Category: Writing Process

How writers write.

Make the Most of It, Starting Now…

corkpopJohann Underwald was a Swiss math whiz. When I say “whiz” I mean he was smart. Very smart. Some called him “the next Albert Einstein.”

But one day, back in October 1999, Underwald and friends decided to go bungee jumping. Big deal, right? After all, despite all the hype, bungee jumping is a surprisingly low-casualty sport.

Unless that is you happen to be Underwald.

They scheduled their jump into a beautiful 250-foot gorge. But in what could only be remembered later as a head-smackingly stupid and hugely humbling development, it turned out that Underwald the highly respected math-whiz had erroneously measured out a cord of 300 feet.

Whoops.

Sometimes, it’s all too easy for your best intentions to… er… fall flat on their face.  Not because you weren’t excited enough from the outset. But because when it came to the execution, you failed to follow through on the details.

I’m sure you know what I mean, especially this time of year.

You start out your New Year with big ambitions, busting through the swinging saloon doors of the universe full of hope and promise. What happens next? Just a few months in, you let the unexpected get in the way. Out the window goes the diet. Up in flames goes the promise to quit smoking. The samba lessons, training for the marathon, learning to speak Mandarin? Forget about it. Come March or even February, you’ve slipped back into the same revolving groove. Before you know it, it’s December 31st all over again and you’re singing the same old song from years prior.

Which is why, this year, I want to suggest you get started in another way.

You may, indeed, have already made your resolutions. But before you let yourself slip completely under the surface in the wellspring of your good intentions, let’s step back for just a moment and take measure first.

Specifically, let’s spend a moment — at long last — examining a few of those bad habits that have torpedoed your resolutions in years prior. Even more specifically, since this is after all supposed to be a blog about copywriting, let’s take a closer look at the obstacles that could overwhelm you during your year of writing ahead… sound good?

So, one of the burdens we face when we set out on a new venture is the baggage we sometimes insist on dragging behind us. With that in mind, let’s start by asking… what’s your baggage?

I can’t even count for you, at this point, how many newbie copywriters I’ve worked with. But I can tell you that one of the most common early copywriting career burdens — and it’s even a hinderance for a few less-successful industry veterans — is pride in our own cleverness.

I think you know what I’m talking about. Instead of writing copy that persuades, they’d rather whip out their best puns, humor, and headline word play. Okay, yes. We all do it from time to time. But how often have you indulged, in the hopes that your own cleverness would make you and/or your client look smart? Fun as it might have been, did that preening act make your sales copy more effective… or less? Since not everybody is clever in the same way, most likely the answer is less.

So let’s say, this year, before you decide to do anything, decide to step away from all that. Instead, let’s make 2010 the “year of the customer.” Benefits, core emotional drivers, targeted offers they just can’t resist.

What else might be holding you back, year after year?

Let’s talk about procrastination. Nasty stuff, that. And an albatross ’round the neck of far too many. Think about it. Are you the type that feels “busy” when you log in to answer your email, first thing in the AM? Does your checklist start with the little things and save the big things for later? Do you ever find yourself, during the day, feeling sick or even kicking yourself because time has almost run out and you “haven’t gotten a thing done?”

If yes, most likely you’re frittering away the minutes at the expense of the hours, days, weeks, months, and — yes — limited years of your life. And there’s no time better to break that habit than immediately.

Of course, this applies to many more things than just your copywriting career. But let’s try a suggestion from copywriting great Gene Schwartz that might show you how to break that procrastination cycle.

It starts when you get yourself an egg timer. Got one? Good. Now, every morning, do NOTHING until you’ve put in at least 33 minutes working on the biggest and most important project on your docket. And by important, I mean the one that’s closest to putting income on your bottom line and earning you respect in the industry.

In other words, all the small, urgent stuff… the quick phone calls, the emails, the must-have daily meetings… gets pushed to the back of the list  It’s end of the day stuff. And that same time, you want to move your biggest projects — the ones you dread getting started on the most — right up to the front.

Now, with the help of your timer, you’re ready to start carving away huge self-satisfying chunks of that project. Try setting the timer six times in a row at the 33 minute mark. Take a five-minute break after the third session or even between sessions if you have to. And make it a rule from now on that this is how you’ll start every morning.

