Any writer who has gone through periods of writer’s block knows exactly what’s difficult. The more skilled we become, the more equipped we are to compare what we create to what others create—that’s where writer’s block often sneaks into the picture. Either we’re tired of our familiar, worn-out ideas, or we’ve got the good sense to suspect our listeners are. It's a natural and necessary part of creative growth.
We asked multi-platinum creative consultant Andrea Stolpe to give us her top tips when it comes to getting past mental barriers.
A writer with 20+ years’ experience in the music industry, Andrea has penned songs for such artists as Faith Hill, Julianne Hough, and Jimmy Wayne and has worked at companies including Universal Music Publishing, EMI, and Almo-Irving.
Learn to Trust Your Instincts
Everyone is a music critic—not everyone’s critique is valuable. Consider critique or feedback in context of those giving it. Some people care very much about lyrics, some don’t. Some swear that a great melodic hook is the key to a hit song. Some think it’s all about the guitar riff, the tempo, the vocals, etc. Allow yourself the grace to find out where your own preferences lie, and how they strengthen your process toward the music you love to create.
Songwriting comes very naturally to some, but for others, it takes a lot of practice. Until you’ve given yourself adequate time to find out how far you can develop your gift, don’t stop writing. To truly be a songwriter, you must write. You’ll know you’re making progress when you intentionally apply tools of the craft to achieve the effects you want to hear.
Write in Short Bursts
Got 10 minutes? Journal about the corner booth in the 24-hour diner downtown. Got 30? Sit down with your instrument and work up a simple chord progression, or listen to new music and choose a groove you’d like to use for your next song. Shuttling to school, work, or grandmother’s house? Dictate into your phone about a song concept you feel passionate about. These quickies are great ways to foster ideas and still maintain a healthy distance from them.
Repeat Yourself Until You Don’t
Though we may like to innovate with each song we write, it’s an unreasonable expectation that does more harm than good. Beginning writers are often much more concerned about trespassing on the elements of others songs than pro writers are. Pros have been writing long enough that they’re aware how profoundly influenced their songs are by the music of others.
Journal Every Day
Just 5 minutes a day of journaling can increase productivity ten-fold. Journaling thoughts and feelings can be excellent, but journaling with sensory language is a must for writers interested in bumping up their lyric quality. Sensory language describes taste, touch, sight, sound, smell, and movement. To write this way, simply choose any place, person, or thing, and begin writing about it using your senses. Make sure to avoid judging what you write. In this exercise there are no good or bad ideas—just the joy that prompted you to write in the first place.
End With Something New
During each writing session, take the last 5-10 minutes to start something new. Journaling, sensory writing, or sifting through notes for good titles or musical ideas can bring motivation for the next day and remind us that we’re not reliant on any single song in development.
Change Your Process
If you’re used to writing music first, try writing a few lyrics before picking up your instrument. If you’ve never used a rhythm track or drum loop, allow groove to be your leading element. If you don’t believe you sing, try pretending you do—if only to write a melody using the rhythmic faculties you have merely speaking lyrics to a chord progression. As for chords, try reducing your vocabulary to just two or three, and write two contrasting sections with them. Changing process is a powerful way to avoid being stranded with the element of the song you feel least equipped to write.
Don’t Write Full Songs
At some point we need to finish tunes and move beyond the brainstorming phase. But full songs can be a beast to finish if they’re our only measure of a productive writing session. Instead, simply write a contrasting verse and chorus, or sketch an outline for the lyric content of each section. By focusing on small, measurable activities and then stepping away from our song starts, we have the opportunity to fall in love with them or let them go later on when we’re able to be more objective.
Interested in learning more tips from Andrea? Download her free guide, the 5 songwriting tools that change everything