Writing To Your Title

Writing To Your Title

When I was a rookie songwriter, I don’t know how many times I had someone tell me “you have to write FROM your title”. Looking back, I think that advice contributed to some weak songs. At the time, I didn’t need any help writing a weak song. After gaining more experience and writing hundred of songs, I came to realize the importance of writing TO your title.

As I started to get things dialed in a little bit more, I realized that writing from my title was good advice in the sense that it’s usually helpful to have a title before you begin writing. I almost always start with a title to this day.

When I mentor songwriters, I can almost always point out the place in the song at which they came up with the title. Often the song will wander all over the place and suddenly start making sense when the title drops the first time. After that, the whole song makes sense. That lets me know that the writer was wandering in the wilderness until they stumbled onto their title and THEN they knew what they were writing about.

But, looking back, I realize that writing from my title put my title in the middle of an imaginary bicycle wheel.

I would look at that title and think of 20 different ways I could go if I started with that idea. Then I would start writing.

The verses and bridge of my song became the spokes of that bicycle wheel emanating from that title in the middle. The problem with that was, I could have COMPLETELY different ideas going on in the verses that didn’t really connect in any way. They started with the same idea (my title), but they wound up in very different places. Why? Because they weren’t pointing in the same direction.

Writing to your title instead of writing from it.

So, what do I suggest? I still think of my title as the middle of that bicycle wheel, but instead of writing FROM it, I write TO the title. I want everything in my song to point to that big idea. So, in the “writing to” model, all of your spokes are point AT the title, not shooting off away from it.

That bit of focus helps me, and many other writers write stronger songs.

I’ll give you an example using one of my songs, “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven”, that I wrote with Jim Collins. The hook in that song is “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven, but nobody wants to go now”. If I was writing FROM that title, there are a million directions I could go.

I could start with that idea and head toward “people don’t want to die”. I could wander off talking about precautions we take so that we don’t die. Then I could talk about hospitals, doctors and nurses. That might make me think of making sure essential healthcare workers have masks and gloves. Do you see how I could wander off into neverland? Those bicycle spokes are headed out into the great unknown with nothing to stop them. This is where writing to your title keeps you focused.

By writing to your title, you have accountability.

When my ADD brain comes up with an idea about masks and gloves, I can ask myself, “Am I pointing at my title?” The answer there would be a hard “no”. That idea points away from my title, not at it. It doesn’t point at my title, so it has to go.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that ANY related word helps my song. I have also encountered the brainstorming technique where I was told to take out a blank sheet of paper and write my title in the middle. Then write down every free association word related to my title that I can think of.

While that is a great exercise, it does NOT mean that all (or any) of those words need to wind up in my song. In “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven”, doctors, nurses, hospitals, masks, and gloves are all related to my title. They have to do with people dying or being sick. They just didn’t point to my title, so they didn’t make the cut. Writing to your title helps weed out those words that just don’t do the song justice.

So, what is my process?

I start with my title. Then I ask myself “What idea sets this title up best the first time?” My listeners have never heard my song, so how am I going to lead them to my title so that when it arrives it is both “unexpected and inevitable?”(As one of my mentors, Tom Shapiro used to say).

Once I come up with my angle for setting up (pointing to) my title the first time, I think about how I’m going to set it up the second time. Then I come up with an angle for my second verse that points to that title again, hopefully in an even more interesting way.

Once I’ve answered those questions, I have the blueprint for my song and I start writing, keeping in mind that everything I say has to point TO that one big idea for the song. Writing to your title keeps everything in the song pointing at your title and makes your song stronger.

I hope this technique works the same for you!

Happy writing!

~ MD

Marty Dodson - pro songwriter/instructor - SongTown

Marty Dodson
Multi-hit songwriter/Co-Founder of SongTown
Co-Author of the top-selling book The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Cowriting

15 thoughts on “Writing To Your Title

  1. Any & alll tools refining & reflecting into the heart & essence of our listener support penetrating their target heart… spokes directed inward allow for placement of playing cards held by clothes-pins to giver the rev’ our listeners must have to authentically complete their journey… & done with a spirit of excellence they’ll return to those moments over & over, again & again… never returning to who they were before the song took them to new & improved, or perhaps, forgiven & resolved… onwards HEALERS, Tale-Tellers, sock darners & melodic minstrels…

  2. This was the perfect advice I needed for the song I’m writing today… it just wasn’t sitting right but this will help clear it up :). Thank you!

  3. I like this analogy of the wheel and the hub; the hub being the main idea of the song and the spokes being the ideas that tie in to the hub. It helps make sense of the process. I also appreciate the statement at the end- “I hope this technique works the same for you!”. Songwriting is such a personal experience that some techniques may work for some writers sometimes, but not always. It is helpful to have another tool in your box for when you might need it. Thanks for the insights!

  4. Love this, Marty. It’s reassuring (I must have heard you intro this concept before), as yesterday I had two titles (“Fixer Upper” and Thinking Problem”) and absolutely write both TO the title. They ain’t perfect yet, but writing to the title saved me a hell of a lot of time and hassle. Cheers!

  5. Thank you Marty, these tips are certainly helpful to say the least! I am collaborating with another fellow here in Texas, near Austin and we will be submitting 2 songs to Nashville in the very near future. This fellow suggested Tom T. Hall’s book; “The Songwriters Handbook” which I also found very helpful. Thanks again!!

    1. That book helped me. I sent a song a was writing to Tom T and he said I was on the right track so I’m going to add SongTown to my learning experience

  6. I’ve heard Songs that were so ‘obvious’ in writing to the title but weren’t interesting. Perhaps the title wasn’t all that interesting, or perhaps they simply Rhymed their way up to it and didn’t tell an interesting story.
    I recommend getting a sense of the Singer-Character. It’s their story. It doesn’t have to be you; your story. You can assume the persona of this ‘real’ person going through a ‘real’ situation, yet fictional; a story.
    Getting that sense of the Singer-Character can help you comprehend what a real person in that real situation might say, and how they would say it. I guarantee the Rhyme is there if you just tell the story, or let the Singer-Character tell it.
    I seldom if ever start with a title. I ad lib a Verse I, Line 1, and get that sense of the Singer-Character. As the first listener, I’m intrigued by what he’s said so far. I want to know more. I may have to wait a while as the concept comes to me, the broader implications of the ‘story’ he’s started. But I let that incubation have time. When it is ‘time’ for THE Hook, the title Line, it comes to me, summing up the story I’ve/he’s been telling.
    Often I hear title Lines that might have been better as the first Line, and then let the story unfold, and find a superior title later. I get that perception because it’s the only good Line in the Song, all the others obviously fabricated to try to write to that summary Line, but not very interesting.
    Whatever technique works, works. But putting real characters on a stage, with whatever props you have to tell their story, the Singer-Character, the Love-Interest Character, the Other-Man/Woman Character, the conflict, always a good element in story-telling, and the denouement, the ending, makes for Songs that engage listeners, ‘other’ listeners, the same way they should engage you, the first listener.

  7. Hi Marty hope you doing good.Ja Marty that good advice.Sticj to the title of the sing Godbkess

  8. These reminders of the things I’ve learned in ST alway show up when I need them again.

    Thanks Marty

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