All told, that’s only 3.3 hours of work per morning. Even if you’re getting started at the leisurely hour of nine, you’d be done in plenty of time for lunch. Yet you’ll be amazed at how much better, more relaxed, and valuable you’ll feel having accomplished something bigger than just the routine stuff that used to waste so much of your first-thing energy. What’s more, you’ll now have the entire afternoon to come back to all of that stuff.

This process, by the way and with or without the timer, is called “inverting your agenda.”

You’ve probably heard the old story. If you want to fill a jar with sand, pebbles, and big stones… put in the big stones first, the pebbles next, then dump in the sand to fill spaces in between. Any other order, and you’ll never fit it all in.

On a related note, let’s talk laziness. Sloth.

Procrastination is often the busy work that looks frantic but gets you nowhere. But to stumble through life complacent is like committing that same kind of crime, times ten. Think about it. When you finally earn your tombstone, how would you feel if nobody had a clue what to carve upon it?

“He napped,” it could read.

At your funeral, what if your eulogy was dead air? What if nobody could remember anything important you’d ever done? What if you were to suddenly realize on your deathbed that you had just been “there” all your life, present but not accountable for much of anything except wasting oxygen?

There’s a joke “motivational poster” I’ve seen making the rounds online. It’s a picture of an empty toilet paper holder of the simple spring-action type. Balanced on top of the empty holder is a roll of already-started paper. Underneath, the de-motivational caption reads “Because somebody else will do it.”

Don’t let that be you, the one that rides up the mountain on somebody else’s back.

Look, even I know that if I’m going to sell you on an idea there’s no easier way for me to do that than… well… for me to make it sound easy to you, too. Yet, there’s no way around it — good results demand good effort. You’ve simply got to log the hours, do the work, make it happen. Or don’t bother.

It’s that simple.

Ask yourself, if you’re trying to start your career… have you really gotten on the mailing lists of prospective clients? Do you really read as many frequently seen direct response letters as you can? Have you really made the effort to get your first writing gig, even if that means starting locally, getting paid a little less in exchange for the experience and portfolio samples, or — yep — maybe even working on “spec?”

(“Spec” means “speculative,” where you’ll only get paid if your new client uses your stuff. Some don’t recommend it. But given that an uncertain payoff at the start seems to be a common thread even among the top copywriters I know, I say don’t knock it — as a last resort, it could be your best way in.)

If you’re already working at this career path, but you’re wondering why you still haven’t gotten yourself all that far, then you’ve got a new round of self-reflective questions to ask. For instance, sure you can produce copy… but is it the best copy you can produce? That is, are you really building a relentless succession of persuasive sales points… or are you  just writing something to fill space?

How deeply did you dig when you did the research? How hard have your really tried to understand the customer? Does that include time talking to customer service, reading product-related forum posts, or walking the floor at product-related conferences?

Likewise, how well do you really know the product you’re selling? How many of the past sales-letter controls have you read? “All of them” is the only right answer. How much time have you spent interviewing the product creator, staff members, and anybody else close to the core interest of whatever you’ve been hired to write about? Your notes can and often should exceed the length of your final sales piece at least once and as much as three times over.

Bottom line: The greats in any field, this one included, aren’t the natural-born geniuses. They’re the guys (and gals) that put in the hours, more so than anybody else. That’s it. That’s the ultimate success secret. And it’s not just the total amount of hours but the way in which those hours are budgeted.

You have got to get a sense of where in your time schedule you’re going to draw the biggest payoff. In writing copy for hire, the best service you offer — and therefore the one he’s paying you for most — is your ability to take a lot of unique and potentially complex value, and boil that down to the most essential, most persuasive promise that will appeal to the target customer.

You are, in effect, a translator.

And before you can translate anything, everybody knows you have to understand it first. So what’s the first thing you should do this year? I suggest budgeting about double the time you normally do to study the angles on everything you write about and everybody you’re writing to. Commit to knowing it as fully as it can be known, even before you write your first headline.

Because that’s how you find the unique selling angles nobody else has found before.

Do it right and this will take you less and less time with each project, especially if you win over clients for repeat business. With the added bonus being that, the more work you do for the same client, the more loyal that client becomes to your copywriting business — simply because you’re the one that knows the products and customer base the best.

This list, of course, could go on forever.

