The Musician's Writing Process | Part 2

November 25, 2020

In Part 1 we looked at the first four stages of the writing process:

Stage 1: Research
Stage 2: Build a Soundboard
Stage 3: Sketch
Stage 4: Setup & Plan

In this post we’re going to look at the last four:

Stage 5: The Write-Edit Loop
Stage 6: Arrange
Stage 7: Produce
Stage 8: Get Feedback

Please remember:

1: These are just ideas to help you - not a fundamental rule or doctrine you should follow.

2: Whilst this guide presents a ‘linear’ process, don’t take it completely literally. The creative process is, of course, non-linear and won’t be as neatly tied up as this guide implies. Jump around.

5. The Write-Edit Loop

Archetypes: Architect - Builder - Editor

Whilst this is only one section, usually, this takes the bulk of the project. It’s the writing bit. Stage 1234 & 678 comprise the outer edges which start your project off in a good direction and then finesse & finalise it at the end.

The write edit loop is the stage where you harness the power of oscillating between editor & writer. The process involves writing for a while without any internal dialogue about whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘going to work’ or ‘not going to work’. In other words, you get rid of judgment and focus only on enjoyment.

After a period of time (up to you how long), you then stop writing any new material and then switch into ‘editor’ mode. This is where you look from a fresh perspective to see what your ‘composer’ has done and get to work on making it better. *note - It’s important here that you go about making it better through editing, cutting & tweaking rather than writing new material or going in a different direction.

Turn off your internal critic whilst you're writing. Then turn off your internal writer whilst you're editing.

This is a well-known process for producing anything creative, not just music. I didn’t invent it. But it only really came to my attention when I started taking on composition students. I found it remarkable how easily I could give advice, unstick people’s creative blocks and inspire them into a new direction - and yet I couldn’t always do the same with my music.

The act of ‘being the teacher’ forced me to ‘be the editor’. I was in a completely different role and had an objective view of the piece from a fresh perspective. This enabled me to look at the material that was there and come up with creative ideas to make the best use of it. I didn’t re-write what the students did at all.

Switch Roles, Don’t Mix Them.

The pain and difficulty come when you mix these two processes up (writing & editing). If you’re currently struggling to write, I’m 98% sure it’s because you’re making one or both of these mistakes.

If the editor comes in when the composer should be working - we start crushing our creative impulses before they have a chance to flower. “Ahh that’s crap, that’s not a good idea”.

If the composer comes in when the editor is editing - the tendency will be to rewrite or go in a completely different direction - as opposed to working with what is there. If the composer gains control again, the whole process gets confused because the editor is now trying to edit, solidify and enhance a piece of music which is simultaneously changing.

Switch often or Switch Occasionally

As I said, the length of time that you spend in composer or editor mode is up to you - but you should (if you’re having any trouble mastering your composing process) become more conscious of when you switch. In reality, someone might be switching every 10 seconds - whereas an amateur might need to put a timer on and ‘force’ themselves to be only in composer mode for 20 minutes.

The goal is that eventually all this stuff becomes unconscious and you intuitively know not to judge what you’re writing as you’re writing it because you know how crushing it is to your creative process. The goal is that each part of your creative processis supporting the other one and giving each other space.

There is an acceptance that is needed of your own process - and whilst it can seem a little weird dividing yourself up into separate professional 'roles', it allows you to be clearer about which part of your creative skillset is in charge and therefore who you’re respecting, trusting and giving creative space to. "Trusting yourself" is a little vague and therefore may need a little more definition in order to be helpful to your process.

A healthy writing process is one that feels relaxed, neutral and where you fully trust your different creative stages.

6. Arrange

This is a huge topic so I won’t cover too much here as I can’t do it justice in summary.

Arranging can mean many things and depends on what you consider to be the ‘writing’ stage. For example:

If you’re someone who writes extensive piano/guitar (etc) arrangements as part of your ‘writing’ phase - you’ll probably consider arranging to be more closely linked to orchestration or the assigning of instruments to different parts.

Alternatively, if you’re someone who writes primarily in a lead sheet style (chords, melody & rhythm only) you’ll need to add more depth to your arrangement by creating parts as well as assigning instruments/voices to them.

If you’re not sure which one of those you are, then I would suggest starting with the second - arranging well for piano first. As you’ll read in this article, getting your music arranged well at the piano first is 70% of the battle.

7. Produce

Music production is also… a huge topic. You likely know what it is, but to make it super clear it could include any or all of the following (and more):

  • Creating your own sounds
  • Adapting existing patches
  • Rehearsing & workshopping with musicians
  • Recording
  • Adding effects
  • Mixing
  • Mastering

And, in case I hadn’t made it super clear yet, this is not necessarily a linear process. Much of this stage might feed back into your write-edit loop. Examples:

  • You workshop the piece with some musicians and they serve as extra editors by giving you feedback, directly or simply by you hearing it.
  • You realise a core aspect of the piece is the way you are writing into a big reverb/delay chain and so you go back and add more space to your entire arrangement.
  • In production, you make an AMAZING new synth sound and want to write an entirely new part for it.
  • A musician you are working with does an amazing improvisation and you realise it’s waaaay better than what you wrote - so you scrap some of your melodies and rewrite your piece around what they did.

8. Get Feedback

If you’re working with other people in stage 7, you’ll already be getting feedback, but if your work has been in a closed circuit until now - you need to open it up.

This might only be at the point of release, in which case your feedback will come in the form of fan feedback, social shares & grammys... (sigh). Ideally though, you want to create some other feedback points before it goes out to the big wide world.

Having mastermind groups (professional development/support group) with other musicians is a great idea - these can be producers, musicians, whoever - just people whose taste you respect. You don’t have to take their advice and if you do, you don’t need to implement it on this track, you can learn the lesson and let it make its way into your next piece of work. But the important point is to step back at the end of your project, take it all in, appreciate it and learn what you can do even better next time.