Category: Writing Process

How writers write.

Seven Toxic Habits That Could Wreck Your Writing Career

“It is a great thing,” said Cicero, “to know our vices.”

With that in mind, let’s dig in and take a look at some positively poison habits that could dash any aspiring copywriters career. No, I don’t mean the biggies like gorging yourself on pizza… quaffing gin with breakfast… or hanging out with loose women and/or using that exercise bike you bought last year only as a towel rack.

Arguably, these are the habits that just make copywriters more interesting. But in this post, I’m only talking about the little work-related habits. Each of them all too easy for any copywriter, even one with the best intentions, to develop…

Bad Habit #1: Compulsive “Inboxing”

Here’s one of those bad habits where yours truly was once guilty as charged.

I’ll be frank. I’m a nut for technology. The nerd gene, in our family, runs long and deep. In 1981, my brother and I were using an early Apple desktop with a cassette tape drive and 300 baud phone line to log onto local “bulletin boards.” In the early 1990s, I was among the first in our office to use Compuserve via dial-up… and first to tap into search engines (remember “Archie” and “Veronica?” Way before Google’s time)…

 And even now, I’m about as armed as you can get with POP accounts, instant messaging, and all the rest. There isn’t anything I can’t FTP, bit-transfer, or digitally find. But still, I’ve learned one has to be careful. Even the best technology is a distraction if you let it intrude on your deadlines.

 Email especially.

 Over the last year, I consciously re-prioritized my email activity to fall later on my to do list. Emails no longer get answered instantly. Unless they’re urgent, they can wait for my reply. The results have been liberating. And profitable.

Ironically, you can find dozens of “productivity websites” offering exactly the opposite advice. Along with elaborate systems for keeping your inbox clear at all times, including how to empty out your inbox early as part of the “fresh start” for the day. And to those I say… baloney.

 Don’t get me wrong.

 Email is a valuable tool. It makes my laptop career possible, in more ways than one. But just answering emails around the clock won’t get the job done, no matter how productive it makes you feel at the time.

Which is a good way to segue into…

Bad Habit #2: Inverting the Checklist

 This too, is something I was once more guilty of than not. In fact, I still find myself slipping into this poisonous practice from time to time. By “inverting the checklist,” I’m talking about when you take your list of ‘must do’ items and flip it so that you end up doing the things of least importance first.

 Think about it.

 Most people write their checklists starting with the small details, especially the pressing items and immediate tasks. As you finish the list, the feelings of urgency fade and your imagination kicks in. You write out the big stuff, the life-defining things, the things about which you dare to dream.

 The next day, on the next to do list, you change the details on the front to much the newest, most pressing, undone stuff…

 Pick up dry cleaning. Send fax. Order paperclips.

 But the back half generally remains unchanged. And still, very general about the things you hope will eventually happen in your lifetime. Become a copywriting guru. Write the novel. See world. It’s an easy rut to fall into.

 But every success story you can imagine begins with somebody flipping that personal checklist around. The big, ambiguous accomplishments become the priorities. And the little niggling daily stuff gets pushed back, even dumped from the list entirely (though, hopefully, not to the level where personal safety, relationships, or hygiene will suffer TOO dramatically.)

 This, of course, is just as true for copywriting as it is for any other endeavor. You’ll make the most happen if you aim to get the big stuff done first. The secret is to pick the big goal and break that down with the same detailed fervor you applied to the less important details of past “to do” lists.

For instance, do you really want to be a six-figure copywriter? I get lots of emails from people telling me they do. But who also don’t think they can. I’m shocked, after digging deeper, to find out how many of those who have quit on the idea have yet to try landing even one client… have yet to try writing a full promo… have yet to even finish the exercises in whatever copywriting course they’re following.

 Each time, I lay it down: Yes, it’s true. Not everyone can succeed at this. Because not everyone has the “stuff” to do it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be such a lucrative career path. Still, you’ll get nowhere if you don’t get started. And getting started means more than sharpening pencils every morning. It means approaching and hitting the big milestones, step by step.

 Make a daily game plan to finish the course. Get on the mailing lists and read OPC (other people’s copy). Get that one client… offering to write on spec if you have to… as the first step in building your client list. And THEN come and talk to me, yah?

Bad Habit #3: Chronic Cathode Overloading

 Oh boy, is this one a tar trap.

