Category: Writing Process

Ego-Butter: How to Give a Copy Critique

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

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

Let me back up.

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

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

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

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

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

But here’s the thing…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, of course I’m kidding here.

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

Is that pandering? Perhaps.

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

The latter, I’d assume.

More

A Surprising Storytelling Secret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First ideas are rarely amazing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something worth thinking about.

More

Brainstorming By the Rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More

“Need to Tell” vs. “Want to Tell”

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

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

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

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

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

It goes like this…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More

7 MORE Ways to Thank Your Customers Like You Mean It

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

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

Sure, why not.

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

(And numbered accordingly…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And one more…

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

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

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

So there you go.

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

And isn’t that where you want to be?

More

Why Only Some People Are “Creative”

homer.jpg On D-Day, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops pulled off the largest invasion in history, forcing their way into Nazi-occupied Europe.

Strategy was key. So was equipment.

But the real mettle of the moment came from the soldiers staging the invasion.

This included, naturally, pilots who had to navigate a sky thick with German anti-aircraft fire.

Long before the invasion, military strategists knew this would happen. They also knew they needed top-notch fliers.

At first, they tried using intelligence tests to pick candidates. But intelligence alone as an indicator turned out to be useless in determining which pilots would be inventive enough, in a tight situation, not just to save themselves but also to save their airplanes.

Creative cognitive ability, it turned out, was only partly connected with smarts. Around the same time, a psychologist from the University of Southern California identified the crucial difference between convergent and divergent thinking.

Convergent thinking is the kind we’re used to on I.Q. tests and in math and science textbooks. It’s a way to find the single, logical, and usually most orthodox solution to a problem.

Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is more widely cast. It searches many routes, finds many solutions, and then might settle on one or the other depending on what the situation dictates.

The best fighter pilots, not so surprisingly, were those more adept at divergent thinking. When the context required, creative survival tactics prevailed.

So if it’s not IQ that matters, what is it that makes one person a convergent thinker and another person a divergent or more creative thinker?

Another study reported in Scientific American relates the story of a 43-year old art teacher in San Francisco. For most of her life, she had been a painter. She even took a job teaching art later in life.

But suddenly, she could no longer do her job. Lesson plans confused her. She couldn’t grade projects. When she could no longer remember her student’s names, she retired and took her troubles to a neurologist.

He did a brain scan and found dementia damage to her frontal and temporal lobes, mostly on the left side of her brain.

The teacher gradually lost some speech abilities. She also lost some control of herself in social situations, both of which are common with this kind of neuron damage.

But something else happened.

As her inhibitions in public waned, her creative powers grew. Her art grew more prolific, emotional, and expressive.

The neurologist dug deep into research on the disorder and found others who also had new bursts of creativity after the damage had set in, even in some who had never before been artistic or considered themselves “creative” before.

What’s this mean? No, I’m not saying that a little brain damage is something to hope for if you want to up your creativity.

But I’m sure you heard, 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.

The good news is that both left and right brain can work together to produce a result that’s both logical AND creative.

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.

More

#486: A Sweet, Dark History of the Promise Lead

If you haven’t already signed up, click here for your free reports

candies.pngYou’ll remember from the last post, I’m showing you guys some of the raw material for a book on six types of leads.

And we’ve been looking at what my co-author Michael Masterson and I call the “Promise Lead.”

Admittedly, this is a tough one.

Why, you ask?

(Don’t look at me all confused like that… I HEARD you ask something… right?)

After all, don’t ALL sales leads have a promise implied inside them somewhere?

Yes, they do.

And we said as much last week.

But haven’t pure, flat-out promises been so overexposed in sales leads that the world is chock-a-block with skeptics who no longer hear said promises anymore?

Yes, that too is true. Well, mostly true.

My take on that last point is this: First, Promise Leads work very well with a certain kind of customer.

No, dear reader, not the stupid ones.

They work best, rather, with a prospect that’s sitting on the fence… ready to buy, but still awaiting that last nudge.

Any more ready, and you’d just hit them with a juicy “Offer Lead,” right out of the gate.

Any less ready, and you’d try something a little more subtle first, so as to shut down those filters we all wear to guard against an onslaught of too-much-the-same, unbelievable messages.

