This is the first in a series of posts related to the topic of song-writing. I’ve done a fair share of it in my time as a songwriter and it’s high time I passed on a what bit of wisdom I’ve gathered in my process.
Andre Agassi’s father told him to hit the ball as hard as he could and that someday it would land in-bounds. Eventually, it did. Often. Agassi became one of the greatest players in tennis history. You will, too if you buy my new instructional songwriting video series “Write It Like McRoberts.”
In short, I can be too careful to “get it right” and end up not getting anything done at all.
I’m not a perfectionist. Yet, in my songwriting, I find something akin to perfectionism at work. It’s a tendency I’ve worked hard to move away from because it kept me from working. I’d stop in the process of writing when I wasn’t entirely happy with what I had in hand. Songs would sit unfinished for months or years and at times, I’d hesitate to even approach songwriting, knowing that some half-finished work would be staring me in the face like sad, hungry puppy I locked in my office.
I’ve learned that I have to finish. Even if it wasn’t going to turn out perfectly (and it often wouldn’t). Only once I’d completed a song could I get enough altitude or distance from it to actually critique it. As long as it was unfinished, it was still inside me in some way… far too close to critically evaluate it or change it.
So, it has meant putting some bad parts or melodies in place, knowing they aren’t so great, just so I could listen to a whole song. Sometimes, I’d come back to that finished song and find that the part I’d thrown in just so I could finish wasn’t half bad (the squeeze of finishing yields some great results at times). More often, it wasn’t until I could hear the song in context that I knew what it still needed and what might work; again, it was about having some distance from it.
Most importantly, finishing when you don’t “feel ready” helps establish an actual process for the work of songwriting. If it’s just an emotional outpouring or exercise in self-expression, that’s fine. But great (or even good) songwriting takes discipline. Finishing is a good place to begin that discipline.