Write Like Jazz

Years ago, I was helping a friend brainstorm and outline a book, and at some point in the course of our conversation about writing, I said, “Writing is like jazz.”

Both of us were jazz aficionados, so the phrase was apt, and it stuck. He has reminded me of it repeatedly ever since.

What did I mean? Three things, basically:

Craft

Duke Ellington was raised by pianist parents, started piano lessons at age 7, and learned from numerous teachers during his formative years. Trumpeter Miles Davis took music lessons from Elwood Buchanan and attended Julliard School of Music before joining Charlie Parker’s quintet. Nina Simone studied under Carl Friedberg at Julliard and took private piano lessons with Vladimir Sokoloff before recording her debut album, Little Girl Blue. These and many jazz musicians acquired the rudiments of their craft. They learned the rules and gained experience in working within those rules.

Similarly, writers who wish to be published—and read—must learn the basics: spelling, grammar, composition, structure, etc. They must know the difference between “its” and “it’s,” and between “your” and “you’re.” They do well to read The Elements of Style. They should write a lot (not alot), like a musician learning theory and practicing scales.

This also comes into play with every new thing a writer begins. Whether it is a novel, nonfiction book, essay, review, or poem, good writing starts not only with good materials but also with good structure. The foundation must be firm before the walls go up and windows are installed. Good writers, whether they’re “planners” or “pantsers,” begin with an outline, synopsis, or some kind of framework in mind.

Creativity

The 2016 film, Genius, portrayed the relationship between New York editor Maxwell Perkins and novelist Thomas Wolfe. A memorable scene in the movie occurs in a Harlem jazz club. Wolfe takes his staid editor there to try to convey through jazz how Wolfe’s writing mind works. The musicians begin with a familiar tune, playing it straight, as it would have been written on a page of sheet music. Soon, however, they begin to improvise and embellish, not only playing the music but playing with the music and playing off of each other, turning one work of art into something new, fresh, and lively.

A writer who has learned the rules and mastered the tools of language and persuasion can successfully bend or even break the rules, experimenting and improvising, and sometimes turn a simple sentence or scene into a work of art. Such a writer doesn’t ignore spelling, grammar, structure, and so on, but may transcend those things, playing with the music of thoughts and words, creating something new, fresh, and lively.

Clean-up

When a jazz musician—a good one, anyway—discovers a new groove or improvises a new riff, the musicianship doesn’t end there. She may sing or play it a hundred times, sharpening and smoothing it more and more. He may record the tune, transpose it into a different key, or hear how it sounds on a different instrument or in a different voice.

That resembles the writer’s tasks of rewrite and revision. No matter how engrained the skills are and how inspired the writing was, plenty of clean-up always remains to be done: cutting, fitting, rearranging, shaping, sharpening, polishing, and more. Speaking for myself, even after thirty years as a professional writer, I don’t even show my wife my first drafts. And I seldom show anyone my second drafts.

I often tell people in writing seminars, “If you’re not sick of your article, story, or book by the time you submit it for publication, you probably haven’t reviewed, rewritten, revised, and edited it enough.”

Writing, like jazz, is a lot of work…and loads of fun. When it is done well, it is almost like being in love.

47 Responses to Write Like Jazz

  1. Brennan McPherson August 2, 2017 at 3:29 am #

    This definitely speaks to me on a deep heart level. Specifically about how we should write passionately, not just to entertain others or sell books, but to entertain and inspire ourselves, and to allow ourselves to communicate emotions we otherwise wouldn’t grapple with. Great post, Bob! Such a good way to communicate innovation. “Such a writer doesn’t ignore spelling, grammar, structure, and so on, but may transcend those things,” yes! But I think any readers of this need to keep in mind that if they want to write like jazz, most jazz is generally considered too atonal or obscure for the average listener (reader). The general market reader doesn’t want art, they want entertainment.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 2, 2017 at 6:25 am #

      Yes, good comment, Brennan. Though I don’t think art and entertainment are mutually exclusive, it helps to know whether I am writing for the sake of “art” or to be read.

  2. Robin Patchen August 2, 2017 at 5:15 am #

    I couldn’t agree more. Like Picasso, who learned the basics of painting from masters by working as an apprentice. His first works of art were picture perfect. Only after he learned all the techniques and “rules” could he break them so spectacularly. Not that the goal is to write like Picasso painted necessarily. But the “art” of our work is knowing how, like you say, to transcend the rules to create something new and beautiful.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 2, 2017 at 6:26 am #

      Yes, Picasso. Great point. I’ve definitely seen some abstract manuscripts in my time. I’ve even seen some abstract abstracts, come to think of it.

