Leveraging Your Songwriting Strengths
Few songwriters are self-contained these days. Some are better at finding the “big” ideas, some at writing lyrics, and some at writing melodies. This dynamic creates the need for writing in a community to bring out our best gifts. Learn about the different types of songwriters to understand your style and effectively leverage your songwriting strengths to see greater results.
A few years ago, I decided to paint a beautiful cardinal that I’d taken a picture of in my Mother-in-law’s backyard. I spent hours blending colors to capture the brightest red. I tried to recreate his proud pose, his perfect perch, his sheer joy in being the most stunning cardinal God ever created.
But, here’s the problem. I’m not a painter. I’m not even great at sketching. My best attempts turn out to be just slightly beyond stick figures like those on cave walls from prehistoric ages. So, when I showed it to my wife, I wasn’t surprised when she said, “Yep – that’s a bird!” I quickly painted over it.
I’m no painter, it’s true, but I do have a good eye for snapping a great picture, given a chance. As a songwriter, the ability to “snap” great song ideas has been a key to my success, even though I may need help “painting” them fully. When it comes to songwriting, I’ve learned that playing to our strengths is almost always the best thing to do.
I’ve found there are quite a few types of songwriters; here are five types to consider. Try to identify your preferred style and then play to your strengths in your co-writing relationships.
Five Types of Songwriters
The Big Idea Writer. This songwriter easily recognizes big ideas, big titles, big hooks, and messages that can reach many people. Big ideas just come naturally, often easily, to them. The Big Idea Writer is a fantastic place to start, of course, because many songwriters struggle to find great ideas. Sometimes, though, the type of writer can lack the skills to complete their songs. If you have tons of ideas but few finished songs, you may be a Big Idea Writer.
The Producer. The Producer hears the final production of the song playing in their head before it’s finished. Though an asset in some ways, this writer often bogs down the process by focusing on arranging the song and planning studio sounds prematurely instead of focusing on the lyrics and melody first. Producers can spend their time playing with gear instead of writing songs and could benefit from delaying the production side until the piece is complete.
The Technician. The Technician is the songwriter that focuses on important, though sometimes minor, details. This writer approaches the process very mechanically, and the results can be stiff and even emotionless. Often the Technician is looking to tick off a list of technical points in their songwriting, rather than coming from a more authentic and emotional place in their hearts.
The Preacher/Teacher. The Preacher/Teacher is the songwriter who focuses primarily on doctrinal content. Preacher/Teachers are generally encouraging but may sometimes be prophetic and preachy. When a song feels heavily doctrinal, you know that a Preacher/Teacher hasn’t reigned in the urge to over-instruct in a song lyric. For example, songwriters Michael Card and Chris Tomlin have brought us plenty of doctrine in bite-sized nuggets to help us worship, grow, and learn in compelling ways without overdoing it.
The Testimonial Writer. Testimonial Writers have often experienced something powerful they wish to communicate. We might refer to this type as an artist or singer-songwriter. Testimonial Writers don’t always care about writing for others. They may have survived events they want to share in their songs or perhaps a miracle they want to testify to. Either way, the Testimonial Writer focuses on their specific message rather than on “general” songwriting.
Playing to Your Strengths in Creative Community
Every songwriter, just like all people, has strengths and weaknesses. Recognizing yours is a great first step to writing effectively with others. If you’re struggling to finish songs, or you can’t seem to move beyond hearing the production in your head, find a collaborator. If you’re overly focused on minutiae or your lyrics contain a mention of every book in the Bible, it might be time to find the balance you need by co-writing.
And, if no one seems to understand you or your music, you might find another writer with complementary strengths to help you bring your ideas and emotions into greater focus.
Dave Clark, a veteran songwriter and publisher with Lillenas Music, says, “Write the emotion, not the details.” Writing an emotional song is like painting a watercolor or using pointillism or other forms of impressionism—you’re painting the feelings first. Hopefully, you’ll do a much better job of it than I could with my bird.
About John Chisum
John Chisum is a veteran songwriter, publisher, and worship leader. He was VP of Publishing for Star Song Media and Director of Song Development & Copyright for Integrity Music. He is currently President of Nashville Christian Songwriters. He has been married to Donna for 40 years, and they have one daughter, Aly. This article is based on John’s new course, Your Best Songs Now.