How To Write a Folk Song

Tips for New Writers and Artists with Writer's Block

Rivolli ballroom
David Ryle / Getty Images

Everyone should try their hand at songwriting now and then. It's a fun, creative way to spend a day; and besides, you never know – you could be the next Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, and you just don't know it yet.​ Here's how. 

What You Need

  • An instrument really helps
  • A pen and paper
  • Something to say
  • A willingness to try something new
  • No fear

Take Some Alone Time

Sure, you can work on a song with a few of your closest friends. Collaborating musically can yield amazing results, but if you're just starting out, I would recommend trying songwriting alone first. You'll be less inhibited about as you fumble through rhyming lyrics.

Go Somewhere You've Never Been Before 

I'm not talking about picking up and heading to Peru for the weekend, though, if that's your dedication level, more power to you. Going to a park or a coffee shop or bar in your hometown that you've never been to before can help inspire you to do other new things - like writing songs.

Find a Melody

If you already play an instrument, you're halfway there. For guitarists, try an open tuning. This puts you in a position of playing just about anywhere on the fretboard, and you'll always be in the same key. As far as a melody to sing, you can always borrow a traditional melody you already know; or just start singing notes. That's right, just sing random notes for 10 minutes straight, and you're bound to find a melody somewhere.

Incorporate Lyrics

If you want to write a song, it's because you have something to say. So say it. Say it out loud first (yes, talk to yourself), and then write it down. If it's not poetry yet, don't worry. There are more steps ahead and you'll become a better lyricist with time.

Pick a Topic (Optional)

This isn't a necessary step. Sometimes, you have to just start writing before you can figure out what your song is going to be about. Sometimes you'll finish writing the song, and not know what it's about until months later. Still, if you're dying to write a protest song or a love song, it's always good to have a topic in mind so you don't go too far on a tangent. 

Don't Bother Rhyming (Unless it Happens Naturally) 

Formulas are for people who have mastered basic math already. If you're new to songwriting, you're just trying to make one and one equal two. Leave sonnets, haiku, and rhymed verse in your list of long term goals. For now, your goal is just to tell a story, set to melody.

Tell a Story, Set to Melody 

And more importantly, tell the story like your life depends on it. Tell it as if you're telling it to someone who needs to hear it. Think of how it feels to tell someone you love them for the first time, for example. That's the kind of story you want to tell – the one you mean with all your might, and that you can't not tell any longer.

Don't be Afraid of Metaphor

When's the last time you heard a folk song that didn't include some kind of a reference to the weather, the ocean, being on a boat, etc.? Certainly you don't want to overdo it (if you decide to liken something to the weather, try to stick to weather-related images only when they make sense), but a smattering of analogies and metaphor can help add some imagination to your lyrics. 

Be Patient and Kind to Yourself

Banging your guitar against the floor, grunting, and stomping off toward the kitchen isn't going to make you want to do this again. Rarely, a beautiful song will come together in five magic minutes, but most of them take quite a bit longer than that. Keep the faith. Chances are once you lock a melody in, it'll stick itself in your head until you've written all the words, anyway.

Know When to Stop

This is the hardest part of the whole process. Many songwriters never quite figure out where to stop. Folk music certainly has its share of dozen-verse songs, sometimes to the detriment of the story. Unless you're Woody Guthrie, chances are your song shouldn't go on forever. The verse-chorus-verse-chorus format is pretty safe, particularly if you plan on heading to open mic with this thing when it's done.