How To Self Edit Like A Boss

At the graduate level, we all think of ourselves as bosses, scholarship wise. We imagine self editing to feel something like this:

happy writer - phase 1
A few hours (and a few cups of coffee) later, we somehow end up here:

Middle stage

This is a dangerous zone, my friends. Here, expectations, stress, and fear of failure commingle to make you compulsively Google a brief history of Bitcoin, the debated effects of lemon water on the body, and the best #summersun tips.

After you’ve taken your dog for a walk and fulfilled the (suddenly urgent!) need to organize the bottom drawer of your desk, you finally hit a wall and end up here:

third one
The great myth of advancing as a writer is that it gets easier with time. It doesn’t. In fact, the stakes just rise as you advance through the graduate level up to the publication level.

So what does change, as we advance as writers?

Our perspective.

As you grow as a writer, your embrace of self editing has to grow with you. Think of Beyonce and Jay-Z’s recent album: everything is love. You have to love what you put on the page just as much as you love the idea of helping your readers understand your point. In order to help your readers understand your point, some things will (naturally) need to be moved around or deleted for meaning. But ultimately, that helps you reach your goal: being understood.

It’s about shifting your incentives. To self edit with ease – like a boss, that is – try what I call ‘editing by design’. While the following three tips might at first appear basic for graduate-level work, they help shift our focus from #feels to mechanics (where it should remain).

1) Color

I came up a color coding system over the seven years I spent running my own writing business, Girasol Consulting, where I wrote grant proposals, newsletters, and annual reports for social impact clients. Across organizational types, I found that clients weren’t so much stuck on distinct turns of phrase as they were keenly focused on what goes where. They wanted a clear ideas map of what was being conveyed.

From there, my driving question as a self editor evolved from ‘is this interesting’ to ‘do the ideas make sense in the order in which they’re presented?’

To help me see what is happening where on the page, I highlight ‘like text’ – text that shares either a similar theme, topic, or quality – by color. For example, content around a certain theme can be highlighted in green, content around another idea can be highlighted in purple and other content can be highlighted in blue.

It can be helpful to highlight weak text that needs to be altered in a bright color such as red or orange in order to draw our attention as we scroll across the page.

Color can also help with reverse outlining. As an exercise, highlight the topic sentence of every single paragraph and copy and paste that content onto a new document, and see how the ideas flow. For an example, below is  a short excerpt from an essay draft by the Writing Center’s Doctoral Writing Coach, Tori Dalzell:

Throughout his book, Fiol upsets binaries within South Asia studies. In Chapter 6, he shows how the boundaries between high religion and folk religion are blurred within jagar rituals. As possession rituals particular to the Uttarakhand region, jagar has absorbed concepts of both pan-regionalism and the folk. Through the career of ritual specialist and folk musician Pritam Bhartwan, Foil puts jagar at the center of the folk paradox: as a mark of regional spirituality, it is something people are proud of, yet aspects of the ritual practice make it something many are still embarrassed about. Focusing on Bhartwan’s experiences allows Fiol to demonstrate the status negotiations that take place within and around jagar rituals, not just on an individual basis but also as a region.

The greatest strength of Fiol’s work is the stories of individual musicians that illustrate folkloricization’s consequences and benefits. This aspect gives the book wide teaching applicability. Individual narratives and detailed descriptions of folk music components and recording processes are not overwhelmed by the theoretical framing, which makes the work accessible to undergraduate students. Consequently, this work would meet the objectives of many upper-division music courses on South Asian or Himalayan music to introduce students to the sounds and cultural placement of so-called folk and popular music traditions. This same theoretical scope makes it a good fit for graduate seminars. Fiol’s introduction and conclusion lay out the work’s contributions for readers, and it can be read in conjunction with theoretical works on folklore. Its setting in Uttarakhand makes it a good fit for courses framed as South Asia or Himalayan studies: his work is clearly rooted in Himalayan studies but is not Nepal-centric, while it demonstrates the continued interactions of national and regional imaginaries through folk music in South Asia studies. The relatively short length of the book—the main text is less than 200 pages—will make it attractive to instructors.

In conclusion, Fiol’s deconstruction of the folk concept in Uttarakhand, India allows him to forefront people’s agency and the uneven consequences of folkloricization. His work examines important themes for religious studies, South Asia and Himalaya area studies, and folk studies, and its grounding in ethnomusicology prevents it from being fragmentary. While the interdisciplinary nature of Fiol’s work will initially attract a wide audience, its focus on people will keep readers engaged.”

2) Number

Numbering sentences can help us better understand our own content and thus decide how to move forward with it.

Using a print out of your paper, rank every single sentence from 1-10, with one being unusable and ten being excellent. (And be honest!) Write the number either above, below, or on the side of your sentences. To rank them, ask yourself:

-Is this sentence vital? That is, does it add value to the topic sentence and essay, overall?
-Is it phrased well – when you read it out loud, does it have a ‘good ring’ to it?
-Is it grammatically correct?

Spend serious time with sentences that you rank as a 5 or below. If you can’t fix them to rank above a 7, consider eliminating them.

Let your eyes draw you to the different color fonts and also the different number rankings now present within your work. If you find a paragraph with three or more sentences with rankings of 5 or below, spend some serious time with it. Consider why isn’t this paragraph working. Does it need a structural fix, such as a different framing idea or topic sentence? Might sentences need to be allocated to different content areas, or does the paragraph perhaps need to be eliminated altogether?

