Songwriting Dos and Don’ts

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At a recent “Play For a Publisher” event, Brent Baxter and Johnny Dwinell hosted Stacey Willbur, VP of Publishing and A&R for Full Circle Music. Ms. Willbur shared her feedback about the 10 songs that were selected to be showcased, and the boys broke down some of her “knowledge bombs” on Episode 203 of the CLIMB podcast: “The Dos and Don’ts of Songwriting From A Hit Music Publisher.” Read the highlights and listen to the episode for more insight into what song publishers are looking for.

DO: Write a cool opening line

You want your first line to be different and you want it to draw your listener in. “I woke up this morning…” is not going to cut it. It’s hard to get away with an opening line that’s a stock lyric. I remember when I was first starting to write lyrics, I was like, “How do I start a line? I guess, ‘woke up today’ or ‘just last night,'” and man, I learned quickly that’s not going to cut it. There’s no time to play around, you’ve got to get right to the point. Your first line needs to be something the rest of the song has to live up to, or something the rest of your song needs to overcome. It better be something the rest of the song has to live up to, ’cause at least then they’re listening.

DON’T: Make your chorus melody too much like your verse melody

You want your chorus to lift the song, melodically, from where your verses are. Lyrically too, but mostly melodically. In critiquing one song, Stacey said, “If I wasn’t looking at the lyrics, I wouldn’t have known if we were still on the verse or in the chorus.” It needs to be clear, your chorus needs to announce itself. That’s something I’ve noticed myself, when a writer’s verse melody and chorus melody are sitting in the same pocket. There has to be a lift.

DO: Write interesting titles

On one song in particular, Stacey perked up, saying, “That’s a song title I haven’t heard before.” We tend to hear the same titles over and over and over… here’s another song titled, “I Love You.” I can say for all of the songs I’ve placed, they had titles I hadn’t heard before, like “Monday Morning Church.” Now, correlation is not causation, but it has to mean something. I call it “winning before you’re spinning.” Sometimes folks in the industry will hear your title before they hear your song, and it can get you winning before you’re spinning if it’s a title that catches their attention, because they’re like, “Ooh, what’s this going to be about? I haven’t heard a thousand of those already.”

DON’T: Be afraid to rewrite

So many great songs come from rewrites. There’s no shame in it — it’s what the pros do. I mean, what’s the worst thing that happens with a rewrite? You find out you like the first one better? Or the first one is better? Sometimes, especially in the beginning, we get emotionally attached to something we’ve written, but there’s no harm in writing more than what you need and then picking the best of the best when you’re putting it together. Don’t be afraid to go back in there and dig deeper. Don’t be scared, and don’t be stubborn. Don’t be so precious about your songs. You gotta keep raising the bar. I know your songs are your babies, but I still take my baby to the doctor when he’s sick. You don’t just have a baby and say, “Done! There you go world!”

DO: Polish your chorus

Polished, singable choruses are so valuable. Stacey remarked on several songs how it was so great to hear a catchy chorus that got burned into her brain after just one listen. It’s so important to have that. There were some songs where she wanted some editing done to the chorus, she was like, “there’s a lot going on in that chorus,” which makes it less memorable and less singable. So she encouraged some of the writers to boil their choruses down to make their songs more concentrated. I’ve noticed that with some of my songs. When I woodshed and work on lyrical content, like I got this idea and it could be a chorus and I find I overbuild it. And then I’m like, “you know what, that’s kind of wordy for a chorus, maybe that’s just a killer verse. But I’m learning, because I keep doing it. Let’s get that chorus as simple and singable as we can and put most of the content in the verses.

DO: Simplify

In a lot of the songs, Stacey mentioned how the lyric had a lot going on. It might have been a lot of story, or just a bunch of images and pictures, or just a lot of words. So first of all, get to your chorus quickly, so it might have also been that it took too long to get to the chorus. But also, if you have a lot going on in your verses, simplify your chorus. If there’s a lot of meat in your verses, let’s get to some spirit in the choruses. Give the listener some relief, longer notes, shorter phrases. It can work the other way too, with a sparse verse and busier chorus, but a little push and pull between your verses and choruses is a good thing.

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There’s plenty more to hear… listen to the entire podcast.

The CLIMB is a podcast produced by Brent Baxter (award-winning hit songwriter with cuts by Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Lady Antebellum, Joe Nichols, and more) and Johnny Dwinell (owner of Daredevil Production) that’s dedicated to helping singers, songwriters, and artists like you create leverage in the music business because that’s what you’re gonna need. You’re gonna need some leverage, you’re gonna need an audience, and you’re gonna need a reason for people to stand up and salute you. It’s not just about your talent – you’ve got to bring the business, and that’s why we call it The CLIMB, it’s an acronym that stands for “creating leverage in the music business.”

