How to Successfully Network as a Songwriter—my answer to a slightly petulant question on my YouTube channel

I was recently asked a question on my YouTube channel that went something like this:

The most important part of building a career as a songwriter is building a network, establishing good contacts, and schmoozing. Could you please tell us how you did that?

I’ve actually made it significantly more polite than the question was phrased on my channel. And hey, SPOILER: My number 1 ‘schmoozing’ tip is this: be kind, curious, and polite to everyone you meet. So you know, if you want to know how to do it, start by phrasing your questions with a tone of curiosity and kindness, rather than barking demands at people you don’t know…but my issues with people’s tone-blindness aside, I think there’s something in this that is very universal to songwriters (and probably a whole lot of people) starting out in a field, or struggling to get ‘inside’.

So here, I want to give you my top tips on how to build a career as a songwriter, and how to create strong networks of people around you. This is simply my experience, and my observations of the behaviours of people who I like and respect in the industry, not the ‘science of networking’, so take what makes sense to you. I hope it helps.

#1: Make. Good. Work.

The first thing to debunk in the question above is that “the most important thing” is your network. No, it isn’t. The most important thing is that you make excellent work. In this chicken and egg scenario, there is definitely a clear cause and consequence relationship: good work leads to good connections.

There isn’t any point trying to network or ‘schmooze’ (although I’m going to rip that idea apart in a moment) if you don’t have good work behind it.

Once you have good work, building a good network is not only then helpful, but also much easier. As marketing writer and thinker Seth Godin says, the best kind of marketing (which is just shorthand for communicating to others about yourself or your product) is when you can whisper quietly to people who are interested, rather than yelling loudly at strangers who don’t care.

Seth Godin

How do you get people interested? Make. Good. Work.

If you’re struggling to build a network, it’s likely that your work isn’t at a level yet where people will naturally have an interest. You’re spending too much energy trying to yell people into your corner, and not enough actually creating work of undeniably good quality. As Steve Martin says,

“Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

So spend less time marketing, and more time on your craft.**

#2: Be kind, curious, and polite to everyone you meet.

While you’re busy making good work, you can practice this with everyone you meet, regardless of whether they seem like someone who can ‘make something happen for you’, or they are the person getting coffee. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a room with someone who seemed quiet and unassuming, and that very same person has become an incredibly successful musician, producer, or some other creator with a great career in music.

A spirit of curiosity, kindness, and enthusiasm, combined with being reliable (ie doing what you say you are going to do, on time, and with solid communication) is an absolutely winning combination. People (including myself, all of the time) prefer to hire someone who is nice and reliable and competent, rather than someone who is a genius and takes 2 weeks to respond to an email.

Let’s also put to permanent rest that this is ‘schmoozing’. Schmoozing implies that you are trying to get something from someone. If you change your mindset to one of trying to give, rather than get, you’ll find more success in the quality of the relationships that you form. As Austin Kleon says in “Show Your Work,”:

“Almost all of the people I look up to and try to steal from today, regardless of their profession, have built sharing into their routine. These people aren’t schmoozing at cocktail parties; they’re too busy for that. They’re cranking away in their studios, their laboratories, or their cubicles, but instead of maintaining absolute secrecy and hoarding their work, they’re open about what they’re working on, and they’re consistently posting bits and pieces of their work, their ideas, and what they’re learning online. Instead of wasting their time “networking,” they’re taking advantage of the network.”

Networking brings with it the idea that you are collecting contacts like coins. ‘Building relationships’ is much better. The idea in a relationship is reciprocity, but not necessarily transaction.

So, words matter. How you express yourself and your ideas matters (you’re a writer, right?). Be careful with your words. Let me give you an example. Here is how the asker of the question that inspired this post actually wrote their comment:

“The most important part of how you made a career as a songwriter is how you networked, used contacts, schmoozed etc. to get into the business to begin with. Tell us how you did that.”

Let me show you how this person could have phrased this that would have made me think, ‘oh this is a thoughtful person who I am willing to give my personal time to’:

“Hi Keppie! Thanks so much for all the content you’re putting on your channel, I’m learning a lot. It seems to me that building a career as a songwriter also involves not only the songs, but a lot of networking skills as well. If you have any time to answer this question, I’d love to know more about how you have approached that, and what are some tips you would give to people starting out? If not, I will continue to enjoy and support your work! Thanks again.”