But in those moments, with an almost-ready prospect, busting through the saloon doors armed with a big promise can be an excellent choice.

So this week, let’s pick up where we left off.

Again, this is raw stuff… fresh out of the oven, not yet dressed for the table. Proceed at your own risk…

How a Promise Made This Candy Famous

When writing a Promise Lead, where should you start?

The default for most marketers is to study the product and just figure out what it can do best. We’ve all heard, after all, the lesson about “features” versus “benefits.” First you make a list of the products best features, and then you translate those into what they will do for the customer.

Simple.

It’s a lesson you may have heard connected before with one of the most successful product pitches in history. Forrest E. Mars grew up in candy maker’s house. And with some big shoes to fill. His father’s home business grew to invent and sell some of the world’s most famous candy bars, including Snickers, Mars Bars, and Milky Ways.

But Forrest’s father didn’t want to expand the business and Forrest, fresh home from Yale University, did. So he sold his share in the business back to Dad and moved to Europe. That’s where he took up with other candy makers.

It’s also where he first spotted the breakthrough that would help change the chocolate business, the course of World War II, and millions of kids’ birthday parties — and indirectly, the advertising industry.

It was a tiny pellet of chocolate, wrapped in a candy shell, found in the field kits of soldiers fighting the Spanish Civil War. The chocolate gave them quick energy, the shell kept it from melting under harsh conditions.

We know it now, of course, as the M&M.

Forrest took it back to the States and patented his own formula for the candy in 1941. Within a year, the U.S. was committed to World War II. And not long after, M&Ms made their way into soldiers’ field rations. When the soldiers came home, the candies were a hit with the general public.

But sales were about to get even bigger.

Forrest realized that television — making it’s way into the mainstream at that time — was the next place he wanted to go to sell M&Ms. He hired a copywriter named Rosser Reeves to do it. It turned out to be another groundbreaking move.

Reeves, at the time, was already a success. He was both copy chief and vice president of his agency in New York. But when he sat down with Forrest Mars to talk candy, he listened and took notes like a first-year copywriter.

“He was the one who said it,” claimed Reeves in the version we’ve heard told. “He told me the whole history and then I pressed him and he said, ‘Well, the thing is they only melt in your mouth, but they don’t melt in your hands.'”

That was all Reeves needed.

Within four years, Mars was selling one million pounds of M&Ms per week. M&Ms have since gone on Space Shuttle flights with astronauts. They’ve been the official candy of the Olympics. And according to Business Week, they’re the best-selling candy in the world.

Mars died at ate 95 in 1999, with a $4 billion fortune. And his candy company takes in over $20 billion per year, with 30,000 employees worldwide.

It’s no accident that Reeves went on to his own kind of fame. And not just because Reeves happens to be the real-life model for the character of Don Draper on TV’s series, Mad Men.

You might know him even better, after all, as the father of what every copy cub and professional advertiser memorizes as the “Unique Selling Proposition” or “U.S.P.”

To Find the Promise, Find This First…

When Reeves first wrote about it the U.S.P. in his book Reality in Advertising, he was writing down the formula you can use to write any effective Promise Lead.

Reeves formula had three parts.

The first part, for Reeves, also meant starting with the product. And only if that product was actually good enough to almost sell itself. As a preacher’s son, Reeves was fundamentally honest and felt all advertising should be too. The product must be able to do what you’ll say it can do.

But an even better reason for starting with the product is the second part of Reeve’s formula. What the product does and by default will claim to do has to be original. That is, the best products do something competitors won’t or can’t. That’s key because the U.S.P. — the promise you’ll make — has to sound and feel different from everything your prospect has heard before, too.

Then there’s the final part of Reeve’s formula. This is the one most forgotten, but it’s impossible to overlook if you’ve got any hope of coming up with a powerful promise. Every promise must target your prospect’s core desire. That is, they have to already want what you’re promising.

This is worth repeating.

Reeves believed, and so do we, that you can’t create desire in a customer. You can only awaken what’s already there. This is especially true in a pure Promise Lead, where you have nothing but the claim pulling all the weight. The more tightly you can target those core desires, the more likely your ad will work.

It’s that simple.