  3. Bryan Mitchell August 2, 2017 at 5:20 am #

    It’s been awhile since I’ve listened to jazz. I think I’ll take some time with it today. It’s funny because I watched a short video on what made John Bonham such a great drummer and the first thing it mentioned with his infusion of Jazz. It freed up the rest of the band and allowed a lot more creative spark. I can’t see a story coming to a dead end or a writer not knowing how to get from point A to point B if they do “write like jazz”. Thank you for the article.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 2, 2017 at 6:28 am #

      Thanks for the comment, Bryan. I’m partial to Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, and Miles Davis, myself.

  4. Amber Schamel August 2, 2017 at 5:26 am #

    Interesting parallel, Bob. One I wouldn’t have thought of. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Callie Daruk August 2, 2017 at 5:30 am #

    Hi Bob, what a beautiful analogy you have crafted. Like your friend, I pray this will stick in my mind as I write each day. Our culture, and I suppose our nature itself, wants the end result first. We want the beauty, before the work it takes to create it. You’ve proven here, that the one cannot come before the other. This was an excellent article and one I hope never to forget. Thank you!

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 2, 2017 at 6:30 am #

      Thank you, Callie. I think some people never discover the joy of writing because they’ve tried to play before learning the C scale, so to speak.

  6. Rebekah Love Dorris August 2, 2017 at 5:39 am #

    I agree, this is powerful stuff.

    I’d like to post this above my office desk if I ever get chained to one: “If you’re not sick of your article, story, or book by the time you submit it for publication, you probably haven’t reviewed, rewritten, revised, and edited it enough.”

    For the moment, I’ll just make it into a meme and stick it on my laptop. Thanks.

  7. Emme Gannon August 2, 2017 at 5:40 am #

    Wow! This really speaks to the creative mind! Great article, Bob!

  8. Damon J. Gray August 2, 2017 at 5:43 am #

    I became addicted to Jazz in high school and carried that throughout my college and post-grad years. I never thought much of it. We each like what we like. Then just a few years ago, my youngest son described a strange sensation he had while taking a jazz appreciation course at the University of Washington. He wondered to himself, “Why do I recognize all of these songs?” It was then that he realized that he grew up listening to them from his infancy.

    I am uncertain how that translates into Craft, Creativity, and Clean Up, but it is a fond memory I have and you brought it to the fore.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 2, 2017 at 6:31 am #

      Nice, Damon. It’s always good to discover that our kids learned SOMETHING from us.

    • Nicola Cameron August 2, 2017 at 7:24 am #

      Music powers brain development. Take a real time MRI of your son’s brain and you’ll see how above average he is because his infancy was washed in jazz. They call it the Mozart effect. Mozart was the jazz of his day.

  9. Pegg Thomas August 2, 2017 at 5:44 am #

    Love it! I learned jazz in high school. My jazz band director started his career as the piano player for Les Brown. I was privileged to learn jazz from someone who really knew it. Great times. Now I can think back on that while writing. 🙂

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 2, 2017 at 6:32 am #

      Your band director was one of the Band of Renown? How cool!

      • Pegg Thomas August 2, 2017 at 8:02 am #

        It really was! I think he was 16 when he started with Les Brown, who was in his last years with that band at that time.

  10. Jennifer August 2, 2017 at 6:11 am #

    This writer lives in New Orleans and agrees wholeheartedly as she sips her coffee and listens to the neighbor practicing with his brass band. 😉

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 2, 2017 at 6:33 am #

      Sweet, Jennifer. My father-in-law’s one request for his funeral is for a Dixieland Jazz Band to play. I’m determined to honor his request, when that time comes.

  11. Melissa Henderson August 2, 2017 at 6:14 am #

    Great message! 🙂 Writing is lots of work and yes, loads of fun.

  12. Judith Robl August 2, 2017 at 6:54 am #

    Love, love, love this post. I love the freedom and expressions of jazz. I’m not accomplished enough as a pianist to do it, but I love hearing it.

    One of my favorite memories (from the early eighties) is sitting alone in the bar at the top of the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans, watching the lights on the crescent of the river and listening to a liquid clarinet sparkling fountains of jazz music.

  13. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser August 2, 2017 at 8:33 am #

    Bob, I don’t know much about jazz, but I think writing’s a lot like running a double black diamond.

    Knowing exactly how the skis react is a given, and is honed by long hours on the hill.

