To Know if Your Song is Done, Ask Yourself These Questions
The following is adapted from Song Journey.
You have a song you feel great about, one that you’re positive is ready for demo.
Now what? As I often tell the songwriters I coach—slow down. Before you rush to the studio, you need to take some time and be sure your song is done.
When I hear “I wrote this in ten minutes,” I’m scared because it often means the writer I’m coaching had ten minutes of inspiration but zero minutes of editing.
Do you know what one of the big differences between amateur songwriters and the pros is? Rewriting. It’s hard. That’s why so many novice writers don’t do it. “The fun is in the inspiration, not the perspiration.” I hear you, but there are no points for fast.
Most of the pro writers I know and work with are master craftsmen. They take their time. There’s an old saying about writing: “You write your first draft with your heart…You rewrite with your head.” Use your head before you stamp a song as “done.”
In this article, I’ll walk you through some steps to decide if you’re at that point.
Ask Yourself These Questions
Here are a few things I might ask myself before signing off on a song. These are tough questions to ask about a song you like, but it’s best to ask them at this stage.
Is it relatable?
You want to write about something people really care about.
Am I showing or just telling?
Include enough color and detail to make a listener see what you want them to see.
Is there a better concept out there?
Don’t settle if there’s a better, more unique way to tell your story.
Does my song breathe?
Make room for the lyric and the melody to coexist so it’s not a challenge for a listener.
Is my chorus memorable?
You want your listener to go away humming it.
Have I been self-indulgent?
Just because it’s in your head doesn’t mean it has to be in the final version.
Is the intro a hook or just a space to fill?
Your song has to grab listeners right away. Don’t waste their time.
Is my bridge a real departure from everything else?
If it’s not, consider if you even need a bridge.
Is there too much information in my song?
Info belongs in the verses and bridge.
If the story continues long into the chorus, it’s a great way to lose a listener.
How long is my song?
This is where you have to be realistic. If you’re pushing four minutes, it’s too long.
How interesting is my idea?
The title (the expression of your idea) needs to pull someone in.
Have I studied current song structure?
If your song sounds great for the 1960s, it might not work for today’s market.
Do I LOVE IT?
If you don’t love it, it’s not done.
Ways to Test Your Song
If you play live, you can use your audience as a focus group for your song. These are the people who hopefully would be buying what you’re selling.
If you don’t play live and don’t have a publisher yet, give your lyric to a friend and ask them to come back and tell you what your lyric is about. If they can’t, ask yourself if you’ve written it clearly or if the idea is more in your head than on the page.
Before I make up my mind on a lyric, I might try it from another perspective. Is it better written in second or third person? I don’t know, but I might try.
Have I compromised anywhere in my song? Made the right choices?
Does the song move me? Believe me, the best ones will move you first, and if they do, the odds of the song moving someone else are great.
The Four Stages of Creativity
If you find your song still needs some work, it’s easy to get discouraged. After all, you thought you had a finished song, and now you’re facing the reality that your beautiful creation still needs more work before it’s ready for the spotlight.
To get you writing again, let’s look at a process for sparking creativity.
Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman is credited with coming up with the four stages of creativity, which John Braheny mentions in his book The Craft and Business of Songwriting as well. When I’m coaching, this is how I explain them:
Preparation. Here you intentionally look for things to write about: lines, titles, making your list. You’re preparing to write. Maybe not today, but in the future.
Incubation. Let these ideas, lines, and titles marinate.
Illumination. Remember the stuff about the good stuff? The real details? This is where you put in the good stuff, the real details that elevate amazing songs from average ones. Begin to shed light on this idea you found.
Verification. Bring the editor to the table and put him to work.
So how do these four stages work?
First, if I can say I looked for the best idea possible for my song, let it sit awhile rather than settling on the first thing that came to mind, started writing my lyric with the real stuff and did not just begin by making my lyric look good (clever words and rhymes) on paper, and left the editor/critic out all along the way until step 4, I’m good.
I don’t necessarily think about these stages while I’m writing.
Instead, I wait until I’m happy with my song and then double-check these stages to make me that much more confident that I’ve written the best song I can.
Don’t Stop Until You’re Truly Done
Done is fun. There’s nothing better than when you’ve finished a great song, having reached the point where you sit back and feel like you’ve performed a magic trick—pulled something out of thin air. It’s great to be a songwriter at that moment.
But getting to that point requires more than ten minutes of inspiration.
For more advice on knowing if your song is done, you can find Song Journey on Amazon.
Mark Cawley is a hit songwriter who coaches other writers around the globe through his one-on-one, online service iDocoach.com. His songs have been on more than 16 million records with cuts ranging from Tina Turner to Wynonna Judd to The Spice Girls. Mark is a judge for the UK Songwriting Contest, Nashville Rising Star, Belmont University’s Commercial Music program, and West Coast Songwriter events. He’s also a contributing author to USA Songwriting and Songwriter Magazine, a sponsor for the Australian Songwriting Association, and a mentor for The Songwriting Academy UK. Born and raised in Syracuse, New York, Mark now resides in Nashville, Tennessee.