If you haven’t already signed up for the FREE “Copywriters Roundtable” e-letter, click here for your free reports

More

10 “Speed-Copy” Secrets

speedy

The better you get at writing good copy, the more clients will want access to your time. In the beginning, you’ll want to give it to them.

But as time goes by, you won’t be able to.

You’ll try to cherry pick projects, taking on only those that won’t bog you down disproportionately to what you’ll get in return.

But what happens when you have no other choice than to just… write… faster?

You can try these tips…

1) Really DO Cherry-Pick Projects

It’s great to be eager.

But you’ll find there really are some copywriting jobs that just aren’t worth it. Which ones? Be wary, for instance, of poorly baked products with no clear audience or no clear benefit for the audience they’re meant to target.

Likewise, look out for projects without a passionate champion on the client side. If there’s nobody who can sell you on what you’re supposed to be selling, there’s a good chance you’ll have a hard time selling it to prospects, too.

And finally, look out for projects that don’t have at least 85% of the pieces in place before you get started. Unless, that is, you’re also being paid to help develop the product… a different and more involved job than just writing the sales letter.

2) Know Your Load

Four solid hours of writing, day in and day out, with rest of the day for calls, meetings, and email is actually a pretty solid pace. Sure, one can go longer when needed. But writing can be physically draining, if you’re doing it right.

Copywriter Bob Bly once told me that, while he also logs only about four hours on each project per day, he stays fresh by working keeping two projects going at once and switching to four hours on the second project in the

I’ve tried that. And sometimes it works. But frankly, once I start working on something — anything — I get too caught up in in it to let it go. So I actively try to avoid other projects until I’ve got the first one completed.

Your style will be up to you.

3) Gather Your Resources, Part I

One of the best ways to accelerate the pace on any writing project is to feed it the nourishment in needs to get started. That nourishment is information.

Read up, interview, discuss.

Call the most central figure for the product that the client can offer and do a phone interview. Record it and start typing as you play it back. You’ll need other resources along the way. But this is where you’ll need to begin, if you want to make sure you burst out of the gate with as much power as possible.

4) Build Your Framework

Once you’ve got a grasp on the general direction you’ll need to take in the promo, you’ll want — no, need — to make an outline. Too many early writers skip this step. Many say they don’t need it.

Yet, for all but a rare few, unstructured writing shows. The benefit of an outline is that you know where you need to go. But you also know, as you pile up research and ideas, where you DON’T need to go.

And that’s equally important.

5) Gather Your Resources, Part II

Once you’ve pulled together a rough outline of where you’re headed, you’ll immediately start to see the additional holes you’ll need to fill.

Now it’s time to go out again and start digging. Pile up links, magazine clippings, notes from studying the product and the customer base. Notes from talking to the client.

Just for the record, the research part of your copywriting process should almost always take the most time. How much longer?

A fair breakdown, if you’re working with a product you don’t know well, is about 50% of your total time available spent on research. And then 30% on writing the first draft. Plus another 20% for polishing and revision.

6) Try Writing in 3D

You would think that writing the beginning first, the middle second, and the end last would be the best way to go. And for many writers, that’s precisely the path the follow. However, I’d personally recommend creating a writing system that’s a little more non-linear.

What do I mean?

Research, ideas, phrases… tend to arrive in a disorderly fashion, just like a conversation that leaps from one topic to another entirely.

So what I do is write in sections. I actually create separate, labeled parts of my file in Word. These sections match my outline or “mind-map” of the message I’d like to deliver.

Then, as I research and revise, I jump back and forth between sections, adding to one, tightening another, copying and moving pieces of ideas.

Each area fleshes out at roughly the same time, then I reorganize them to fit the more logical, linear outline that will underlie the final piece.

7) Write Your Close First

Here’s an interesting idea — start at the end. And I can give you at least two solid reasons to do this.

First, because the offer you write will, word for word, have more impact on the prospect than any other section of the promo — save for the headline and lead. If the offer stinks, you haven’t got a chance no matter how brilliant your copywriting.

Second, because knowing specifically how you’ll close the sale gives you a target to shoot for. This, too, is a great defense against the tangents that can knock you off the trail of your sales message all too easily.

8 ) Give Your Lead Room to Breathe

I know perfectionism is a killer problem for a lot of new writers. Get over that. Really. Why?

