Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing . . .
Whenever you study a creative form like copywriting, you spend a lot of time on technique. You think hard about headlines and metaphors and what specific details you’ll use. You worry about positioning and persuasive structure. You’re trying to keep all the rules and guidelines in your head.
But if you want your content to keep bringing them back, it’s gotta swing.
Duke Ellington was something rare–hugely respected as a master of his art, and insanely popular with the public. His art was creating music people wanted to listen to. His work was technically impressive, but it also got people onto the dance floor.
Ellington once said “jazz is music; swing is business.” He knew the difference. But his technique and his confidence let him marry the two with incredible results.
Technique is wonderful. It helps us make better connections with our readers, and to persuade those readers to take action. But in order to do that, the whole thing has to hang together. It has to carry readers along, so the techniques aren’t obvious.
It has to swing.
So how do you learn to write copy that swings?
Write. A lot.
Brian gave the most important tip for writing content that swings about a year ago. Some people felt it needed some elaboration. I wrote a follow-up that said the same thing with a lot more words.
When Duke Ellington was still a teenager, he played piano for a gig that lasted so long his hands bled. He called his autobiography Music is my Mistress. Once he realized music was his calling, he devoted himself to it tirelessly. Yes, he was given a great share of innate talent, but he boosted that talent with almost superhuman dedication and hard work.
There is no talent fairy (or luck fairy) waiting to sprinkle your writing with magic glitter. If you want your copy to swing, write every day, whether you feel like it or not. Work is the magic formula.
Read it aloud
My friend Thaisa, who writes literary novels, taught me this one years ago. If you want to know if it swings (or find out where it doesn’t), read your work out loud.
Your voice instinctively knows when there’s a sentence or phrase out of whack. If you find yourself stumbling over a word, mark the spot. 9 times out of 10, the sentence needs a rewrite there.
(Usually a verbal stumble means the sentence should be simplified or pared down, but it can also signal the wrong word choice. Have you chosen a ten-dollar word when the nickel version has more power?)
Get some fresh eyes
If you want to figure out where your writing swings and where it creaks, let someone else read it. (Pick someone trustworthy–not too nice, but not brutal either.) I wouldn’t run every blog post past another reader, but when you’re creating cornerstone content, it’s worth getting a few fresh readers to tell you what works and what doesn’t.
One warning, though. Lots of readers can tell you what doesn’t work. They don’t necessarily have a clue about the right way to fix it.
I use the 80-20 rule here. 80% of the time, the reader is right about what’s not working. But only 20% of the time (at most) is their proposed solution any good.
Unless you’re working with a professional editor (or long-time critique partner) who genuinely gets your stuff, take all suggestions for fixes with a grain of salt. And even if you’re working with the greatest editor who ever lived, in the end, you make the call.
It’s your work and your voice. If you want to be any good, you have to own it.
Read great stuff
To create writing that swings, you’ve got to read writing that swings. All great writers learn from other great writers, poets and storytellers. Read Mark Twain or Jane Austen, Woody Allen or John Le Carré. They all swing.
Incidentally, you don’t get any bonus points for reading with your eyes instead of your ears. Before the 20th century, most writing was intended to be read aloud. Books on CD are not, despite what you may have been told, the refuge of the lazy or the illiterate. If you never got through Moby Dick, try listening to it instead. (I take no responsibility for any Ahab-like behavior you may exhibit in traffic, though.)
Very few of us can reach the heights of Duke Ellington. But we can all work hard to master the technical aspects of our craft and to create work that gets our audience’s blood pumping and their feet moving.
So go ahead and study writing technique. Systems, rules, and formulas can do great things for your writing.
But before you post, read it one more time. Read for music and rhythm and pleasure. Learn to write copy that swings and your readers will keep coming back for more.