawa. Thank you for the tips and techniques you shared. They were practical tools I can incorporate into what I already do. Thank you

  6. Great advice. Good to know you out there for me to reach.
    Love writing when I’m sewing, jewlery making, cooking and especially trying to sleep. Trying to go to sleep is the creative time for me. Everything falls into place. ?????

  7. I have written several songs and also have a CD…Who can I send a copy too to listen and maybe hooking me up with a deal.. Thanks J.R.

    1. our members get monthly feedback on their songs from pro writers, and when they are ready they can make an appointment with publishers in our mentoring session section of the website. 4 of our members signed staff deals in 2016. The bar is really high, so making sure you are writing great songs will be your first and biggest hurdle. Great songs open doors.


  8. Well, I’ve got about 5 out of 9, so my skill set is just above half-assed.
    Meaning…I’ve exceeded my father’s expectations! 🙂 🙂

  9. #Lovin’ your advice,I’m gonnah try and work on them,i reallyvwanba improve my songwriting skills,Thank you Clay,Happy New Year!

  10. I agree with all of the suggestions and use them at one time or another on a regular basis. One other in addition that I use is challenging the writer in me to go to different places, either mentally or physically. Last year (2015) I removed the life out of a living entity and got one good song and one in process song. We often animate things with lifelike characteristics but rarely if ever take life away other than murder or murder/suicide ballads. As a helpless romantic I watch “chick” flicks, invariably one or several ideas will be apparent if we just listen, emotion is high in those type of movies. Today songwriters have to face a “non-discriminating” audience that sometimes will not think too deep and have to be led to where you want them to go, so the writing has to be “massaged” to fit there needs. Lot of good advice in the suggestions and comments. Write on..

  11. Nice work here, and definitely appreciated Clay! I love it! Not only is this list a great little training tool for us make sure we stay in the gym long enough as writers. But too, it reminds us of the qualities that we want in a possible co-writer. With these habits or “super writer traits” if you will, we can see who has that eye of the tiger and passion for writing inside that we do. Thanks for the reminder to keep working out and to keep the guard up Clay!

  12. I think you were the one who posted the meme the other day: “Waiting for inspiration is the luxury of the amateur.” I think the line, “They begin the task and invite inspiration to join them.” is the flipside of that coin.

    Play. Sing. Write. Pencil and paper. Nikki Giovanni says, “I pull my car over to receive the incoming poem.” Receive. Write it down even if you can’t write out the whole thing. The more you write things down the more able you will become to capture inspirations that come at inconvenient times.

    Conversely, if you’re not exploring…it ain’t likely to come and find you.
    I contend that as long as you keep exploring you’ll keep finding satisfying product.

  13. Thank you, Clay:
    This is very well thought, succinct, and inspirational for me.
    I am going to share this link for my friends on FB.
    Tedi May

  14. I recently learned about SongTown. I love it. I hope to join in the future, but I can’t right now. Thank you for the articles and videos.

    1. Chad, we have helped members find publishing deals and place songs. First, your songs must be competitive. Second, we can help! ~Clay

  15. I tell people that inquire to me about songwriting that you can’t focus on writing when baby sitting your kids or meeting the demands of hustle and bustle! I tell them you have to have alone time to block out distractions! I can’t tell you how many #1’s LOL I have had in my head while going to sleep at night; back when hustling and bustling, saying to myself I will remember that in the morning! Not! Now I get up and work it out! Thank You for the post!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *