Category: Fact Box

Random facts and interesting tidbits.

Secrets of a Direct-Mail Legend: Rodale

rodaleOnce in awhile, you can’t beat a good case study. And what better case study for a copywriter or direct marketer to learn from than the profile of a legendary direct-mail publisher: Rodale.

Rodale, if you haven’t heard of it, is located in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. Emmaus is a small American town that’s less than 8 miles square. Just under 5,000 families call it home. One of those families is that of J.I. Rodale, a former New York tax accountant who started Rodale Manufacturing in 1923.

Yes, manufacturing. Not publishing.

But then, during the Great Depression, Rodale moved to an empty warehouse in Emmaus.

And it was in the corner of that building that J.I. took a chance and followed his passion… straight to a printing press in the corner of the electrical warehouse.

His first few efforts were flops.

No, strike that, his first SEVERAL efforts were flops. They included a miserably unpopular humour magazine (closed after one issue)… some health digests… and a book of randomly accumulated health facts.

From 1923 to 1940, nothing seemed to work.

Then the company picked up roots and moved operations to a nearby 60-acre farm.

In addition to publishing, J.I. had a fascination with natural farming techniques and organic living. By 1942, he had combined the two and was publishing a magazine called “Organic Gardening and Farming.”

Yawnsville?

Maybe to the coke-and-cheeseburger set.

But “Organic Gardening” (now titled “OG”) is still around. And it’s hugely successful, with over 3 million subscribers worldwide.

The passion-publishing combination seemed to do the trick. Rodale started producing a slew of health magazines and books…

“Prevention” — arguably the most successful health magazine in history — was one of them.

Other titles include “Men’s Health,” “Backpacker,” “Runner’s World”… and books like “The South Beach Diet,” “The Home Workout Bible,” “The Organic Suburbanite,” “Shrink Your Female Fat Zones,” “The Testosterone Advantage,” “A Road Map To Ecstasy,” and many more.

The Rodale empire grew. And J.I. Rodale prospered.

He passed away in 1971, during an appearance on the Dick Cavett show.

So What Was His Secret?

The first time I saw one of Rodale’s direct-mail book promos, it was in the mid 1990s.

According to Forbes, the market for direct-mail-sold books was 4% of overall wholesale book sales. Today, according to the same article, that market has shrunk to about 1.4%. Rodale’s book division felt the pinch. Others, like Time-Life, cancelled their direct-mail efforts altogether.

But not Rodale. They stuck it out. Then they stumbled on an outrageously simple idea: Focus.

More focused marketing… more focused editorial.. more targeted benefits…

And most importantly for Rodale, more focused tracking of customer buying behavior.

Rodale took survey data, customer purchase behavior, and their magazine databases… and applied the same rigurous sorting technics you’d expect from a credit-card company.

They sorted and re-sorted their pile of prospects into fitness buffs, gardeners, weight-loss practitioners, etc.

Then they sorted even deeper until they found unexpected connections. “Organic gardeners buy household-hint books. Runners buy organic-lifestyle books,” said Forbes, “Using that information, Rodale sends out 100 million mailings a year.”

As focus and clarity had helped J.I. back in 1940, so it helped Rodale Publishing in 2002. Fewer ideas, more passionately-held. More quality. Bigger promises. And a crystal clear answer to the question, “What does the customer want.”

Says Rodale of themselves, “Rodale is America’s leading ‘how to do it, you can do it’ book publisher… regardless of whether it’s a book, magazine, or Web site, we take pride in our ability to communicate with our readers through personal, positive, practical and passionate editorial… “

Rodale’s direct-mail book sales have taken off. In 2002, they represented 31% of Rodales $450 million revenue.

New York publishers like Simon & Schuster and Houghton Mifflin, says Forbes, are so impressed they’re looking to apply the same discovery.

Like I said, this secret is simple…

In it’s essence, less is more.

Focus works better than trying to bludgeon your prospect with everything and the kitchen sink.

That’s a lesson here for the online marketer too. For instance, super-simple websites are leagues more effective than ones with 100 bells-and-whistles. E-mail marketing sent with relavent messages sent to pre-qualified, captive readers work much better than blanket ‘spam’ mailings.

And so on. But you get the picture.

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Are YOU Creative?

checklist.png In the last post, we asked why some people are creative and others aren’t. This time around, let’s put it even more plain: Are YOU creative?

Even though I.Q. tests supposedly measure your brain power, there is still no “Creativity Quotient” (C.Q.) test that measures how creative you are.

But the same Scientific American research found that creative people often have similar character traits. See if any of these apply to you…

Ideational Fluency – Someone gives you a word. The more sentences, ideas, and associations you can match to that word, the more likely it is you’re a “creative type.”

Variety and Flexibility – Someone gives you an object, say a garden hose. How many different things can you do with it? The more you can think of, the better.

Original Problem Solving – Someone presents you with a puzzle or a problem. Beyond the conventional solution, how many other workable but uncommon solutions can you come up with?

Elaboration – How far can you carry an idea? That is, once you have it, can you build on it until you can actually carry it out in application?

Problem Sensitivity – When someone presents you with a problem, how many challenges related to that problem can you identify? More importantly, can you zero in on the core or most important challenge?

Redefinition – Take a look at the same problem. Can you find a way to look at it in a completely different light?

How did you measure up?

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Copywriting Jargon… Once Difficult, Now Easy!

It’s come to my attention that you, dear reader, might be sorely lacking in proper copywriting “vocabulary.”

Possibly because you don’t read this blog enough. Possibly because I don’t use the terms enough. Or possibly because, well, who wants to sit around talking terminology all the time? Nonetheless, I thought I’d do you a favor and lay down details on the handiest of terms. As follows…

Bluelines – Either (a) the term for the first-run package “proofs” you get from your printing company or (b) the drug they must do in the design department to make them think it’s ever okay to put screened graphics behind printed text.

BRE – (a) A business reply envelope, provided to customers to make it easier to mail back the order form or (b) a funky French cheese that goes well with baguettes, but makes your fridge smell like sneakers.

Break-even – Either (a) the level of orders it takes to recover the cost of your advertising or (b) Hey, no joking about the showing a profit here, Buster!  This is serious!

Bottom line, the – (a) The money and how much you’re making or losing; also, (b) the second or third most common patient issue discussed in the offices of  Beverly Hills plastic surgeons, as in “Doctor, I’m worried about how my bottom line looks when I where jeans.”

Customer Retention – (a) How long you keep a customer after the initial sale; or, loosely defined (b) how long your customer will stay in the bathroom to finish reading your latest promo package.

Deadline – (a) The un-missable, absolute moment when copy must be turned in or (b) I don’t know… I’ve never really seen one, though I’m almost certain they make a whistling sound as they pass.

Full Bleed – (a) When the colors or pictures on a printed page run to the edge.  Expensive.  (b) What your forehead does when you can’t think of a thing to write.

Fulfillment – (a) Everything involved in making good on your promises, especially the sending of promised premiums and the product itself or (b) the thing you hoped for back when you thought you’d actually grow up to be a poet.  And now look at you!

Indicia – (a) Postal information printed on every piece that goes out (b) a small country somewhere in the Pacific where old copywriters go to die… or retire.

Johnson Box – (a) a paragraph or so of copy that appears above the body of the main promo letter (b) where copywriter Gabby Johnson was resigned to living after his control got knocked out of the mail.

Lettershop – (a) the company that assembles, labels, sorts, and mails your stacks of promo letters (b) the people you blame when your “brilliant” mailing flops miserably.

List Broker – (a) specialist service that puts together your mailing lists, from selecting and sorting to deal-making to delivery (b) the people you blame for flopped mailings when the folks at the lettershop stop taking your calls.

Merge-Purge – (a) computerized comparison of mailing lists to sift out duplicate names and “dead” addresses or (b) what new employees do at your Christmas party – come together, get drunk, knock over punch bowl, apologize to toilet the next morning.

Personalization – (a) technique for dropping the customer name into the text or the headline of a package to make the pitch look more personal  or (b) the process by which copywriters take every critique of their “art.”

Response Device – (a) the card or coupon given to the customer so he can mark down his order, payment, and delivery information; gets mailed back to the seller (b) cattle prods, whips, knitting needles and other things used to speed up a sale.

Self-mailer – (a) A promo package that requires no envelope (b) as derived from the phrase, “What?  Does he think the d*mn thing is going to mail itself.”  Typically applied to marketing managers.

 That’s it for now.

Please memorize.  There will be a quiz!

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In Picture Ads, The Eyes Have It

eyeHere’s a quickie insight and useful tip:

The common wisdom is that everybody loves a pretty face, right? Not always so, says Bryan Eisenberg over at grokdotcom.

 Oh sure, the pretty face does attract attention. But that’s the problem. In ads, a real looker can pull a visitor’s eyes away from your message.