That’s a message I would personally respond to. If I had time. Which I might or might not. But if I happened to, this is the one I would gravitate toward.

#3: Make yourself useful to others.

One of the most important ‘networking’ moves I have made was to start creating opportunities for others. While a student at Berklee, I started a student organisation called the Global Students Network, to give international students a chance to meet, and to gig together on campus. You know who my co-founder was? Arooj Aftab, now nominated for a 2022 Grammy as Best New Artist.

Arooj

If you’re looking for gigs, think about becoming an organiser. Invite 3 other artists to perform with you, and book a venue.

Find a young filmmaker, animator, or poet, and offer to compose the music for a video.

Or, you know, start a YouTube channel, and provide information that is of use to other songwriters, or invite other people onto it and use your platform to promote other people, too. Start a podcast, and share your ideas, processes, things you’re reading and learning. Invite other people on. Create a platform that you can use to elevate and promote other people. Brian Funk recently invited me onto his podcast.

He’s built a platform and is using it to promote other people. Brian and I are now ‘networked’ (but, really, we’re now friends and colleagues, which is way more interesting and fun and valuable than ‘network’…).

Meta note: See how I am using my platform here to promote Brian's work? Coz he's lovely? And didn't even ask for me to do it? But I will, because that's how it works...

If you find yourself in the position of wanting to ask a favour of someone, see if you can figure out a way that you could make their life easier or better (in a way that is appropriate and commensurate; it would be off-puttingly one-sided and bribe-ish to offer someone to build a website for them listening to your music for 3 minutes; but would be fine to offer to do the coffee and lunch run for the chance to sit quietly in the corner of a recording session at a studio, if you get the chance to meet a producer or engineer or recording artist).

And you know what’s even better than asking a favour? Asking for nothing in return. If you like something that someone else does or creates, simply use your platforms to promote them and their work. The value of that is worth 10x whatever you might get by asking for something in return.

#4: The practical stuff.

Once you’ve got good work, and are working on the basic operating system of kindness, curiosity, and value-adding, there are things you can do to put yourself in a position where you might meet the people you want to meet (just remembering there’s no guarantees, no paved road, it’s all speculating, but as the saying goes, “the harder you work, the more luck you seem to have…”):

Play open mics. If you are a songwriter starting out, cut your teeth at local open mics. It’s where I met the people who I still consider my closest musical allies and friends 20 years later. For example, Ben Romalis, Brian Campeau, and The Green Mohair Suits.

Release work. You need to have work in the world for people to be able to discover you. Don’t expect a single song to be “the song” that’s going to launch you. Keep making work regardless of whether it gets attention. As Bayles and Orland say in ‘Art and Fear’, your audience’s concerns (whether they be total disinterest or lavish attention),

“are not your concerns (although it’s dangerously easy to adopt their attitudes.) Their job is whatever it is: to be moved by art, to be entertained by it, to make a killing off it, whatever. Your job is to learn to work on your work.”

Show up. If you are at school/college/university, go to your professors’ open office hours, with specific questions, or to show them your work, and ask for feedback—genuinely! Not secretly only wanting a pat on the back – REALLY get their feedback, and experiment with their suggestions. Then go back the next week, and show them that you followed their advice, and talk about what worked for you and what didn’t. This shows them two things: that you are dedicated to actually improving your craft, and that you are exercising your own taste and discretion about your work, not just following others’ ideas…turning up in Pat Pattison’s office on a weekly basis (with Good. Work. And a solid work ethic), was part of what put me front and center of his mind to invite me to be in the room with John Mayer for a week in 2008.

It was also what brought me to mind when a faculty position in the Songwriting Department opened up in 2010.

Have a good website. Again, make it easy for people to find you, and find out about it, and dive as deep as they want into your body of work.

Go to music and industry events. Every country has a performing rights association who very frequently will run an array of professional development seminars, panels, master classes, etc. In Australia, you can check out what’s offered by APRA/AMCOS, MusicNSW, MusicVIC etc. In the States, look out for what’s on through ASCAP and BMI.

Take a class. You can always take an online (or F2F) class to meet people, and find collaborators. I have talked about this in more detail here, and there are some links in the video notes there, too.