If the thought of deleting a paragraph is painful, Marie Kondo it: that is, thank it for its service (in this case, helping you arrive at your main idea), and move forward.

3) Sound

Your sentences should sound impactful. Whether you choose to write in active voice or passive voice – depending on your discipline – make sure that verbs are the centerpiece of your phrasing.

Example: “Researchers tested participants’ reactions to serum A.”
“Voices were selected due to their tone and pitch.”

If we were to select two key words in the first sentence, they would be ‘test’ and ‘reactions.’ That’s really the core action of the sentence.

Fact: If the reader can’t find the verb, they can’t find the action (i.e. fully grasp what you’re saying).

Remember, the priority should be to have the reader understand your point. If you achieve that and still have time before the paper’s due, you can then move on to fine-tuning style and phrasing.


In his song Hermana Duda (Sister Doubt), Grammy winning singer/songwriter Jorge Drexler has a great line that reads, “Soy jardinero de mis dilemas” – I am a gardener of my dilemas. I love that line, and I included it here because to self edit is to do precisely that.

Through self editing, we encounter our own worst writing tendencies – the weeds of our writing, so to speak. We have to stare down the growths we don’t like, either due to under or overdevelopment. But that’s the game: gardening is ultimately about design. What are considered weeds in one garden are considered the centerpiece of another. Good gardeners play with color and numbers and spacing to create an aesthetic ethos and impact viewers.

While self editing will always be difficult, technology has made it easier than it ever before. It’s not like in the age of typewriters, when you had to physically retype something. (Shout out to my mom typing up her Mt. SAC composition syllabi in the 80’s!) Now, all you have to do is send love and press delete.

So, go be the gardener. Trim away!

Doctoral Writing, Uncategorized, Writing Tips

Improving Productivity with Writing Rituals

Once upon a time, I believed all time spent writing was created equal. It didn’t matter if I wrote my essay in a coffee shop, on my bed, or sitting in the grass. It didn’t matter if I started writing after coming home from church, eating dinner, or watching TV. It didn’t matter if I sometimes started with a prayer or a snack or if I simply jumped right in. Once upon a time, I was wrong.

I wish I could say that I realized my mistake quickly, but I didn’t until graduate school. Before that time, I created writing practices without even realizing it, but because I didn’t know the importance of such practices, they were mostly a byproduct of chance rather than intentional, thoughtful rituals. My freshman RA, for example, once distributed packs of Smarties to everyone on our hall for us to eat while studying for finals; I found the idea so amusing that I began buying Smarties for every finals week until I graduated. I didn’t realize the benefits, but my brain began to associate finals with Smarties, and Smarties with “smartness,” which improved my retention as I studied. I also found that I enjoyed drinking iced mochas and sitting in a comfortable orange chair at the Student Learning Center (SLC) to complete projects and papers. Just like the Smarties improved my productivity and success when preparing for finals, the mochas, SLC, and comfy orange chair helped me produce almost all of my best written work. I kept both of these traditions throughout my undergraduate career, and though they served me well, they weren’t nearly as helpful as they could have been had they been created intentionally.

When I began my Master of Arts in Professional Writing program, my traditions became much more pronounced. Doing as much of my reading and writing as possible in my backyard, I would sit on a blanket right next to my roses, sip a tropical-flavored La Croix, turn off my phone, and focus on the paper in front of me. I used paper and pen rather than a computer for all of my brainstorming and early drafting in order to stay in a technology-free environment. Because I spent most of that first semester working on cheerful creative writing, the bubbly La Croix, tropical taste, smell of flowers, and outdoor environment effortlessly stimulated ideas for my writings. I was focusing on subjects involving travel and feelings of personal freedom, so beaches and flowers reminded me of freedom and vacations.

I joked with myself that I was creating traditions, but I soon learned in class that what I called “traditions,” experienced writers called “rituals.” At first this confused me because I associated rituals with religion or ceremonies, and it even had a negative connotation in my mind. The word “ritual,” however, is defined by Merriam Webster not only as “ceremonial” or “according to religious law,” but also simply as “an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner.” In other words, any action or choice we make repeatedly in a particular order or fashion is a ritual. I had not just been creating traditions all of this time, I had been refining writing rituals.

Successful writers have chosen to use rituals for centuries, and modern writers continue to use them even now. Famed author Stephen King, for instance, combats nerves and distractions with a morning writing routine of tea, vitamins, and a favorite chair, claiming “it’s not any different than a bedtime routine” (Ahlin, 2016). Stephen King’s rituals have worked so well for him that he is considered one of the most successful writers of all time. He is just one of many, though, who have benefited from ritualistic behaviors. In her essay “Time, Tools, and Talismans,” academic Susan Wyche points out the varied practices of writers, some of which are rather unconventional:

Charles Dickens traveled with ceramic frogs…. [Mary Angelou preferred] a hotel room furnished with a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards, and a bottle of sherry….[other writers] describe eating, drinking, pacing, rocking, sailing, driving a car or riding in a bus or train, taking a hot bath or shower, burning incense, listening to music, staring out windows, cleaning house, or wearing lucky clothes. 

(Wyche, 2006, p. 31)

The evidence showing the effectiveness of writing rituals is astounding. Such practices might be particularly important for college students because they are often asked to complete writing tasks that are brand-new to them, thus requiring extra high levels of concentration (Wyche, 2006).

