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How to Create a Perfect Writing Playlist


I love the chatter and background noise in coffee shops, unless people are actually talking near me or the store is playing any music at all, at which point I have to put on headphones.

When you’re writing, you want to be focused on what you’re putting on the page. Pausing to change songs is a problem, and so is pausing to enjoy songs. You want to be able to turn on your ipod and then not touch it again. You want every song to be perfect background to your creativity.

Here’s how to make that playlist.
It’s not about hand-picking all the right songs; it would take forever and you’d get impatient and make the list too small and you’d get bored with it. The much better way it is to just get rid of all the wrong songs.

First: Make a new playlist with every song you own –unless you already have a smaller playlist that is just songs you like. In that case, copy that one.

Next, get rid of all the songs you’re going to stop writing to skip past. Songs you secretly hate, but own because they’re by your favorite artist, or because your friend bought you the album, or whatever. We all have them. There’ll be good excuses below to explain why they’re not on the playlist even though you loooooove them (in case your bff, who keeps buying you Prince albums, sees the playlist). Sometimes you can remove whole artists or albums at a time this way. And don’t feel bad–I hate “Bodies” by the Sex Pistols and that does not in any way diminish my love for every other song they made.

Now, get rid of anything that will pull your focus.

  • All albums that are just spoken word— Seinfeld wondering what the deal is, Rollins telling about that time he was in an airport, that sort of thing.
  • All the songs that tell a story. Anything that has a strong character singing about a specific event. Because chances are, you’re not going to be writing about that character or event in that moment. (If, for instance, you’re writing a sex scene, the single worse song that can come on is “The Gambler.” This is a proven fact. )This can go fast if you go through your show tunes albums and just pick out the few that AREN’T like this.
  • All the songs that don’t work as single songs but require the song after it to immediately come on. Songs from concept albums–a lot of Pink Floyd songs are like this, for instance. If hearing the end of one song and not hearing the beginning of the next is like missing a step, your brain will screech to a halt while you notice it.
  • Songs you love too much, or anything that could be called your “jam.” If when it comes on you have to stop everything to listen to it and drum on the table or whatever, it needs to go. Put it on a different playlist.
  • Songs that make you think strongly of a specific scene in a movie. If you can hear “Maniac” and think of anything other than Jennifer Beales dancing, well, that’s surprising. If you’re not writing, right then, about a person dancing, it can get in the way.
  • Songs that invoke a particular memory or emotional reaction in you. I love REM’s “Losing My Religion,” but every time I hear it I spend anywhere from 45 seconds to fifteen minutes thinking about the guy I loved and lost when I was nineteen. This is not good for writing. Or “Eye of the Tiger,” the best song possible when you’re trying to motivate yourself off the couch, is not a great one when writing a death scene, say.

When you’re done, you should have a whole bunch of songs that are pleasant and ignorable. Songs you like but don’t make you pay attention to them. Of course as you write, you’ll find there are still songs on the playlist that pull your focus or that you never realized you hated. Make a note of them, and remove them from the playlist next time you’re at your computer. It will happen less and less often.

Oh, and play the list on shuffle, always. If you get used to a pattern, your brain will complain if it’s missing.