Make your emails personal, well-researched, and succinct. If you are emailing someone you have met, or even cold-emailing someone, make it clear in your email that you are writing specifically to them, and not sending out a generic email you have copied and pasted. An example of this might be to include info that shows you have researched them, and that there is a reason they might want to check out your music.

This is no good:

“Hey Michelle,

I’m a young songwriter looking for opportunities to get my work in front of people in the music industry. I would love for you to have a listen to these tracks, and let me know what you think.”

This is better:

“Hi Michelle,

I noticed you recently signed Pink Bottle to your label! I’ve followed their careers for a while, and my own band, The Scorpion Queens recently played on the same bill with them at The Candy Castle. The Queens have have another show coming up at The Candy Castle on June 13…”

You can see where this is going. Notice that it is clearly an email for Michelle, and no one else. It shows that there is a musical connection between a band she’s signed and my (totally fictional) band (ie a reason she might be interested), and that we are an active band, not waiting around for someone to do something for us, already playing and booking gigs, with more activity on the horizon. I would then follow up with offering to put a ticket for Michelle on the door, offering to buy her a drink, and then thanking for her time, and sending her a link to my website, and one or two of my songs.

Follow up and thank someone for their time. If you meet someone at an event who you’ve had a conversation with and they have shared their contact information with you, follow up with a short and polite email within the week. If they don’t respond to you, it’s okay to follow up once more a few weeks later. After that, let it go. Don’t hassle them. You never know when you might bump into them again, and if they happen to remember you, they will also likely remember that you were professional and tactful.

Deliver on time. Provide more than you are required to, where possible. I don’t think this needs much elaboration.

#5: Keep. Making. Good. Work.

Ninety-seven percent of people who graduate from a degree in the creative arts are not making work 3 years after they graduate. This means that all you need to do to eliminate 97% of your competition is to keep making (good) work over a longer period of time.

Honestly, this last point here is where a career as a songwriter is made. After all, what is a ‘career’ as a songwriter? What is success? Each person has to answer this question honestly for themselves, but if your only (or even main) conception of success involves fame and fortune, you are on a dark and murky quest bound almost certainly for the land of Profound Disappointment. The ‘careers’ that dominate the media (Ariana Grande, Adele, John Mayer etc) really only represent the tiniest fraction of people who are actually making careers that involve songwriting in some capacity. The flipside of this, however, is to understand that people who DO make a living as songwriters also make a living doing lots of other stuff. This describes me, and lots of songwriters I know. I write and perform my own music; I teach songwriting. The combination of these has established me as someone who can help other people make their songs better. Which has put me in the room with other artists and bands, co-writing. Continually producing work has led to other commissioned work in interesting and unexpected formats (I have a full album of original work that will be released interwoven into an audiobook published by Penguin Random House next year). Which is likely to lead to other writers interested in commissioning songwriters to collaborate on other work…etc. And even if it doesn’t, I have an idea for a musical that I plan to start writing next year…I do believe there is a mindset thing going in here: my ‘career’ is really just a string of projects that interest and excite me. Having a career, and a network, is really an offshoot of doing work that excites me, regardless of whether anyone else is giving me permission, or even giving me a hand.

And in conclusion…

So, dear reader—and dear Asker of Slightly Rude but Nevertheless Interesting Question/Demand on YouTube—networking is not the most important thing. Your love of writing songs, a determination to write better songs, the perseverance to keep doing it, a mindset of kindness and generosity, and making yourself findable, are way, way more important.

If you made it this far reading this, firstly, thank you. Secondly, you would probably enjoy (actually, I think your mind would be permanently ennobled) by reading “Show Your Work” by Austin Kleon, and “Art and Fear” by Bayles and Orland.

**Footnote. I want to clarify that I am not a believer in pure meritocracy. Just because your work is good is often not enough, and very often is much harder for people who have histories and systems of oppression and marginalisation stacked against them (women, people of colour, LGBTQI+ folks, I'm shouting it out for us!). The experience of these people is often that their work needs to be even better to get the same attention. 

Getting to Great Chorus Lyrics

A great chorus is more than just the bit where the lyrics repeat. This video dives deep into the craft of finding and writing great chorus lyrics. We look at what a great choruses really do (beyond merely repeating), and look deeply at one of the most important concepts in great chorus writing: RECOLOURING. We reveal our favourite writing prompts for getting to a great chorus idea, and play a song that shows these ideas beautifully.