Heat maps showing viewer interest reveal that we impulsively go to the eyes first in a face.  This is especially true if it’s a head-on shot where the face in the ad is making eye-contact with the viewer. And that can detract attention from where you want the prospect’s attention to end up, which is with the content of your ad.

But when the model’s eyes look aside, the same heat maps show that viewers tend to follow the model’s gaze to where it lands. A good photographer knows this to be true, too. Portraits with someone looking directly at the camera have a very different feel from those where the subject looks off-frame or into an empty space.

For the marketer — even a copywriter — this matters when you choose stock photos or when you higher someone to take pictures for your promos? If you’re in that situation, ask the model to look in the direction of your product or headline instead.

(Or, in a pinch, use Photoshop to make it happen.)

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Short Words, Bigger Word Power

shortwordsIt’s brevity they say is the soul to wit. And If that’s true, I admit… sometimes, I can be a little soulless. I grew up loving what the nuns used to call “25 cent words.”

In high school, we called them “SAT Words.” These are the words, they told us, that make you sound smart. That win you respect, jobs, and the girl of your dreams. People who use these words, they said, can walk through walls.

Boy, did they get that wrong.

No sooner did I slip into the world of the written word, to discover that bigger, Latinate vocabulary doesn’t improve the accessibility of your cogitations, rather it obfuscates it. (That is, big words can make you sound dumber… simply because you’re tripping over yourself to get your message across.)

Which is why I was thankful when longtime copywriting buddy David Deutsch sent me a copy of “Short Words Are Words of Might” by Gelett Burgess.

It’s not a book, per se. In all it’s 16 pages. And SMALL pages at that. What’s really impressive, however, is that the entire essay is written with one syllable words. (Talk about practicing what you preach!)

Burgess’ essay originally appeared in “Your Life” magazine in 1938.

Here are a few juice quotes that reveal the core idea:

“Short words must have been our first words when the world was young. The minds of men were raw… Their first words were, no doubt, mere grunts or growls, barks, whines, squeals like those of beasts. These rough, strange sounds were made to show how they felt. They meant joy or pain or doubt or rage or fear…

“But these sounds came, in time, to grow more and more plain as real words. They were short words, strong and clear. And these first short words, used by our sires way back in the dark of time, still have strength and truth. They are bred in our flesh and bone. We may well call such words the life blood of our speech.”

“Short words, you see, come from down deep in us — from our heats or guts — not from the brain. For they deal for the most part with things that move and sway us, that make us act… That, I think, is why short words tend to make our thoughts more live and true.”

In other words, says Burgess, in a point that’s often ignored, short words have power. In poetry, sure. But also in sales copy too. “Never put a policeman in an automobile,” said someone much smarter than yours truly, “when a cop in a car will do.”

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Which Sells Best, Stories or Stats?

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“Simplicity is the peak of civilization.”
– Jessie Sampter

Do this: Write down the word “baby.”

Now, how does that word make you feel?

Try it with another baggage-friendly word like “family” or “war.” Or any other phrase that gets your inner emotional stew simmering.

Done? Good. No, dear reader, you haven’t stumbled into a 1970’s sensitivity training group.

There will be no hugs here. And no massaging your chakras (I mean, really… who does that in public?)

Rather, I’m just trying to warm you up for today’s issue. See, I’m still reading that book I mentioned, “Made to Stick.” (Okay — listening to it as an audio book, during the morning run. But in print or audio, I recommend you get a copy too.)
And this morning, the book gave me a shocker worth sharing.

So now that I’ve got you “primed” to receive (I’ll explain what I mean in just a second, let’s begin…

Which Works Best, Stats or Stories?

Carnegie-Mellon, says the book, did a study. They invited participants in to take a survey. The topic wasn’t important — something about tech products — but what mattered was the small payout. Each participant got paid with five $1 bills. They also got an unexpected letter and an empty envelope. The letter asked for donations for an international charity called “Save the Children.” But different groups got different letters.

One letter dripped with grim statistics. In one African country, it said, 3.2 million stand on the brink of starvation. In another, 2.4 million have no easy access to clean water. In a third, almost 4 million need emergency shelter. Each problem was gigantic and serious.

The second letter had only a story. “Rokia,” it said, “is a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa. She’s desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education.”

Which worked better?

Now, dear reader, I know your momma raised no dummies. You’re going to tell me that the Rokia letter cleaned up. And you’d be right.

On average, Rokia’s letter took in $2.38 in donations from the test group. The stat-soaked letter took in only an average of $1.14.
But that’s not the big surprise, is it? No, of course not. (What kind of storyteller do you think I am, after all?)

