I actually love to re-write. Once the first kernels of a song are out in the world, I love nothing more than to sit down and work out the final bits. Even on days when I can’t seem to get anywhere on a song, the act of living with it for a couple of hours is rewarding, and even fun. Below is a list of five of the primary things I feel re-writing does to help make me a better writer.
- Get more specific. Is it a house, or an “old, red house” ? A tree, or “a tall oak tree”? Details can instantly form an image and create mood in a song. Many songwriters try to stay vague in an effort to make their songs “universal” and applicable to a wider audience. In my experience, the more specific the lyrics and the story in the song, the more people will connect and identify with it. One of the songs that is the most personal to me, “Something Holy,” is actually the one that gets me more comments from people saying they were emotionally drawn in. I want to tell a story, and the best stories have specific details.
- Stay out of ruts. It’s easy for me to get into patterns with songwriting, especially when one thing has worked well for me in the past. There’s the curse of using the same chord progression (or slight variation thereof), the reappearance of common lyrical or metric patterns, and the repetition of metaphors or phrases. Looking back over the lyrics and song structure after I’ve laid down a first draft helps me spot those things and work to replace them with something different or more effective.
- Avoid common mistakes. This is where the internal editor, Steve, comes in handy. I feel that I’m always improving as a songwriter, and part of that is knowing when I’m making a “rookie” mistake. I’m a fan of irregular rhymes, but every once in awhile an over-used rhyme will creep in (like “girl” and “world”) and I have to catch myself. When a cliche worms its way into a song I’m working on, I’ll either look to remove it or try to work it in such a way that it is useful. Cliches are only effective if the writer is using them in awareness instead of simply saying something that’s been said a thousand times before. The internal editor helps me get back on track if I ever dare to write “deep as the ocean” or “you’re my world” in a song.
- Find out what my song is really about. Any piece of creative work goes through many phases before becoming what it’s meant to be. Sometimes the characters, story, and mood go in a direction that I didn’t intend when I started, and that’s when the process is really exciting for me. Working on structure, making “mind maps” of lyrics and concepts, and analyzing the song for awhile help me pull out the real story I want to focus on. Once I have that core concept, I can tweak the lyrics and structure to highlight it as much as possible.
- Know when it’s “done.” Often one can get so wrapped up in writing and re-writing that the song becomes mangled beyond recognition. Re-writing is a skill like any other in the craft, and the better I get at it, the more likely I am to recognize when to step away from a song and call it finished. When I find myself frustrated or re-writing the same verse over and over, I know I need to take a break from a song and come back to it later. Similarly, I can tell when the re-writing is productive and moving things along. When the song reaches its final form, I can step back and admire my work and feel completely satisfied, and that is absolutely worth all the time and effort it takes to get there.