Here is a downloadable PDF of the prompts that you can use…forever!

George Saunders, Janis Ian, and Paul Simon—Where Meaning Comes From in Story

In a recent newsletter by one of my favourite writers, George Saunders, he writes of one of his characters in a short story, The Falls:

“A story has a surface dimension (let’s call it the overstory) and another, deeper, dimension (the understory). The overstory, in this case, is whether Morse will save the girls. That’s what we think we’re supposed to care about and what we (very naturally) do care about. The understory is somehow related to the Joycean idea of the epiphany – it’s what the story has really been about all along. The writer might not realize it until that moment when the understory breaks through the overstory and the story tells us, finally, what it’s been about all along.”

Photo: Zachary Krahmer

I believe (and experience) songwriting to be similar. As Janis Ian has said, often we write not because we have Something To Say; we write to find out what we are writing about.

Photo: Peter Cunningham

We often need to go spelunking through the dark and lumpy caves of the mind and imagination to arrive at some smooth pond that reflects a meaning back to us (that’s me, not Janis Ian, although I suspect that she, like me, has never been spelunking).

Paul Simon has framed a similar idea in a different way. Simon says that in his songwriting, he feels that his songs don’t need to have “meaning,” and probably benefit from avoiding it as the instigator of an idea. Instead, Simon says (in his wonderful interview with Paul Zollo, in Songwriters of Songwriting), songs simply need direction. Connect one idea to a second, and an idea has movement; connect it to a third, and the song has direction. Meaning will attach itself to direction, without needing to force it, plan it, or even mean it.

Photo: Frank Ockenfels

I like the idea that meaning is emergent; it takes the pressure off having to have ‘something to say’—or instead, it trusts the intelligence of a listener to bring their own experience and meaning to a story. It also encourages a trust in oneself as a writer—where there is story, there is meaning, and sometimes that meaning might be more complex, subtle, and personal, if we don’t set out from the starting point of ‘meaning’, but from the starting point of story.

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Why Having a YouTube Channel is Awesome

…because an awesome person you didn’t know before creates a beautiful graphic recording of a video you made, not knowing who would receive it, or whether it would be helpful:

By Chris Malapitan

As I was checking in on Instagram the other day, I saw that Chris had tagged me in a post, and saw this incredible drawing. Chris made this one-page recording of my YouTube video “The 3 Things I Did This Year to Write Over 20 Songs”. It’s such a lovely representation of the ideas. I’m humbled and grateful that putting the ideas out there has impacted even a single person. Thanks, Chris!


Christopher Malapitan is an independent creative facilitator and trainer based in Brussels. With many years of experience working in creative industries, he supports communities and teams to explore and unlock what drives them. From big-picture thinking to storytelling, from body movement to collaborative arts-based approaches, he applies a unique blend of innovative processes and practises to his facilitation work.

The Best Method for Writing a Good Song

From a recent interview with John Mayer:

“Whenever I want to write a big song, I can’t. And by “big” I mean spatially…the glacially large space inside the heart, that’s when I get writers block…trying to write a song to fill the entire galaxy. But if I write a song about the size of a glass of water, and I do it right, I notice a week later that it’s got the universe in it. I’d rather have the universe inside a glass of water, rather than try to make a glass of water fit in the universe.”

You can see the whole interview here (I’ve tagged it at the point where Mayer is talking about detail in songwriting.

This idea radiates into other forms of storytelling, which are really all connected—all trying to convey something that is simultaneously personal, drawn from the details of one’s own life, but also with a universal connection that creates communication, not just catharsis.

This idea was reiterated to me when I went poking around Matthew Dicks’ YouTube channel. Matt is a master storyteller—52-time Moth StorySLAM winner, and 7-time GrandSLAM champion. He made a lo-fi (and highly excellent) video outlining a storytelling game he plays in workshops and classrooms, called “3-2-1”. When explaining why he uses random concrete nouns as prompts, rather than something massive and emotional like “struggle” (or we could sub that for equally glacial concepts, like “loneliness” or “climate change”), Dicks says:

“It’s hard to tell a story if someone asks you, ‘Could you tell a story about a time when you struggled’. That is hard for a lot of people, including me, because ‘a time when you struggled’ is a very broad concept. There’s many, many times in our lives when we struggle. And so pick out the right story—to pick out any story—is really challenging. The odd thing is, the more specific the lens that you’re forced to look at your life through, the more likely you are to find a story.”

