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Getting Into the Flow of Cowriting

As mentioned in Getting Started the Right Way in the New Millennium of Music Business by Amanda Colleen Williams

There are as many different writing styles as there are songwriters, but just as with any other endeavor, there are certain qualities that characterize the best practices of how to go about writing songs. 


Instead of trying to describe a bunch of different writing styles, I will describe the one we like best here at Songpreneurs, “the flow.” 

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Often new writers fall into the trap of thinking “their way” of writing is a unique style when it is really a way of doing things based on inexperience. 


If we’re not careful, we can start our songwriting adventure with bad habits that can keep us from being as successful as we can be if we are open minded and begin by establishing habits which are based on tried and true methods of writing that consistently generate hits and great songs.


            Anyone who has ever written with me knows that I will write a song 99 times out of 100 every time I sit down to write. 


It’s not always a hit, but it’s always complete and I can finish it in roughly two hours or less depending on whether I am writing alone, with a single co-writer, or with a group. 


This is not to brag, it’s simply to state that it is possible to write a complete song every time you sit down to do so if you have practiced doing it enough and have proper focus and know about flow.


            I learned this habit of using flow to write songs from my dad, hit songwriter Kim Williams.   


It didn’t come from writing with him or from watching him write, but rather from talking with him about my own co-writing experiences, and listening to what he taught me about the process of writing from his own experience writing by himself and with other people. 


            Dad is a big proponent of flow.  One of the few articles I have managed to get him to write for our group is about just that. 

You can read it and the related article (linked there) by “The Writer’s Guide to Psychology” author, Carole Kaufman for more information about flow & how he used it to write some of his hits.

  A lot of people don’t know it, but Dad was only a couple of credit hours shy of a degree in psychology when he quit school and started pursuing songwriting as a career.  


He quit school because he overheard some fellow students (18 and 19 year old kids) talking about which field of psychology they were going to specialize in. 


Their conversation was largely based around how much money was involved in their choices. 


Dad, in his late 20s at the time, had already been “burned out” of a well paying career as a mechanic/electrical engineer at a “float glass plant” in East Tennessee, and knew that money alone was not going to be his motivation in pursuing anything ever again.


            Dad’s love of psychology and his study of it have definitely influenced his songwriting, not only in the application of techniques like “flow” and his interest in synchronicity and other mind oriented phenomena (bordering on metaphysics and religion), but his insight into the human psyche has helped him shape characters in his songs better than just about any other writer I know (of course, I may be slightly biased, but not entirely.  The man did sell over 140 million units and counting, so others must share my bias as well.)


            Concentrating on flow is what helps me to write a song every time I try.  Flow and focus.  Let’s examine these two elements and how they related to songwriting through an analysis of a typical co-writing session.


            A typical writing session starts by talking.  Most writers are pretty friendly with each other, and when they sit down in a room with the purpose of writing a song, it’s a natural thing to discuss what has been going on in each other’s lives.  


It is not important or necessary to spill your entire guts to your co-writer or to tell them personal and intimate details about yourself (and don’t because we songwriters can’t keep a secret very well). 


What is important in this chat fest is to find a piece of common ground that you can both relate to that will be able to engage you both for the amount of time it takes to write a song… 2 or 3 hours, and your listener for 3 or 4 minutes.


            If your purpose in sitting down with this person is to write a song, it’s important not to spend all afternoon chatting and talking about things that aren’t in any way related to songwriting.  You don’t want to waste each other’s time. 


Not that you don’t enjoy one another’s company, and not that you’re trying to be rude, but pro songwriters are busy people and don’t have all afternoon to kill chatting with you about whatever. 


So, keep that in mind and keep looking for a topic to write about as you are chatting.  The quicker you can find an idea to write, the better your chances will be of coming up with a complete song at the end of your writing session.


            It may be that your chatting session doesn’t yield any songwriting topics or “hooks.”  If this is your situation after thirty minutes or so, now is when you need to pull out your hook book and throw around ideas with your co-writer. 


You keep a notebook of hooks for just this very purpose. 