See, the study didn’t stop there…

How Less Really Can Mean a Lot More

The researchers then called in a third group. You’ll get paid for taking this survey, they said again.

Only this time, instead of giving the participants only one letter with their cash — everybody got both the story AND the stats together.

Great, you might say.

Heart AND head. A real one-two punch. Wouldn’t that net you both the bleeding hearts and the brainiacs, all in one sweep?

As it turns out, no.

Not only did combining both approaches fail to gas up the giving engines… it doused the pitch-power of the story-only approach with ice water.

The combo group, on average, gave almost a dollar LESS than the story-only group alone.

Just $1.43.

Isn’t that amazing?

I thought so.

But even more amazing was the last part of the experiment. This time, just to make sure of their conclusion, the researchers invited in a fourth group.

This time everybody would only get the stronger Rokia letter. But beforehand, they would complete an exercise.

Half the group would finish some simple math problems. The other half would answer a word challenge like the one I gave you at the start of this issue: Give word, write down feelings.

What happened?

Incredibly, the group that got “primed” with the emotional exercise gave an almost equal $2.34… but the analytically “primed” group AGAIN gave less, for an average of just $1.26.

These were unrelated calculations. But somehow just putting on a thinking cap was working like one of those tinfoil hats that crackpots wear to block out alien mind-reading waves (I’ve got to get me one of those).

Nearest the researchers could figure is that, while analytical thinking can shore up beliefs or activate a reader’s capacity for focus, it actually stymies action.

To get someone to act, they need to go beyond beliefs to the feelings they HOLD about those beliefs. Feelings inspire action.

And I don’t just mean that in the “touchy-feely let’s all hug a kitten and light a vanilla candle” kind of way. All persuasion works best when it focuses most on core emotions, not cerebral abstractions.
I know this charity, “Save the Children,” pretty well by the way. My wife and I have a Danish friend who works for them.

She’s a talented photographer.

Whenever there’s a crisis, her boss dips into the funds and puts our friend and her camera on a plane.
Burned out post-war zones, post-tsunami and typhoon disaster areas, dirt poor African villages — she’s been there, capturing a personal, eyewitness view.

Why?

Because in the charities well-tested experience, those individual on-the-scene images raise more money than a boatload of shocking statistics ever could.

I know that I’m going to try to work more of the “story of one” effect into my future promos. Maybe you should too.

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What Copywriters Should Know About Copyrights

justice.pngIt’s embarrassing the number of I’ve times had to explain: “copywriting” and “copyrights” have next to nothing to do with each other.

Not embarrassing for me, mind you, but for the guy who asks me how to protect the draft of his novel about high school from plagiarists.

However, I’m not giving the whole story here, because the two terms — ‘copyright’ and ‘copywrite’ — actually DO have a little something in common.

Let me explain by way of a note sent to me some time ago by copywriter Brad Grindrod…

“When I’m writing a promotion, I’ve got a ton of material I’ve gathered to support the claims in my letter. But I’m just not sure if or how I can legally use it.”

First, some kudos for Brad.

Gathering a ton of research, in my opinion, is the right place to start. And not just for writing promo copy.

Magazine articles, novels, screenplays…

All benefit from deep research.

Divinity, said Nabakov, is in the details. But here’s the quandary:

What if someone else came up with those details first?

THE TRUTH ABOUT BORROWED WISDOM

Let’s start with terminology:

What, exactly, IS copyright infringement?

Matt Turner, an old college buddy and senior lawyer for a major publishing company, lays it on the line:

“In the context of the written word, copyright infringement is literally stealing (i.e. ‘copying’) someone else’s words without permission,” says Matt, “However, ideas themselves aren’t copyrightable.”

This, obviously, is a controversial point.

In the shortest terms, it’s DIRECT and EXACT representing of someone else’s work as your own that puts you most at risk.

Clear So Far?

After you’ve got the simple concept clear in your mind… enter the nuances, stage right.

For instance, JOURNALISTIC and COMMERCIAL speech do NOT have the same freedoms.

Matt explains:

“In commercial speech, the law is not as favorable to the writer… advertising copy is commercial speech, since it’s aim is to sell.”

So what’s that mean?

It does NOT mean that you’re barred from citing great stats or famous quotes.

In fact, quite the opposite.

A good citation or borrowed anecdote — provided you don’t violate “fair use” laws (another can of works, addressed in today’s “Missing Link”) — can actually INCREASE your credibility and legitimacy rather than threat it.