(My emphasis added)

You can see Matt’s whole video on his storytelling exercise here:

Matt was also kind enough to share with me the website he uses to generate the random nouns in this video, which is HERE (and on perusing it for a minute, it has other amazing filters that will generate other random lists for you, like cliches, emotions, ‘speech-verb’).

For a songwriter-specific writing exercise that will help you forever tap into the details, check out Object Writing in this video (I’ve tagged it right at Object Writing):

Pair this with 120 Sense Writing Prompts.

My Favourite Blogs

Here is a list of my favourite blogs right now. I have all of these saved as shortcuts on my iPhone homepage, and recommend them with much clapping and whistling.

1. The Whippet, by McKinley Valentine.

What is it?

From McKinley herself:

Science, history, weirdness and 0% contemporary politics because oh my god sometimes you need a break.

Always free, always interesting.

I hope she won’t mind that I post a few snippets here, to give a taste of how wonderful and diverse (and yet somehow glued together) all her writing is!

For example, this, from the most recent Newsletter:

Unsolicited Advice: Better questions to ask experts

So I went to a tonne of writing workshops over the last year and a half, because lockdown, some with quite famous and talented fantasy/scifi authors, and at the end the teacher asks if anyone has questions.

And the questions people ask completely threw me.

They were like, “Can I use a flashback? Can I use a prologue? Can I write a story in present tense?”

These are not good questions, in that they will not result in usable answers. It’s like saying “should I use the word ‘huge’?” Well, are you trying to describe something that’s very big? If you’re describing a small thing, you probably shouldn’t. There’s no possible meaningful way to answer that question without the context of where and why they want to use the word.

Anything’s ‘allowed’ if you can make it work. So the question is, how do you make it work? Some better questions you could ask:

  • what are prologues for?
  • what effect does writing in the present tense achieve?
  • how can I tell whether or not to use a flashback?

If you know what effect various techniques have, then you can decide when or if you should use them.

These are all writing-based, but I bet it happens in any field, people asking yes/no questions instead of how/why questions.

And this (from Issue #121):

Words for ‘hamster’ translated from other languages

Feldhamster - European hamster - Cricetus cricetus | Flickr
European hamster, admire his stripes
  • Fat cheeks (Welsh)
  • Lazy mouse (Cherokee)
  • One who hoards (Hebrew)
  • Silk fur rat (Japanese)
  • Mister Saddlebags (Syrian Arabic)
  • Cuddle mouse (Afrikaans)
  • Grain piglet (old Swabian German)
  • Earth dog (Lower Sorbian)
  • One who snores (Serbo-Croatian)
  • Eating mouse (Hungarian)

This list is by Adam Sharp, and if you like lists and language and wordplay, I can’t recommend following him enough. Or if you’re not on twitter, you could buy his book, The Correct Order of Biscuits: And Other Meticulously Assembled Lists of Extremely Valuable Nonsense.

He also includes a hamster-related aphorism translated from Swedish, the equivalent of “the lights are on but nobody’s home” —

“The wheel is spinning but the hamster is dead.”

Valentine is funny, kind, and clever. I want her to be my sister. (I have a sister, whom I love very much, and is also all of these things, but I would also happily add a third sibling, if it were McKinley).

2. Austin Kleon

Kleon is a writer who draws. His daily blog would be loved by lovers of Brainpickings, but feels like he is talking to a community of people making things. Kleon’s trilogy of books, starting with “Steal Like an Artist” are books I show and quote from to all of my songwriting students and classes. They changed my relationship to my creative process, and his blog is a daily dose of his thoughts and research that spiral in and out from observations about creative process, making things, and paying attention.

This is a graphic (from Steal Like an Artist) that I show to all my students:

Credit: Austin Kleon, ‘Steal Like an Artist’

3. Bad Astronomy, on syfy.com

I get bouts of insomnia every now and then (small kids, working at night, plus weird brain chemicals you get in your late 30s, and possibly post pregnancies, that keep the brain ticking, sigh). When it sets in, there are a few things I now know that will help recalibrate me for sleep. One of them is that I need to read something before bed that is interesting, but non-narrative. Something that fills me with calm — and it turns out that pop-astrophysics hits it on the head. Phil Plait’s astronomy blog fills me with the awe and wonder and humility that only galaxy-gazing can fill me with.

