A hit song reveals much about the importance of the demo, the draft, and why less is nearly always more.
What can we learn about copywriting from songwriting? Quite a lot it turns out. Songwriters suffer from the same pressures as writers. Ideas are blocked. The first draft is always ropey. The temptation to add superfluous ingredients is hard to resist.
Exhibit A: Losing My Religion. In the REM episode of Song Exploder (Netflix), the band discuss their most famous song including a clip where Michael Stipe’s face sinks as he listens to an early demo.
Peter Buck, the guitarist, is much more phlegmatic. He doesn’t care. He knows that the sketch of a song is a crucial step on the journey to the polished, broadcast recording.
The same thing applies when drafting your copy. Don’t be embarrassed by your drafts. I used to spend a lot of time perfecting every sentence before moving on to the next statement.
But all this did was hold me up. It blocked good ideas. Instead of getting the argument down on paper, I would stress over every syllable before moving forward.
Now I’m a lot more forgiving with my early efforts. So much so, that I will even leave gaps or stick in a place holder for the right word to keep the article flowing. I fill in those blanks when I reread and edit the copy before sending it to the client.
Listen to the rhythm of your language
This also reminds me of the way that many songwriters compose, especially those that write the music and the lyrics. Melody and rhythm usually come first. Words follow. Paul McCartney is probably the best-known example.
The song, Yesterday, began as a tune that came to him in a dream. To hold the music and phrasing in place, he famously wrote ‘Scrambled eggs, oh my baby how I love your legs.” The recorded lyrics came a long time later.
Of course, your first draft needs to make a lot more sense! But again, I often find myself listening to the rhythm of the words. Short statements. Additional phrases that develop and build on the original idea. Long sentences are fine so long as you remember to order your ideas, punctuate carefully, and strike out unnecessary words. And yes, I will stick in placeholders as long as the text flows and I’m happy with the rhythm of the copy.
Small changes make a big difference
The REM documentary also reminded me that a small change can make a huge difference. The line, ‘that’s me in the spotlight’ began as ‘that’s me in the kitchen’. Swapping one word turns a moment of domestic intimacy into big-stage drama.
While I am no poet on the level of Michael Stipe, I do find myself making more accurate changes during the second or third edit when I replace fluffy, generic words with more precise language.
Talk and type
This attention to detail is also reflected in the way that Michael Stipe composes lyrics. Relying on an old school typewriter and cassette recorder he translates his lyrics from inside his head, to the printed page, to tape.
This reminds me of a couple of things. Firstly, I find it a lot easier to talk and type at the same time. It’s what I’m doing right now. Sometimes I will put the keyboard to one side and go for a wander with the voice recorder on my smartphone. When I am really stuck, I will switch on the dictation function in Google Docs or Microsoft Word.
Secondly, focus is everything. We live in a world of constant online distraction. A lot of writers that I know like to work with two screens, one for drafting, one for online research. But I really don’t like interrupting the flow for a Wikipedia anecdote. For the first draft I stick with my laptop and come back later to check facts and embed links.
Let go of filler copy
Finally, Losing My Religion reminds us that less is nearly always more. Unlike most blockbuster singles, the song has no real chorus. Do we care? Of course not. The track is perfect just as it is.
Perhaps there was a chorus at one stage. Maybe it even exists as an early demo. The point is it doesn’t matter. Nobody who has been moved by Losing My Religion gets to the end of the song and regrets the missing chorus.
The same applies to your copy. I have trained many writers and edited back their drafts to make the argument clearer and more concise. This sometimes means binning well-crafted sentences and even paragraphs.
The thing is you have to let go. The reader never comes up short in the space between paragraphs mourning your absent digression. To them it was never there.
You can still catch the Losing My Religion documentary on Netflix. The band are a lot older and more wizened than when I first saw them at the Hammersmith Palais in 1985. But it is moving to see them reflect on a song that propelled REM into the big time and paved the way for a sequence of best-selling albums.