The big difference between journalism and promo-writing, says Matt, is the use of images and photos. INCLUDING, by the way, those photos for which you can buy the rights:

“You can’t use someone’s photo to sell something without his permission. On the other hand, you CAN use the same photo in a new story or editorial. Because it’s news, not the key element of a sales pitch.”

Okay, that seems pretty clear, yes? So what about data and stats?

“Pure data has little or no copyright protection, either. You can’t and shouldn’t just steal a chart outright. However, if the information you’re using is something publicly observable that someone took the time to gather… and you find your own way to represent it… you should be fine.”

What about the “essence” or outline of an idea?

Says Matt, “Ideas are NEVER legally safe. It’s only the actual expression of the idea that’s protected.”

Phew… it sounds like an intellectual free-for-all! But don’t lick your chops just yet, you unscrupulous mongrel:

“Stealing someone’s work can cost you plenty,” warns Matt. “Especially if it can be shown you cut into their business by taking their words.”

Lengthwise, I’m overdue to wrap this article up. Yet I feel we’ve barely scratched the surface.

Maybe I can summarize:

Yes Brad, there IS a copyright clause.

You’ll stumble across it any time you sit down to research or write.

But worry not.

Even in promo copy, you can STILL use data to punch up your points… you CAN use quotes that fortify credibility… you can EVEN make vigorous adaptations of one or two borrowed ideas along the way.

HOWEVER, keep this in mind too…

Stealing material outright is different. How can you tell the difference between good research and going too far? Simple. If you feel like you’re cheating, you probably are.

Let the tingle in your spine be your guide.

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We Can’t All Be Einstein (Thank God)

We can’t all be geniuses, right?

And in some ways, thank God.

For instance, how about these little tidbits I recently found online about one of the most famous geniuses in history – Albert Einstein.

Did you know he didn’t talk normally — get this — until age nine? Until then, he spoke slowly and rehearsed everything before speaking aloud. His parents thought he was brain-damaged, literally.

Einstein, did you also know, was born with a big misshapen head. So much so it was the first thing his grandmother commented on, after seeing him. That and his abnormally fat little body at the time.

 At age 17, Einstein failed his university entrance exam. He did fine on math and science. But flopped on history, languages, and the rest. He waited — in trade school — before he could retake it and do well enough to get in.

 His first marriage flopped, he didn’t get along with his oldest son, and he married his first cousin, despite being a philanderer most of his life.

Even after death, the indignities don’t end.

Einstein’s precious brain was removed — in a 1955 autopsy — a Princeton pathologist took it home and kept it in a jar. Later it was carved in slices, poked, prodded, and tested and — in 1990 — even spent time sloshing around in the trunk of a Buick Skylark, during a cross-country trip from New Jersey to California.

 Gee, now I feel better.

We should all be so lucky, eh?

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The Single Secret to Success?

mountainMy old friend Michael Masterson ran a fascinating piece of info, which he had picked up from a book by writer Tom Bay, about Harvard Business School Grads and their financial success — or lack of it. About 10 years after graduation from what’s supposed to be the echelon of rockin’ good business brilliance, here’s how the students’ status reports came in:

  • As many as 27% of them needed financial assistance.
  • A whopping 60% of them were living paycheck to paycheck.
  • A mere 10% of them were living comfortably.
  • And only 3% of them were financially independent.
  • How could that be?

    Shouldn’t a guy who paid top-dollar for Harvard wealth-making acumen get an automatic reserved place on the Forbes 400 list of worldwide wealthiest?  You would think. Yet, the reality proves different.

    So what was it that made or broke these genius grads?

    Per Michael and the book he borrowed this from, it was very simple.

    See if you can spot it in this next set of data from the same study…

    • The 27% that needed financial assistance had absolutely no goal-setting processes in their lives.
    • The 60% that were living paycheck to paycheck had only basic survival goals.
    • The 10% that were living comfortably had only general goals.
    • The 3% that were financially independent had written out their goals and the steps required to reach those goals.

    Really incredible, don’t you think?

    The difference between living on the dole or high-on-the-hog was, very simply, setting goals. And not just any goals, but actually working out the specific steps needed to achieve those goals over time.

    I mention this because, sure, it’s just as vital an insight to your copywriting career as it is to anything else you’ll try in life. But also because it gives me a chance to send you over to Michael’s blog, where you can also sign up for his e-letter, “Early To Rise.”

    You can find the original full article from Michael, right here.

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    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.

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