            It may seem like a ritual will take up writing time that is already scarce, but it actually saves time long-term by making the time more productive. Have you ever sat down to write and spent agonizing minutes or hours writing just a very small part of your assignment? Of course you have; we all have. This can be avoided, though, since wasted effort usually occurs due to a lack of concentration and an overwhelming feeling of stress or even panic. Rituals help alleviate or even end those problems.  By giving yourself a visual, auditory, or other sensory clue that you have changed your goals for the moment, rituals train your brain to know that when you do this, it’s time to write, therefore making time more productive and less intimidating.


The first ritual you should establish is when you will write. If you tend to live by the philosophy of  “I will write when I have time,” you may have realized that this way of thinking, more often than not, leads to severe procrastination. There is never a perfect time to write, especially when you are a busy person. The best favor you can do for yourself is to set aside particular days and/or times to write, read, and study—and choose those times sensibly. This is even more important if you have a writing project that is either particularly long or spans a significant length of time, such as a thesis, dissertation, capstone, or term paper. The following are tips for creating time rituals  that will minimize procrastination:

  • Choose a specific day(s) and time(s) every week that is designated for writing.
  • If you are a morning person, write in the morning. If you are an evening person, write in the evening.
  • Try to set aside a sufficient period of time. Make a point to discover what length of time produces your best work; for example, some people work best in short spurts while others work best with long stretches of time.
  • Designate some time prior to writing to do something relaxing and get in the right state of mind (ideally, the same thing every time). The relaxing activity could be taking a walk/run, reading the Bible and/or praying, cooking, playing an easy game, reading, listening to music, putting together a puzzle, doing a craft, etc. This will calm your mind and distract you from stress that may be building about your assignment.


In addition to time, choosing a particular location for when you write is important, and that location should be chosen carefully. For example, if you try to write in the same room in which you usually watch tv, your brain associates this room with a time to relax or have fun (even if you turn off the tv), so your time is consequently less productive. Being in a room that reminds of you anything else, in fact, is distracting—being in the kitchen with dirty dishes you need to wash, in your bed where you typically sleep, at someone else’s house where you typically hang out, and the list continues. Even visiting a different coffee shop can provide exciting distractions like new kinds of coffee or decorations you aren’t used to!

Choosing a specific writing location with minimal distractions and a positive vibe puts you in an environment and mindset that is comfortable and motivating. The following are tips for creating effective location rituals:

  • Find a quiet, convenient space that relaxes you. Being in the same space tells your brain that it’s time to write whenever you are in that space.
  • Choose a space that makes you happy but is familiar to you so that you don’t become distracted by new, exciting things.
  • If being at home makes you want to do other things (like laundry, cooking, cleaning, etc.), find a place outside or in a coffee shop.
  • Discover what kind of lighting works best for you. For example, some prefer natural light (i.e. outside or a room with many windows) while others prefer dim lamplight (i.e. a room with few or no windows).
  • Pay attention to the colors surrounding you. Specific colors affect mood differently, and reaction to color can vary from person to person. Reds, oranges, and yellows, though, tend to increase anxiety, so it may be best to avoid such rooms.


Though choosing the right location is important, it’s not always enough. Some writers and scholars find it helpful to incorporate other environmental rituals to further improve productivity including sounds, sights, and smells. Take, for example, Friedrich Schiller, the 18th-century German Poet and author of the lyrics in Ode to Joy. He even sniffed rotten apples from under his desk as the stench permeated the room where he always wrote. It sounds crazy, but he swore it improved his creativity (Wyche, 2006; Blanchard, n.d.). Create some rituals like this one that are unique to you, but it doesn’t need to be as unusual as sniffing rotten fruit. The following are samples of rituals to improve your writing environment:

  • Sight: See above about lighting and color. Also avoid visual distractions by turning off your phone and closing all internet browsers, games, etc. from your computer. Make it so you can only see the document you are working on.
  • Taste: Make a particular drink to sip while you write or bring a particular candy.
  • Smell: Designate a specific scent (e.g. a candle, essential oil, spray, flowers, etc.) to fill the room each time you write. Smell is the sense most strongly associated with memory, so choosing a different scent for each type of project will calm your nerves and stimulate memory for that particular project or subject.
  • Sound: Play a relaxing white noise such as a fireplace, ocean waves, or rain sound or turn on a fan, open the window for a nice breeze, or play relaxing instrumental music.
  • Touch: Choose a particular place to always sit that is comfortable, but not so comfortable you will fall asleep. You may even want to have something else to touch such as a warm cup (your coffee/tea) or a particular pen, pencil, or keyboard cover.

Ultimately, only you can decide what rituals will help you efficiently produce your best work, but I encourage you to create those rituals intentionally and quickly. Waiting until you are near the end of your school career or never creating them at all will do nothing but waste time and keep you from reaching your potential. Discover now what days and times are most effective, what location stimulates your brain function and concentration, and what environmental factors improve or detract from your writing productivity and quality. You may find, like I did, that you have subconsciously been creating and refining some rituals already, but it is still important to review whether or not they are effective. In no time at all, you may have found your own version of eating Smarties, lounging in a comfortable orange chair, or sitting outside next to roses. In no time at all, you may be producing the best work you have ever created. Happy writing.


