Darren Thackeray

23 September 2015

Get rhythm: the importance of melody in writing copy

Did you know that when you read something, you also ‘hear’ it inside your head?

Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean we’re all going stir crazy. Science types have simply concluded that we use that little voice in our head to process what we read, and how it ‘sounds’ internally can have a massive impact on whether or not it holds our attention.

NeuronsOnce my heart had gotten over the palpitating shock of seeing Google’s new logo, I made some decaffeinated coffee and did some research on this.

I found a few compelling sources that claim our ‘inner voices’ are pivotal in how we absorb written information, most notably this article from New Scientist, which went as far as discussing methods of ‘eavesdropping’ on someone’s inner voice to advance research in helping those who can’t to communicate.

“If you’re reading text in a newspaper or a book, you hear a voice in your own head,” says Brian Pasley at the University of California, Berkeley. “We’re trying to decode the brain activity related to that voice to create a medical prosthesis that can allow someone who is paralysed or locked in to speak.”

Interesting.

I then convinced myself. If we didn’t ‘hear’ words as we read them, things like cadence, lyrical flow and rhythm simply wouldn’t matter. We’d just pick up raw information from words on a page and construct some form of meaningful output in our minds. Of course, it is still up to us to extract and construct information, but grammar, tone of voice and how we balance words within sentences really helps us out; we do hear words and sentences when we read them, and how they sound in our heads directly impacts how we engage with them, and how well they engage us.

At lunch time I caught myself thinking about this again. There I sat in a noisy coffee shop having moved onto something a little stronger than the morning’s decaff. I was reading emails at the time and noticed that when I came across an email that was of particular importance, not only did my reading slow down, but I wanted to move my lips as I took in the words. This was probably my ‘inner voice’ struggling to compensate for the clinking of cups and roar of the bean grinder. I needed to hear myself think, or, more accurately, hear myself read.

In my opinion, this is something that writers everywhere should be paying more attention to, particularly those who work in marketing. After all, if what you’re saying doesn’t ‘sound’ right to the reader, why would you expect them to continue reading, let alone act on what you’re saying? Even the best writers in the world need to proof their work and edit their creations, not just because of typos or factual correctness, but rhythm.

Piano keysI try to put a lot of emphasis on rhythm when I write. Sometimes I’m acutely aware of it as I type, like composing a melody on a keyboard; a short sentence will be extended with conjunctions and commas, not because it needs to be to make a point, but because it sounds good when I hear my inner voice read it.

Other times, I simply try to get the facts down and don’t think about rhythm until the editing stage when entire paragraphs can get turned inside out and upside down, all in the interests of keeping a good rhythm. We’ve all been there, perhaps without even realising it. We scrap a sentence because it just doesn’t sit right, or add in a few extra words to pad out and balance a statement, making it easier on the inner ears.

When it comes to my areas of copywriting and digital marketing this can often prove to be problematic. If we’re penning a headline or some banner copy for example, we might have to sacrifice rhythm and cadence for something more pithy. We might even be limited by the medium or even the kind of device we’re writing for. Fortunately, writing in short sentences with a stress and a pause can be very effective in advertising, forming the basis of many a successful slogan.

Writing clearly. Writing concisely. Just like this.

Regardless, it still comes down to rhythm; we simply compose different tunes for different ears.

Perhaps that’s what’s important here: the tune. Some very fitting analogies can be found in the writing and performing of lyrical music. In Neil Young’s biography he likens the songwriting process to being a satellite, receiving and relaying sounds, adding meaning and colour to them as they pass through. Paul McCartney famously penned ‘scrambled eggs’ in place of ‘yesterday’ when he began writing what would eventually be one of the most recognisable songs in popular music. In both instances, the melody and rhythm came first. They influence what impact, if any, the words will have.

I would argue that writing of any kind, for any genre, owes the same debt to melody and rhythm.

The so called ‘rule of three‘ is a perfect example of rhythm driving the writing process. In persuasive writing, whether it’s a political speech, an academic hypothesis or a piece of advertising, the eloquent use of three key elements to make a point is often adopted.

Three zebras at a watering holeIt’s short. Influential. Powerful and it transcends language, time and subject. Bop, bop, bop. 

In rhetoric and writing, threes appear everywhere. Julius Caesar uttered, “Veni, vidi, Vici.” He came, he saw, he conquered.

The French national motto is ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’. Liberty. Equality. Fraternity.

Even Tony Blair famously articulated, “Education, education, education,” and went on to win 3 consecutive elections.

And what of advertising? You only have to look toward Kellogg’s ‘Snap! Crackle! Pop!’, McDonald’s ‘I’m lovin’ it’, or Nike’s famous ‘Just do it’ to see how pervasive and natural the rhythmic three really is.

So how does one improve their writing rhythm? There are countless ways to tinker your work during the editing phase to make sure it flows seamlessly from one sentence into the next, and you don’t have to reinvent your writing style. Forget content for a moment; think melody. Swap clauses, migrate commas, change synonyms. There’s no rule that says you can’t combine contractions (you’ve, don’t, it’s) with full words in a sentence to enhance its lyrical quality or get an extra few syllables in there. Add in a ‘that’ or change tenses if the narrative allows it.

One of my favourite ways to create syllables and give a sentence some bounce is to use litotes (pronounced ly-tote-eez). Litotes is the use of a negative to enhance or emphasise positive. For example, instead of saying something is ‘flawed’, you might say, ‘it’s not without flaws’. Going back to the music analogy, Tom Jones used litotes when he sang, ‘it’s not unusual’. He could have just said, ‘it’s usual’, but that wouldn’t have fit the melody would it?

So, my fellow writers, one thing we must remember to constantly do is listen to the little voices inside our heads. At the risk of looking a little crazy, they might just make the difference between an excellent, persuasive piece of writing and a fruitless flop that gets swiped into oblivion.

How much is your writing influenced by rhythm? Do you think it’s possible to write well without it?


This post was originally published on Darren Thackeray’s Copy Matters blog.


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Lorraine Forrest-Turner

September 24, 2015 at 9:39am

I couldn’t agree more, Darren. I’m always telling my delegates (I train in copywriting as well as write it) to read their work out loud and listen to it. Good copy is like good music – it sounds good!

Darren Thackeray

September 24, 2015 at 9:56am

Thanks, Lorraine. There seems to be this stigma attached to reading out loud, as if it’s a sign of lesser intelligence. I say shake off the inhibition and get those lips moving! I can often be found mumbling to my monitor in the office…