Professional songwriters offer advice on how to write a great song

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About Johnny Dwinell and Brent Baxter

The C.L.I.M.B. is hosted by Brent Baxter (, an award-winning hit songwriter with cuts by Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Lady A, Joe Nichols, Ray Stevens, Gord Bamford, and more; and Johnny Dwinell (Daredevil Production) who helps artists increase their streams, blow up their video views, sell more live show tickets, and get discovered by fans and industry pros.

22 thoughts on “Songwriting Dos and Don’ts

  1. Interesting post, to say the least, however, it is very difficult to tell a writer how to write a song. It’s a personal journey but one I very much respect. Having been a producer/engineer for more than 25 years, the last place I worked was in Nashville. There are no better songwriters or studio musicians in the world than in Nashville, as far as I’m concerned and, I have recorded many, many, hit artists and records.

    As a producer selecting songs for an artist I am working with, first, I have to know the artist on an emotional level. Secondly, I need a song that moves me in some way, when I hear it. And most importantly, the artist needs to want the song because without that buy-in, the artist will not be able to deliver what the song can do, but rather just phone it in, which is not desirable in any case.

    Write what you’ll write and forget about all the nonsense. if you’re doing this to make an illustrious career for yourself, you’re very sadly in the wrong business. Truly creative people don’t do this because they want to – they do it because they have to. There is a huge difference between to two, both in terms of quality and success. Carry on!

  2. Sigh…

    Here’s how to write a hit song. No, actually, what you are NOT being told here is that you cannot predict what will and will not work.

    Example, the opening line. They mention “I woke up this morning” won’t cut it. Really. Better tell Bruce Springsteen. Dancing In The Dark opening line:

    I get up in the evening
    And I ain’t got nothing to say

    That right there is basically a “NO NO”. But you know what? It works….for that song.

    Other advice in this column is pretty typical. Don’t be afraid to rewrite. Well, show me a song writer who doesn’t do this already. That’s par for the course. We ALL tweak our lyrics.

    Catchy chorus? Well, I have found some choruses not catchy, but extremely poignant – and totally necessary. A chorus is a conclusion, a life lesson or a summary, something to that effect, encapsulated in the body of the chorus.

    But a chorus can be just one line at the end of the verse. This was done a whole lot back in the 30s, 40s and 50s, even into the 1960s.

    The best formula is to throw out ALL formulas and just write your heart. Don’t worry about whether it will be a hit, sell a billion copies, be played on the radio.

    While music IS a commodity in some respects, it is also more importantly ART. And ART should not have to conform to what people are trying to counsel you it should be, what it needs.

    Here is the bottom line: following the rules gets you sounding like everybody else.

    But following YOUR muse may be the very thing the world is looking for, that “it” thing that nobody has done yet – or for many decades and has been forgotten. When you throw off the shackles of what everyone expects, demands, thinks or counsels you to do, and just follow your creativity where it leads, it will lead you to what Shakespeare called the “undiscovered country” – the place unknown, unexplored and which contains things nobody knows about, or remembers.

    That’s where the magic lives.

    That’s where you should live.

    1. You’re right about the article, pretty standard. But, what Bruce Springsteen does in Dancing in the Dark is kind of clever. He takes the cliched opening and reveres it to make it interesting. Instead of getting up in the morning, which is the cliche, Bruce gets up in the evening. So i think turning his opening line around works great because now it has my interest. Why is he getting up at night? Is this guy alright? It’s surprising how catchy it is.

  3. Well, I’m sure these are all good comments, but as we used to hear from all the pros in the NSAI, if there was a formula, everyone would use it, and all those songs would be hits. Personally, I’ve pitched a lot of songs and gotten a lot of rejections. I’ve know people who impressed publishers on their first shot. The short and skinny is that the song (including the arrangement and performance) must impress or strike a chord (no pun intended) with someone in charge, or it will go the way of the baby’s bathwater. I’ve heard some of what I would consider the worst lyrics coupled with a tired 3 chord progression that found it’s way to artists who think it’s nothing short of kryptonite. It may even get airplay on promotion alone. The best advice has always been, write often, write with variety, play it for anyone who will listen, and keep it up until someone takes notice or you’re planted in pleasant grove.

