Category: Copywriting Secrets

How Other Writers Get “In the Mood”

typewriterTennessee Williams wrote from sunrise until noon, had lunch (washed down with lots of bourbon), and then edited all afternoon. Meanwhile, novelist Walker Percy did his writing in bed.

Toni Morrison does hers sitting on the sofa, in longhand, and while wearing a robe. E.B. White worked in a sparse wooden cabin by a lake.  Stephen King and Susan Sontag surround themselves with clutter.

What’s the parallel between writers? No matter how different their writing routines, each of these writers — and thousands of others who actually produce — had just that: a routine.

A little over 2300 years ago, Aristotle called it the “soul of genius.” He wrote extensively about “habits of virtue.”  And if you’re serious about what you do — no matter what it is — you’ll go out and get yourself some of those virtuous habits, too. And don’t think that aiding and abetting those virtues with a few of the regular kinds of habits is such a bad idea.

For instance, if you need a favorite writing hat or a lucky pen, go ahead and get one.  Even better, if you’ve got a place you like to write, stick to it. Go there at the same time every day.  And write. Here’s something more: Make sure you stop writing at the same time every day too. The routine is actually better for your productivity than allowing yourself to rely on working overtime.

That said, here’s another lesson we can borrow from other writing realms: set a goal.

For example, author Evelyn Waugh sat down to write every day and refused to get up until he’d cranked out at least 2,000 words (roughly five typed pages). And Hemingway didn’t call it a good day’s work until he had worn down seven number-two pencils.

Then there’s Anthony Trollope — who pumped out 47 novels while working in the post office — wrote exactly seven pages every day except Sunday, 49 pages a week. Never more, never less. How? Trollope started writing every morning at 5:30 am.  And stopped at the same time, just a few hours later, to go to his regular job as a postmaster. He did this without fail for 33 years — and became one of the most prolific writers in literary history.

The message: Setting a regular writing goal can work wonders.

So… how many hours should you, a copywriter, aim to write per day?

That answer might surprise you too. I’m going to suggest… four.

Simply because writing — actual writing — is fatiguing work. If you’re doing it right, you should be wiped after a four hour stint. But hang on. Because before you head off to happy hour at lunchtime, remember that there’s plenty more you can and will need to do — including more research, meetings, and yep… sure… even answering email.

More

When Clichés Work “Like Gangbusters”

cliche pic.png I joked in an issue of my e-letter about writing “good,” and got a note from a reader soon after that said…

“So there I was reading my favorite newsletter writer and I come across, ‘For career success: lather, rinse, repeat.’ A cliche!

“Say it ain’t so. You’re beyond trite phrases and careless writing. So please don’t do it again. I can’t stand to be disillusioned.”

In my defense, this was my reply…

“Me, beyond trite phrases? Never!

“I admit that I agree — we need yet another hackneyed piece of writing like we need a hole in the head. There’s nothing worse, after all, than phrases as worn out as an old shoe. As writer and grammarian extraordinaire, William Safire, once said, ‘last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.’

“But please, when it comes to the ‘rules’ on using cliches, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, shall we? That is to say, with this knee-jerk critique, I fear you might be barking up the wrong tree.

“After all, while I know it’s never too late to learn something new about writing (better late than never, I always say) the tradition of using cliches in copy is about as old as dirt and not always the refuge of the village idiot, as you make it seem.

“In short, never say never.

“Because sometimes, frankly, a well-worn cliche can actually be just what the doctor ordered, especially when you’re caught between a rock and a hard place at the end of a piece and you want to convey an idea both quickly and maybe with a little irony.

“To put it simply, the point of the article is to look at new challenges with innocence and new ideas, rather than falling back on the tried and true… and shopworn.  With the irony here being, that’s a piece of advice we’ll have to return to over a lifetime of writing, much in the same way a dog returns to his own vomit. It is an  insight that can only come from, well, experience.

“It is what it is.”

To which my reader wisely replied, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” And so it is. Except when it isn’t. But that’s for another time.

More

The Details That Close Sales

magnifyMies van der Rohe, a twentieth-century architect, once said that God hides in the details. And says writer Anne Lamott, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.”

