words

cadence for copy’s sake

posted by

Bill Hogan

there’s the pithy statement punctuated with serial periods. the clever quip, complete with double entendre. the provocative question, perfectly engaging and arresting. indeed, a well-constructed headline is effective at capturing an audience’s attention. but in branding, it’s about keeping it. and the real conversation happens below (or beyond) the header, where words and sentences are woven together, and your audience’s precious attention is earned.

there’s an underrated element to crafting strong body copy. it’s called cadence—the sense of rhythm and pace that, when properly composed, can give depth and fluidity to the driest subject matter. to make copy sing, you need the right words intermixed with effective punctuation and pauses. you must have a feel for the stress patterns of words—the way they sound sequentially—in a sentence. like music, so much of copywriting comes down to feel. there is no set formula. it largely depends on personal preference, the subject matter at hand and the target audience. but below are some useful pointers, “insider” tips and tricks of the trade.

the most undesirable and yet common outcome is apathy; you have to keep things interesting. varying sentence length—pairing the short with the long, and switching up sentence structure—helps establish rhythm. the use of conjunctions, or their intentional absence, can slow down or speed up pace. one can even do the unthinkable and begin a sentence with “and” or “but.” there are tools aplenty, and even more grammatical rules to be broken. this is the lawless nature of copywriting. so long as people are following what you’re putting down, you’re usually in the clear.

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cadence can be used to achieve various styles of writing. take two very different styles, for example: copy that flows for a seamless read, and copy that disrupts and commands deeper attention. executed with consistency, they’re equally compelling. the former typically calls for a free-flowing approach where one sentence spills effortlessly into the next. sentences are usually longer in length with fluidity of prose, and some variance in sentence structure and punctuation, where and when appropriate. one trick that suits this style well is the rule of three: a principle suggesting that things listed in threes are funnier, more satisfying, and more effective. a less-frequently used, but entirely appropriate approach is stream of consciousness à la Jack Kerouac and James Joyce. in this age of transparency, it’s a surprise we don’t see brands “thinking out loud” more often.

speaking of more unconventional approaches, a disruptive style of writing demands a more complex use of cadence. it’s an English teacher’s worst nightmare. fragmented sentences are clustered together. double negatives, e.g. “not unlike,” are embraced. there can be extremes in regard to sentence length, and sentence structure is more unpredictable. the writer is tasked with organizing the content so that it’s coherent, but arrestingly so. one way to pressure-test its readability is to run it by someone not involved in the process. provided your message is ultimately received, double takes and twice-overs, furrowed brows and narrowed eyes (in the best way!) are welcomed reactions.

there’s no place for humdrum writing. not on packaging nor in print. not on websites nor social media. consumers are drawn to copy that undulates or crescendos or zigs and zags, and brands are pouring resources into consumer-resonant writing as a result. never underestimate the power of cadence: content’s lifeblood.

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