But if you just pay attention to these few obstacles now, you’ll be able to put together a much stronger “to do in 2010” plan than you’ve written out at the start of any year prior.

Because I think this is so important to your success, let me just bundle up some of these ideas in another way…

During the year, I teach at a few writing seminars. And I almost always come away surprised by two things. First, I’m impressed by the caliber of many of the students. You meet some sharp people at these events, including people who’ve done amazing things in other phases of their lives. Or who at least have great insights into the world and how it works.

Yet, here’s the second shocker I come across, and all too frequently: You just wouldn’t believe how many of these smart, otherwise-accomplished people then tell me “I’ve ordered that course on copywriting… but I haven’t had a chance to get started.” And then, in the same breath, ask me for recommendations on other courses or resources they can buy and — most likely — still not use!

I call it the exercise bicycle phenomenon.

I’ll bet you know how that goes. Full of ambition, you bust out and get yourself an exercise bike. You’ll be the Lance Armstrong of the indoor Tour de France, you tell yourself. A champion in your own private world. You’ll even put the bike in your bedroom, so as to remind you that it’s there for you to hop onto first thing every morning. The first day, you put the world’s fastest hamster to shame with your wheel spinning. The next morning, you huff through another few miles. Just a month or so later, though, you’re only using the thing as a towel rack. Sigh.

I see the same thing happen over and over again to these people I’m telling you about. They buy the course. They buy the books. They go to the seminars. They talk up their ambitions to everybody who listen. And then, almost without even noticing it themselves… they quit. They just stop getting started. End of story. Double sigh.

When I come across somebody in that boat, I tell them the same thing. I’ll repeat it for you here:  Studying this stuff is great. But getting started is what really matters. Do it any way you can. Make this year that year you’ll remember as the beginning of everything grand.

Easier said than done?

Well, of course. Isn’t everything worthwhile slave to that maxim?

But yet again, I’m going to throw a line to my old friend Michael Masterson, copywriting mentor extraordinaire, who has given lots of generous advice on how to transform long-term goals into d0-it-today specific and immediate steps.

It’s a simple but powerful philosophy Michael espouses. In short, work backward from where you want to be 20 years or even 10 years from now, and break it down by year… by month… by week. Tomorrow. Today.

The smaller and more specific the steps you identify, the better. At least until you’ve broken it all down into the manageable, checklist kinds of details. And then make it a habit to carefully review that specific list each morning and again each evening. Michael actually carries index cards in his pocket, pulls them out, and checks things off while puffing a cigar.

It’s the connection between long-term goals and short-term action that’s key, however. No throwaway events on that daily checklist, in other words. All are there because they’re clearly building to what’s bigger. In this way, Michael has cranked out nearly a dozen books, added millions to his personal fortune, attained high level status in martial arts training, and quite a bit more.

It works, if you’re willing. And it’s not new. Aristotle would have called it — and did — “habits of virtue.” It worked for him. It’s worked for Michael and millions of others. Surely it could work for me and you.

 

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A Direct-Mail Designer’s Open Letter (to Copywriters)

youvegotmail.pngWe write plenty here about writing copy, but not so much about how it should look when it hits the mail (or the web).

Lucky for us, direct-mail designer Carrie Scherpelz has stepped up to put it to us straight.

Carrie, take it away…

An Open Letter to Copywriters
(From a Direct-mail Designer)

by Carrie Scherpelz

For most of my thirty years as a graphic designer, I had observed that designers rather than copywriters took the lead on creative projects. That changed about eight years ago. At the time, I was an art director at American Girl magazine.

I was asked to collaborate with a well-known national copywriter on a direct mail promotion for American Girl. The copy for the promotion had been written, and my job was to design print-ready components for a 6×9 package based on the writer’s detailed sketches. Hmmm, I thought, what an odd way of working. The designer always does the drawing, not the writer . . .

Game for this unusual challenge, I started the project in my usual way by creating eye-catching designs based on the sketches and sending pdf concepts off to Texas for the copywriter to review. When he responded with his feedback, I began to learn that good direct mail design is different from what most designers do.

Some of my design elements got in the way of the message, I was told. Directed by the writer, I made changes that stripped down the design.