What is it that they know that we don’t? Not much, actually.

Since, after all, any good copywriter also knows that when you really… really… want to make for a powerful sales pitch, digging into the small details can be your most powerful technique. 

Here’s an example. Which of the following descriptions sounds better to you?

“I live on a big street in the city.”

Or…

“I live on a leafy, sun-dappled boulevard in Paris?”

For me, both are true. Because they’re one and the same.

But doesn’t the second “option” sound better?

Here’s another example…

Some years ago, I gave a copy seminar in Poland. I knew nothing about the country, honestly,
except what I’d seen on the news about labor strikes in the 1980s… and what I’d read in history books about World War II.

I came away, however, as travelers often do after seeing a totally new place up close. In fact, some of those images still stick with me today. It was, in short, a really nice place.

Oh… wait… just saying it was “nice” isn’t enough?

Okay, here’s more: Outside of Krakow, we saw an underground cathedral built deep inside a salt mine and decorated with a dozen crystal chandeliers and life-size religious statues made entirely of salt.

In the Royal Palace, the walls were covered with etched leather. On Sunday, we fed walnuts to the peacocks that wander Warsaw’s park. We dined on spinach-filled perogi and drank warm honey wine.

Now… which description wakes up your imagination?

“Nice” or the ones that actually painted a picture. No, I’m not writing a travel brochure here, but I’m sure you get the point. Those details that make the images more alluring, are what some writers call “actualities.” And they can make all the difference when you’re trying to persuade somebody to do anything in print.

See, many new copywriters get in the bad habit of painting their word pictures in only broad strokes. And sometimes, that’s enough. For instance, when you’re breezing past a point that’s already clearly imprinted on your prospect’s mind… and that’s been illustrated ad infinitum elsewhere.

But other times, you’ve got a lot of selling power locked in the “actualities” or fine details of the images you’re presenting or the product you’re selling.

Dig out the right ones and trot them past your prospect, and you could just unlock the selling opportunity that otherwise might have passed you by.

Here’s another example…

A LEAD THAT’S WORKED FOR 17 YEARS

For at least the last 17 years, the newsletter INTERNATIONAL LIVING has mailed a sales package that begins:

“You look out your window, past your gardener, who is busily pruning the lemon, cherry, and fig trees…amidst the splendor of gardenias, hibiscus, and hollyhocks.

“The sky is clear blue. The sea is a deeper blue, sparkling with sunlight.

“A gentle breeze comes drifting in from the ocean, clean and refreshing, as your maid brings you breakfast in bed.

“For a moment, you think you have died and gone to heaven. But this paradise is real. And affordable. In fact, it costs only half as much to live this dream lifestyle…as it would to stay in your own home!”

What makes that work, in your mind?

The newsletter is about retiring overseas… it’s about travel to exotic, undiscovered places… it’s about a life transformation that begins when you take a step out into the world.

Could a letter selling the product possibly start in any other way? As it happens, in this case, they’ve never really beaten it… except with other letters that were just as focused on those fine and enticing kinds of travel details.

And even then, only for a short while.

Too much detail, of course, is just as much of a hindrance as too little. But just the right touch, like a dash of paint in just the right spot on a canvas… or a splash of the right spice in a stew… can make your copy incredibly powerful.

Here’s a rundown of what a really well chosen “actuality” can do…

IT CAN MAKE YOUR MESSAGE “REAL”: The right “actuality” can give a story a much greater presence, a feel of truth.

IT CAN MAKE YOUR MESSAGE UNIQUE: Getting specific is often the fastest way to make average copy rise above the mean. Why?

Because the details prevent the reader from lumping your message in with other ones that would otherwise sound so similar. Simple enough.

IT CAN EXPRESS MORE IN A SMALL SPACE: Again, good description doesn’t mean writing longer. In fact, it often means the opposite.

A good word-picture example can make a message clear faster than a drawn-out explanation of a point.

IT CAN TRANSPORT THE READER: Like a good movie or book, where the audience gets lost in the story, careful use of detail can draw a prospect into getting “lost” in (wrapped up in) the excitement of your sales message.

How much detail is TOO much?

