4 Stages For Creative Songwriting

Tools over rules. You and I are songwriters and by nature not exactly rule followers. You have to admit, though, that after writing for any amount of time you pick up tools to help you write more focused, more often and just better.

I coach a lot of songwriters and artists and if you're one, you have my blessing to skip the next part because I' m sure we've talked about the 4 stages.  This is as technical as I like to get but here we go...

The Idea

I didn't make this stuff up and at this point in my life I'm not sure where I heard the idea. I later heard it's taught in quite a few creative writing classes but I applied it to my songwriting years ago. Here's the idea. I would never say you need to consider these steps every time you set out to write a song, inspiration, pure and blessed from above is a great thing but if it's the only way you write you may not write enough songs to sustain (or start) a career. So...

4 stages of creative writing: preparation, incubation, illumination and verification. 

Preparation: you could almost say every time you pick up a guitar and just play or hear a great line and write it down you're preparing to write. You're coming up with things that, sooner or later, are going to come into play when you actually start to write a song.

Incubation:  this is the later in sooner or later. Let the idea sit for a while. I have lines and titles that have been on my desk for years waiting for the day. If you let your subconscious have a go at it, some amazing stuff happens and it's usually better than what you would have done off the top of your head.

Illumination: Shed some light on the idea, start to write it but don't worry too much about form. Get the good stuff on the page. Doing this after you've found some good ideas through preparing and incubating usually makes for a better lyric especially.

Verification: Fancy word for the editor or critic. Your best friend or worst enemy depending on where you are in the writing process. Bring this guy in too early and you'll never finish. Invite him in after stages 1 through 3 and now you have something to actually edit!  

How Do They Work?

The biggest change this made in my writing was to sort of slow the process down. You want to start out with a good idea so you find ways to prepare. You want to feel like you have a good concept and, at least for me, some of the best have come from letting a title or melody just sit.

If you feel like you've got something worth writing, explored a few different ways to write it including letting your subconscious be your cowriter then you're on to the next stages.

Stages 3 and 4 are the ones that took the longest to sink in. You can start to write your idea and edit as you go without really getting it straight from your head to the page but it can also be a way to lose the color and detail that you get by just getting the idea down. There is plenty of time to apply your craft but craft without inspiration just sits there. Waiting until last to check out all your rhyme schemes, meter, color and detail can be the difference between shining a diamond and polishing a turd! 


Mark Cawley

September 21st, 2015

Nashville , Tennessee

Pic: My Grandson Scout Sullivan!

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About Mark Cawley

Mark Cawley iDoCoach

Mark Cawley iDoCoach


I'm currently coaching writers worldwide, online, one on one and taking new clients for the summer. Visit my website for more info www.idocoach.com or write to me at mark@idocoach.com

Check out this interview in the recent edition of M Music and Musicians Magazine for stories behind a few of my songs!

About Mark Cawley

Mark Cawley is a hit U.S. songwriter and musician who coaches other writers and artists to reach their creative and professional goals through iDoCoach.com. During his decades in the music business he has procured a long list of cuts with legendary artists ranging from Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Chaka Khan and Diana Ross to Wynonna Judd, Kathy Mattea, Russ Taff, Paul Carrack, Will Downing, Tom Scott, Billie Piper, Pop Idol winners and The Spice Girls. To date his songs have been on more than 16 million records. . He is also a judge for Nashville Rising Star, a contributing author to  USA Songwriting Competition, Songwriter Magazine, sponsor for the Australian Songwriting Association, judge for Belmont University's Commercial Music program and West Coast Songwriter events , Mentor for The Songwriting Academy UK, a popular blogger and, from time to time, conducts his own workshops including ASCAP, BMI and Sweetwater Sound. Born and raised in Syracuse, NY, Mark has also lived in Boston, L.A., Indianapolis, London, and the last 20 years in Nashville, TN.