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Will your writing stand the test of time?

Posted by Sarah Mitchell on 21st March , 2023 in The Write Fit
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I was never a massive Elton John fan. At least, not enough to buy one of his records or tickets to a concert. That changed in January when I travelled cross-country with my 18-year-old son to see one of the final performances of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road tour. My son had never been to a big, outdoor summer concert and I knew we were in safe hands with Elton.

Elton John’s music has been in the charts for most of my life and I can easily sing along with the hits. My son had patchy knowledge of Elton’s music but plays bass guitar and is up for any kind of live performance. We were both primed for a good night.

The concert started without fanfare. Elton John sat down at the grand piano, hit the first chord of “Bennie and the Jets”, then turned to face the audience. Thirty thousand people erupted. We knew what was coming next. Well, most of us anyway. My son didn’t know the song but he was impressed with the crowd’s reaction.

Two months later, we’re still talking about that concert. My son has the Diamonds album on heavy rotation (a birthday gift from me). I hear my punk rock fan son singing Elton John songs when he thinks no-one is listening. Some of those songs are more than 50 years old. So, why has their popularity transcended generations?

Some people can sing. Some can compose music. Some can write lyrics. It’s hard for one person to do all three things brilliantly. Bernie Taupin was the lyricist for most of Elton’s hits. He wrote the words, then Elton John composed the music. They’ve collaborated on more than 30 albums. This kind of creative collaboration works best in writing, too.

No great writing ever got published without a team of editors, copyeditors (or subeditors), and proofreaders working together. It’s true in publishing and in academics. In business, particularly marketing, it’s not uncommon to see people skip important quality functions or not even realise they need them.

Tip for writers: Build a writing team with different functions – writing, editing, and proofreading. People may move between functions, but ensure at least two sets of eyes review each piece before publishing.

The concert was enhanced by images and film from an entire career and was projected on the back of the set. Elton John didn’t need it, but it added to the overall experience and the theme of a goodbye tour. Black and white photos of Marilyn Monroe played during “Candle in the Wind”, making the lyrics resonate even more.

Tip for writers: Having a library of your own photos adds depth to the end result. Readers know when brands have invested in having their own stock of photos created. (I took the photo above, by the way. As you can see, we had good seats!)

Speaking of “Candle in the Wind”, my son surprised me when he said he’d never heard the lyrics before. He knew the song as “Goodbye English Rose”, the same song but with the lyrics rewritten for Princess Diana’s funeral.

Tips for writers: Think about how you can revive something that’s sitting in your archives, especially if it’s going to appeal to a different audience to the original. Or, as Mark Twain observed in his autobiography:

“There is no such thing as a new idea… We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of coloured glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

Elton John gave a short story on each song, either how it was inspired, who sang it better, or a favourite experience he had while singing it. Those stories gave context to the songs that I didn’t have before and made me appreciate them even more.

Tips for writers: Storytelling allows you to give context to the reader they may not get any other way.

The best way to improve your writing is to keep at it. Creative arts are a pursuit for elusive perfection. The more you write, the better you are. Take a break and your skills atrophy. Is Elton John a creative genius? Probably. Would he have realised his full creative power if he’d quit working? No way. The wonderful thing about writing is it’s something you can continually improve as long as you get your hands on a keyboard.

Tip for writers: Take time to practice every day. Commit to a publishing schedule that keeps you motivated (and on deadline.)

Mashing it up
My son knew the Dua Lipa song “Cold Heart”, but didn’t know it was originally an Elton John song (called “Sacrifice”). Whereas, I’d never heard the “PNAU Remix” with Dua Lipa. When played on stage with the Dua Lipa track, the song had an entirely different appeal. Film of Dua Lipa rapping “Rocket Man” lyrics proved that a new take can be just as good as the original.

Tip for writers: Break out of your comfort zone to improve creativity. Explore new genres and new writing styles and get input from people of all ages.

A friend and I were comparing notes. She’d seen the same show in 2019, before COVID interrupted the tour. She was still enthusiastic more than three years later. Having seen a few ‘final tour’ concerts, we agreed this one topped any we’d seen before. I thought it was because Elton John played his heart out, even though at 75 he didn’t have anything to prove. My friend said, “He made it about us. He sang every song for us.” She was right.

Tip for writers: Flip the perspective of your writing, especially in business. Everything is more interesting when your readers feel like they’re the centre of your attention, instead of the other way around.

Elton John has achieved success in so many ways and by so many measures. Talent can’t support the kind of longevity he’s enjoyed on its own. What makes him great is all the same things we writers can do to improve our game ­– even B2B writers like me.

What would you add to this list? What makes a piece of writing stand the test of time?

Sarah Mitchell
21 March 2023


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