 I’m talking of course about television. And here too, I want you to know I’m not throwing stones. I was notorious, as a child, for getting sucked into the boob tube. Turn one on a mile from where I stood, my jaw would drop and my eyes would go wide. Think the torture scenes in Clockwork Orange, but self-imposed and self-supervised.

 Then, by circumstance, I found myself without a television. For eight years straight, it stayed that way. And I couldn’t believe what happened. I started reading. A lot.

 Mind you, I was always a reader. But not like this. I plowed through books end to end, like a chronic smoker facing the firing squad. I bought classics for 50 cents a pop at the used book store. I picked up how to books on advertising, fiction writing, and guitar. History books. Philosophy. Biographies. And more.

Where my TV wasn’t, I had IKEA bookshelves eight feet high and filled to bursting with text. Even better, I couldn’t imagine how — during my TV watching days —  I had managed to find and then waste all that time.

 I confess, we have a TV again.  We rationalize it as a learning tool, for language, since the one TV we own we keep in our apartment in France. DVDs are now the danger. And the Internet. Both have a similar power for sucking up time. Still, I read plenty. Less fiction, since I don’t find as much of the modern stuff nearly as satisfying. But lots of books and articles related to what I’m writing about. Plus, I’m a heavy user of audio books on all kinds of subjects, from trade and finance to science and ideas of all different kinds.

 You don’t have to toss your TV. Especially not if it’s one of the brand spankin’ new flat screen variety. But do try switching it off… or even unplugging it… for awhile. A week. A month. And see what happens. You might be surprised.

Bad Habit #4: Writing from the Mountaintop

 No question, one of the things I love about my copywriting career is the isolation. An open window, a quiet room, the clack of the keyboard. It’s how I prefer working, most of the time. And it’s usually all I need to feel like the master of the universe.

 Still, there’s a danger to be aware of. Even as a writer, you can’t be alone with your ideas all the time. Because writers, even the great ones, grow stale in isolation. It’s the energy you draw with contact from other people that keeps your writing interesting.

 In copy, that means regular if occasional contact with colleagues and customers. Brainstorming meetings. Trade seminars. Company cocktail parties and, yes, happy hours. If you get the invitation to mingle with like minds, you shouldn’t pass it up. Make a point of staying in touch. Phone calls will do, but a few hours of face time is even better. Both social and professional.

Bad Habit #5: Tossing the Road Map

 What’s the point of speeding if you don’t know where you’re going? If you never get where you’re headed, it doesn’t matter one lick if you’re making great time. Germane to copywriting, I’m talking about passionate writers who consistently miss the point of why they’re writing or what they’re writing about.

 Exhibit A, the new writer that’s passionate about the idea they’re pitching… without a game plan for how they’re going to lay the whole thing out. Start with at least a general outline. An end and a middle, not just a beginning.

 Before you pile up research, ask yourself: What’s this product really about? Who’s this customer and where does he stand? Where do I need to take him to make the final sale? Early in my own career, I wrote without a map.

 I started and let my research pull me through, heading down this path and that. Sometimes it worked. Most of the time it did not. Then I started dissecting other pieces to see how they came together. I “lifted out” the outlines and stuck it together again, with my own research draped over the skeleton instead.

 Now I write my own outlines. Because I’ve got the basic structure imprinted on my memory already. Once you’ve got this, it helps all kinds of you make all kinds of choices about how to the whole piece will come together… just as planned.

 Bad Habit #6: Radical Revisionism

 The opposite of too little planning is, of course, over-planning. And this too, in copy, can happen to the best of them. After all, great copy has the feel of being written fast and spontaneously. Yet, we’ve also always heard that great writers revise.

 So when do you stop perfecting?

 Where do you draw the line?

I once knew a writer who spent over a month writing and re-writing his headline. Once he had it, he moved on to writing his first line. How long would THAT take him? Nobody waited to find out. The company had to fire him. See, here’s the thing. You’ve got to recognize what all the editing you’ll do is actually for.

 You’re going back to tighten, yes. To take out the clumsy phrases, to clarify the ideas, and more.

 You’re revising, too, so you can hide the seams and stiches, the girders and rivets, and all those other pieces of your construction that need to be there but remain hidden so as not to impede the flow of your prose.

 After that, though, there comes a time when you just… have to… let… it… go. Let it mail. Let if flop. Let it win. But get it out there to get tested, where all good (and bad) copy belongs.

 Polish the writing, yes. But remember that you’re nothing as a copywriter if your copy never, ever mails. Speed up that process to get it out there, in as many ways as you can.