He specified new colors that he said got better results. (How did he know that?!) I was required to use Courier as the letter font, not Times New Roman. He didn’t want me to add graphics or photos to the letter either. (Amazing! I was sure that no one in the world would read a boring 4-page letter with no graphic relief.)

When I balked at the writer’s art direction, I learned that direct mail results are measurable.

Colors and fonts had been tested and found effective. There was no arguing with the arithmetic of response.

Many of my colleagues in design prefer not to work within direct mail’s constraints to their creativity.

Perversely, I found that I loved direct mail design. Maybe it was my competitive side kicking in: I wanted to beat the control. Or maybe it was because I have always been fascinated with human behavior and what motivates people to take action.

Or not.

Maybe I just like direct mail design because I love to read and write. I like to think about a writer’s copy and then design a clear and compelling format for it. Unfortunately many designers pay little attention to words and readability.

A block of copy is sometimes treated as just one more graphic element to place within the stylish, distinctive design of the piece.

As a result, colors and patterns often compete with the copy, confusing and even obscuring the message. Branding can also get in the way of presenting a direct mail offer. I try to avoid these pitfalls and do my best as a designer to sell the copy.

Someone once said, “Great design may save bad copy, but bad design will destroy the most brilliant copy.” As a designer, I find good copywriters to be very controlling.

And rightfully so.

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How To Tame Technology

bigbrotherIt’s not always easy to know where technology will take us.

Still, you’ll want to do what you can to stay ready.

What happens, for instance, to copywriters in the digital age? Up until now, I’ve heard lots of people wax on about how different the online customer is from the customers you’ll write copy for in print. And for the most part, I consider that hogwash. People are people and bring their same desires and fears to the Internet.

But one thing that’s definitely true about the world of online marketing is that it has closed distances and allowed lots of small “niche” markets to come together. Something else that’s true is that the pace of exposure to those markets has exploded. So has the volume of exposure, in total products available.

So what’s that going to mean for you, the copywriter?

Quite a bit. If you want to survive, bottom line, you’ll have to make a few changes.

For instance, you’ll want to…

Write faster. With more markets breaking up into smaller segments, with more customers reachable online, and more niche products to sell, that means the demand for copy goes up.

So does the exposure to marketing messages. So does the competition for the customer’s attention. Marketing copy will get exposed more frequently, tire more quickly, and need more testing to find what ultimately works.

Demand for your copywriting skills should soar. But how quickly you can crank out a workable draft is more important than ever before.

Nurse your passions. The more focused, the more targeted the customer, the more easily he’ll spot a faker when he sees one. This is another reason why you should write copy, if you can, that sells to a special interest you already ‘get’ and get well… yourself.

Because when you’re passionate about what you’re selling, it comes across. You use the write lingo to talk about it, you have the right appreciation for the fine points. And more likely than not, you’ll already have the right connection with your target audience.

Know the niches. One-profile-fits-all is no longer the modus operandi of savvy marketers. To be honest, it hasn’t been for a long time. Breaking down markets into special interests has been the name of the game for as long as just about any of us can remember.

The only thing that’s changed now is that figuring out who those segments are and what they want has just gotten easier. Thanks especially to search engine tools, keyword tracking, online forums and user-run recommendations sites, and more.

But the better you ‘get’ what the niche customers care about, the better you’ll be at coming up with products or pitches that will sell inside of this increasingly narrow focus.

Know the products. Just like it’s going to make a big difference for you to better understand the niche customer, you’ll need to know the nitty-gritty details about the increasingly niche products too.

Not just because the products will be more specialized and therefore different from what you knew before, but also because niche customers are a lot more focused and educated too.

If you start talking about a product without fully understanding it yourself, the niche customer will spot your fakery from a mile off.

Discriminate better. No more taking on ‘sad sack’ projects, hopeless cases, or copy quagmires… ever again. In a world where the flood of products is rising, there are bound to be more duds out there than ever.

If you can’t sell it or it simply isn’t good enough to sell, most of the time, you’ll have to learn to say no. That doesn’t mean you have to shun every orphaned opportunity. Some might thrive, to the shock and pleasure of the client, with just a few unexpected tweaks.

However, other products are just duds. The reason they don’t sell well is because they don’t deserve to. If you’re absolutely sure this is the case with any new project, politely decline the gig and walk away. There’s no time for messing with these half-baked opportunities anymore.

