Encouragement for the Beginning Songwriter

Featuring Robert Sterling Posted on July 5, 2012

It is a fact that every beginner, regardless the level of talent, will write some bad songs. The typical not-so-talented beginner will write some really bad songs. Take heart. Experienced professional writers still kick out the occasional clunker. Fortunately, we live under grace and mercy, so the bad songs you and I write won’t be held against us for eternity. Gratefully, God is capable of using even our lamest efforts for His Kingdom. But that’s no excuse for ignoring the craft of songwriting. We should all strive to make our songs as excellent as we possibly can. But what is a realistic goal of excellence for the beginner, the amateur, the weekend writing warrior? The answer is simple: Improve. Try to make every new song you compose better than the song that preceded it.

The Four Stages of Competence

Psychologists refer to the Four Stages of Competence, which describe the typical progression of mastering most any skill. They are:

Stage One: Unconscious Incompetence – You are totally inept and completely unaware of your ineptness. This is also known as “blissful ignorance.”

Stage Two: Conscious Incompetence – You are still inept, but now you are aware that you are inept. This describes my golf game perfectly. It stinks, but at least I know it stinks. This can be a very frustrating place to be.

Stage Three: Conscious Competence – You are competent for the task at hand, but must consciously think about the details of the work. This isn’t a bad place to be at all. You’ve become adept at a skill, but still have to think about it. This is where most of us spend much of out lives.

Stage Four: Unconscious Competence – You have reached the summit where the work is performed well without ever having to think about it. In the immortal words of Professor Higgins: “It’s second nature to me now/Like breathing out and breathing in.” In other words, you are Michael Jordan shooting lay-ups.

As you search for your current placement on the Competence Scale, keep in mind that most of us begin our songwriting journey at Stage One: Unconscious Incompetence. We don’t know a thing about the rules or the craft of writing, and we are blissfully unaware as to just how bad our first songs really are. The fact that you are reading this, however, suggests that you have moved at least from Stage One to Stage Two: Conscious Incompetence. You are now thinking about your writing and may be awakening to the flaws in your songs. You still haven’t mastered the craft, but you are working on it.

Talented writers move pretty quickly to Stage Three: Conscious Competence. At this stage, writing requires real thought and hard work, but the results are good, solid songs. A lot of professional writers spend much of their creative time at Stage Three because this is where most re-writing is accomplished. Stage Three is the reachable goal that a serious beginning Christian songwriter should set for herself, if she wants to entertain the possibility of writing songs that other people will want to hear over and again.

The final stage, Unconscious Competence, is very rare air. The best of writers get to visit Stage Four, sometimes long enough to write a song or two. But most have to come back to the realities of Stage Three every now and again. Consider that even Tiger Woods has a coach and works daily to improve his skills. I see occasional glimmers of Unconscious Competence in my own work when I examine a song or a melody and wonder, “Where did that come from?”

As I said, Stage Three should be the reachable goal of any talented writer willing to work hard. The information and exercises in this book, and other books like it, will help you move toward that goal. But to further focus the progression to better writing, I like what my friend and fellow songwriter, Kyle Matthews had to offer amateur writers in his seminar, “The Life of the Songwriter.” In that seminar, Kyle boiled it down to Three E’s: Education, Exposure, and Experience. These Three E’s apply to every writer, regardless their talent or status. For the beginning writer, they would be this:

Education: Learn the basics of music theory, song-form and song- craft. Know how lyrics differ from other forms of creative writing.

Exposure: Listen to songs – lots of songs. Analyze their language, styles and structures. This will help you immensely as you develop your own creative voice.

Experience: The best way to write a good song is to write a lot of songs. Don’t fixate on your early efforts and bog yourself down. Write, write, write. Keep writing. Keep moving forward. “The act of writing is your own best teacher.”

If you are serious at all about the craft of songwriting, you should always be about improving. Whether or not you ever paid a dime for your songs, continually strive to become a better writer. Even after thirty years of professional songwriting, creative growth is still where I find the deepest satisfaction.