Something about the fonts on the website also make it look like tabloid news for aliens, which I love.

Why write it as a song?

It’s a question I ask of myself all the time. Why write this idea as a song, and not as a poem? A short story? A blog post? An angry rant to a neighbour? 

What function does a song serve that draws me to it as the vehicle for an idea?

One answer is that a song has the capacity, like no other thing, to make us feel thought. Songs translate ideas into emotion. We get the beauty and nuance and narrative of words, with the unspeakable colours of music. Nothing else does it quite like that.

And what draws people to song? There are obviously lots of reasons, ways, places and purposes for listening to songs (Dan Levitan’s ‘The World in Six Songs’ is a nice anthropological working on the social and biological function of song throughout human history), but I recently had another inkling about the strange addiction to writing and listening to songs, while reading Matthew Dicks’ ‘Storyworthy’. Dicks starts by outlining what he means by storytelling when he does it and teaches others to do it. One of the core principles is this: write only your story, never anyone else’s. It sounds obvious, but the idea is that even when you want to tell a story about someone or something other than you, it only connects with an audience (which is to say, they will only be moved, changed, transformed by it), if it is told from your perspective; how that story happened to you; how it changed you. As Dicks puts it:

People would rather hear the story about what happened to you last night than about what happened to Pete, even if Pete’s story is better than your own

Dicks distinguishes this type of storytelling from fables and fiction, that both have a different (and important) function; but there is nothing that cracks our own hearts into a shape capable of bending and changing like a true story told by the person who experienced it. 

This is also what songs are at their best. 

I am, admittedly, a fan of fiction in songwriting. I like bending the truth—often so out of shape that I end up singing from the perspectives of infanticidal primary school teachers and self-sabotaging scientists awash in delusions of grandeur. I love Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Gillian Welch (songwriters who revel in persona-driven stories). I love feeling that there can be truth, honesty, and discovery that can only be reached by searching beyond our own autobiographies. 

But it is undeniable that we as listeners crave the “immediacy and grit and inherent vulnerability in hearing the story of someone standing before you” (to quote Dicks again). So it is with story; so it is with song.

I’m only a third of the way through Storyworthy, and loving every page. There will be a lot in here that I will borrow and translate into my songwriting classes. 

This is Your Brain on Metaphor

When I teach lyric writing, the first concept I introduce in any class is the power and impact of sense-based language. I usually start with a sort of psychological magic trick: I read a list of words, then ask people to recall as many as they can. Without mentioning this to the class, I have deliberately made half the words concrete and sense-based—koala, tomato, thunder—and the other half are abstract or conceptual—task, idea, sound, for example. 

Here is the magic part: without fail, the vast majority of people (about 90%) recall more of the sense-based words. 

How is this possible? Why isn’t it more random? Why don’t we see, over a large sample, that it’s more like 50%? I randomise the words; I make sure the words are not more complex in one category versus the other…the magic (and science) here is that there is something special about sense-based language. Our brains wrap themselves differently around it. In the field of psychology, this has a name: “The Concreteness Effect”. People’s memories (and here we’re talking at a population level) stick like glue to things we can attach our senses to. 

As lyric writers, we are tasked with creating mansions in the mind of a listener with very limited real estate, so anything in language that comes pre-loaded with emotion, impact, and connection is gold.

Here’s a dirty little secret though. I have, for years, been a bit tripped up by the logic of this. Just saying “cinnamon” is not the same thing as actually smelling cinnamon…a word is a concept, even if it’s describing a sensory thing…isn’t it? Why should we expect that sensory language isn’t actually just another kind of concept? Why believe (even in spite of the hundreds of mini-experiments I’ve run, yielding the same result, and even all the experiments done by psychologists) that sensory language should have a different emotional impact than any kind of language?

Well! I am very thrilled that science has once again come to the party, gotten tipsy, had a snog with art, and the two are now dirty dancing, showing us how one moves the other. 

In Fiona Murphy’s gorgeous book, ‘The Shape of Sound”, she talks about a piece of research that,

“demonstrated how words can rub and burn just as much as they can soothe. Test subjects lying in an MRI machine were read metaphorical and literal descriptions—the operation went smoothly (the operation went successfully), his manners are coarse (his manners are rude), she is a bit edgy (she is a bit nervous)…The results were conclusive: textured metaphors caused the brain to react as if it were being touched.”

