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Back in Blank: Lyrical Tools for Breaking Writer's Block
By: Jerry Northup
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“I Want You … To Read This!” Although there are naturally some constants in the work of a copywriter, the job very rarely is the “same old song” from day to day. You could consider the fact that most projects do start with typically brief sketches of goals and objectives as one of the common factors, but even at that there is a large degree of variance in quality and quantity of content. The other general rule is you never have both quality and quantity on your desk at the same time, until, that is, you’ve assembled a complete and final ... first draft. So, while the page is blank, the question is, “Where do you start?”

What song is playing in your mind? Like many creative people, my thoughts are generally humming along to one tune or another at different times during the day. However, if a song begins playing too strongly in my head, I find the lyrics can interfere with what I’m trying to compose. On top of that, I try to avoid listening to pop or Top 40 music in the office while I’m writing (I find it can disrupt my own mental dialogue). At one of my old advertising agencies, the head graphic designer/DJ rarely appreciated this internal rule of mine. To this day, I still cannot listen to the song “Kryptonite” without having flashbacks. I got used to piping in classical music or jazz through headphones to block out the static — a good piece of advice if you’re a writer deluged by the sounds of the Eurythmics.

That said, I believe the exception to my “lyric-less” rule occurs precisely at the point where writer’s block naturally begins, which is to say, at the start of the project. The trick is brainstorming on lyrics and song titles that are already in your head. When the cursor is blinking tauntingly, followed by a vast expanse of white screen, give this idea a spin. It works for me, and it may work for you, if you only …
  • Try a little tenderness. Not a great song in my opinion, but a catchy title. That’s the first one that popped into my head writing this article. It wasn’t planned. That’s what came out. If I was working on something for a client instead of my own piece, I might be persuaded to revise it later. But that’s the point: a great lyric can be the impetus for a great headline, or merely a suitable placeholder, until a better idea comes along.
  • I should have known better. I know The Beatles aren’t everyone’s favorite band, but if you can’t find something in their catalog to like, you’re missing out on a boatload of inspiration. Or, maybe a submarine? Either way, know that each member of that band — John, Paul, George, and yes, Ringo — were amazingly lyrical in what they wrote and played. There is a deep well of great copy ideas within their body of work and I draw on it regularly when I’m stuck on the curb for a thought.
  • Join together with the band. The copy has to work in concert with the design, so no matter how good you are as a writer, you can’t afford to be a solo artist. Use the visual for inspiration. Try just catching a glimpse of it and see if that triggers an idea; or, look long and hard at it, pondering the universe for guidance. Usually, some form of idea will spring from the ether.
Taking a lyrical approach to copywriting is one way to break writer’s block. Even better (and getting better all the time, I might add) — since you can do the wandering in your own mind, it will never cause your superiors to wonder where you’ve wandered off. If you want your copy to sing, find your muse in song.

My special thanks to my three favorite bands — Cheap Trick, The Who, and The Beatles — for making this article, my job, and my life possible. 

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About the Author
Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Gerald Northup has written professionally in the fields of advertising, marketing, social media, and corporate communications since the early ’90s. For a look at his blog posts and social media articles, as well as TV, radio, print, and website samples from his online portfolio, visit gnorthup1979.wix.com/44words.

Jerry is also a talented guitarist, an avid tennis player, and a lifelong student of linguistics.

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