The Rewrite

In the movie business there is an old saying: great scripts aren't written, they are rewritten. In songwriting the principle is the same — but I might want to add: Everything that changes changes everything.

The idea for this article came to me while writing someone who had been sending me lyrics to critique recently.

When critiquing songs for other people there are, for me, primarily two ways of looking at the work — in the elements, or parts of the whole (as in the sum of the parts makes the whole) — or comprehensively — looking at how the whole works together.

As soon as you start breaking a song down to its elements, very often you can see why a song may or may not be working as a whole — for instance, in a song that is intended as Pop in nature, if you can't understand the lyric you take away an accessibility element. If you can't hum the melody you take away a memorable element. If the title is vague, cliché, or doesn't relate to the song thematically, you lose a another relatable element.

So, in looking at the song, if you break down the obvious, common factors, you can often see major problems with structure and relatability for the listener.

But any song can be nitpicked that way — perfect songs are rare — so if your point is to find fault in construction or concept you usually can. It is always easier to criticize than to create.

The other way to look at a song however is comprehensively — are there adjustments that can be made to make the song better as a whole — in other words, as good as that particular idea and approach can be. That can involve those same structural elements — but from a different perspective.

I have found, in a very broad characterization, two basic types of writers who come to me for advice about their songs.

First is the writer who just wants to write a hit — they want to craft their song(s) by process of elimination — removing elements that may be holding the song back in order to make the song viable as a marketable product in the real world.

This approach can be addressed in the part-by-part process mentioned above — if the title is not as strong as it could be — new title. If the melody isn't memorable — work it out in a flowing way. If the second verse isn't linear — make it linear. Sort of like fixing a car or carving a statue out of marble — piece-by-piece until it is as good as it can be.

Unfortunately, that process can be frustrating for the writer. Because no matter how well-crafted, an idea that is not good in the first place can ultimately only be a very wellcrafted not very good idea.

And writers who approach the material with a strong result oriented mindset often feel frustrated with the process when it doesn't end with the desired result.

What they often miss is what they learned in the process.

The other approach is comprehensive. These writers approach the process as a process — through the writing they are learning — and always, without it being the actual goal, through the process they get better and better at honing the craft of writing.

In other words, in order to get better sometimes you have to take your eye off the prize and concentrate on the race step by step — then, later, when you look up, you will be surprised at far you have come.

Which brings us back to: "everything that changes changes everything."

I find when I offer suggestions and point out elements that could be improved in a song there is a natural tendency for the writer to address that element and then more or less expect that adjustment to make everything better. Sometimes, when I am particularly "on," that can be the case.

But often, that is not the case. A change in the second verse can make the first verse read differently, it can throw of what was the theme, a single line, a single word, can change the entire meaning of a lyric. So instead of "fixing" the problem, you may uncover a whole structural challenge in the rewrite.

But that is exactly why the comprehensive approach is challenging and rewarding. It is why learning step by step is a long, rewarding process.

Sometimes that overview gives you a single, small word, line, or sectional change that suddenly pulls the whole idea together and takes it from OK to breathtaking.

That gets us to a theme I learned in Nashville — start with a good idea. You can develop a good idea badly, and fix it and tweak it as you go along and get a better result in the end.

But you can fix and tweak a bad idea all you want and you still end up with a lousy song (that may be very well crafted).

In songwriting a good song is more than just the sum of its parts — but you need good parts to make up the good song.

Keep your eye on the big picture in your rewriting.

You can e-mail Michael Andreson at


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