Ahlin, C. (2016, November 14). The daily writing habits of 10 famous authors. Retrieved from

Blanchard, A. (n.d.). The smell of rotten apples. Retrieved from

Wyche, S. (2006). Time, tools, and talismans. In W. Bishop & J. Strickland (Eds.), The subject is writing (4th ed.)(pp. 31-41). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.  

Mandy Hinkley

Documentation, Writing in Music

Citing and Referencing Music Lyrics in APA

Here at APU, music classes use both CMOS and APA. Generally, if you are in a music literature class, your professor will have CMOS or its student version, Turabian, listed on your course syllabus as the course style guide. In the previous blog in this series, we talked about principles for citing music lyrics in CMOS.

If, however, you are taking music education courses or writing your master’s thesis in music education, then APA will govern most of your style and documentation. This blog post examines conventions for citing music lyrics in APA.

The tricky thing about citing musical works in APA is that no section of the APA manual strictly examines citing musical sources. Instead, you have to consider the format or medium of the source (e.g. book, recording, etc.) and apply the principles of APA to citing and referencing that kind of work. This blog post will walk you through some APA principles that you can apply to citing music sources.

In-text Citations

For run-in quotations, separate line breaks with a forward slash, with a space on each side ( / ), and stanza breaks with two forward slashes ( // ). However, if at all possible, avoid stanza breaks in a run-in quote, as quotes that include stanza breaks are usually clearer as a block quotation.

Your in-text, parenthetical citation in APA for lyrics will have the same components as other in-text citations: (Who, When, Where). Additionally, you should follow the same APA guidelines for paraphrasing and quoting lyrics and other information related to music as you would any other information.

Because we are dealing with lyrics, our in-text citation should consist of the songwriter’s last name (Who), the date the recording or printed music was originally released (When), and the track number for recorded music or line number or pamphlet page number for printed lyrics (Where). Run-in citations for these songs could look like this:

While George and Ira Gershwin originally composed the song “Someone to Watch Over Me” in 1926 for singer Gertrude Lawrence to perform in the musical Oh, Kay!, it is better known today as a jazz standard. Artists of both genders have performed the song, with lyrics amended to fit the soloist’s gender. However, amending the lyrics may not make the song’s gender bias any more palatable. Ella Fitzgerald sings the original lyrics, which express that it is acceptable, even preferable, that a woman not have high expectations of her suitor’s physical appearance: “although he may not be the man-some girls think of as handsome/ to my heart he carries the key” (Gershwin & Gershwin, 1926/1995, vol. 3, track 1). Frank Sinatra also downplays a male suitor’s appearance when he sings, “although I may not be the man-some girls think of as handsome/ but to her heart I’ll carry the key” (Gershwin & Gershwin, 1926/2000, track 6), but these lyrics may make the suitor appear narcissistic.

Because the copyright date and recording date are different in these cases, we used both dates in the in-text citation. Also, because this citation references recorded music, we use the track number instead of verse or stanza number: (Gershwin & Gershwin, 1926/2000, track 6).

If you are quoting several lines of song lyrics (such as an entire verse), format it as a block quote, using standard APA formatting. Drop the parenthetical citation a line below the lyrics in order not to interfere with the text.

I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood

I know I could always be good

To one who’ll watch over me

(Gershwin & Gershwin, 1926, stanza 6)

If you are quoting lyrics from a booklet, replace the track number with the booklet page number (as the words contained in CD booklets do not always correspond to what is sung on an album):

Janey, a letter came today

And a picture of you.

Your expression so like your father’s

Brought back all the years.

(Larsen, 2004, p. 13)

Reference Entries

Your reference entries for musical sources will have the same four components as other APA reference entries: Who. (When). What. Where.

The information in your in text citations should match the information included in the citation in your reference list. This means that if several different artists have recorded a song, you need to designate in your reference list whose rendition you are working with, and use that same information in your in-text citations. In other words, be sure to cite and reference the work(s) that you are actually using.

For example, here are the two reference listings for George and Ira Gershwin’s song “Someone to Watch Over Me” cited in the section above:

Gershwin, I. (Lyricist), & Gershwin, G. (Composer). (1926). Someone to watch over me [Recorded by Ella Fitzgerald]. On Ella: The legendary Decca recordings [CD, 4 vol]. Santa Monica, CA: The Verve Music Group. (1995)

Gershwin, I. (Lyricist), & Gershwin, G. (Composer). (1926). Someone to watch over me [Recorded by Frank Sinatra]. On Classic Sinatra: His great performances 1953-1960 [CD]. Los Angeles, CA: Capital Records, Inc. (2000)

In these references, both the lyricist (Ira Gershwin) and composer (George Gershwin) are listed because the recording’s liner notes list both. The date the song was originally released is different than the date the song was released as part of the listed album. Both dates are included in the citation. The information in square brackets lets readers know who sang the song, and in what medium you accessed the song.

If the first recording did not list either the composer or lyricist, it would look like this:

Someone to watch over me [Recorded by Ella Fitzgerald]. (1926). On Ella: The legendary Decca recordings [CD, 4 vol]. Santa Monica, CA: The Verve Music Group. (1995)

Here’s a reference listing for a songwriter who has recorded their own song:

Loeb, L. (1997). I do. On Firecracker [CD]. New York, NY: Geffen Records.

If you were citing the lyrics from a printed score and not a recording, you would reference the score as you would a book:

Griner, J. (Librettist), & Gawthrop, D.E. (Composer). (1997). Behold this mystery. Stafford, VA: Dunstan House.