You need just enough detail to stir emotions and put images inside the reader’s head.

Some other tips…

* Try delivering the detailed image first, then follow up with a promise… either to deliver on a good image or to help a prospect avoid a bad one, depending on what you’ve presented.

* Focus on sensory details (touch, sight, sound, taste, smell) and numbers. The former appeal most to emotions, the latter to logic.

* Use details to show transition or improvement: “Jeff Johansen used to take a city bus to the unemployment office. Now he drives an S-class Mercedes to the gym…”

* Describe an emotional reaction you want your prospect to feel. “Dear Friend, When I read the latest report from the FDA, I just about dropped my coffee mug. Let me show you what it said…”

You get the point. The goal of the actuality is simple. It is to allow the reader to see your writing as more than just word patterns on a white page.

More

Ego-Butter: How to Give a Copy Critique

redink.png I’ve gotten a few copy critiques in my day. I crave them, no matter how harsh, because that’s what makes the writing better.

I’ve also given a few copy critiques, too. And I’ve discovered that when I’m on the handler side of the red pen, there’s one essential element to making those recommendations more effective: “ego butter.”

Let me back up.

Some years ago, I was part of a conference call with a freelance copywriter. He’d been commissioned for a small job, which was tweaking the lift letter on a much larger, longer control (one I’d written, in fact).

Leading the call was friend and mentor o’ mine, the inimitable Michael Masterson. The letter was, well, weak. Michael took control of the call and made a series of what I thought were brilliant suggestions. We all concurred, except for the freelancer.

After the critique was over, the receiving end of the call went conspicuously silent. “Hello?” we said, thinking he’d slipped on a kumquat or something equally plausible.

“Mail it,” he said. “Mail it and see if it works? Then I’ll revise it.” Clearly, he was peeved. Not, dear reader, the protocol of a copywriter seeking much repeat business.

This guy, no matter how slighted by the review, clearly lost his cool. And with that, he also lost a repeat client. It was really too bad, because I distinctly remember plenty of high-paying work to go around. With some guys, there’s nothing you can do. Their skin is so thin, you could pop it with a tossed marshmallow.

But here’s the thing…

While I despised that copywriter’s behavior, it does occur to me now that, at some level I couldn’t help but sympathize.

See, while not all copywriters are the egoists and temperamental “artistes” like this guy might have been, there are reasons why — if you’re on the critiquing side of a creative exchange — you might want to take the writer’s position into consideration.

First, remember we’re only human. Remember too that good copywriters put a lot of work goes into what they produce. They spend a lot of time with it too.

By the time we’re finished the first draft, we’re connected with the result. In such a way that criticism — even the good kind — can’t help but set one back at least a little bit.

Again, if you’re a great writer and a smart one, you’ll take even the sharpest comments with a smile. But on the flip side, if you really want results from a hired gun copywriter, there’s a step you could take to get much better results. And it won’t cost you a dime.

Very simply, start with the positive. Not excessively so, not insincerely. But clearly and immediately.

Example: “I liked the headline. And oh wow, the typing was nice. And hey, is this scented paper? Nice touch. Now, let’s talk about your lead. I think I see a way to make it even stronger.”

Okay, of course I’m kidding here.

The point is, if the copy is salvageable, there’s something in it you like. Don’t save it for last. Talk about it up front. You can be honest about the stuff you don’t like to. But lower the resistance to your suggestions first.

Is that pandering? Perhaps.

But ask yourself, in any situation alike this, what’s the goal of the critique? Is it your aim only To toughen the writer’s skin… or are you out to get the best possible copy you can get?

The latter, I’d assume.

More

A Surprising Storytelling Secret

stories book.png I recently gave a Skype interview on how to use stories to make sales.

I’m sure you guys know, I’ve talked about this a few times in my weekly e-letter (see the sign up box on this page).

We even had a full chapter on it, in the book “Great Leads,” which I wrote with copy mentoring great, Michael Masterson.

(I swear to you — it’s *finally* going up on Amazon.com, sometime this week. I’ll get you a link as soon as there’s one available.)

I had a great time doing the interview. Enough that I kept thinking of things I wanted to add, long after finishing the call.

