Singer - songwriter

Give Yourself (and Your First Draft) a Break

There’s nothing quite as intimidating as a blank page when it comes to writing songs. A blank page means that you’ve been unable to get anything working, and that’s a recipe for writer’s block.

A blank page, though, doesn’t necessarily mean that you came up with no ideas. Generally, it means that you came up with some musical fragments that you immediately assessed as being unusable.


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But in musical composition, I think it’s important to get something down — anything at all — and then fix what you’ve written. It may sound like garbage, but at least you’ve got something that you can fix. A blank page offers nothing but frustration.

When I write a piece of music, I do the following:

  1. Create a working title and (because much of my music will be sung by choirs or other small vocal ensembles who need printed music in the end) I open a new document in a music scoring app (I use Finale, which also comes with a free version), but there are others you can use.
  2. Work quickly to get something down. If it’s an original composition, I usually come up with music and then snippets of lyrics/text that make it initially singable, including nonsense syllables if necessary. This first draft practically never sounds good, but it gives me material to use for my next attempt.
  3. I open a new document, call it “[working title]-2” and start to put ideas from the first draft down in a way that sounds better. Doing that first draft has started my creative mind moving in the right direction, even if it sounds lousy. Usually there’s enough there that I can come up with something better.
  4. Create new drafts as necessary. Often a second draft is all I need; I can keep fixing and honing the piece until it’s working. But sometimes, during that second draft, I notice that I’m straying enough from what I originally thought I’d be writing that it makes sense to start a third draft, and then copy and paste good ideas from my previous drafts.

There are times when, while working on my second draft, I realize that it’s just not going to work, and so I create a third draft that bears almost no resemblance to my first two. That’s fine. You’ll find that your creative mind will eventually give you something you like, and it’s important to go with it, no matter how different it is from your first draft.

Which gets me back to that initial draft. A blank page gives you nothing, but even a horrible first draft can give you a lot. Sometimes that bad first draft does nothing more but give you a feel — a sense of shape. For some songs, getting the feel right can be huge, and so that bad first draft has done its job.

As I say, I work in scoring software, but the same applies if you work with a DAW or a digital recorder: get that first draft down, no matter how bad you think it is. You’ll wind up with a bad song that you can now fix, and that’s far, far better than a page with nothing on it, which offers you nothing.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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