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Focusing the Message: 5 Pro Tips from a Songwriter

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photo adapted / Horia Varlan


First, let me be clear: the songwriter referred to in the above headline is not me. I have written all of one song in my life, in apology to my mother for being someone different than the person she’d hoped I’d be. (Singing it for her diffused the tension in our relationship, so I quit while I was ahead and stopped short of trying to sell it in Nashville.)

No, the singer-songwriter whose mad skills inspired today’s post is Dar Williams, whose folk career rose to popular acclaim in the 1990s while opening for Joan Baez on an international tour. With that jump-start, she sustained her career in the same manner as do many authors: by appearing where she could in small-town venues across the country.


I was literally sitting two feet away from Dar Williams. #notfangirling

Amazingly, Dar made a September appearance in the hamlet closest to my summer home in northern New York State, where trees outnumber people a gazillion to one. Her tour was in conjunction with the release of her book, How to Write a Song that Matters, based on the songwriting retreats she’s been hosting since 2013. This meant that before her evening concert in the opera house at one end of town, I was also able to hear her speak about her creative process at the library three blocks away (yes, at the other end of town!) and pick up a copy of her book.

This was not because I hoped to further my songwriting career, but because as anyone who has read my chapter in Author in Progress (Therese Walsh, ed.) knows, I often find writing mentors and muses hidden within other art forms. Because songwriting is a shorter form, we wordy novelists can learn a thing or two from the way Dar focuses her message.

1. Zero in on your audience

Yes, I think of her as “Dar.” Cheeky, right? I talked to her for all of two minutes in a signing line. But I’m pretty sure everyone who’s heard her speak about songwriting or has heard her perform thinks of her as a friend.

As Dar’s foray into the North Country woods suggests, her listeners matter. Dar pays keen attention to the places where she’ll perform and the people she meets there, and then makes good use of the details she accumulates. They fuel the conversation she has with her audience, inspire new songs, allow her to publicly thank the town’s arts champions as well as some of its inhabitants by name, and even resulted in her first book, What I Found in a Thousand Towns. Add lyrics that feel personal and true, and the audience feels like she’s “one of us.”

Pro tip to build your audience: An audience is built one person at a time. Whether at a conference, a book signing, or speaking in a lecture hall, learn something about the town. Interact with bookstore personnel, organizers, and other authors as well as readers. Use names whenever you can. An interaction that feels personal will make an impression that sticks.

2. Think poetically

During her talk at the library, Dar used a few of her songs to lead us through her songwriting process. Once she latches onto an idea, her first step is to think of it “poetically.” I assumed she meant through metaphor, rhythm, and rhyme, but when I asked to be sure, she said it ran deeper than that.

She glanced out the window. “Take a road, for example. What is a road, really? Why must we tell each other where to go and how to get there?” Such thoughts lead her from the pavement beneath our wheels to deeper explorations of our society.

Pro tip for poetic thinking: Dar generates material for a new song with the following questions:

    • Where did I go? Where did I really go?
    • What happened? What really happened?
    • How did it feel? How did it really feel?

This depth of focus might not be needed on every page of your novel, but it could certainly unearth extra meaning for key scenes.

3. Sharpen your revision game

Sometimes, in order to make our daily word count, we’ll slap something on the page such as, “At long last, he was happy”—and somehow that determination persists through many drafts because we never paused to question the truth of this.  Further psychological fine-tuning—Dar’s “how did it really feel?”—might reveal that this character isn’t “happy” so much as “relieved of the burden of regret.” This specificity helps the reader relate better to that character, since “happy” can be such a vague and fleeting state.

Pro tip for sharpening your end game: “Before the ink is dry” on your story, Dar encourages writers to question whether decisions you made might have just sounded good at the time. As an editor who has seen more than one character “let out the breath she didn’t know she was holding” (guilty), too many fingers “worrying the edge of a cloth,” and so many smiles playing at the edges of mouths that I sometimes imagine them on teeter-totters, I know that we writers can become enamored with phrases that sound authorly. It makes sense—we want to be in that club. Dar urges writers to persevere until every word of what they wrote feels specific and true.

4. Ensure the story makes sense to you

Before we share our work, Dar implores us to make sure our stories make sense to ourselves. In her book, she shares a critique she gave one retreater: “You have a beautiful voice and a song with interesting words and images. We will follow you on the journey of this song. We will trust you. And if you don’t know what it means, you’re basically leading us into the woods.” She added, “And not the good kind of woods.”

The good kind of woods invites the reader to explore and make connections. The bad kind of woods just leaves the reader feeling lost.

Is the story you meant to tell really on the page? Answering this question requires a lot of honest self-reflection from a writer. Sadly, you might not be able to rely on critique partners to determine this; it’s hard for many readers to admit that your lush prose and high-minded ideas didn’t add up to much.

Pro tip for ensuring your story adds up: It’s okay to leave certain aspects of a story open to interpretation—book clubs love that. But whether told through novel or song, a story should leave the reader with a distinct impression about the protagonist’s journey. At the very least, Dar says, cohesion in voice will limit the scope of interpretation. “If we truly believe a song can mean anything at all, we can spare the songwriter some time and direct the listeners to a dishwasher manual.”

5. Make emotional room for your reader

Dar aims her message to a “strike zone” of collective experience and emotional honesty that resides in a listener’s core, somewhere between their heart and their knees—then later applies a tool she calls the “Sentimentimeter” to help “dry up prose that sounds too mushy.” A certain amount of dryness allows the listener to feel their own feelings as opposed to being told what they are supposed to feel.

Pro tip for hitting the strike zone with emotional prose: In a highly emotional sentence, try subbing in one workmanlike word. For example, “Long after you’re gone, my heart will be yours” could become “Long after you’re gone, my memories will be yours.” This allows the reader to make the connection between shared memories and love.

I’ll close with this beautiful quote from her book, which reinforces the links I find between my work and those of mentors in other art forms:

“Art in general reminds me that there are things we call meaningful. Time is an impersonal force, and life itself can feel airy and insubstantial, but when I hear a song that I love, something catches and holds me the way gravity holds us to the ground. There is resonance; there is traction.”

May your work catch readers, hold them to the ground, and continue to resonate in their hearts long after the final cover is closed.

Does experience in other art forms influence your writing? If so, please share something you’ve learned from a sister muse, or an inspirational resource based in another form (and yes, M. Scott Peck’s Golf and the Spirit counts!).


About Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.

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