            Whichever one of you is the new writer, that’s the one who should have the idea to write.  It is rude to expect the pro writer to share a hit hook idea with you. 


Why should they?  You are unproven and untested.  They want to have the greatest odds of getting a cut as possible, and sorry newbie, you ain’t it. 


If you want to write a hit song with a pro writer, you can increase your odds by coming to the table with a great hook or idea to write. 


The pro writer will appreciate your idea and will be able to craft it in a the best possible way to make it a potential hit, and then will have the connections and network of pluggers and artist contacts to give you a good chance at hitting a homerun, a hit charting song. 


            So you toss out ideas with your co-writer until you both agree that you want to start writing on that topic.  This is where the flow comes in.


            Flow in songwriting is when you get your idea in mind, focus on it, and then allow your collective creative juices to “flow” like a river toward the finish line of your completed song. 


When you are in the flow, you are coming up with lines that pertain to and help develop the main idea of your song. 


            A good technique for encouraging flow in a writing session is to use a graphic organizer.  It sounds silly, to use a classroom technique in a real life songwriting session, but it works, and it’s not silly if it works. 


How do you make a graphic organizer?  Write your topic or main idea in the center of a sheet of paper and draw a circle around it. 


Then draw a line coming off that central idea and write a related idea there and circle it.  Got some ideas related to that sub idea? 


Great!  Write them branching off from it and circle them as well.  Write down as many ideas as you can and don’t censor yourself or your co-writer during this process. 


The censor is bad.  Leave him/her out of this, and just write as much information as you can that relates to this central idea or hook of yours.  After you’ve exhausted all the ideas you can imagine, read over what you’ve got aloud and see if anything sounds good.


            In the process of reading your words aloud, you’ll find nice sounding (consonant) phrases that you can incorporate into your songwriting.  You’ll find rhymes too, and can combine some of the images you’ve come up with to make for some cool lines for your song.


            If you don’t want to make a graphic organizer, that’s fine too.  Don’t do it.


            Another way of getting into the flow in songwriting is to, again, focus on your hook or main idea, and then start from the beginning.  Your first line is probably the most important line in the whole song because, if you can’t hook the listener’s attention in that first line, they’re not going to make it to your real “hook” in the chorus.  They’re going to change the station, or click next on the computer screen, and they’ll be lost to you forever. 


            This first line may suddenly appear in your mind in a flash of brilliance, or maybe not.  The point of flow is to go with it.  Take that first good line that someone throws out and get started writing from there.  You will sometimes find that this line doesn’t end up in your finished song, because somewhere along the way, someone will say a line that tops it, but you’ll never get there if you don’t start by using that first good line as a starting place.


            The whole idea of flow-based songwriting is to do just that – flow with it.  Get in there and start writing and you’ll just keep going.


            Flow is based on the idea of inertia.  You’ll remember from science class that inertia says that “an object at rest tends to stay at rest, and an object in motion tends to stay in motion.”  What we’re looking for is motion!  So what’s the best way to get something in motion?  Move!  Move the pencil on the paper and write some words.  That’s it.  Now keep writing words, and you’ve done it!  You’ve overcome the inertia of writer’s block and have jumped into the flow of writing.  Don’t worry if it’s “good” or not.  Many a masterpiece is wasted in the trashcan of self-doubt.


            Writing with a co-writer is in some ways easier than writing alone, because you’ve got a double set of brains to work with.  It’s really fun, too, when you both stay in the flow because flow loves company. 


            If flow loves company, what does flow hate?  Swimming.


            Dad (Kim Williams) will actually yell at a co-writer (especially a newbie) who starts swimming upstream in the middle of a writing session.  He likes to get the whole first draft of the song fairly well completed before he starts “dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t”s.  In plain English, this means that he doesn’t want people arguing over whether the truck is black or green, or whether it should be “and” or “but” and picky things like that.


            How do you know if you’re swimming upstream?  You’ll get stuck.  Your flow will be arrested in its tracks because you’re no longer flowing, you’re swimming upstream (or standing still – and remember inertia – when you start standing still, you’ll continue to do so until you start moving again).  You will find yourself stuck if you start focusing on unimportant details of your song before you know what you’re writing about. 