Make sure you take your best shot. In archery, they tell you to aim twice before pulling the trigger. In copy today, do the same. That is, if you’re writing a new promo, keep an extra document page open at the same time. Call it “test leads.” Whenever an idea comes up for an alternate headline, jot it down in this second doc.

I try never to submit a package without at least one test lead. Sometimes, as many as four test leads and an original, all at once. In one recent case, I even wrote three entirely different versions of the whole promo. Without charging an extra dime. Why?

Because most of my copy gets tested online, where running alternate versions is cheap (nearly free). I get a royalty on every sale, no matter which promo wins. So I figure getting more than one iron in the fire more than takes up the slack.

Get savvy. Copywriting was always a gateway to other kinds of knowledge. List marketing, printing, design, even people management — you’ll know a little of everything before you’re through.

These days, it pays to get savvy about a few things copywriters didn’t even talk about just a few years ago. Like how search engines work, what a website should look like, email marketing and editorial, and so on.

You might even need to apply the same ideas to selling your own services. With an eletter of your own, for instance. Or a blog or website that shows samples of your work.

Expand your offer. The need to crank out copy faster is just one way to stay ahead of the “niche” curve. You’ll also want to look for other ways to monetize your talents.

Consulting on other people’s copy, for instance, for a fee. Or taking on student writers in a swap for some of their royalties. (I’m already booked up with writing students and mentored projects, for instance.)

The bottom line:

Be aware that you can’t just write for the big hits anymore. There’s definitely still a big “hits” market there. But you’d be passing up an explosion in niche marketing opportunities that’s just too lucrative too ignore.

Also be aware that the demand for good copy will soar yet again, as more and more products come to market. But that “good” copy will increasingly be defined not only how clean it reads, but by how precise and narrowly focused it is on the niches that will see it.

Not to mention, on how fast you can deliver it.

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Why I’m a Fool For Cupertino

apple.pngIt’s shameless, really, the way I dote. To some of my friends, it’s even downright embarrassing. Yes, I confess, I’m crazy for Cupertino — particularly the stuff that comes out of you-know-which-company.

The iPad and iPods, Macbooks, Minis, the Time Machine, the iMacs, the iSight and more — you name the Apple product, and it has passed through the halls of our home and/or extended family. Many of us are shareholders too.

Twice, I’ve even been contacted to write copy for Apple product launches (I would have loved to, but didn’t have the time in my schedule to work on what they needed done).

Why such devotion? If you’re in the same boat as I am, you “know” already. If not, you might think I’m a fool. Especially if you’re as skeptical as I usually am about the whole idea of “brand” marketing.

But here’s the thing, and I think it’s all worth noting for the sake of yours and my own marketing careers… Apple, like any other brand with clout, didn’t buy their following. They earned it. And they continue to do so.

Before you groan and roll eyes skyward, listen.

Less than 12 hours ago, my wife and I ordered a copy of an episode of the U.S. version of “The Office” from the iTunes store. It wasn’t the first time, but I accidentally clicked the link for the HD version instead of the Standard Version.

No big deal, except that it costs $1 more and has twice the file size. So I shot a note to Apple. In that short span, I got this reply:

Hi John,

I understand that the HD version of The Office episode, “Body Language” was purchased accidentally. I know you must be eager to have this taken care of. I am so sorry for any inconvenience this has caused. My name is John from the iTunes Store and I will do my best to help you.

John, I deeply apologize,but I was unable to locate your account based on the information that you supplied, Please reply back with the account name and the order number of the purchase.

Here is how to review your iTunes Store account’s purchase history, just follow the steps in this article:

Seeing your iTunes Store purchase history and order numbers
http://support.apple.com/kb/HT2727

Once I receive your email. I will do my best to credit you for the video.

Thank you so much for your understanding. I look forward to your reply.

Have a great day, John.

Sincerely,

John
iTunes Store Customer Support

Remember, this is over an issue worth $1. I’m tempted to just let them keep it, as long as they promise to more clearly mark the links — which, by the way, I’ll bet you they will.

The company definitely makes mistakes sometimes. And no, they won’t last forever. Who can forget, after all, their big lapse in quality, innovation, hipness, and share price back in the days of John Sculley as CEO.