Sometimes it is helpful to know which edition of the score you are working from (e.g. the full orchestral score, the piano reduction, or the choral arrangement)

Griner, J. (Librettist), & Gawthrop, D.E. (Composer). (1997). Behold this mystery [SATB score]. Stafford, VA: Dunstan House.

Further Troubleshooting

See section 7.07 of the APA Publication Manual for instructions on citing and referencing recorded music and other audiovisual formats. If you have additional questions about citing and referencing music lyrics in APA, you can go to the APA Style Blog and use the search bar to look for blog posts that address your question. You can also make an appointment with a coach at the Writing Center and bring your work and questions to your session. We look forward to seeing you!

Writing Tips

Descriptive vs. Analytical Writing

My professor said I need to “do more analysis” in my papers. I don’t know what she means. I thought I was analyzing, i.e., giving a detailed examination, but she says my writing has been mostly summaries, or descriptions, of what others have said. What do I need to do?

In the Writing Center, we hear about scenarios like this all the time.

Here’s the theory: College is a liminal space for transitioning people from being “students” to being “scholars.” As students, writers must demonstrate that they have understood the content of a course, lecture, book, etc. Scholars, however, go beyond demonstrating understanding or knowledge and make contributions to the field of knowledge; in other words, students sum up the knowledge of others, while scholars create new knowledge. Typically, high school students are expected to demonstrate an understanding of ideas. Undergraduate students continue to demonstrate understanding, but also begin to make contributions to the field of knowledge. Graduate students, on the other hand, are most often required to make contributions to the field, which requires writers to demonstrate knowledge by making new contributions to the field. These distinctions are not always true, but they often give an accurate depiction of expectations placed on writers at various education levels.  

Descriptive writing is about facts. Descriptive writing tells readers what happened, provides quotes and paraphrases from experts, summarizes the details of an event or case study, and otherwise gives information. Descriptive writing is exactly as the name implies: descriptive. It is what high school and undergraduate students are most often asked to do.

Analytical writing, on the other hand, takes those facts, quotes, paraphrases, details, etc., and then tells readers why any of that information matters. A descriptive writer answers the question, “What?” An analytical writer answers the question, “So what?” What does the evidence mean? Why is this or that quote or piece of data significant? This is the work expected of graduate students and some undergraduate students.

Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega has written previously on the distinctions between descriptive and analytical writing, and he has shared color-coded texts to demonstrate those distinctions. Pay attention to the verbs in his sample below. The green text is descriptive; it summarizes what the writer’s interlocutors said. After providing information, the author analyzes it (the orange text), sharing insights learned from this research, comparing and contrasting previously-cited pieces of information, and explaining the significance of the prior information.


Dr. Pacheco-Vega builds on Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say / I Say paradigm to distinguish between descriptive and analytical writing. Description is what they (i.e., other authors, scholars, experts, those we are citing) say, and analysis is what I (i.e., the writer of this paper) say in response to what they say. In the sample above, green is they, orange is I. The author first describes the data learned during research, then analyzes that data, making connections between pieces of data and sharing insights gained from a close reading of the data.

Often, when professors say something like, “this needs more analysis,” they are looking for you to move beyond summaries or descriptions of what others have to say; they are asking you to make a contribution to the field of knowledge by comparing and contrasting different pieces of evidence; considering the strengths and weaknesses of various arguments; assessing the quality, accuracy, and/or credibility of various pieces or collections of data; and/or answering the question, “why does this quote/paraphrase/piece of information matter?”

If you can move from they say to I say, you can do analysis!

Documentation, Writing in Music

Citing and Referencing Music Lyrics in CMOS

Here at APU, music classes use both Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and APA. Generally, if you are in a music literature class, your professor will have CMOS or its student version, Turabian, listed on your course syllabus as the designated style guide. If you are writing your master’s thesis in music education, APA will govern most of your style and documentation. We’ll talk about principles for citing music lyrics in both styles. This first blog post examines conventions for citing music lyrics in CMOS.

While CMOS has several sections that address how to cite musical sources, these sections are not the only ones you will want to consult—you also need to consider the kind of source you are using as well as what aspects of that source you want to emphasize. For these reasons, there may be several acceptable ways to cite the same musical source in CMOS. If you look at the bibliographies in musicological works, you’ll find that CMOS citations can be quite complex. An author might want to demonstrate the publication history of a score, document how a recorded work was circulated, or emphasize a particular artist over a composer. Because the purpose for each of these citations is different, the citation for the same source may look different across bibliographies.

When you construct a citation, think about what makes the most sense for your purposes in using the source as well as provide enough information so that a reader can find the source you used.

Run-in Quotations or Block Quotes?

Quote and cite lyrics as you would poetry. For run-in quotations, separate line breaks with a forward slash, with a space on each side ( / ) and stanza breaks with two forward slashes ( // ). However, if at all possible, avoid stanza breaks in a run-in quote, as quotes that include stanza breaks are usually clearer as a block quotation.

If you are quoting an entire stanza, format it as a block quote. If you are citing several stanzas, then include a double return at the end of the line. Do not center the lyrics, even if they are centered in the original source. Instead, simply indent by half an inch.

Examples of run-in quotations and block quotes are in the following sections.

Notes or Parenthesis?