 Bad Habit #7: Thin-skinned Amateurism

 It’s not easy, in this biz, not to take lots of things personally. You spend a lot of time alone with the things you’re writing, after all. So when a critique feels extra harsh… when a client seems less than happy… when a mailing flops… at least once in awhile, you’re going to feel personally let down.

Don’t.

It’s great to throw yourself into your work. It’s great to feel responsible for results. But the truth of the matter is, it’s also a sign of a real pro if, whenever you get knocked down, you get up brushing off the dust and ready to go all over again.

 Instead of defending yourself during a critique, ask questions that open you up for more. On flopped mailings, study the results. Do a post-mortem on the copy to find out what happened. And them move on. Maybe getting the flop out there was the best way to unveil the newer, better idea that will work the next time.

You never know until you give it a shot.

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How to Write in Your Sleep

340662F2-33CB-4CA3-9F2E-C32C4F0F5F03.jpg “Sleep,” said Shakespeare, “rock thy brain.”

Study after study shows it, a good night’s sleep makes for a sharper, more productive mind. And yet, your average worker gets 6 hours and 55 minutes. With half of those saying they were doing work up until an hour before going to bed.

A badge of honor worth wearing?

Hardly. Those hard-working types, it turns out, are hardly working… or at least, hardly working at true capacity. Despite delusions to the contrary.

Scientists have yet to figure out how sleep restores your brain function. But they have no doubt that it does. So ye sleep-deprived, if we get a lot done now… imagine what we could accomplish well-rested.

Maybe because I’ve always been an undisciplined sleeper myself, I’ve both collected and written plenty about sleep and how it fits into a creative life calling.

Rather than try to thread them all together, let me just hit you with a burst of some of what I’ve got on hand…

* Per Popular Science, when you zonk out after just learning something, you’re more likely to wake up with an even stronger memory of what you learned than when you went to bed. Why? REM sleep, when your eyes are darting under your eyelids, somehow reinforces and sorts the information. And non-REM sleep gives your neurons a chance to repair a day’s worth of free-radical damage.

* Per the same article, go jogging. Not only does it lead to deeper sleep at night, which is just as key to whatever the brain does while you sleep, but it also builds brain cells faster. In one 1999 study, lab rats had double the number for new brain cells after running (no, I don’t know how they got the little sneakers on their little rat feet).

* In 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.

* Think TV helps you get to sleep? Maybe. But it might make your sleep less restful. Studies show television disrupts sleep even if you shut it off hours before your head hits the pillow.

* Go easy on workaholic behavior. 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.” Studies show disrupted sleep for those who work until they drop, no matter how nobly they manage to do so.

* That said, a 15-minute review of key work details is enough to get that “wake with the solution” result so many crave. Be sure to keep that notepad on your nightstand.

* Have trouble sleeping? Try the counter-intuitive. Like exercise in the morning. And loads of sunlight. Plus a short afternoon nap (emphasis on short: 10-15 minutes at lunch time is nothing to feel guilty about).

* Eat a protein breakfast. Yes, zero carbs. No toast. No bagel. Definitely not doughnuts, fruit juice, or anything with sugar. It will buy you an extra few hours. It may even get you through the day. You’ll be even better off if you do the same for lunch. Or skip lunch entirely and take a walk instead. Whatever you do, do NOT eat big in the middle of the day.

* In a real pinch, drink coffee but drink it right. Which means sipping it slowly — cold if you have to — on the hour or half hour. The longer you make the cup last, studies show the longer you can last. Not a substitute for sleep, but a fail-safe when you can’t get any.

* Forget, by the way, trying to make up for a week of not sleeping enough by “sleeping in” on the weekends. North of nine hours or more, it turns out, can make you just as tired and even age you just as fast as too little sleep.

Try this.

For one week, go to bed at 11 pm at the latest. Even if you have “lots to do.” And wake up when you wake, if you can, which should be around 6 am or 7 am. If you need to get up earlier, move the bedtime to 10 pm.

Then come back and tell me how you feel… and how much more productive you are.

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Good News For the Creatively Challenged

Glühbirne, explodiert“If you think the way you’ve always thought, you’ll get the result you’ve always got.”  – Roy Mussel

I’m sure, by now, you’ve heard that there are “right-brained” and “left-brained” people. The idea is that “left-brained” people are the type you’d expect to find at, say, your accounting firm’s Christmas party.

