The blues is a fundamentally simple form of music. People hear it, they get it; more importantly, they feel it. Yet, at the same time, the blues forms the basis for some of the most complex music on earth. Jazz musicians, for example, know there is no use in trying to solo over complex changes unless you can play the blues first. In fact, it’s precisely that simplicity — a great beat, soulful vocals, and tasteful guitar — that makes it more generally accessible to larger audiences. It’s a proven formula that not only applies to music, but copywriting as well.
If three chords work for the blues, why aim for more than three syllables? There is a time and a place for virtuosity and a million notes, but what really distinguishes the best players from others is a matter of timing and taste. Legendary blues guitarist B.B. King is often cited as saying more with one note than others can with dozens. Obviously, copy doesn’t work that way. Yet, economy and style will get most writers a lot further than a bunch of text filled with puffed-up euphemisms and grandstanding compound adjectives.
Universal appeal doesn’t mean unanimous acceptance. Not everybody loves the blues, but everyone recognizes it for what it is. Good writing is similar in that it translates meaning to different readers without missing a beat in flow, logic, or structure. When done well, great copy swings with a tuneful flavor of its own.
- If it comes too much from the head, it won’t have enough heart. Writers are painstaking minstrels. We labor over just the right word in the right place. That’s usually a good thing, but we get in trouble when we attempt to make mundane concepts “sing” in octaves well beyond their range. The cross-functional, interdisciplinary, conflict-resolution department is still known as HR in most circles.
- Developing powerful writing chops is important. Discretion is essential. Most talented people want to show off their talent. In the copywriting world, there is no shortage of individuals who compose endless streams of riffs — language taken to the extreme just because they can. Guitar players do this by often playing too damn loud.
- Repeating yourself to others is a sign to go back to the woodshed. People only know what they know. Most of us have very dissimilar education backgrounds, so the writer is often very much at risk of producing concepts that may be understood by one group and not by another. If you have to explain it more than once, the piece either needs more polish or sometimes, begrudgingly, needs to be scrapped altogether.
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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