It’s Copy Tuesday.
And today, I’m going to dive into an idea that’s been on the back burner for a while. It’s been nagging at me enough, I think it’s time to bring it up front.
It’s the “poetry” of great copy.
Now, this may sound like a strange thing for me to talk about — particularly for me to argue in favor of it.
After all, I’ve told you before that your copy must be conversational, and written in plain language.
I’ve told you that your message should be the star, not your writing.
I’ve argued against getting fancy with your voice, at the risk of losing your readers.
And now I’m talking about poetry?
Let’s talk about rap music for a minute. Now, I’m not talking about gangsta rap. Or booty-shakin’ club rap. I’m talking rap’s roots…
At the beginning of rap, it was just party music. The DJ would throw on a breakbeat, and the emcee’s job was to get the party started.
And then, along came The Message, by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five…
“Broken glass everywhere. People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care. I can’t take the smell. I can’t take the noise. Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice. Rats in the front room. Roaches in the back. Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat. I tried to get away but I couldn’t get far. Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car.”
“Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge. I’m trying not to lose my head.”
Simple language. The message is the star — all the way up to the title of the song. Nothing fancy here.
And yet it captured the heart of the nation with a sentiment many were already feeling — especially disenfranchised African Americans.
It shot up the charts and became an instant classic.
It changed the face of hip-hop forever. What was previously party music got a message. A subculture took off.
And it was a combination of content, simple language, and poetics (with a strong backing beat) that was responsible.
Now let’s talk about Dr. Seuss.
Many times when I travel, I want to bring back a gift for my kids. But we have enough toys — and enough other occasions to get them new toys. And they don’t need a t-shirt from every place I visit. So instead, I buy books.
On one trip, at an airport bookstore, I found a Dr. Seuss book called The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories.
It has a collection of stories written by Dr. Seuss that never made it into his most common book format, that had been published elsewhere (such as Redbook magazine). But that now were put together into one collection.
They’re all great — and I enjoy reading them to my kids. But the book has another treasure inside. It has an essay about Dr. Seuss, finding the stories, and a little bit about his history.
And at one point, believe it or not, Dr. Seuss didn’t emphasize rhyming in his stories.
Then, after a lecture at a writing conference in Salt Lake City, a local family offered to give him a tour of the city’s famous lake.
The family’s three year old son, excited to be with Dr. Seuss, proceeded to recite the entirety of Dr. Seuss’s Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose, which was one of his few early books that did rhyme. (Only 4 of his first 10 stories featured heavy rhyming.)
Dr. Seuss, puzzled, asked if the kid read — he seemed too young. Turns out, the family told him, the boy had memorized the sound and melody of the rhymes and words.
This changed Dr. Seuss’s approach to writing for children entirely.
It seemed that with the right combination of rhythm and sound, kids would learn words well beyond their years. They could memorize entire stories. And the message would stick, too.
I grew up on Dr. Seuss as a result. Maybe you did, too? (In fact, I probably wouldn’t be a writer if it weren’t for Dr. Seuss.)
So what does this all have to do with writing copy?
Well, BOTH of these examples — among many others like them — show how messages put in rhythm and rhyme seep (or smash) into the consciousness of the masses… Much like should be your goal for great writing.
Now, does this mean you should start writing copy in iambic pentameter? No way, bucko.
But you should try reading your copy out loud. Feel the rhythm. Hear the sounds.
Your reader is reading your copy out loud to themselves. Or, if you’re writing for multimedia (audio, video), they’re hearing it read to them.
If the rhythm is interesting, they’ll find it easier to sustain attention. If the sounds of the words are pleasing, they’ll find it easier to stick with you.
You’ll find if you dig in, that I use repetition in copy. A lot. Groups of three (bullets, sentences, ideas) work well too.
Also, choppy sentences. Followed or preceded by long, flowing sentences that really expand on a point.
The idea is to use rhythm to keep it interesting. And to emphasize important points.
When it makes sense, alliteration, rhyming, and other linguistic devices can work — as long as you don’t take it so far as letting the language become the star.
Also, compelling copy ebbs and flows and comes to a climax, like a good story, or a moving piece of music.
I compose music. Electronic music — so if you’re a classically-trained musician you may not consider it music. Nonetheless…
Every great electronic music song — particularly in the house genres I tend to favor — builds and falls and ebbs and flows and reaches a peak and then releases.
It moves the audience emotionally — to be lifted up, then let down, then taken on the ride again.
My wife tells me I play with anticipation too much in my music. I think it’s just enough. The audience wants to be taken on a journey.
The same thing in movies.
The best movies are always a journey. They start at a baseline level of normal. The protagonist is disturbed — forced out of normalcy. And then it’s an ever-building narrative of overcoming the challenge, all the way up to the final climax. Then and only then can our hero return to normal life.
This is a universal theme.
Impassioned speeches — the content may be different, the ebb and flow can be mapped the same way.
Even an argument — person to person. Or a stimulating conversation.
Regular people, speaking regularly, but with intensity that rises and falls as the content calls for.
You can’t sit down to write poetic copy.
But if you let all of these things marinate in the back of your mind, as ways to keep your copy interesting…
And when you’re in the heat of the moment, letting your first draft come out on paper, let them through…
And as you edit, see where you can push the tempo of your copy higher, where it makes sense for the peaks of your emotional argument…
See where you can add interest (particularly in headlines) with the right rhythm and linguistic devices…
And in general just pay attention to the rhythm, the sounds, the ebb and flow of your writing…
You’ll find that more people are caught up in it… Hooked… And you sell more as a result.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,
Editor, Breakthrough Marketing Secrets