    It’s never the same slope, and you’ve got to be able to react on the fly to changing conditions with decisively applied creativity.

    And you’ve got to make it look easy, because it’s uncool to let people know that you just scared yourself to death.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 2, 2017 at 10:42 am #

      “Like running a double black diamond.” I was JUST about to say that, Andrew!

  14. Elena Corey August 2, 2017 at 8:56 am #

    Um, yu mean like, “amend before you reach Amen?”

    I’m still at the amending stage but heartily say ‘Amen’ to your point.
    Elena Corey

  15. Carol Ashby August 2, 2017 at 9:06 am #

    Your analogy resonates, Bob! I published for years in a field where compound sentences and subordinate clauses were standard, everyone knew when to choose the semicolon or comma, prepositions never ended a sentence, and conjunctions never began one. That style still tends to manifest in what I write at blogs. However, I had to abandon part of my proper grammatical practice when I started writing fiction in deep 3rd-person limited POV. But that training still makes it easy to write spontaneously without the common errors of usage that plague some writing. (I’ve almost broken myself of using “However,” instead of the colloquial “But” at the beginning, but that’s taken a while!) My tech writing was classical; my fiction is jazz.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 2, 2017 at 10:43 am #

      Well said, Carol! Though I must say, my writing is sometimes like Linus banging on a toy piano.

  16. Sharon Cowen August 2, 2017 at 9:48 am #

    Not much jazz in Berne, Indiana, during my youth, but a lot of music especially from the Mennonite Church and Dr. Freeman Burkholder. Wondering if you know whereof I speak? I think I’ll pull the box out from under the bed and count the rewrites!

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 2, 2017 at 10:44 am #

      Not from Berne, specifically, Sharon, but with a name like Hostetler, of course I know whereof you speak. My grandfather, born David A. Hochstetler, was known around Goshen, Indiana, as “Adam’s Davey.”

  17. Kristi Woods August 2, 2017 at 11:21 am #

    My heart sings after reading this post, Bob. Wonderful analogy! I began pecking piano keys at age 7, so your words makes perfect sense. Rewriting now….

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 2, 2017 at 12:11 pm #

      Thank you, Kristi. I appreciate the comment.

  18. Peggy Booher August 2, 2017 at 11:43 am #

    Bob,

    I enjoyed your analogy of writing and jazz. It’s so true–the dedication, practice and creativity in both. I never thought of it that way! When done well, both produce good moments for readers and listeners.

    Your post brought to mind jazz musicians I enjoy listening to–Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong, Pat Methany.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 2, 2017 at 12:13 pm #

      Yes, love all of those! Thanks for the comment.

  19. Mary-Anne August 2, 2017 at 11:52 am #

    Really sick of reading my novel. Left it for a while before going back and editing again. It’s with my editor now – thank goodness!

    I truly love writing and research but the editing is a chore as I am never sure when to stop.

    Wish I could attend your conference but live in the UK. Hope it all goes well.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 2, 2017 at 12:14 pm #

      Mary-Anne, I’ve actually looked for writers conferences in the UK. You should talk me up to someone over there. I have dear friends in Derbyshire and London.

  20. Kathy Sheldon Davis August 2, 2017 at 12:09 pm #

    Since you’re a jazz aficionado I’m trying to imagine what instrument you play. You said jazz is “a lot of work . . . and loads of fun.” What would be harder and more fun than a sax?

    And the fact you don’t let your wife read your first draft, well, no one could tolerate the screeches of my first notes from the mouthpiece. No one.

    Sharing those wouldn’t be loving my neighbor as myself.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 2, 2017 at 12:15 pm #

      Well, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint. I play tuba/trombone/baritone. Poorly.

  21. EdwardLane August 2, 2017 at 7:42 pm #

    That jazz analogy is great! When you start hearing all the chords replacing single notes it’s captivating. Can you recommend any structure advisers?

  22. Sheri Dean Parmelee August 3, 2017 at 9:03 am #

    Bob, thanks for the discussion on writing and jazz and a huge thanks for not comparing writing to football, about which I know nothing.

  23. Jeannie Waters August 7, 2017 at 6:11 am #

    Bob, your analogy is inspiring and instructive. As I write today, I hope to hear the music.

  24. Norma Nill August 7, 2017 at 9:50 am #

    Thanks for a fun post, Bob! Everything you said made me think, and I agreed except on the last point. Did Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald really get sick of their compositions? I don’t know – I’m only asking. If they did get bored, their showmanship must have kicked in, because all I saw was their pleasure.

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