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"It's All About the Rewrite"
By Jon Nicol - 01/01/2004 - 12:20 PM EST

As I was flipping through the channels, I stumbled onto another one of the Gaither Homecoming concerts. This one was a Christmas special. I’m not a huge fan of Southern Gospel music, but I’m finding more and more that these Homecoming concerts are more preferable than what the networks are offering. (I’ve also found myself lingering on the PBS re-airings of Lawrence Welk shows. Oh no…what’s happening to me?! If Hee-Haw were on I’d probably find myself watching that, too! But back to the Gaithers…) This time the singer wasn’t one of the usual suspects belting out a gospel favorite, but it was Evie. If you have any inkling who Evie is, than you know what song she was singing: “Come On Ring Those Bells.” I grew up hearing that song every Christmas sung by Evie, the Oak Ridge Boys or one of the ‘soloists’ at my church back in Iowa. The folks at my church got into it—they even clapped their hands with the music (on beats “one” and “three” of course—none of that lascivious “two” and “four” clapping, thank you very much. That’s one reason why I had to move away…).

I had the experience of meeting the man who penned “Come On Ring Those Bells.” His name is Andrew Culverwell. After my freshman year, the college-sponsored music group for which I played guitar had a weeklong gig at Okoboji Bible & Missionary Conference in northwest Iowa. (Yeah, we toured all the hot spots…) One of the other “musical guests” was Andrew. He immediately struck me as a light-haired Dudley Moore (without the limp), and I enjoyed chatting with him during a few meals that week. Having written only a few songs at that point in my life, I didn’t have the knowledge to know that I didn’t have any knowledge. (We’ve all been there, haven’t we?) So I missed my chance to really pick his brain on the subjects of songwriting and being a professional musician. But I do remember the one short conversation we had regarding songwriting. I had mentioned I was planning on writing a song for my sister’s wedding that upcoming fall. His advice: “It’s all about the rewrite.” Since I hadn’t written a word or note yet (and I never would—sorry, Val…), I simply nodded my head, repeated the words like they were profound and then went back to the green Jell-o jiggling on my tray.

As I continued to write more over the next few years, I found Andrew’s words reverberating in my head. And then I began to practice them. Other training reinforced this idea. Mantras like, “Great songs aren’t written, they’re rewritten” became part of my thinking to the point that a bass player in my former band said to me, “Man, you’re gonna write the life outta of that song.”

Is it possible to re-write too much? Some people think so—my former bass player being one of them. I think his rationale, as well as many others, for being wary of too much rewriting is this: whatever magic, whatever mojo, or whatever message from God that spawned the song might be lost if it is reworked too much.

I think too often there is an over-spiritualization in songwriting. I want to stress that this over-spiritualization isn’t confined to “Christian” or “worship” songwriters. There’s this tendency to take what the inspiration or muse gives us and call it finished. Summed up: “whatever flows first must be the best.” Even though it’s not solely confined to writers of worship music, this line of thought is heavily entrenched among them.

I will say there can be the “song from heaven” that lands in your lap from time to time. But let’s be honest, a lot of what “flows” out of us is rehashed, recycled bits of stuff that, (1) we’ve already written and/or (2) we’re subconsciously stealing from someone else. But that’s an all right thing as long as we can see the quality (or the lack of…) of what’s coming out. It’s OK to have throwaway lines and phrases in your initial work. If it’s flowing, don’t stop to analyze it. Just let it come. You can sort the junk from the jewels later. And the junk is serving a purpose: it’s keeping the seat warm for the jewels that will be rewritten into the song later (e.g. rhyme schemes, structure, right idea/wrong words, etc).

Once you’ve written your initial draft, it’s good to take time to fall out of love with it. Whatever that takes for you, a night’s sleep, a week, a month—whatever—just get to the point where you can gut it without crying too much. Got the fillet knife? Good, start by cutting the following:
-Clichés and standard metaphors
-Predictable rhyming words
-Yoda language (see my last article)
-Anything that doesn’t support the main theme or topic of the song (you do have a main theme, don’t you?)

And the list goes on. Look hard at your writing and try to determine your primary junk of choice. This may require the help of others who can point out what we can’t (or choose not to) see in our own writing. Keeping your “junk tendencies” in mind as you write and rewrite is an invaluable tool in creating great songs.

Time for confession: I’m the king of wordy songs. One of the songs that I recorded but cut from my album clocked in at over 8 minutes. I told (what I thought was) a great story and had a good hook, but after about four minutes, even I got bored. So that song has been slated for surgery ever since then. The problem was, I was too in love with it to make more than a few superficial cuts. It’s been well over a year, and frankly, I’ve almost forgotten about it. I almost ditched it completely, but it does have a promising concept and hook. It just needs some serious hacking. So I’m ready. Where’s the butcher knife?

Most of this is elementary to many of you songwriters. But I wanted to write about this topic because it seems the worship music scene has been blitzed by “one-draft wonders.” A few are good. Most aren’t. Just because a song flowed in one sitting, doesn’t mean that it is done. I’m a firm believer in the fact that writing music is both subjective and objective. Let it flow, but take time to separate the junk from the jewels.

If you want, take time to post one of your “songs in need of surgery” at the Vertical Songwriting forum. We can gut it together.

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