I’d just come across a few great tips, for instance, from a semi-surprising source (though not so surprising when you think about it): Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of the cartoon South Park.

Parker and Stone popped in on a freshman writing class at NYU –where yours truly also studied some screenwriting — to talk for a few minutes about how they keep their story ideas compelling.

One secret they offer is… get yourself a deadline. A hard, serious one that drives you. Stone and Parker write an episode per week. “We’ve got a scary deadline every Thursday morning.”

Another tip I’m sure you’ve heard before, which is to put your ideas out there quickly. Don’t wait until they’re fully baked. And when they get out there, make sure you’ve got a roomful of critics who understand they need shaping, rather than critics who will just shoot the idea down.

First ideas are rarely amazing.

And here’s the tip I like best. When you’re writing out a story to sell, to tell, or whatever… look for what writers call the “story beats.”

These are the spots where you plot twists and turns, the angles on which you frame an outline.

Once you have those beats, read through and see if you can put the phrase “and then” between each beat.

If you can… that’s a problem. Every “and then” is a moment where you could lose your reader (or viewer) to some distraction.

Better is writing that turns on the phrases “therefore” or “but.” That is, every moment in the story either forces the next one, creating continuity, or flips away from the last “beat” in a way that creates tension.

In selling, the stories you’re telling are usually short, just long enough to illustrate an idea or sneak in a proof or promise.

But this is a good way to think about your copy throughout, too. That is, is your sales letter just one long string of disconnected sales points? Or does it follow a flow that your reader can’t swim against?

And just when they think they know where you’re headed, are you waking them back up with a rhetorical explosion or “twist” of their expectations?

Something worth thinking about.

More

Brainstorming By the Rules

brainbolt.pngAlex Osborn, founder of a super-successful New York ad Agency and of the Creative Education Foundation, came up with a list of brainstorming “rules” in 1963:

No judgment in early stages: Collect as many ideas as possible without imposing criticism.

Encourage wild or stupid ideas: Don’t refuse to write anything on the board. You never know where it might lead.

Forbid discussion: This may seem counter-intuitive to old-school thinkers. What’s a meeting without talk, after all? But at the start of brainstorming, analysis is death. Wait until you have your long list of ideas, first.

Ban cynics: Early criticism of ideas guarantees you fewer good ideas overall. Anyone who can’t accommodate randomness of thought shouldn’t be there.

Make the process visible: Be sure to record the ideas as the come on a flipchart or board. They must be seen by the group to be useful.

Impose time limits: The pressure of the clock helps ideas to flow more quickly, spontaneously. 30 minutes is good.

These rules aren’t easy to keep. But they worked for Osborn and
thousands of others, from copywriters to politicians to engineers. Systems
work if you give ‘em a chance.

More

Forgetful? Blame Happiness

happysmileAccording to a recent study published in the “Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,” the more positive your mood, the more likely you are to forget important details.

“People in a positive mood such as happiness were shown under experimental conditions to have relatively unreliable memories, and show poorer judgment and critical thinking skills… our recollection of past events are more likely to be contaminated by irrelevant information when we are in a positive mood. A positive mood is likely to trigger less careful thinking strategies.”

But wait, there’s more.

The study also found that subjects in a NEGATIVE mood were far more focused in their critical thinking and communication skills. Here’s where you can tie that insight into copywriting.

See, it’s common legend that benefits sell best. Yet in some camps, there are those who claime fear-based or problem-solution based copy will consistently pull BETTER.

Well if that’s true, maybe this is why…

Put the customer in positive territory (like all those hilariously forgettable ads aired during the Super Bowl)… and you risk not making an imprint with little key items like the name of your product or the special offer you hope to make.

But dip a promotional toe in negative territory, and you help the prospect stir his own fire, so to speak. The adrenaline surges, the senses come alive, and the powers of memory for detail awaken.

Which, for a good product with a good offer, is exactly what you want to do.

More

How To Get Started

startinglineI got a note from a reader who aspires to a copywriting career and wanted to know how best to get started. You can imagine, I get that question a lot. Here was my reply:

1) Keep on reading the Copywriter’s Roundtable!