 “Right-brained” people, on the other hand, tend to be more artistic and possibly a little eccentric or scattered. Like, say, the bulk of ex-poets and actors working the tables at your local coffee shop.

 Like most generalizations, this isn’t quite right.

 While many of us have a bias in either creative or rational powers, the fact is that most people have both halves of their brain kicking into gear most of the time.

 On the left-side, we’re processing details and performing convergent thinking. On the right side, we’re applying abstract associations between details, the work of divergent thinking.

 Stroke patients who lose power on the left side of their brains tend to lose logic and language, but may suddenly become more creative. Patients who suffer right-side damage may be seem creative but also might seem more uninhibited or scattered.

 Take Einstein.

 Certainly, he had incredible powers of logic and process. He did the math, just as it had been done before he came along. But he also made the leap to creativity, finding new mathematical associations nobody else had recognized before.

 Here’s the better news…

 While few of us want a touch of neuron damage… and almost none of us, surely, were born an Einstein… there actually ARE ways you can increase your creative function. And many of them simply have to do with channeling the filtering function of your left-brain.

 One very simple way is just to keep reminding yourself to approach most moments in your life with curiosity. Another is to consistently reset your attitudes toward convention. That is, simply repeat to yourself that the way things have always been done is not necessarily the way the always have to be done.

 There there’s what researchers call “detail fermentation.” That’s a fancy way of saying, “do your homework.” It’s also the explanation I typically give when I tell people I don’t believe in “writer’s block.”

 That is, when you fill your mind with facts and data and details relevant to the ideas you’re trying to create, the more likely you are to succeed at creating them.

 Somehow, satisfying the left brain’s hunger for logic and process first… allows it to relax and let the right brain step in to find the overall creative associations between those details.

 Einstein did this while searching for “E=MC2.” For years, he studied not just physics and mathematics, but astronomy and philosophy and other fields too.

 So the next time you’re feeling like a failure creatively, before you give up try this tapping into this technique instead: Stop, drop, and study. Dig into the facts and materials you have to work with.

Then, and only then, see if the bigger and better ideas come.  

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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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    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.

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    What Time Do Real Writers Get Up?

    shopping What time do real writers get out of bed?

    It’s a good question, regardless of what kind of writing you do.

    After all, as blogging hero Maria Popova — founder and genius behind the ever amazing BrainPickings website — having a routine is one of the most essential secrets to guaranteed success.

    I was reminded of that earlier this week, when a friend forwarded a chart from her post on the very same subject.

    I think you’ll be shocked to find out what time Hemingway got up ever morning. Especially since it’s two hours earlier than the radically more prolific writer, Stephen King.

    Check it out by clicking here

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    How to Tell if You’re a “Natural Born” Copywriter

    friendly hand.pngA personal confession: I don’t just like being a copywriter. I also happen to like copywriters in general. As people, I mean. Why?

    Before you accuse me of being too kind to my own, consider.

    How many copywriters do you know that seem extra welcoming and easy-going, as well as willing to answer questions and offer advice?

    I know more than I can count.

    What’s more, speak with them once, and they’ll usually remember what you’ve talked about. Introduce somebody and they’ll be happy to shake hands. In restaurants, they almost never snarl at a waiter. And I don’t know a single one among them who would ever kick a dog.

    Every profession demands or at least cultivates certain character trains. Why should the copywriting field be any different?

    For instance, I’ve found almost across the board that those colleagues of mine who happen to have those qualities… also seem to do better over the long run as copywriters.

    Why? Simply because you need that insight into other people and what they’re thinking about to write all the best kinds of copy.

    There’s a dark side to the typical copywriter personality, of course. At least in direct response, everything we do is measured to the penny. It either works or it doesn’t. And everybody notices, either way.

    We’re hired, fired, and respected based almost entirely on performance. That can make one more than a little self-conscious. Even defensive and arrogant. In a debate, we can also be stubborn — simply because we spend so many working hours piling up proofs to back our claims.

    What else have I noticed about copywriting types?

    I’ve yet to meet a good copywriter who doesn’t have a good sense of humor, even though humor is something so rarely used — at least overtly — in direct-response sales writing.

    And not just a passion for jokes. “It’s dry,” says my wife. We’re also observant. But sometimes, observant to a fault. That is, we can get caught up in subsets of details… while even bigger trends and events blow right past us, simply because they exist outside of whatever we’re focused on at the time.