When using CMOS’ notes-bibliography citation system, sources for direct quotes of lyrics can be given in footnotes or endnotes like any other source material. Take the following paragraph as an example:

While George and Ira Gershwin originally composed the song “Someone to Watch Over Me” in 1926 for singer Gertrude Lawrence to perform in the musical Oh, Kay!, it is better known today as a jazz standard. Artists of both genders have performed the song, with lyrics amended to fit the soloist’s gender. However, amending the lyrics may not make the song’s gender bias any more palatable. Ella Fitzgerald sings the original lyrics, which express that it is acceptable, even preferable, for a woman not have high expectations of her suitor’s physical appearance: “although he may not be the man-some girls think of as handsome/ to my heart he carries the key.”1 Frank Sinatra also downplays a male suitor’s appearance when he sings, “although I may not be the man-some girls think of as handsome/ but to her heart I’ll carry the key,” 2 but these lyrics make the suitor appear narcissistic.

The footnotes in this paragraph are listed in the next section of the blog post.

If it makes the citation more readable, or if you are writing a short paper with no notes, the source information can be included in a parenthetical citation instead. For run-in citations, use the following format: (Author last name, “Title of Work,” verse/stanza/track number/etc.).

Because you are working with the lyrics and not the music, cite the lyricist as the author if they are different than the composer. You can amend this format if you name the author in a signal phrase. Consider the following examples:

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way / When sorrows like sea billows roll…” (Spafford, “It Is Well,” verse 1).

“…It is well, it is well with my soul. // And, Lord, haste the day…” (Spafford, “It Is Well,” chorus and verse 4).

Footnotes and Bibliographic Entries

If you are working with musical recordings, these are usually listed as a discography separately from the bibliography. If you include them in your bibliography, then designate these sources with an appropriate sub-heading. See CMOS 14.63 for additional information on dividing a bibliography into subcategories.

Here are footnote and bibliographic entries for the works cited in the above section:

Music Recordings


 1Ella Fitzgerald, vocalist, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” 1926, by Ira Gershwin (lyricist) and George Gershwin (composer), vol 3, track 1, on Ella: the Legendary Decca Recordings (Santa Monica: The Verve Record Music Group), 1995, 4 compact discs.

2Frank Sinatra, vocalist, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” 1926, by Ira Gershwin (lyricist)    and George Gershwin (composer), track 6, on Classic Sinatra: His Great Performances 1953-1960 (Los Angeles: Capital Records, Inc.), 2000, compact disc.


Fitzgerald, Ella, vocalist. Ella: The Legendary Decca Recordings. Santa Monica: The Verve Music Group, 1995, 4 compact discs.

Sinatra, Frank, vocalist. Classic Sinatra: His Great Performances 1953-1960. Los Angeles: Capital Records, Inc., 2000, compact disc.


Footnotes and bibliographic entries for the hymn by Horatio Spafford would include the following additional information:

3 Horatio Spafford, “It Is Well with My Soul,” 1876, in The Baptist Hymnal, ed. Wesley L. Forbes (Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1991), hymn 410.

Spafford, Horatio. “It Is Well with My Soul.” 1876. In The Baptist Hymnal, edited by Wesley L. Forbes, hymn 410. Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1991.

Lyricist or Composer?

Your entries can be formatted in two different ways depending on whether you are emphasizing a song’s lyricist or composer. Take the following stanzas from Patrick Galvin’s poem, “The Madwoman of Cork”:


Is the feast day of Saint Anne

Pray for me

I am the madwoman of Cork.



In Castle Street

I saw two goblins at my feet

I saw a horse without a head

Carrying the dead

To the graveyard

Near Turner’s cross.


I am the madwoman of Cork

No one talks to me.

(Galvin, “Madwoman of Cork,” stanzas 1 to 3)

While Galvin is the poet, or author of this text, singer-songwriter John Spillane sings Galvin’s poem on one of his albums. If you were emphasizing lyrics, or wanted to draw attention to the poet, then it would make the most sense for you to put Galvin name in the part of the citation for the author. For block quotations, you can drop the parenthetical citation a line below the lyrics in order not to interfere with the text.

Footnotes and bibliographies would likewise tell your reader whom you are emphasizing. If you were emphasizing the lyricist, your entries would look like the following:

4 Patrick Galvin, poet, “Madwoman of Cork,” 1973, sung by John Spillane on Hey Dreamer (UK: EMI Music), 2005, compact disc, track 10.

Galvin, Patrick, poet. “Madwoman of Cork.” 1973. On Hey Dreamer, John Spillane, composer/vocalist, track 10. UK: EMI Music, 2005, compact disc.

If, however, you were emphasizing the vocalist, then you might want to reflect that in your parenthetical citation, and write it like this: (Spillane, “The Madwoman of Cork,” stanzas 1 to 3). If the text is in reference to recorded music, “stanza” could be replaced with the track number or track time instead.

Likewise, your footnote and bibliographic entries would put Spillane in the author’s section:

5John Spillane, composer/vocalist, “Madwoman of Cork,” on Hey Dreamer (UK: EMI Music), 2005, compact disc, track 10.

Spillane, John, composer/vocalist. “Madwoman of Cork.” Hey Dreamer, track 10. EMI Music, 2005, compact disc.

Both of these formats, whether they list they lyricist or the composer, are correct. Your choice tells your reader whom you are emphasizing in the text of your paper.


If you were citing the lyrics from a printed score and not a recording, you would reference the score as you would a book:

6 Daniel E. Gawthrop, “Come Unto the Lord,” in Behold this Mystery (Stafford, VA: Dunstan House, 1997), 8.

Gawthrop, Daniel E. Behold this Mystery. Stafford, VA: Dunstan House, 1997.