  4. While Miss Stacey Willbur makes some valid points. There are too many songs that follow such blueprints. If an artist writes all their songs following Miss Willbur’s advice, this is a boring artist… You can’t have all your songs verse-chorus-verse-chorus… a band like Pink Floyd very rarely used this chorus… sometimes the first line of the lyric arrived a couple of minutes into the song. You got to be diversified and really have something to say to be interesting. Don’t go for “this has to be a hit song”… best way to fail.

  5. If we could hear some songs that Stacey Willbur has written herself it would add to her credibility. Okay, Brent Baxter and Johnny Dwinell have run the course but so many people involved in publishing want songwriters to fit in with THEIR perception of what a hit is which is why all they are looking for is a 30 second commercial and not a real well constructed song. Maybe they are right . Our attention spans are now so short we can’t bother with anything that may require any kind of thought or concentration by the listener.

  6. Edit, edit, edit….and then when your are done: rewrite and edit again, and if you have put in the time and work you might have a decent song that you might need to edit and rewrite again, and again.

    1. Well…sometimes you can overthink a thing and ruin it.

      Years ago I wrote a song as I was making it up. I changed almost nothing and it is a great song.

      You have to learn to know the difference, when a song needs something, and when to leave it alone because it is perfect right out of the box. 🙂

  7. I have to laugh at what this so called “expert” is telling us. I am a hit songwriter myself, but quite honestly, if you listen to the Top Twenty these days hardly anything she says applies. A lot of the traditional structure is gone from current songs. Maybe in country music some of it may survive, but if you listen to this woman’s advice and aim for top of the charts – well – that is very unlikely to work out for you folks.

      1. I’m sure there is some truth to that old expression, but the best teachers are those that have done what they’re teaching and choose to pass along what they’ve learned.

  8. I’ve conceived of a Songwriter’s judgment call, centered on the concept of ‘Enough’.
    How much Introductory Movement is ‘Enough’?
    How much is ‘Not Enough’?
    How much is ‘Too Much’?
    That continuum should be part of the Songwriter’s personal sense of ‘Enough’ throughout the Song.
    The Songwriter, The First Listener, should be ‘hooked’ by the Hook Factor in whatever the Introductory Movement presents, the same way they hope others will be hooked.
    When ‘Enough’ Introductory Movement has been delivered it is ‘time’ to start the Song, the part of the composition where the singer delivers the Lyric, or, in an instrumental composition, an instrument begins to deliver the performance. Then, how much ‘exposition’ of the story is ‘Enough’ before it is ‘time’ to get to the punch line, the title, THE Hook? The First Listener should sense that timing.
    Go on too long, ‘Too Much’, and listeners tune out, drift off to their own thoughts. You may get them back later, if they keep the sound on. Or…you may not. They may not.
    Whatever Stanza comes after the Intro., maybe you open with the Chorus, or the Verse, it too demands the Songwriter’s judgment call. Have you said Enough in a Verse to set up for the Chorus? If you opened with the Chorus is it adequate to ‘hook’ listener interest and keep them hooked into the Verse?
    Enough; it may be an elusive concept, especially if you never thought about it before. Once you think about it I think you can find its application throughout your Song.
    Is the storyline in your Lyric Enough? Did the Singer or Singer-Character get to tell the story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end? Does the story need a satisfying denouement’, an ending that finishes the story in an interesting way? Some writers know the term, “Third Verse Curse”, a phenomenon where they can’t conceive of what to write in a Third Verse to do that storybook ending in a satisfying way. They resort to a Bridge, a tactical variation in the Repetition of Verse and Chorus to serve the function of renewing listener interest, enabling a final giving of the Chorus. It works, but a Third Verse to complete the story you hooked them with, the story that hooked you, is probably more satisfying, more memorable.
    Well, I’ve said…Enough.

    1. Well Gary if the songs you write are as long and drawn out as your reply you might just have a problem. I’d say your over thinking. A Bridge should not be a variation on anything but something new that stands out in 2 or 4 lines that explains what the whole song is about and resolves the problem and makes all clear to the listener. That’s where the skill comes in though Bridges are not used so much now being considered ‘old hat’. I’ll use 3 verses if I have to but they always make the song longer than intended. ‘Ode to Billy Joe’ had 11 verses when first presented to a publisher.

  9. That is good input, especially about not using old used up opening words. I woke up his morning. After those words I would be turned off. I hear thg hat too much in blues song. That makes the song predictable.
    I remember copy writing one of my songs years ago and they thought that I was copying someone else’s song because they just went by the title.

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