Our brains aren’t just processing these words as language—mere concepts, solely representations of the thing; the brain actually responds as if that sense is being activated!

The power and complexity of language never ceases to astonish me. There is magic in there too. To quote, perhaps, the leading authority on words and magic:

Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.

Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2)

120 Sense Writing Prompts

If you’re already familiar with Sense Writing (aka Object Writing), feel free to skip ahead to the prompts below. If Sense Writing is new to you, here’s a little primer.

What is Sense Writing?

Sense Writing is a timed 10-minute writing exercise, in which you take a prompt, and use that prompt as a gateway into whatever association arises for you based on the prompt. It is like free-writing, in the sense that you write continuously for 10 minutes, without editing yourself, and without ‘writing lyrics’. So no rhyme, no rhythm. Just sentences. The difference between Sense Writing and free writing is that in Sense Writing, you stay focused on using the senses to describe the scene, situation, or moment that arises in response to the prompt.

Sense Writing is based on lyric writing teacher Pat Pattison’s ‘Object Writing’. You can explore it in more detail here.

Why Sense Writing?

Sense Writing is the single most useful writing exercise that I have ever come across in my life as a songwriter. I use it on days when I have no idea what to write about. I use it when I’m in the middle of a song, and I’m looking for lyrics to furnish a particular idea. Sense Writing has the beauty of being a tool you can always default to when looking for ideas, as well as being a tool that strengthens your ability to convert ideas into specific, sensory imagery. And, it only takes 10 minutes or less.

Prompts

Starting with objects is a good strategy, as it keeps you grounded in the physical world. As you progress, dip into the prompts in other categories, understanding that the goal is ALWAYS to use the prompt as a springboard into a specific scene, situation, or moment, and to use vivid, descriptive sense-bound language to explore that moment in writing.

Enjoy!

OBJECTS:

COFFEE CUP, OLD T-SHIRT, FIRE PIT, MILKSHAKE, WALLET, PAINTING, MARBLE, SANDWICH, ANKLE, CABINET, BITUMEN, SUMMER RAIN, DUCT TAPE, FUTON, MOON, WEED, SKETCH, FINGERNAIL, TICKET, TOOTH

PEOPLE:

FARMER, DANCER, OLYMPIC BOXER, GRANDFATHER, SURGEON, TEACHER, FIRST LOVE, QUEEN, RETIREE, MIDDLE CHILD, MAGICIAN, CLEANER, PATIENT, LIBRARIAN, ACTOR, WAITER, ROCK CLIMBER, NEIGHBOUR, LAST PERSON TO LEAVE, BULLY

PLACES:

MALL, COUCH, KITCHEN, CLASSROOM, ALLEYWAY, TRAIN STATION, AIRPORT, GRANDMA'S HOUSE, UNDER THE BED, SUPERMARKET, GRAVEYARD, HOTEL, TUNNEL, HOSPITAL, FRONT PORCH, CAMPSITE, CANYON, OUTER SPACE, FRONTLINE

TIMES/EVENTS:

WEDDING, FUNERAL, 7TH BIRTHDAY PARTY, GRADUATION, FIRST KISS, NEW YEAR'S EVE, 3A.M., AUTUMN, SCHOOL BELL, LUNCH BREAK, CONCERT, MOVING OUT, FIRST DAY, SUNRISE, FAMILY HOLIDAY, SWIMMING, MIDNIGHT, SAYING SORRY, PROTEST, WILDFIRE

EMOTIONS:

DELIGHT, BOREDOM, HUMILITY, NOSTALGIA, ENVY, DEFENSIVENESS, CONFUSION, UNCERTAINTY, CONTENT, SCHADENFREUDE, LOVE, RELIEF, SURPRISE, IMPATIENCE, DENIAL, ANXIETY, ANTICIPATION, NERVOUSNESS, REMORSE, SATISFACTION

CONCEPTS:

STUCK, CONNECTION, IMPRESSION, RESPONSE, CHEMISTRY, AFFAIR, COLD, CELEBRATION, FORGIVENESS, GROWING OLDER, ELECTION, TRADITION, PRIORITY, DEPARTURE, ECONOMY, OPINION, COUNTRY, NEWS, REPUTATION, OPPORTUNITY