2) Get some books on copywriting and study them. See the attached past issues.

3) Get on the mailing list of companies you think you could write for (your areas of interest and expertise).

4) Study those sales letters they send you too (the ones that make you want to buy, copy out by hand 3X).

5) Contact one of the companies (the marketing director or product manager, if you can find them).

6) Offer to write a sales letter “on spec” — which means they pay you if they like it.

7) Keep doing that until you have a portfolio of letters and some regular clients who hire you often.

Starting local is a good idea. Or can be. Businesses use sales letters and brochures to sell to other businesses (this is “B2B” copywriting) and then there’s the business to consumer market (“B2C”).

There’s also non-profit, but that can be a slow and less lucrative beginning. Better to get into that later, after honing your skills.

Look to the field you’re already working in, too. If you’ve been focusing on something in particular, you’re no doubt pretty knowledgeable about the products and the customers you service. Maybe enough that you could write marketing copy for that niche..

Of course, companies with information products, software companies, computer equipment companies, publishing companies… can all be good places to start.

You want to use each job as leverage to get your next assignment. And try to make each assignment that you get a little larger and more ambitious than the last.  

The more knowledge you get, start offering to give talks for companies and communities on how to use good copy to increase sales… and let people know, after the speech, that you’re a provider of those services.

 Find a good graphic designer (with direct mail experience, preferably) and form a “team” where you each try to bring in the other as part of new jobs. 

Again, you’re sure to have some hurdles in the beginning. And you need to expect to take at least six months to a year… maybe even just a little longer… to get good enough at this and established enough to make it a real career.

 Like anything worthwhile, you WILL need to put in the hours and be dedicated. But you can certainly learn how to do this, if you put in the time. 

More

“Need to Tell” vs. “Want to Tell”

In marketing copy, “need to know” is the info your prospect has to hear to help him have a better life and, you hope, to decide to buy.

Perversely though, it’s often the “want-to-know” info that has more pulling power.

That is, you’re your prospect has emotional interests that drive him toward things that may not be essential to his well being, but that he wants to know more about anyway.

Put your finger on the latter and you’ve got an extra edge when formulating your pitch

On the writer’s side of the fence, however, it occurs to me there’s another dynamic dilemma, similar in name but not in nature. It’s the difference between “need to TELL” information and “want to TELL” information.

It goes like this…

“Need to tell” describes what the copywriter can’t leave out of the copy. Because without it, the message just ain’t compelling enough to seal the deal. So what’s “want to tell?”

It’s the stuff that the copywriter WANTS to jam into the sales copy somewhere… but might not need to. By this, I mean the jokes and puns, the clever subheads and lengthy anecdotes, the extra trivia… typically the kind of extras that satisfy the writer’s ego, but don’t do much for the reader.

Dumping a gut full of “want to tell” copy onto the page can feel cathartic.

It can make you feel smart. It can make you sound funny or witty or clever. But it’s no way to sell.

How do you know when you’re “over-telling?” Take a red pen (or your delete key) and go back over the copy, reading it aloud. Look at it visually on the page too. Are there points where you hear or see yourself making the same case over and over again? How about your proof of the main message in the headline?

Usually, three strong proof sections will do the trick. Much more than that and you’re just showing off. Take a look at what you’re promising too. Offers with lots of things to give the prospect can be fine, just make sure you’re not over-compensating by throwing in the kitchen sink. At a certain point, that can make your product seem cheap rather than valuable.

Look too for personal anecdotes, inside jokes and puns, and passages jammed full of exclamation points or florid, hyped-up descriptions. Copy can be aggressive and excited and still work very well. Sometimes extremely well. But not when there’s nothing substantial under the fluff. These sections can also go.

The bottom line is, you know when you’re working hard to get something into the copy because you “just like it” vs. when you know that the copy will fail if that particular bit isn’t included. Arm yourself with the Hemingway principle: “When in doubt, cut it out.”

More

7 MORE Ways to Thank Your Customers Like You Mean It

8C6AB08B-CD89-47B3-92BC-7D8F3BEEEEA1.jpg In the last post, we figured out how to heap lots of “thanks” upon the plates of our best customers.

