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Nancy Rost: Blog

Finding your co-writing style

Posted on November 18, 2013 with 8 comments

If you’re new to co-writing and you’ve found a songwriting partner or two, you may be wondering how to start writing together. I find it helps to choose a collaborative working model first. Here are some popular ones:

 Lyricist and Composer

This is a pretty straightforward division of tasks. It’s the obvious choice if you’re much stronger in one area than the other, or if you have a set of lyrics or composition you’re certain you want someone else to finish. Bernie Taupin and Elton John worked this way for many years, with the words coming first. Burt Bacharach and Hal David also used this method most of the time, with the music coming first.

Starter and Finisher

One songwriter starts with both music and words, then hands it to the next person. Many ongoing writing partnerships use this model, often with alternating roles. If you’re stuck on the second verse, another writer may be able to offer a fresh perspective and run with what you’ve got. Conversely, you may be looking for a co-writer who’ll spark your process with some starter ideas.


When you have a verse that needs a chorus, your partners may have other fragments that fit. The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life” developed this way. Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” pieces together Lindsey Buckingham’s intro, Stevie Nicks’s verses and Christine McVie’s chorus, finished by John McVie’s outro. If you and your partner or bandmates each write a lot and have plenty of fragments, this is worth trying. (For a more experimental exercise in mosaic co-writing, try a musical “exquisite corpse”.)


If you write with a band, or like to do your composing in a Digital Audio Workstation, you can write the song layer by layer -- for example, one writer starts with a groove, one adds a chord structure, the next writer adds a vocal melody. The Postal Service famously used this co-writing style via mail. Layered co-writing can also emerge from jam sessions.

Eyeball to Eyeball

This means setting a time and place to start the song together from scratch and see it through to completion. Eyeball-to-eyeball co-writing is standard for professional songwriters, who appreciate the efficiency and interplay of this method. If you’re not used to writing songs this quickly, or feel inhibited sharing your raw creative process, it will take some getting used to. I recommend trying it at least a few times to see if you like the results.

There are many other ways to co-write songs, of course. (If your favorite isn’t on the above list, please tell me about it in the comments!) Some of these roles can be mixed, too, e.g., lyricist-starter and composer-finisher, an eyeball-to-eyeball co-write done in layers.

My own first co-writes followed the Lyricist and Composer model, writing music for a classmate’s humorous poetry, and later writing lyrics for friends to set to music. Writing as a composer-finisher or lyricist-starter came naturally to me: I just did half of what I usually did when writing alone!

If I’d just stuck with that approach, I’d still have benefitted greatly. Some of my favorite songs were written that way, and in fact I’m currently jazzed about a collaboration I’m finishing as a composer.

But I’d have missed out on some great opportunities too.

A number of musicians I’ve wanted to work with have different default methods for songwriting. Helen Robertson, for instance, tends to work music-first, so when we started co-writing we split the difference between our methods. Taking on the lyricist-finisher role has taught me new ways to be catchy and concise, and resulted in some of the staples of my repertoire.

And when it comes to eyeball-to-eyeball writing, sometimes you just have to seize the opportunity when you can share time and space. It’s a messier process, but an especially rewarding one too.

Next time: Introduction to the co-editing process.

Nancy Rost

November 19, 2013

T.C., I think our collaboration on "Straight From The Dump" makes a great illustration of the layered approach. I plan to use it in my teaching.

Nancy Rost

November 19, 2013

Mike S., I had our collaboration "Helen" in mind as one of the great results of using an unfamiliar co-writing process.

I've definitely experienced that big picture/details complement in writing partnerships. That can play out as a starter/finisher scenario. I've also had good results using these differences in eyeball-to-eyeball co-writing, where one person comes up with concepts, the other comes up with musical and lyrical phrases, and then the first person helps to tie the second person's ideas together.

A difference in working rhythms (careful thought versus rapid brainstorming) can be tricky when it comes to in-person co-writing -- one writer may feel overwhelmed while the other may lose patience. Bridging those differences comes down to communication and openness. This pairing may find an asynchronous co-writing style most effective (e.g., the brainstormer generates multiple ideas, the contemplator selects one and develops it for awhile.)

Nancy Rost

November 18, 2013

Rod, I understand that, especially when there's not back-and-forth between the participants. I think the co-editing phase sometimes gets shortchanged when time is short. I wish you success in finding "the person with the other eyeball", whether locally or, as Mike S. suggests, at a distance via Skype.


November 18, 2013

I like how you've laid this out in an organized manner. I hadn't thought of it this way before.

Andy G

November 18, 2013

Very interesting summary, I may have to give the mosaic and layered approach a try.

mike s

November 18, 2013

Great post, Nancy!. Yeah, I think you listed all the basic collab frameworks. A few more thoughts, tho- sometimes one person is better at the overall concept and the other is better at the execution, its kind of a 'one person sees the forest, the other measures every tree' kind of approach- and sometimes in a co-write, you get an interesting dynamic about some people wanting to take their time and come up with the best idea after carefully thinking about it, others (like me, sometimes, as you know!) throw out a billion ideas a minute, most of which may lead nowhere but some of them might be good..). It's also interesting how these things can be done more easily without two people in the same room anymore.. I wonder if there's an album out there that was entirely written on Skype?


November 18, 2013

Great job, Nancy. When I do a co-write, I do eyeball-to-eyeball, solely. It's a great way to work! I was in a workshop a week ago with songwriter Ian Eskelin and he says that a song is like a tiger that you've got to wrestle to the ground. He likes to go into a session, wrestle that tiger, and get out as fast as he can! I'm not quite as aggressive.


November 18, 2013

Nice. I'm getting tired of the lyricist-composer model I always do on FAWM. I'm starting to feel like it's not really collaboration. I'm down for some eyeball-to-eyeball, except I haven't found the person with the other eyeball yet.