But here’s what I think you want to notice… Apple does well right now not just because they hire the best copywriters, but because they make sure they offer the products and service that are an easy sell.

Much as I’m not a Windows fan, I acknowledge they did the same in their early days. They appear to be doing so again, with Windows 7. Or starting to, anyway. Google, too, earns their brand recognition with a great product and not just a great marketing team.

The list could probably go on.

From a professional copywriter’s perspective, the lesson here is simple. You want to write the best copy you can to make the best effort to sell, of course. But write it when you can for the companies that serve the customers they’re selling to.

Doing that alone could radically increase the success of your career.

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Better Than Money

beach worker.png “We must not be free because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.”

– William Faulkner

My friend Paul Hollingshead is pretty smart fella.

He recently wrote a piece that shared the math on this career path we’ve chosen, direct response copywriting.

In case you don’t know how you got here — and some don’t — let’s backtrack a bit: copywriting means writing writing ad copy. The headlines. The print ads you see. Billboards. TV ads. And sales letters.

In the role that Paul and I and many others play, we’re talking most of all about the sales letters. Really long ones, that can range 8… 16… even 24 pages or longer.

These days, we’re talking more specifically about sales letters on the Internet. Usually posted to a website or read off in “video” form, with text on screen.

I’m almost sure you’ve seen these ads. Maybe you’ve even responded to a few of them. But what happens on the other side of the screen? As Paul spelled out, people like us get paid to write those ads. And we often get paid pretty well.

Two weeks of writing or maybe three can bring you, the writer, a $10,000 fee. Throw in another two or three weeks of good sales, and you could see $30,000 in royalties. That’s a pretty tidy sum — $40,000 — for about a month of work and waiting.

That’s not unprecedented. For some us, it’s the norm or even a slow return. At the very top, it would be downright depressing. I’ve seen writers make twice that in a month. I’ve done it myself. I’ve seen a handful do that much in a week.

In short, Paul’s right. This gig can pay.

But the writing students I meet are so focused on the income potential, I don’t get asked often enough about other benefits. Since you can start enjoying these benefits even before you hit the big time — and perhaps if you never do — let’s talk about them now.

One of the big ones is, of course, the freedom. I used to work in an office, on someone else’s schedule. But you really can write copy from anywhere. All you need is a laptop and a Wifi connection. Heck, you could pull off a productive afternoon with a legal pad.

It did take work to get “good,” but once demand for my copy started to go up, I started working from home. Then from London, for a couple months. After that, I spent two months writing in a French farmhouse. Then I fulfilled a dream and moved to a sun-dappled apartment on the best street in the West Village, in New York City.

Since then, I’ve also worked seaside in Greece… under a friend’s grape arbor and in a family gazebo… poolside in Florida and pub-side in Dublin… on a cruise ship… and right now, from a favorite armchair in our apartment, here in Paris.

I didn’t need to put in for vacation time. I didn’t even ask anybody’s permission. I just packed up and went. These days, I bring my family.

When we go on vacation, I just get up a little earlier than they do and work until lunchtime. This way, we can take two or three vacations a year. Sometimes more.

Honestly, I have to remind myself now NOT to work when we go away.

What about the client? I take calls on Skype. We email. Sometimes I combine a vacation with an onsite visit. Sometimes they even pay for the travel, because I “trade” it for a brainstorming meeting or a mini-seminar.

As long as the work gets done, they’re happy.

You can’t imagine how great this is when you have young kids. Every morning, I walk them to school. Every afternoon, I’m here when they get home. No rush hour or missed family dinners. Even if I have a deadline, I still get to be nearby.

You can’t say that about most office jobs.

You can’t even say it about most jobs in sales. But with my kind of copy career, I don’t need to do cold calls or hit the road, either. One letter gets scaled up to mail worldwide, with results that roll in overnight. I like that too.

Perhaps least obvious to the early writer, though, is the job security.

After you do this awhile, you start to realize that the better you can sell, the more indispensable you become.

Suddenly, you’re the one people look to at meetings. You’re the one they count on. You’re even among those they call first, when any new project comes along.

Why? Because nothing happens in any business, until somebody sells something. By being the copywriter, you become that somebody. It’s that simple.

You would think that in today’s market, with so much of the job characteristics a lot of people look for, that there would be a glut of copywriters out there… fighting for clients.