And yet, like a plump uncle, the customers sidle up to the table for more. Should we give it to ’em?

Sure, why not.

Without further ado — and all the microwaved gravy you can stand — please enjoy the second half of our “14 Ways to Thank Your Customers Like You Mean It” article from last week.

(And numbered accordingly…)

8 ) THANK-YOU “COUPONS” FOR THE NEXT PURCHASE – Okay, this one is a little self-serving, you might say. Your customer places and order and what’s his prize? Other than your excellent product, he also gets an offer for the next great deal.

Maybe it’s a half-off future purchases, maybe a break for his friends and family, maybe an invitation to get a free “refill” of some kind or some kind of free servicing agreement.

This, of course, encourages them to come back to you again. But it could also help them feel good — justifiably so — about being loyal to a company that believes in its own product (and why wouldn’t you?)

9) THROW IN FREE SHIPPING – Awhile back, my wife signed up for “Amazon Prime,” the club-like service from Amazon.com that gets you free shipping.

It’s a great deal if you shop a lot online (we do). And it always feels like a “thank you” reward, even though we pay to have that perk.

But even more importantly, guess where she goes first now for most of our online shopping? Testing by other businesses too also show that “free shipping” is a powerful addition to offers.

Even better, try a phrase like, “As my way of saying thank you, I’ll even cover your shipping costs. You’ll pay nothing.”

10) MAKE IT PERSONAL – If you’re open to giving a big discount anyway, why not ‘translate’ the savings into a thoughtful thank you gift?

That is, instead of mentioning the discounted sales price, offer the lower price plus a gift of equal value. Depending on what you’re selling, that could be anything.

A small gift basket with a thank you note, a bag of gourmet coffee, a corkscrew in a fancy case, or something else that matters to your prospect.

If it’s a really big-ticket item or you have a small but big-spendin’ client base, you could make the gift even nicer or more personal.

I recently read a note about a real estate broker who gave a house buyer some fine wine glasses. He says the realtors name comes up — and gets praised — every time he and his wife have friends over for dinner.

(For an even more complete example of this idea at work, see today’s “Second CR” article later in this issue.)

11) THANK THEM PUBLICLY – I don’t know what it is about the human animal, but we do crave our fame.

So why not give weight to a thank you by doing it publicly? Honor loyal customers on your website, honor success stories that feature your product, and just brag generally about your customers like you like them (as you should).

Try posting video interviews of customers on your website, feature them in ads, and just generally be proud like a parent, hanging their proverbial ‘work’ on your public refrigerator.

12) SURVEY WITH CARE – If you’ve read past CR issues, you know I’m not crazy about customer surveys.

They have their uses, for sure. But they’re often as confusing as they are useful, especially when the questions are written poorly.

However, there IS a way to send your customer base a survey that can make them better customers.

How? Simply by making it clear the survey is not about how to make them buy better, but how to give them a better product or service to enjoy.

In short, show you care. And follow up on that display, when you can, by finding the prospects that reply with unsolved problems… and solve them.

13) INVITE THEM OVER – Here’s an interesting way to “thank” loyal customers. Find out who they are and invite some of them over, specifically to celebrate their loyalty. Done right, there’s a good chance they’ll buy from you again. But the pictures you take at the event and post online could help show other prospects what a friendly business you are.

14) GET THEIR BACKS – In times of urgency that relates to your product, like say a financial meltdown or anything else newsy, put together a timely “summit” of your house experts.

Then record what they talk about and give it to customers out of the blue. Make it a surprise, to show you’re looking out for them and anticipating their questions and concerns.

You could tailor this idea for just about any kind of information product and plenty that aren’t.

And one more…

Bonus Idea – GIVE THEM WHAT THEY PAID FOR+ – What business would purposely deliver less than they sold? Sadly, plenty. And that’s partly why new customers are often a tough sell… because they’ve been jaded before.

But what better way to thank your customers for doing business with you… than by insisting on doing business with them at the highest quality level?

It’s the deal we make when offer something to somebody and ask for money in return. Better still if you can over-deliver.

So there you go.

Do these things or even some of them, and you could end up with some seriously grateful customers.

And isn’t that where you want to be?

More