How do you know if something’s important or not?  Well, if it’s a rhyming word at the end of the line, it’s important.  If it is a detail that changes the meaning of the song, it’s important.  If it’s a line in the chorus, it’s important.  If not, it’s not. 


            Sometimes you’ll get stuck even when you’re in the flow because your “flow” knows you’ve done something wrong.  That is, something you’ve added in your song, some whole line usually, or more if you’re a newbie, will be just flat out wrong. 


Wait a minute!  This is subjective, how do you know if something’s wrong?!  It will be anti-flow.  Using that line (and sometimes it will be your very favorite line in the whole song) that you’re trying to use is causing the rest of the song to stay bottled up in the ether instead of flowing down into your and your co-writer’s brains. 


            If we’re artists, and we are, we’re supposed to be picking up on thought vibrations of everybody else in the word who is thinking.  That’s the whole point of songwriting, to reach up into the “raincloud of knowable things” and pull down a whole thought form, and then express it in our own unique way. 


If you’re going against the flow, it means that you’re being arrogant and proud and you’re forcing your own little insignificant ideas upon the big picture that doesn’t give a flip about your little idea.  So the flow responds by cutting off your creative juice. 

            “No more creative juice for you, buddy.  You’ve had enough,” says the flow.  And you are forced to either fight and struggle your way, kicking and screaming to the finish line (a completed song), which will be no fun for you or your cowriter, or you will give up and quit writing before the song is complete because it’s no fun.


            The flow loves fun.  It loves humor.  If you get really stuck, try thinking of funny lines that rhyme with what you have written that you both like.  It sounds silly, but take a listen to some of the hit songs on the radio and tell me they didn’t do just what I’m telling you to do. 


            Now, you swim.  Once you’ve joked and caroused your way to the finish line of your song, you can now sit back and start examining it.  You check out that line that’s been bothering you since the beginning and think up a better one.  You can dot those “i”s and cross those “t”s.  This is where your revision techniques come into play and this is the time to use your “critic” in the form of the critical mind. 


I don’t really like that word “critic” so let’s call it the left-brain function.


The underlying principle of this flow concept is explained in our “write brain” method of songwriting, as we’re calling it. 


“Write brain” method is equally balanced between right and left-brain functions.  The right brain is typically associated with holistic thinking, creativity in general, quantitative criteria and “flow.”  The left-brain is primarily related to “critical thinking,” analysis, detail, and qualitative criteria.  When you put them both together, you have the best of both hemispheres working together, each doing what it does best. 


The problem with songwriting arises when you try to get your left brain critical mind into the flow, or if you let your right brain control the revision process.  It doesn’t work.   That’s like getting an artist to do your taxes and asking your accountant to paint a mural on your kid’s bedroom wall.  (No offense to you creative accountants, but you get the picture).  When we let each side of the brain do the job it is best suited to do, we end up with a more harmonious songwriting experience.


There are other methods of songwriting which work for some hit writers.  Some of these guys labor and fret over each and every line they write, sometimes taking longer than a week to finish a single verse, taking months to complete a song.  Their methods work for them, and I’m not here to knock ‘em, but I don’t understand it, so I can’t write about it.  You’ll have to ask them how they do it if you’d like to write that way, or if the idea of laboring over each word appeals to your artistic sensibilities as a songwriter.  For me, flow is king.


            When you are a new songwriter, the hardest thing is to remember that in order to ever get any kind of craft going, you can’t just read about writing.  You have to do it.  The best way to do it, and do a lot of it, is to somehow find someway of getting into the flow of the right brain. 


So what if you don’t write hits?  It’s ok.  Better to write a hundred songs and have a few of them touch a few people than to never write any songs and never touch a single person with your music.  Of course we all want to hit a homerun, but that’s not in the cards for everyone. 


If you ever want to have a shot at writing a hit, you’ve got to write a couple hundred mediocre songs.  Once you start, you’ll keep going, and who knows, you may just write a hit on song number 201.  Flow with it, baby. 


Now, go write a song.


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