13 Basic Rules of Co-Writing: How to Be a Good Collaborator
by David Bawiec, Spire Contributor | August 7, 2018
If you’ve ever co-written a song with someone else, you’ll know that it’s an unusual beast. Between coordinating schedules, exchanging ideas, and figuring out what is appropriate and what isn’t, co-writing can seem a bit overwhelming.
These challenges really apply to any creative collaboration: being a bandmate, an actor in an improv group, or a film-writer who writes with others.
Whether you're about to embark on your first creative collaboration or you're a seasoned pro, here are thirteen basic rules to help make sure that the process goes as smooth as possible every single time.
1. Be early
This is a rule that will help you in every aspect of your life (and something that I used to struggle with). Let's flip the coin for a second. Let's say you agreed to meet your co-writer for a 2-hour writing session at 4:00 p.m. It's 4:00 p.m., you're there and they're not. You wait. It's 4:10, 4:20, 4:30. Finally at 4:35 p.m. they roll in.
They just wasted 35 minutes of your day. You've got things to do. You've got places to be. So now what? Do you push back your evening plans to still try to get a 2-hour session in? Or do you try to rush today's session and make a song happen in 1.5 hours? Neither is really fair to you.
So consider this: you don't want to be waiting on anyone, so don't make other people wait on you either. Trust me, arriving early has many perks. For starters, you look professional. What follows, since you're not late, you don't have to be apologetic or feeling guilty. Meaning you get to enter the writing session with a clear and calm mind (much better than trying to be creative when feeling guilty and rushed).
2. Be friendly and professional
This one (hopefully) falls under the "obvious" category, but it's always worth mentioning. Bring the best you to the creative session. If you're gloomy, sad, frustrated or angry, odds are you'll be giving off negative vibes all around. No one wants that. And definitely not in a creative setting.
Leave your daily worries outside, and try to bring the most positive, friendly, and open you to the meeting. Occasionally, you may be writing with someone you don't necessarily like. And in all honesty, that's perfectly fine. You can dislike the person all you want, but the moment you're in that room together it is your responsibility to be as polite and professional as possible (without ever coming off as fake or disingenuous). Be courteous and bring your "A" game.
3. Bring ideas
One of the trickier things to do is to figure out what your song will be about. So bring ideas with you. Many songwriters have idea books where they jot down different song ideas or clever lyrical/melodic lines for use in future songs. (If you don't have one yet, I suggest you start one). Bring it to the session and see if any cool ideas spark everyone's interest to kickstart the writing process.
Some songwriters also bring journals to see if there are any cool neat ideas hidden within. Sometimes you may have a concept for a song, maybe already a verse, a melody, or an entire chorus written. Bring it to the table. The more you have to present the bigger chance that one of the ideas sticks and gets everyone fired up.
4. Set clear goals
It's always helpful to begin the writing session with a game plan. If you all agree that by the end of the session you plan to achieve X, Y, and Z, it'll be easier to keep you all focused on the goal.
So try to figure out what the goal of the writing session will be. Are you trying to write one verse? Are you trying to get as far as completing the entire chorus? Are you trying to re-write something you'd written during a past session? Are you trying to focus on tightening some problem areas? Set those goals clearly, that way you all know what you're working toward.
5. Keep distractions away
There's nothing more annoying than having your creativity taken out of its zone by a random phone call or some other disturbance. Between calls, Facebook notifications, text messages and much more, there's so much that can take us out of it. I was once in a writing session where 10 minutes into it my co-writer received a phone call from a friend and left the room for 40 minutes to gossip. #rude. Don't be that guy.
You may be tempted to just put your phone in vibrate mode, but frequently vibrating phones can be equally distracting as they still attract attention. iPhones have a great "Do Not Disturb" feature, so make use of it, or better yet, just turn off all phones and put them away. Your notifications will all be waiting for you once you're ready to resurface into the outside world. You want to give your creativity all your attention and all the space to let it flourish.
6. Don't be afraid of bad ideas
One of the worst fears we all have is that the ideas we share with the other person (or other people) will be absolutely awful. What if they hate the ideas we come up with? What if they never want to invite us back?
Truth be told, you'll probably come up with some absolutely terrible ideas. And so will your co-writers. But you'll also come up with some incredible ones. And lot of those incredible ones are born out of the bad ones. As songwriter Pat Pattison says, "Don't be afraid to write crap. It makes the best fertilizer. The more of it you write, the better your chances of growing something wonderful."
So make a pact with your co-writers to always share any and all ideas that come to mind, no matter how bad they may seem to you.