Sometimes it is helpful to know other contributors, such as librettists or which edition of the score you are working from (e.g. the full orchestral score, the piano reduction, or the choral arrangement):

7 Daniel E. Gawthrop (composer), and Jane Griner (librettist), “Come Unto the Lord,” in Behold this Mystery, SATB score (Stafford, VA: Dunstan House, 1997), 8.

Gawthrop, Daniel E. (composer), and Jane Griner (librettist). Behold this Mystery (SATB score). Stafford, VA: Dunstan House, 1997.

Additional Help

For more explanations of parenthetical quotes as a supplement to notes and bibliography and how to format those parenthetical citations, see CMOS 13.64, 13.71 and 13.72.

For additional information on formatting and citing lyrics, take a look at the sections of CMOS 13.25-13.29, which specifically deals with poetry.

And of course, you can always come to the Writing Center!


Transitioning from MLA to APA: Style, Purpose, and Headings

Shifting from MLA format to APA format can be a bit jarring. Because lower level classes use MLA format, you may be shocked to discover that other writing style and format requirements exist. APA formatting is required for specific audience needs within certain disciplines. Before you embark on your first journey with APA, keep a few key concepts in mind. Guidance in APA formatting, references, and in-text citations is readily accessible online and via APA manual, therefore the three following tips will address APA writing style and structure.

1. Writing with a desire to impress your professors may lure you to select flowery language, overly complicated sentence structure, and wordy phrases – all outside of APA bounds. MLA lends itself to creativity with descriptive language and a writing process to beautifully reveal main ideas throughout a paper, whereas APA format requires clear details and concise structure.


MLA: If, in the infinite reaches of the universe, there exists one being, object, or construct, and there appears yet another being, object, or construct of the same likeness, one might say there is now two of the same likeness. No being, object, or construct should be alone, but if there is only one universe, is it lonely?

APA: One object plus another object equals two objects. Objects, including the universe, do not have feelings, therefore cannot be lonely.

Hopefully this ridiculous example makes a point. Be accurate, clear, and concise. You need details for accuracy and clarity, but do not spend time with flowery language and complicated sentence structure to build up to a profound statement. In other words, do not withhold information to appear mysterious and thus create a grand entry or impress with language.  Be forthright about your subject and objectives, even throughout the introduction. If required, a hook beginning the introduction should be understandable and relatable, yet brief.

2. MLA and APA format lend themselves to differing thesis and/or purpose statements. Some professors ask that APA papers contain both a thesis statement and a purpose statement.   Thesis statements give the overarching idea or argument supported throughout the paper and may briefly summarize the main points. In contrast, purpose statements are rarely used in writing classes or English courses, which typically require arguing a position. To avoid jumping to conclusions, scientific writers often use a purpose statement instead: “The purpose of this paper is to…” The purpose statement directly states the writer’s intent, then may outline the main sections of the paper. For more information, see APU’s Writing Center handout on Thesis Statements.

3. APA format encourages the use of headings, whereas headings are much less common in MLA. Although APA format has five levels, a short paper may only need two or three first level headings. Unless specifically instructed by a professor, APA headings are used at the writer’s discretion. Headings can organize and streamline a writer’s thoughts and protect a paper’s structural integrity. A topical outline, of which you may be familiar, could be one of the easiest ways to develop brief APA headings. Each line could transfer as a particular level heading:

  I. Introduction

 Purpose/thesis statement: The purpose of this paper is to discuss the benefits of dog   ownership.

         II. Man’s Best Friend (1st Level Heading)

A. Loyalty and Affection (2nd Level Heading)

B. Play Time (2nd Level Heading)

         III. Health Benefits (1st Level Heading)

A. Stress Relief (2nd Level Heading)

B. Activity Increase (2nd Level Heading)

C. Support Animals (2nd Level Heading)

Using APA guidelines for formatting, these topical phrases could work well to divide a paper into focused sections. For further level headings, expand on one of the capital letters above (see letters A. through C.). If “Support Animals,” for instance, is a long section of the paper and includes different types of support animals with details on specific services, third, fourth, or fifth level headings may be utilized:

C. Support Animals (2nd Level as seen above)

1. Service and Working Animals (3rd Level Heading)

2. Emotional Support and Therapy (3rd Level Heading)

a. Home companion (4th Level Heading)

i. Depression relief (5th Level Heading)

ii. Anxiety relief (5th Level Heading)

b. Clinical setting (4th Level Heading)

i. Social function (5th Level Heading)

ii. Cognitive function (5th Level Heading)

The headings often correspond with paper length and complexity. If you use headings this detailed, you have likely committed to a lengthy, detailed paper. To decide on the number of headings needed, check the paper requirements and consider the amount of content you must cover / have collected. For examples of properly formatted headings, see APU’s Writing Center handout on APA Documentation or Purdue Owl’s APA Headings and Seriation.

When writing in APA format, be concise and correct while still providing the important details. This takes practice! Use direct communication, even at the start of the paper, especially as the purpose statement often references the paper itself. Finally, APA Level Headings are your friends. When you outline the paper before writing, the outline guides you, as it later guides the reader in the form of headings.

