The Duke Ellington Guide to Copy That Swings

Duke Ellington

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.

Audio books 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.

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Reader Comments (30)

  1. says

    Ha, writing that swings, yessir!

    If there’s one thing I hate reading, it’s writing that sounds like someone is breakdancing. Stutter, stilted, stuck. There’s no flow, there’s no rhythm there’s certainly nothing that makes me want to get up and dance.

    I see this far too much in people who want to tell through their writing. Show it instead. Don’t instruct me or inform me. Give me a story that sweeps me up in the music.

    This is great, Sonia, I’ll be thinking about the analogy all day :)

  2. says

    Your post inspired me to dig out my favorite how-to book: “Zen in the Art of Writing” by Ray Bradbury.

    He’s a writer with swing-galore. His stories, the fact and the fiction, have cadence. Or, as Bob Marley would say: “Dey got riddim.”

    Bradbury tells about his life – how he got started writing, how he wrote no matter what and how we can feed our own muse. And he does it with swing. With a beat. With rhythm. With unexpected twists and turns.

    One and two and. One and two and.
    One drop. One drop.

    One at a time, everyone has a story to tell. Every story has its own beat. Every storyteller can add swing. Rhythm. Bradbury tells you how. “Zen in the Art of Writing.”

    Thanks for the post! /s/ Lynn Roberts

  3. says

    I’ll never forget the creative writing professor who told his class to always read their work out loud, both as a way to see if it “sung” (his preferred word for writing that “swung”) and as a method of proofreading. There is some great advice in this post!

  4. says

    It’s also about writing something your comfortable with. If you don’t know your topic intimately, how can you be fluid? It’s certainly the secret of best selling authors – getting you to turn to the next page.

  5. says

    The “swing” in writing is the illusive “coolness factor” that is immediately identifiable by readers…Even if your audience resides smack dab in the middle of Squaresville, they like to believe they are cool and appreciate being addressed as relatively aware, conscious and hip to the latest jive…

    How do you capture coolness? Start by using relevant, clever metaphors, sharp, snappy headers and crisp, compelling sentences. Better yet, give your copy some rhythm — use repetition wisely and snap your fingers when you read it aloud.

    No matter how cool or square you think you’re copy is, reading it aloud will illuminate it’s true vibrations…

  6. says

    YES!!! Jane Austen, but also try Anthony Trollope. I’ve been reading his novels of the same era this year and he SWINGS! I own all of the Bronte Sisters’ as well. Charlotte is my style. Jack London is lyrical and elegant too. I have a crush on Mark Twain.

  7. says

    Ah, Judy, a reader after my own heart! Trollope is tasty. Did you know that when he finished one novel, he blotted the page and in the next few minutes started the next one? (His namesake/perhaps descendent? Joanna Trollope writes novels that I like very much.)

    Mark Twain is very, very crushworthy. Brainy, passionate, compassionate, wicked sense of humor. Good thing he’s dead or I’d wreck my marriage over him.

  8. says

    I guess I’m going to have to give Trollope another try–and yes, Joanna Trollope is one of his descendents. As for MT–there’s a long line for having a crush on him.

    Years ago when I first started writing, I had an odd experience with an editor. It was an academic pub, where they actually went over changes with the author. At one point, this editor had revised a sentence. The whacked words certainly didn’t add to the meaning, so I defended them by saying, “It’s a rhythmic thing.” Dead silence.

    I hadn’t realized until then that a lot of people don’t hear words when they read or write. It explains a lot of writing out there…

  9. says

    Reading writing out loud is a very valuable tool my mom taught me. I always nodded it off, and read it to myself silently, because I thought it was stupid. Then when she would make me read my paper out loud before she would help me… I caught numerous mistakes. Simple tools are often the best!

  10. says

    Me, too, @PPC, writing the post and now coming back to visit the comments has Duke Ellington going through my head. Not such a terrible thing.

  11. Anuj Adhiya says

    I think you’re spot on – If only George Lucas followed your advice with writing dialogue – we’d have 3 awesome Star Wars Prequels…

  12. says

    I must say your emails are very hard to read the centering formatting makes it a struggle to pick out the main ideas.

    Can you come up with a better format that telegraphs asap the main ideas and let’s me click thru to learn more?

  13. says

    It was likely either Julia Cameron or Natalie Goldberg (my two writing heroes) who said when you ask feedback on your writing:

    ~ only listen to where people say there’s a problem.

    ~ don’t listen to what they say the problem is (they probably aren’t experienced enough as writers to know – unless they are).

    If several people bring up the same section, you have an issue.

    Natalie Goldberg says it is often where her mind wandered as she was writing…

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