7. The no-free zone
This is probably one of the best gems of advice I ever learned from Pat Pattison. What is the "no-free zone" you ask? It's a safe space in which the word "no" doesn't exist. Your songwriting sessions should be a no-free zone.
Imagine hearing "no" to every idea you present to your co-writers or bandmates. Having one or two ideas rejected is fine, but after 5, 10, 20 rejections, you'll ultimately start doubting yourself, wondering if you've got any good ideas at all.
Needless to say, that's not the type of headspace you want to be when creating. The no-free zone rule is quite simple: You never say "No" in your creative session. If someone presents an idea that you're not loving, don’t say “No”. Either present a counter-idea or just don't say anything. The silence will be an invitation for more. It's like saying "Keep the ideas coming. Throw more my way. I want to hear what else you've got." And once someone comes up with a line that everyone likes you'll all get to finally say "Yes!"
8. Write, don't talk about writing
It's easy to get hung-up on talking about why an idea or phrase is better than another from a technical standpoint. Trying to justify your decisions or persuade everyone to use one rhyme scheme vs another, defending a metaphor from an intellectual level...
Don't. Talking about writing isn't writing. So leave the academia outside. The idea either works, or it doesn't. So focus on writing and getting as many ideas out on the page. If you do find yourself (or your partner) getting stuck on these discussions try to give yourself time limits to complete your work. This will force you to spend less time discussing and more time actually coming up with ideas.
9. Explore and compromise
Occasionally someone else might have an idea that's different than yours. Don't be afraid to take the better route. Just because your idea wasn't chosen doesn't mean it was worse. It just didn't work for this song. That doesn't mean you can't use it in another song. Be willing to step out of your comfort zone.
One of the best songs I'd ever written was a co-write that I did with a singer-songwriter. Her background is blues and jazz. Mine is pop and adult-contemporary. Yet the song we ended up writing was an incredible rock duet. Because of our different backgrounds, we brought completely different skills and musical tools to the table. The fact that we both allowed the other person to flourish rather than trying to make them conform to our own style was why the song we created was so exceptional.
10. Make notes
It helps to record what you all came up with so you can revisit it at a later time. So jot all your best ideas down, on paper or as an audio recording. Make sure to have something at hand which will let you write/record what you all create. Spire Studio is a super easy, portable recording studio that will let you get your song ideas recorded. The fact that it’s portable and can run on battery makes it the perfect tool to bring to your writing sessions.
11. Write a split sheet
For some reason, many songwriters fear talking business. Whether it's because they don't want to come off as being needy and rude, or whether they don't know what they should say to not make it awkward. But I urge you not to be afraid. There's nothing awkward or rude about saying "Hey, how do you think we should split this song?"
Figuring out the splits during or right after a session is essential. Be generous but also honest. How you do the splits is really up to you and your co-contributors. Should you make things easy and split the rights to the song equally among all the writers? What if your co-writer contributed only a couple lines of text to the whole song. Does he/she deserve 50%? It's really up to you. Again, be generous, but honest. So make sure that whatever you both agree to is something you're both happy about and feel that is fair.
12. Figure out next steps
Once your session is complete, try to make plans for what your next steps will be. Do you need to schedule another session to complete the song? Try to do it right away. Are you ready to record a complete demo? Try to figure out who can help in what way and how you plan to achieve it. When people say "We'll figure it out..." plans tend to not happen for a long time. So try to solidify the next steps right away.
13. Do a personal debrief
One of the things I have my students do as an exercise after each collaboration is to create a debrief document. It's a simple questionnaire that lets them review the session, their partners, and themselves. The basic questions included are:
What did you achieve during the session?
What was your collaborator's strength in this particular session?
What could they have done to make the session better?
What was your strength in this particular session?
What could you have done to make the session better?
Judging other's work is always the easiest, but talking about your own weaknesses takes some skill. But it's a useful skill to have. That last question is the one where all the true gold will lie. Could you have spoken up more? Or maybe spoken less and allowed the other person to share more ideas? Could you have brought more ideas to the meeting? Could you have maybe gotten less defensive about that one idea that you thought was so brilliant? It's helpful to make a note of these things, as knowing the mistakes you made before will help you make improvements moving forward.
I hope these tips help you in your creative collaborations. And as always, there's so much more I didn't touch on, but the above-mentioned topics should cover all the basics to make sure that the process goes smooth and is pleasant for everyone involved. So enter your next co-writing session with your head up, and excited for what's to come. I hope that you have some incredible collaborations ahead!
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