Because you’ll kill yourself and your career trying to get the right word line-by-line. Especially when you sacrifice writing the bulk of the rest of that promo while you tinker and tinker… and tinker… with the lead.

Here’s an alternate idea… put the headline and lead copy in a separate document or somehow cordoned off from the rest of your promo. Open that alternate writing area whenever you’re working on the main document.

Whenever you have an idea about how to make the lead stronger, dip into that alternate writing window, make the changes and then jump back to the rest of the piece.

I do this a dozen or more times while I’m writing, with the headline and lead changing 10… 20… or more times before I’m through.

9) Learn to “Copyify” Your Notes As You Research

This takes practice. But you’ll through your copy much faster if, when you take notes from resources you’ll use, you record the notes directly into copywritten form.

For instance, not “Mention last year’s booming commodity market to support resource buying op”… but rather “Last year’s booming commodities market is the perfect example. Had you subscribed to my ‘Dirt, Rocks, and Other Investments’ advisory service then, you’d already be up XXX% on Mud Futures alone by now.”

You get the picture.

If you can record your ideas quickly in a form that’s close to the sound you’ll want for the final draft, obviously that cuts back future writing time.

10) Use Markers and Shortcuts

This last one is a small thing. But very, very handy.

Let’s say you’re writing and you need to cite a stat you don’t have at your fingertips, try just dropping in “XX” where that falls.

Or let’s say you need a subhead to transition between sections but the perfect one escapes you at the moment. Don’t get stuck. Instead, drop in “[SUBHEAD HERE]” and keep moving.

The idea is to preserve the momentum at all costs. Just make sure you search the replacement phrases and fill things in after the writing is done.

This list could go on, of course. But that’s a pretty good start.

More

Can You Judge a Customer By His Cover?

apple.png Or maybe that title should read: “Can you judge a customer by his… computer?”

You’d have to live on the moon to have missed Apple’s long running ad campaign, “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC.” It was textbook psychographic targeting, associating the product with a personality type.

It worked, but why?

Maybe this will help explain:

In a recent study (I’m afraid I no longer have access to the source) it turns our more than half of Mac users live in the big city. Meanwhile, PC people are about 18% more likely to live in the burbs and 21% more likely to live in the countryside.

By a wide margin (50% more), Mac people love to throw parties. Or at least say they do. While about 23% of PC people say they’d rather not.

However, nearly 30% of PC people like to fit in with the group. Not so with Mac people, who tend to crave their own “uniqueness,” generally speaking.

PC people lean more to cake and candy snacks. Mac people? They’re about 7% more likely to go for peanuts and potato chips.

PC people tend to like tuna fish sandwiches more. Mac people supposedly favor bistro-type fries.

If you’re PC, you’re more likely to drink California Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. If you’re Mac, you’ll crack open a Chianti or Cabernet Sauvignon instead.

Believe it or not, Mac people are more likely to think of themselves as tech-savvy nerds.

PC users are 43% more likely, meanwhile, to feel about as comfortable with computers as they are with learning a foreign language. Or so says the poll.

Who watches more “60 Minutes?” The Mac users. And who watches “20/20?” That would be our friends on the PC.

“Moby Dick” is more a Mac novel. And “Great Expectations” leans more toward the PC.

And on it goes.

More

Brainstorming For One

“Brain-writing” is not my term. But we’re going to make it our own by revising it a little to make it more productive…

You brainstorm to get ideas when you have none.

Ideally, you do so in a group. So you can feed off each other. So you can legitimize sitting around drinking coffee. So you can get others to do all the hard thinking for you.

In all those respects, group brainstorming is a good thing.

But what do you do when you’re writing in isolation?

Brain-writing is a way to kick ideas around … jumpstart your engines … and get into that “zone” of creativity that you normally hope to get in a group session.

In fiction circles, there’s something similar called “free-writing.”

USUALLY, it simply means setting a timer, putting pen to page, and letting the ideas pour.

Whatever it is, you write it down. You don’t stop until your pen runs out of ink or your elbow balloons like a grapefruit.

But there are two problems with free-writing when you apply it to writing promo copy:

  • First, pens come with a lot of ink these days. Even the dime-store ballpoints could keep you scribbling well past deadline.
  • Second, sometimes it’s the very prospect of a blank page … the sight of a blinking cursor… and the notion of all that cerebral “freedom” … that’s got you stymied in the first place.

