Co-Writing Tips, Or How I Learned to Let Go and Enjoy the Write

by Laura B. Whitmore
Posted Jan 2, 2014 at 10:04pm

In 2013 I went out on a limb. I applied to be part of a songwriting class that focused on co-writing. Up until then I had only co-written a small part of one song (I wrote the bridge), and that was it. But I wanted to do more, improve, and find new ways to be creative.

The workshop was taught by Marty Dodson, who you may have seen grace this website with his SongTown USA blog. And that made it easier and harder. Easier because I thought, wow, I might actually have a chance of getting in (all applicants are pre-screened), and harder because, well, what if I was pre-screened and didn’t make the cut. That would just suck.

Turns out, for whatever reason, Marty opened the door. There were six people in the class and the idea was that over the course of six weeks you would have the opportunity to write a song with each of them.

Things started out a little rough (no offense Tom). It was my fault. I didn’t know how to write with another person and care more about the song than about feelings. And I didn’t know how to write on the spot while someone is on the other end of the line waiting. Talk about pressure.

Tom Swanick and I worked on a song called “I’m Good.” Well, everyone in the class did, as that was the assignment. And it was rough at first. I was traveling and didn’t have my guitar. We couldn’t completely agree on the direction. But in the end I actually thought it came out really nice.

Next I was paired with a wonderful writer named Tom West, and here’s where I screwed up again. I brought in a song I had started to write and never finished. I had the first verse and that was it. And I was in love with the first verse. So I couldn’t step away and see if there was a better way to say it. Nope. But somehow that song, called “Don’t Wake Me Up,” came out pretty awesome, too. But despite Tom’s unfathomable patience, it came with a lot of angst, that’s for sure.

Third time’s a charm, as they say, and I was then paired with Sharyn Cassidy. We wrote a song from scratch with just a title. It was incredible. Our chemistry was undeniable. We are still tweaking but, whew! I promise to share it soon. It was so energizing!!

Anyway, the stories go on. Each pairing had it’s own challenges and joys. And as I continued, I realized a few things about co-writing that I want to share with you.

Co-Writing Tips

1. It’s better to start with a title or very simple idea that hasn’t been developed, because then it’s not stuck in anyone’s head yet. It gives you the freedom to decide together where to go and how to get there.

2. We did all of our co-writes virtually and in that case, we are breaking the ice over Skype or the phone or what have you. So taking a little time to tap into what your co-writer is about is pretty important. It makes everyone feel a little more comfortable. If you can, it’s good to go online and listen to the other writer’s music, maybe read a bit about them.

3. It is very helpful to record as you are co-writing. Somehow amazing lyrics or melody lines can immediately go out of your head, lost forever. So just pushing record on your phone or whatever can save the day.

4. I really like to decide on a title idea together and then just have a conversation about the story of the song. What happens in the first verse? What is the chorus about? Where should we go in verse two? This helps keep us on target as the song develops. We might change our minds later but at least we are starting in the same directly.

5. Marty shared that everyone has a different co-writing style. Some folks like to take charge. Some like to work on every little detail of every word or syllable. Some like to just have a good time. And on and on. It’s important to try to understand which category your co-writer is in, AND which one you are. I realized in some cases I am kind of a bossy leader. But in others, I just want to have a good time!!

6. My best co-writes were ones where I just let go and let whatever was in my head come out of my mouth. I reserved judgment on myself and on my co-writer. It was amazing what occurred! One stupid idea sparked an amazing one so many times.

7. I remarked to Marty that co-writing was kind of like speed dating. You have a short time to get to know someone and create something amazing with him or her. It can be exhausting. It can be exhilarating. Pass for round two on the former. Make a second date with the latter.

8. One of our last co-writes was a three-way write. This was interesting. It took some of the pressure off, as it was easier to say when you didn’t like something. It sucked with your two other writers both disagreed with you. The song still came out pretty good. Hmmm….

9. Making a date for a co-write is kind of like having a workout buddy. On my own I would never stop in the middle of the workday for a couple of hours to write a song. But when I have an appointment with someone else…well, I cut myself some slack. Writing is important to me and this helps me keep it high on the priority list.

10. Marty says the best co-writes happen when you realize what your weakness is and find someone who is strong in that area. And vice versa. Well, that means you have to take an honest look at yourself and admit your weaknesses. But also celebrate your strengths. Marty says I rock with lyrics. I’ll go with that.

I have two more workout dates on my schedule right now. It feels good to try out a bunch of writers and see who fits. It stretches me to up my game and I’m up for that. So for 2014, I’m gonna co-write more. A lot more. I’ll let you know what happens!!

Also, can’t gush enough about how awesome Marty Dodson’s SongTownUSA facebook page is for songwriter support and inspiration. Join it and you will not be sorry. Click here>>

Here’s “I’m Good” written with Tom Swanick.

Laura B. Whitmore is the editor of Guitar World's Acoustic Nation. A singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area, she's also a veteran music industry marketer, and has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents Dean Markley, Peavey Electronics, SIR Entertainment Services, Music First, Guitar World and many more. Laura is the founder of the Women's International Music Network at thewimn.com, producer of the She Rocks Awards and the Women's Music Summit and co-hosts regular songwriter nights for the West Coast Songwriters Association. More at mad-sun.com. Check out her original music here>>