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Writing to Scale: A ‘Pentatonic’ Approach to Better Copy
By: Jerry Northup
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Like most writers, I enjoy my job. I look forward to the unpredictable nature of what kind of project may come in the door at any time. The challenge of starting from a blank page is always a great kick-start to my day, but I also like getting away from it.

So, I split my love with playing the guitar. I always have. That might lead you to think that I would naturally love writing about the guitar in particular and music in general. But no, actually, I’ve tried to keep them very separate; well, until recently.

Thinking about the pentatonic scale and how it forms the basis for a ton of guitar soloing, I concluded that, in my humble opinion, there are several essential components to great playing that I believe translate (or transpose, to keep the metaphor going) to great copywriting.

This list goes to five:  
  • “Pitch” perfect. On the guitar, you have to properly fret a note in order for it to sound in tune. Likewise, if you don’t articulate what you write under certain accepted structures (grammatical rules), your copy is bound to fall flat to the ears or ring too sharply to the eyes. Poorly written copy can be as jarring as a blown speaker.
  • “Tone” to the bone. There is an individual touch to the guitar that’s like a fingerprint. It’s there no matter if the player is plugged into an expensive piece of stage equipment or a practice amp, so there’s nowhere to hide from it. Similarly, the tone in any writer’s work is just as unique. Every project requires a certain amount of woodshedding. Over time, having great tone is practically automatic. 
  • “Style” that swings. Just as a kickin’ band can give people a charge, great copy energizes the topic at hand. When done well, the words flow in perfect concert with one another. If the chops are there, the best writers are able to join together with graphic designers to develop concepts that cut through the clutter.
  • The “beat” goes on. Establishing proper tempo is usually the responsibility of the drummer, but since most of them have such crappy timing, the rest of the band members usually have to pick up the slack. Sometimes good editing can help clean things up, but don’t look for it to fix copy that doesn’t land squarely on the “2” and “4.” 
  • “Hold it” right there. Great guitarists use sustain and note-bending to explore the emotional side of music, but copywriters can do the same thing by dropping in “hooks” that snap with restrained brilliance. The obvious places to look are in the headlines and closing phrases of any piece. You want to strive for copy that resonates over time.
No doubt much of today’s web-oriented writing is disposable — just as some might argue a lot of today’s pop music should also carry expiration dates.
Either way, there is always time for a guitar solo.


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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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