Pump The Funk Into Your Copy

by Kevin

in Copywriting

Have you ever swiped a sales letter?

I haven’t.

I’m not condemning the practice. Hell, it crossed my mind once orĀ  twice under heavy pressure of short deadlines.

It could never work though. I don’t color inside the lines well enough to be an effective swiper. It takes keen focus and discipline to match your message to a template. Stray from that template – even a hair – and you’ll quickly find yourself in danger.

Besides, I believe there’s something magic in the rhythm of great copy… Something that can only be captured by the writer and transcended to the reader when the writer is feeling what he’s putting it down.

No matter how diligently you follow the rules of swiping, you’ve still got to replace the words in the template to match your product. And filling in the blanks will never capture the rhythm of passionate writing.

Compare it music… when band members record each track separately (often alone in the studio) … as opposed to cutting the song live. Listen and you’ll feel the difference immediately. It’s all about the rhythm.

Scores of writers have set out to capture the rhythm of music with their words…

Jack Kerouac sought to mimic the staccato pacing of a Charlie Parker solo. Stephen King writes with AC/DC blasting behind him. As for copywriters… it’s no surprise that John Carlton plays blues guitar. His copy often wails like gut shot notes from a road-worn Les Paul.

Writing rhythm is essential to readability (especially when using story in your copy) and readability is essential to selling…

So, today I want to focus in tight on one small, but mighty aspect of copywriting – rhythm. I’m going to give you a cool tool you can use right now to give your letters more soul. It’s something I’ve been practicing lately… and will surely be honing for years.

This lesson comes to us by way of the divine clashing of 2 great learning materials for copywriters… John Carlton’s famous “Nickel Letter” and the new book, Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute.

Writing Tools is an amazing book of actionable tactics you can use to improve your writing. I’ll be talking more about this book in coming posts. There’s even free (condensed) audio versions of these 50 Writing Tools on Poynter’s website. Right now though, let’s listen to Tool # 18: Set the pace with sentence length.

Click to listen to Tool #18 before viewing the example.

OK, now onto the passage from John’s Nickel Letter… In the preceding paragraphs, it’s been established that in Tulsa there’s a beat up warehouse where dangerous Neo-Nazi Skinheads like to hang out. And…

These Sick Jerks Actually Enjoy
Hurting And Humiliating People!

Anyway, on this particular night an ordinary looking man named Chris Clugston made the mistake of driving out to this isolated warehouse. He thought he was going to see a band play music, maybe find a nice girl to dance with, have some fun on a hot summer night. He didn’t have much money on him – after paying the “cover” to get inside and ordering a beer, all he had left was one little nickel in his pocket. Remember that – a single nickel. Not even enough to leave a tip at the makeshift bar.

Beyond the amazing amount of descriptive action in that paragraph (I quickly counted 9 new facts that move the story forward) pay attention to the rhythm. Two long (22, 27 word) sentences set the scene. Then the pace quickens…

“He didn’t have much money on him” although followed by an m-dash to keep the pace fast, could technically be considered one 7 word sentence.

Followed by another 22 word fact-filled sentence that completes the scene. “after paying the “cover” to get inside and ordering a beer, all he had left was one little nickel in his pocket.”

Then the crucial 5 word sentence that reiterates the entire hook of the letter: “Remember that – a single nickel.”

And finally a 12 word sentence that adds to the isolation of our hero’s predicament… “Not even enough to leave a tip at the makeshift bar.”

A nice punch to end the paragraph that tells us: This guy is totally alone. Not even the bartender is on his side. And the rhythm of the sentences create a pacing for the paragraph that lets you know something’s coming.

There’s no way the reader is putting this letter down until they find out what it is – and how it turns out.

So, you can see from this example how controlling the rhythm of your copy (often by letting yourself go) is an important part of the selling process.

Now go out and shake your moneymaker.


Ross September 11, 2008 at 2:39 pm


Thanks for taking the time to write thoughtful blog posts like this one. When I see on Copywritersboard that you’ve posted something I head over right away knowing it’s going to worth reading and that I might learn something new.

Thanks again.


P.S. Is John Carlton’s “nickel letter” on the web somewhere to read?

Kevin September 11, 2008 at 5:16 pm

Hey thanks, Ross. Nice of you to say.

The “Nickel Letter” is featured in both “The Collected Letter’s of John Carlton Vol I” and “License To Steal”… however I don’t know if either is available to order.

Here is the updated web version of that letter with the story I referenced still in tact… http://www.trsdirect.com/product.php?sku=CG-77

And you cannot go wrong with John’s course: Kick Ass Copywriting Secrets Of A Marketing Rebel.
http://www.marketingrebel.com/ – I listen to the audio version at least once every 2 months.

FWIW, these are not affiliate links. Just highly recommended.

Mark L October 2, 2008 at 4:28 pm

I believe that the John Carlton Clugston letter might be TRS’s “control” for response and conversions. It sure triggered a flood of “copy cat” letters in all the Martial Arts and Shooting mags. I also recommend checking out this letter for powerful, economy story telling.
The “High Noon” moment leads into copy which builds up even more intensity -Has the reader thinking “What would I do?”
The other ads at http://www.trsdirect.com are well-worth checking out too!

Kevin Rogers says:

Indeed, Mark. In David Garfinkel’s Speed Copywriting course he suggests heading over to trsdirect to get the copy juices flowing. Certainly works for me.

Thanks for commenting.


Noya October 28, 2008 at 10:44 pm

Great work.

John Carlton December 19, 2008 at 7:10 pm

Dude. NICE post… you’ve caught things in that letter that fly over almost everyone else’s head.

The only time I really talk about rhythm is in seminars… because I need the visuals, and I need people to hear the cadence as I sound it out. I’ve had the best success using “Brown Sugar” by the Stones as an example: “Gold coast slaver bound for cotton fields, sold in a market down in New O’leans…”

Not the most politically correct writing, but KILLER rhythm. Stephen King wrote while listening to AC/DC at ear-splitting volume. I don’t write to actual music, but I want the words I write to “sing” in my head.

Your reader won’t necessarily recognize the poetry, but other writers will. You want it to be unconscious, anyway, in your prospect. (Which is why you want to keep the alliteration to a minimum, too… used sparingly, it will gut and clean a prospect like no other verbiage).

Again, you’re showing insight far beyond what even my more grizzled colleagues have. Good job.

Janet Beatrice March 19, 2009 at 6:45 am

Another great post, Kevin. I enjoyed the Poynter audio, and the great story from John Carlton’s letter – had to click on it to see what happens next. Thanks!


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