Genre, Writing in Music

Program Notes: FAQ

You’ve practiced and prepared for months for your recital. And then you find out, in addition to completing all the logistical details of putting together a concert—reserving the recital hall, requesting chairs and music stands, and recruiting a friend to be your accompanist’s page turner—you have to write something about the music you’ll be performing.

It may be tempting to treat your program notes as an afterthought, but they deserve care and time just like the other details of your performance. Unlike college papers, which only your classmates and professor read, your program notes will be read by everyone who comes to your recital! They may end up in family and friend’s collections of music programs as a memento of the event. Another student might model their program notes after yours. For these reasons, you want your program notes to be written well!

This blog post addresses some of the frequently asked questions concerning program notes that we have received at the Writing Center.

 What are program notes, and why should I write them?

Program notes provide information on musical works presented in a concert to enhance audience members’ experiences of the performance. You should write them because not everyone in your audience will be familiar with these pieces like you are—they may need some help in understanding what they are listening to.

Who is a program note for?

The audience for your program notes is the same as your concert-going audience. Your professors and applied music teachers might be a part of that audience, but you are not writing exclusively for them. You will likely have family and non-music major friends coming too. Write your program notes with these audience members in mind.

What components does a program note have?

There are many good ways to write a program note. If you’re not sure what format to follow, consider the following components:

  • The composer, and their composition spectrum: Some composers, like Beethoven or Brahms, might not need much introduction, but you may need to establish the musical significance lesser-known composers. You can detail who they are, what they’re known for, or even who or what influenced their musical styles. The important thing to remember is that your program notes are not a research paper. You do not have to incorporate all the facts you know about a composer; instead, choose facts that directly connect to the pieces you are playing. Yes, Béla Bartók was small and sickly as a child, but what does that have to do with any of his works that you may be performing?
  • The specific piece(s) you are playing: When was this work written? When was it first performed? What genre does it belong to? Who first performed it (or who made the work famous)? You do not need to answer all these questions, but use them as prompts to think about what things your audience should know about the work they are about to hear.
  • The distinctive musical elements these pieces contain: Now that your audience has a context for the piece they are about to hear, what should your audience listen for? Discuss key musical elements of the work in a way that will draw the listener’s attention to them. The program note is not a place to do a complete form and stylistic analysis of a work. But what components can you talk about that will draw the audience’s attention to its sound or how the work is organized?
  • As applicable, discuss challenges a work may present: One challenge may be that you’re performing an overly familiar work. Who hasn’t heard Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” (op. 27, no. 2)? But many people have only heard the dreamy first movement—they haven’t heard the waltz, or the closing movement. Focus on educating your audience about the work’s unfamiliar aspects. Are you premiering a 21st century composition that you’re afraid an audience might not even like? Perhaps you can draw their attention to the work’s technical complexity, and give them something to watch for rather than listen for, such as advanced bowing techniques or quick movements from one end of the keyboard to another.
  • As applicable, provide the lyrics and a translation: If you’re a vocalist, these components will take up most of the program note’s space. Music and text go together, so it is important for your audience to understand what you are singing. If you cannot find a translation of the work, and you are not up to making a translation yourself, you can still provide a summary of what the lyrics mean.

The important thing to remember is that you do not have to “prove” to anyone that you know something in your program notes. Instead, purposefully choose facts and concepts that will help your audience appreciate the pieces you are performing. Use these questions as prompts to generate information applicable to your program.

Can I talk about my own choices as an artist? Or my own musical process?

Absolutely! What you choose to talk about depends entirely on your concert program and the objectives of your recital. If you’re a composer and the concert program consists of your music, then it is expected that you talk about your compositional choices. If you’re a performing artist, use the conversations you have had with your applied lessons instructor about the technical execution or artistic interpretation of the piece as resources for your program notes.

How long should my program notes be?

Each program note should be at least a paragraph (but two paragraphs are also fine). If it helps, aim for 100 to 300 words per program note.

Should I include citations in my program notes?

If you look at program notes from a variety of concerts, you’ll see that some include citations while others do not. It entirely depends on the program, and who is performing in it. Your ensemble director may not provide citations because he or she is the authority on that particular music—it would seem redundant (or arrogant) to cite their own published works. Or, as an artist who has prepared the piece, they can competently talk about a work’s musical style. A composer may not provide citations for the program notes because they are the authority on their own music. Performers are the most likely to include citations. In their case, providing citations is one way to demonstrate their authority as not only an artist, but also as a curator of knowledge about these works. You should follow the academic conventions you have learned for choosing and citing sources.

Where can I find examples of program notes?

Collect the program notes of the concerts you attend and perform in! Reverse-outline the notes: what does your ensemble director decide to include in his or her notes? How do your fellow students talk about their repertoire? How do the program notes for a performance major’s recital differ from a composition major’s recital? Do some of your own investigation to discover what might work best for your program and your audience.

How can the Writing Center help me with my program notes?

Our staff consists of your concert-going audience! Many of us may not be music majors (though some of us are), but we sing in community choirs, play in church worship bands, have parents or siblings who are performing musicians, or are classical music buffs just because that music tradition is awesome! Some of us may not be as familiar with Western art music, but would come to a performance if our friends or family members were in it! Ask us for our honest thoughts on your program notes, and keep our suggestions in mind when you revise them.

What other resources on program notes does the Writing Center have?

Be on the lookout for a new handout on program notes at the Writing Center! We’d also love to hear from you: What other questions do you have about program notes? Bring your questions or comments—and a draft of your program notes—to your next Writing Center appointment!