Elmore Leonard’s Advice to Songwriters

My Song Coach

When I hear great fiction writers talk about their craft, I’m often struck by how easily these insights can be applied to songwriting.  We can learn a lot about our own craft by stepping outside and looking at it from another angle. For example, the late, great novelist Elmore Leonard said this in an interview with WritersDigest.com:

A writer has to read. Read all the time. Decide who you like then study that author’s style. Take the author’s book or story and break it down to see how he put it together. 

If you apply this to songwriting you get:

A songwriter has to listen. Listen all the time. Decide who you like then study that songwriter’s style. Take the songwriter’s songs break them down to see how they’re put together.

To become good at your craft, it takes more than talent. Elmore Leonard was certainly a great novelist – Get Shorty is a classic! – and a hugely talented writer of short stories and screenplays. Why did he feel  the need to study other writers? Because he understood the limitations of talent. 

Think of it this way: Talent may write one great work, but after a while talent alone runs out of ideas, starts recreating earlier successes, becomes predictable. Every great artist learns from and builds on the work of others. Although it may seem like a paradox, it’s this constant exposure to new ideas, techniques, and skills that keeps your own work fresh.

Study hit songs you like

While it’s essential to study successful songs, you don’t need to study songs you don’t respect or don’t like. There are plenty of songs out there that are successful and well written, filled with ideas, techniques, and songwriting tools you can apply to your own songs.

But what if you hate everything you hear on the radio? It may be radio itself that you hate and not the songs.  The ads, the hyped-up DJs, the songs you don’t want to hear played over and over – all work together to create a negative experience around those songs that really are worth paying attention to.

So, instead of listening to the radio and wading through the mud to pick out a few gems, spend some time every month or two going through the current music charts at BDSradio.com or Billboard.com. Make a list of songs you might be interested in and then buy or stream them.  You should find one or two that catch your ear. Study those to see what makes them work.  Here’s a list of hit song guides I’ve put together to get you started. I’ve included tips on what to listen for and how to use those techniques in songs of your own.

But won’t I end up sounding like someone else?

I know this is a very real fear and, for a short time, your work might be pulled in another direction by a new technique or idea you’ve picked up from another artist. Just keep on writing and studying. While there might be an obvious influence in the short run, as you continue to write and study that influence will blend with others and ultimately with your own taste and vision for your music. It takes a little time – give yourself that time. Ultimately, the result will be  songs with strength, definition, expressiveness, and your own distinctive style.

Here’s a post with more ideas on where to find good contemporary songs to listen to.

Keep writing. Keep listening. Never stop. Write a thousand songs.

by Robin Frederick

Author: Robin

Robin Frederick is the author of Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting and Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV. She has written and produced more than 500 songs for television, records, theater, and audio products. She is a former Director of A&R for Rhino Records and Executive Producer of 60 albums. Visit Robin's websites for more songwriting tips and inspiration: www.RobinFrederick.com and www.MySongCoach.com.