Songwriting: Things I Learned from FAWM, Part 2

FAWMFAWM is February Album Writing Month, a monthlong songwriting and collaborating challenge hosted at During this year’s FAWM I learned some things about myself and my writing process. Here are some of the things I learned.

Though I’ve been writing songs for well over a decade, I’m not sure I ever had a set method for doing it. A lot of the ones I like the most came more or less fully formed after writing them in my head in a quiet moment, and got revised after they were already complete. Some are the results of writing exercises or self-challenges, and I’ve also experimented with the progressive story form that I learned in Pat Pattison’s great songwriting class (Coursera/Berklee Online).

This time through the FAWM challenge, with the end goal of writing more or less a song a day, without thinking much about it, I came at each song from whatever approach worked that day. Some were simply finishing up half-finished songs from my notebook, some were sprung fully formed and had a chorus added, some were the result of word association exercises, some were distilled from a page or two of free writing on a topic or title. I don’t think I favored any method, and I definitely didn’t force any particular method, which I feel bodes well in the future, knowing I can do this different ways and end up at the same place.

One thing I found I struggled with is choruses, and titles. I think that comes from the same place, which is that I like to write from a place of specific ambiguity, meaning I like writing in a way that it sounds like it’s about one thing but is possibly about another. I don’t like to write shallow lyrics that can only be interpreted one way. And so I end up getting stuck a bit with titles and choruses, because they thrust home the intent of the song. I know it’s easy enough to make the title the chorus, plenty of great songs do that (Pour Some Sugar on Me, Poker Face, Take the Long Way Home), and there are plenty of great songs where the title doesn’t appear in the song at all, let alone the chorus (Enter Sandman, AEnima). And of course, songs with no chorus at all, which is not uncommon in the music I tend to listen to (Tool, Kyuss).

One bit of methodology that I observed in myself and then began consciously using was that I prefer to write my rough drafts in pen in a notebook, then I transcribe it into the computer. During that transcription, the song may change slightly, as I see how words line up and may be better rearranged or substituted. I know also that when I get the songs put to music, they are likely to change again slightly, depending on their arrangement and singability, if that’s a word. I learned to enjoy the opportunity to tweak as I transcribed, which added a little bit of freedom to the written versions as they solidified into what I know now are not final drafts, just final rough drafts.

Part of the moral here is simply not being precious with the creations. Nothing is final till it’s recorded. This is one of the reasons I use cheap school notebooks to write in. I got that tip from the book Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Each notebook then has a personality and even maybe a time period associated with it, and you’re never afraid to write trash in them. Those lovely bound vellum paper books, they never get used, not by me anyway. They feel too formal, too final, too expectant and imposing.

I ended February with 21 completed sets of lyrics. I had stopped at 20 and then wrote one more on the last day because it just came to me, and I was just in that frame of mind. Once you open the door, sometimes things just come through it unbidden, unprompted. But not unwanted.

The final tally was 6 songs from previous WIP, 3 from titles I’d saved, and, to me the surprising part, 12 completely new songs from whatever well I tapped into. It wasn’t 30, but it’s 21 more songs than I had in January. They should last till next February. My last two releases were songs I wrote last FAWM so I know it’s a gift that keeps giving. And I learned a ton just going through the process.

Here’s a weird thing. I went back reread all of the songs I came up with this month. I’m pretty pleased with the majority of them. But already I feel disconnected from them, like did I really write those? Where did they come from? And kind of marveling at how different they are despite my feeling like I was in a rut somewhere halfway through.

Are they all great lyrics? No. But I kept a standard, I only wrote what I thought I might want to record. I didn’t write any songs like

Here’s a Tuesday song
I hope it’s not too long
Here’s my Tuesday song
I want to finish strong

Plenty of that already. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But the air gets a little thin as February winds down.

FAWM is great fun. Everyone has their own way of doing it, my way is currently to use it as a kick in the pants to focus and get some writing done. As February approached I even held off writing just to have the extra juice when FAWM rolled around. Others make full songs, or demos anyway, and collaborate with each other and just have fun, which is what this is all supposed to be about anyway.

Read part one here.

My FAWM profile is here:

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