There is a more efficient way to get started.

If you were about to make bricks, would you begin without clay? If you were getting ready to make glass, would you begin without sand? If you wanted to make punch, would you leave out the hooch?

Of course not.

So why is it writers of any kind so often try to start conjuring up ideas out of thin air?

For all the reasons to get “blocked,” this is the easiest of them to resolve.

Before you begin your solo brainstorming session (or a group one, for that matter), get yourself a hefty stack of “stuff” about the product. Aim for height. An inch is too little. A foot is too high. Somewhere in the middle ought to do it.

Next to this, put a fresh stack of index cards … a legal pad … and/or a computer.

This is where the “brain-writing” comes in. Start reading. Start taking notes.

The process remains “free” in the sense that you shouldn’t try to organize the ideas at this point. Record them as they come. You’ll sort later.

However, contrary to popular creativity myths, discipline has a role. For instance:

You’ll need to keep yourself from focusing too long on any one aspect of your research.

You’ll need to force yourself to write in full-fledged ad copy, rather than just recording notes.

And you’ll need to make sure, always, that the central promise of your ad is the magnet pulling you through the muck of ideas you’ll produce.

You should have at least six kinds of things in your “brain-writing” stack before you begin:

  1. Competitors’ ads.If you write direct mail, you know there’s no excuse for not being seeded on competing lists. Keep a box of other people’s promos by your desk.
  2. Samples of the competitors’ products.You can probably get comped, as a professional courtesy. But, at least once in awhile, go through the subscription process anonymously. You might learn something from the way they do business.
  3. Printouts of relevant web sites.Yes, printouts. If you’d rather, you can make handwritten notes while scrolling a screen. But avoid the temptation to bookmark links, save pages, or copy and paste text into word documents. No matter what you think … the only way to really absorb the ideas is to re-interpret them for your own notes.
  4. Relevant magazines and newspapers.Big media has the budget to gather persuasive stats and anecdotes. Again, copy the information in your own hand. Don’t just clip and count on coming back to it later. HOWEVER, make sure you note your sources with every factoid – both for legal reasons and because you’ll get extra credibility when you cite a respected source.
  5. History and non-fiction bestsellers.Sometimes, nothing can be more valuable than going down to your local bookstore to see what your prospects are reading. It’s an excellent way to put your thumb on the popular zeitgeist. Restrict yourself, however, to buying two books … tops. If you’re under any kind of deadline, you won’t have time for more than that.
  6. Your product manager’s “best of.”Any good product manager will give you the following items when you start a copywriting project: product-related e-mails, raw testimonials, 3rd-party reviews and endorsements, product-related news clippings, free “giveaways” that come with the offer, notes from past brainstorming meetings, past control packages, tapes or transcripts of conversations with customers, customer service letters, interviews with core people connected with the product, and phone numbers of people you can call to talk to about the product.

This is, of course, just a partial list. You could add more. But even with only the above, you should be drowning in new ideas before day’s end.

(At which point, you’ll have a different problem – more ideas than you can spend in one piece! Every copywriter should be so lucky, right? Save the leftovers for the test mailing.) The beauty of this simple approach is that you don’t need a soul around to help you make it pay off. In fact, isolation makes it easier.

Tip: At some point, you’ll make it to the bottom of the stack or you’ll feel in your gut that you’ve got all the key points somehow covered. AT that moment, stop and get up. Put on your coat. Go shoot some hoops, take a walk, knit an afghan (the sweater, not the citizen).

While you take a break, your subconscious mind is mulling over everything you’ve come across. Absorbing. Sorting. Editing.

The next morning, put the pile of stuff in a box and get it out of your sight. Everything happens now inside your pile of notes. Re-read all the material. Twice.

Take the points that stand out and re-write them on a fresh page. Some things will stand out. Others will strike you as complete garbage. Distill and polish. Narrow. If you need to accelerate the process, mail or e-mail the notes to a trusted (and patient) friend to read.

If you try this technique and you’re STILL stuck for ideas by the time you reach the bottom of the stack, you might consider buying yourself a push broom. Or running for public office.

More