You might even think that people like me would want to keep new writers out, just to short circuit new competition.

But the truth is, demand for good copywriters has never been higher.

With the Internet, every sales piece reaches out to many more markets. And many more people get to see each ad, more often. New ads need writing, just to replace them.

Meanwhile, many more businesses continue to crop up online. The industry is constantly looking for new “talent” to fill the void.

So why not be that talent, yes?

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Finding the Elephant…

"I just carved away the bits that weren't elephant..."

“I just carved away the bits that weren’t elephant…”

What’s it mean to be “creative?”

Says the great John Cleese, that’s an almost impossible question to answer. Easier is to ask yourself, “What doesn’t it mean?”

Or as he puts it in the brilliant talk below, think of the sculptor who was asked how he made a beautiful statue of an elephant from a piece of marble.

“I just,” he answered, “cut away the bits that weren’t elephant.”

Watch below and be both enlightened and amazed…

John Cleese Reveals How to Be More Creative

P.S. Thanks for this, via our friends over at copyscience.com.

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How Woody Allen Would Write Copy

An interviewer asked Woody Allen how to write a joke.  Here’s what Allen said: “It depends on where I want it to take me.  First, I figure out where I want to end up.  Then I start asking questions so I can work backward to a beginning.”

Writing the end first is something a lot of novelists also do. Same for screenwriters.

So maybe it won’t come as a surprise to you that a lot of successful direct response copywriters to this too. For instance, I once asked great copywriter Bill Christensen how he gets started. “I write the offer card before anything else,” he said. “And then the sales close. Then I’ve got something to aim for in the rest of the letter.”

I was just getting started when he told me that. And I’ve done the same ever since.

Try it yourself. Especially if you ever feel unfocused or unsure of how to begin. Start writing by drafting a reply card and a sales close… and see if it doesn’t clarify your whole game plan.

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Sleep, The Ultimate Writing Tool

snoringIn a 2004 study from the University of Luebeck in Germany, 106 volunteers showed they could do three times better on a simple test than those who had piled up LESS than 8 hours of sleep.

 Sleep, it turns out, gives your brain time to “repack” the day’s collected memories for longer-term storage. In the process, your powers of creativity get a boost. The more you sleep, the faster it seems you’re able to sort through all those ideas and make the connections you need to come up with something new.

 For the same reasons… sleep works as a writing tool too.

Think about it…

Have you ever fell asleep with a problem on your mind, only to wake up with the solution.Countless writers, businessmen, musicians, and other creative types make similar claims.

 Per psych Professor Richard of the University of Hertfordshire, England, “In our dreams we produce unusual combinations of ideas that can seem surreal, but every once in a while result in an amazingly creative solution to an important problem.”

 How to take advantage of these findings?

Here are some ways…

 1. Skip “must-see” TV. In fact, throw out your television altogether. Studies show television disrupts sleep even if you’re NOT staying up late to watch Conan or Letterman.

 2. Give late-night net surfing a pass too, if you have trouble sleeping. As well as answering late-night email. I’m working on these two bad habits myself.

 3. Go easy on late-night sugar or caffeine. That double coffee-ice cream mocha fudge sundae with espresso bean sprinkles might sound delicious after dinner, but you’ll be sorry come 3 am.

 4. Go easy on workaholic behavior too. Working until 10 pm every night might feel righteous and good, but it’s not only hard on family life, you deny your body time to ‘untighten.”

 5. That said, if you do have a tough problem to work out, give it a 15-minute review before going to bed. You just might wake up with the solution.

 6. Exercise, they tell me, helps you sleep even more deeply. So do breathing exercises before bed (like the ones where you inhale and exhale using only your abdomen).

 7. Sleep late? Not hardly. It turns out one of the best ways to guarantee a good night’s sleep is to load up on sunlight the preceding morning, the earlier the better.

 8. Besides, say early-risers, you really do get more done when you start early. Even, by the way, if you work the same number of hours as the night owls. Nothing helps you sleep better than knowing you’ve gotten a lot done.

Yes, they’re just tips on getting better sleep. But I can tell you, as a parent of two kids under age five, there are the nights you get no sleep… and the nights you get plenty… and there’s a world of difference. In every way, including in front of the keyboard.

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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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