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5 Songwriting Prompts to Get in the Flow

Some favorite prompts to help get in touch with the creative self

by Nan Macmillan

Photo by Kristen Finn

In March 2021, I decided to enroll in the first songwriting course I had taken in a while. It was through ‘School of Song,’ an organization that emerged in the midst of Covid as a space for virtual songwriting and music-related workshops. The class I took was with Buck Meek, a member of the band Big Thief, who is one of my favorites. It was a joy to learn from an artist I admire, and to be in community with the other students. Each class, we were given a prompt to complete for the next meeting. I hadn’t really written from prompts before, but found it to be a great way of getting ideas flowing. After Buck’s class, I went on to take two other courses through School of Song, and have since used prompts as a tool in my songwriting. I find them to be a jumping off point, a catalyst for inspiration. Here are some of my favorite prompts you can use to help the writing flow.

1. Florilegium

Florilegium is the process of compiling excerpts from a larger body of text, and piecing them together. There are a few different approaches to take for this prompt. You can choose a text from another writer, i.e. a page of a book, a piece of prose, a newspaper leaf. You can also grab pieces from your own writing, for example, a journal entry. Comb through the text and select phrases that speak to you, that seem to jump off the page. Then, once you’ve gone through and highlighted or underlined these excerpts, put them down on a new document and see how they fit together. You can play around with the order, seeing what new meanings emerge. You can rephrase or rework the text to create flow. An example is below:

“As a writer, you’d be foolish if you weren’t pushing yourself to get to the heart of things,” she says. “Our surface feelings – the ones where you rant and rave at people, and glorify and denigrate yourself – aren’t the most interesting. You’re doing an excavation. So when you’re constructing a book, you must put everything down. But then you finish a draft, and you ask yourself: ‘Am I OK with that?’ People are surprised when you tell them you consult those you write about before publication… they think it’s an artistic fatal compromise. But you do. Harry, my mother, anyone I’m writing about will see the work before publication. The end result may have the effect of privacy being violated, but it doesn’t feel that way to the writer. I feel less personal about my writing than some of my readers do, which is fine.” (from The Guardian, interview with Maggie Neslon)


The heart of things

You rant and rave

You ask yourself

My mother, anyone I’m writing about

The end result

2. Between the Lines

For this prompt, you’ll begin with a poem or song lyric. Then, it’s very simple, you just write in between each line of text. You can think about what the original text is, what emotional quality it has, what themes are present. How you write in between those lines will probably embody or reflect that same theme. So, the intention behind which text you choose is important. You’ll write between these lines, then take the original text away and see what you’re left with. Again, you can rework and reorder the text until it feels finished. An example is below:


Sun down and I'm feeling lifted - [original text]

Lifted up by the love you give - [writing between lines]

Downtown, cherry lipstick

The shade that makes me think of summer

Watch her silk dress dancing in the wind

The breeze so soft

Watch it brush against her skin

Glowing in the moonlight

Makes me wanna try her on

If only for a little while

[lyrics from Silk Chiffon by MUNA]


Lifted up by the love you give

The shade that makes me think of summer

The breeze so soft

Glowing in the moonlight

If only for a little while

3. Stream of Consciousness

This prompt is fairly straightforward. The main idea here is to free yourself from judgment and the critical mind. Place yourself in a room free from distractions. Close the door, turn your phone off. Take a few deep breaths. Close your eyes. If you play an instrument, come up with a 3-4 chord pattern and play it on a loop. If you don’t play an instrument, you can play a drone note to serve as a tonal foundation. Then, just let your mind wander. Sing freely and see what comes out. Let whatever words or sounds emerge, and just follow them where they lead. There doesn’t need to be any form to this, but pay attention to moments that feel good or right, and feel free to repeat these. Continue on this way for at least 15 minutes, but feel free to go for longer. I recommend setting up a recording device so that you can listen back. Then, pull out chunks of your recording that you like, that feel like they could lead somewhere. Develop those and try piecing them together.

4. Memory Dive

Think of a memory that has emotional significance to you. Try to dive into the five senses with this memory. What sounds are present? What does it smell like? What does this memory look like? Do any tastes come to mind? What does it feel like there, any sensations, temperatures, textures? Write freely for about 15-20 minutes, exploring each sense. Then, go back through your text, using the florilegium technique, to highlight lines and phrases that stick out to you. Categorize the lines into two groups: more specific, details based phrases, and broader, more universal phrases. Craft a verse/verses and a chorus, using the detailed lines in the verses and broader ideas in the chorus.

Photo by Kristen Finn

5. The Archaeologist

Using any of the previous techniques as a starting point, write between 5-7 song “chunks.” These can be choruses, verses, bridges, hooks. They can be varying lengths. Try to write both lyrics and melody, but you can just begin with words and add music later. Try to write freely and without judgment, moving quickly from one idea to the next. The themes/ emotional content of the chunks do not need to relate. Feel free to move around in keys, tempos and rhythms. Then, once you have 5-7 ideas down, try and piece them together. See which ones feel like verses, like choruses, like a bridge. You do not need to use all of them, ideally you’ll choose about three. See which ones speak to each other, which ones create an exciting arc and transition between parts, piecing them together like an archaeologist.


These prompts have helped me get into a flow of writing songs. I like to see songwriting as a practice, as something that is part of my daily routine. Rather than try to wait for inspiration to strike, I like to think that inspiration is always there waiting for us, it’s just a matter of tapping into it. I find this balanced approach to take the pressure off of writing a song, and just letting songs emerge without judgment. Not every song will be a keeper, but the more I write, the more practiced I’ll be, and the more songs I’ll have to choose from.

Nan Macmillan is a singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn, NY. You can listen to her music here, and email her at for songwriting lessons.

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