    Most copywriters I know also read widely. Some read history books, others read blockbusters, still more are sponges for trade journals, news clips, blogs, and popular magazines.

    We like movies. And music.

    In fact, we’re generally drawn to popular culture, even more than most, because it’s yet another way to soak up what our target markets are talking about.

    Strangely, a lot of copywriters I’ve talked to don’t watch much TV, even though that flies in the face of what I’ve just said. Why?

    Again, I can’t say for sure. But I can guess. TV eats up time, but gives back little in exchange. It’s also addictive. And that’s something else about copywriters. Like a lot of other writers, we can have slightly addictive or compulsive personalities.

    Not necessarily the usual compulsions, either.

    For instance, a lot of the copywriters I know are collectors. Of everything from puns and trivia… to chateaus and high-priced automobiles. For me, there was awhile there that I couldn’t help buying cheap used guitars. Until I acquired a few nice ones.

    Which is another thing… I don’t know why, but easily 8 out of every 10 copywriters I know seem to play an instrument. And more often than not, that instrument is the guitar.

    Not all of us are good, mind you. But we at least appreciate music. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve sat past 2 am, muddling my way through Dylan and Stones covers with fellow writers.

    Copywriters are also a curious bunch.

    By that I mean, we tend to be especially inquisitive. About everything. Even those things we’ll never write about.

    David Ogilvy once said that curiosity was the key trait he looked for when hiring a writer. Be warned, if you don’t like asking questions, this might not be the field for you.

    We’re storytellers. In print or conversation, copywriters love to default to the story form. Sometimes, more often than our listeners can stand.

    The same goes for analogies.

    We make — or should I say test — a lot of them. Analogy lies close to the core of creativity. A good analogy can make a complex idea sound simple. It can make an unfamiliar idea feel like an old friend. That doesn’t mean we always get the analogy right. But you can bet that when we don’t, we’ll try again.

    A handful of the copywriters I know are doodlers or artists, yours truly included. That’s not a universal trait in this industry. But common enough to make it worth mentioning.

    I think it’s because copywriting demands an especially strong mix of both left and right brain thinking. During the research mode, you’re all strategy and calculation. But then you need to jump to the other side of the divide, where your passion for the rhythm of word-craft resides.

    Not everybody can do both.

    Copywriters can be extroverted, but most that I know are not. On the other hand, we rarely shy away from a debate. We’ve got deeply felt opinions on everything, including a few things we don’t know much about… yet.

    This list could go on.

    But you more than get the picture.

    There’s plenty about this trade that can be taught. But even the best techniques and tools aren’t worth much unless you’ve got the right kind of knack for this career in the first place. I’d be cheating you if I told you otherwise.

    But let’s say you’re not at all like the person I’ve just described, but you still want to find your footing in this profession? No worries. Just like everything else, there’s always the option to simply do your thing and let the market decide.

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    Gene Schwartz’s 33-minute Secret

    eggsaredoneGet a kitchen timer and put it on your desk.

    Set it for 33 minutes. Now start writing.

    Write anything.  Just fill the page.

    If you can’t write, then sit there and stare until you start sweating blood.

    Here’s what copywriter Gene Schwartz, who’s credited with this idea, used to tell other writers about this technique:

    “When I press the start button, I can do anything I want. All willpower is dissolved. I can do anything as long as it relates to the piece of copy in front of me. I can ignore it. I don’t have to touch it. I don’t have to look at it. But I can’t get up from the desk, and I can’t do anything except ignore or relate to the piece of copy…

    “So finally, after a good deal of looking around… I get bored. So what do I do? I start reading down the copy! As I start reading down the copy, a phrase says to me, ‘Oh, hey, aren’t I beautiful? Why don’t you pull me out and put me on top?’ Or, ‘Why don’t you change this phraseology? It’s extremely ineptly put’…  What happens is that I begin to get into it.  Within about five minutes I am working…”

    I’ve tried this before (I have a downloaded software “timer” on my desktop, pre-set to 33 minutes). Not once has it failed to get me started.  Not once have I been able to stop after the buzzer rings.

    Here’s another trick to help you get or at least keep your writing momentum.

    At the end of a day, resist the urge to continue until you hit a natural stopping point. Instead, stop in mid-thought, mid-page, even mid-sentence.  Why?  Two reasons.  First, because it sets up your subconscious up to work out copy challenges overnight.  Second, because the following morning, you’ll actually find it much easier to get right back into the text and get started all over again.

    And with that, I’ll…

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    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.

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