Category: Writing Process

Is Social Networking… TOO Social?

crowdTime magazine did a back-o’-the-napkin calculation.

 Suppose you estimate about five million of these “25 Random Things” messages in circulation in a single week.

 Given 25 details in each note, that’s 125 million random facts making the rounds. Even at just 10 minutes to come up with each list, that’s roughly 800,000 hours of time… probably at work… spent on Facebook.

 Okay, I’ll admit it… I don’t ‘get’ it.

 That is, I get the technology. It’s the appeal that escapes me. Not just Facebook, but MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, Reunion, and all the rest.

Yes, I know that makes me sound like a curmudgeon.

 Don’t get me wrong. I’m on it, if begrudgingly. Simply because so many friends invited me, it seemed rude to keep on ignoring the invitations.

 I’m now at around 140 or so friends… ranging from my hometown acquaintances to faraway college friends, an ex-girlfriend or two, old work colleagues, grad school friends, and so on.

 I haven’t invited any of them myself. I just accept the connections as they come. And sure, watching the network build… the status updates… the pictures of their kids… the details of their lives after we last saw each other… these really are good things.

 But I can’t help question the opportunity cost.

 For instance, where does everyone find the time to update a status or tap in all those notes? I can barely keep up with my email inbox. Now I’ve got to worry about forgetting to “Facebook” Mom too?

 Plus, the lost privacy. Not that I have anything to hide, but in all the time I’ve had a Facebook account, I’ve never entered a “status” update. Not once.

 Not that I have anything to hide… but some details just don’t feel important enough to share. (“John F. was just typing… and he’s still typing. There he goes again!” Welcome to the endless status loop.)

 Certainly, there’s a massive marketing benefit to this whole social network phenomenon (can you say ‘self-expanding, self-selecting mailing lists?’).

 But… well… let’s just say that when they throw the Facebook friends and family reunion about a dozen years from now… you’ll find me over by the digital punchbowl.

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7 Easy Ways to Get More From Writers

whipsmart.pngWhat’s the single best way to make sure you get what
you want out of the writers you’ll hire?

I’ll give you not just one but seven easy ways to guarantee a quality result, in today’s issue.

And by the way, don’t skip this if you’re the writer instead of the client… because this list could make your job infinitely easier too, simply by showing you what to ask for from anybody who hires you.

But before we jump in…

What to Know Even Before You Pick Up The Phone

First and foremost, one of the BIG reasons some businesses don’t get what they want from copywriters… is because they’re not exactly sure what it is they hope to get, right from the start.

Sure I do, you say.

I want sales.

Isn’t that pretty simple?

Yes. But be careful.

Why?

Because you can boost sales in a number of ways. Some ways are true to your product, some are not.

And a sale that’s followed by a slew of cancellations or refunds is no sale at all.

What’s more, there’s often another subconscious motivator that gets in the way of even the best marketer’s intentions.

And that is, of course, your ego.

How so? If your ego is inflated by selling more of a quality product your customers want, that’s good.

But too often, that’s now how it plays out.

Take, for instance, the jillions blown by “brand” advertisers on things like Superbowl ads.

Are those funny but pointless spots really about selling more product? Or are they more likely self-congratulatory spots set out to appeal to an advertisers sense of importance?

Ads like those let advertisers feel great about themselves, their businesses, and their brand.

They are the echelon of “hip,” the pinnacle of product entries in a pulchritude contest, the bountiful beauty in which those advertisers will bask like buffalo in a basin of… okay, I’m running out of ‘b’ words… but the point is, so-called advertising often does very little to get sales, despite all intentions to the contrary.

Ego that forces a message that offers no substance or promise to your target market is, in a word, a waste.

And finally, you need to be aware that even if you ARE sensibly focused on boosting your bottom line, there are different KINDS of sales you’ll want to make. And different strategies that precede those sales.

For instance, if you’re out to sell a high volume of a low-priced item… to a whole new set of names… that demands one kind of copy. If you’re looking to convert current customers for more sales, that’s something else (almost) entirely.

If you want to raise the price on something you’ve sold before, that’s something else. And if you’re looking to sell something high-end to previously low-end buyers, that’s something different yet again.

“Soft offer” pitches work uniquely… as do time-limited pricing offers… product launches… and even those pitches that create a whole new product category altogether.

Then… you’ve got the pitches that need to combine one or more of the marketing strategies above. And we haven’t even talked about your cost restrictions, list selections, and the rest.

You see what I’m getting at.

Bottom line, and this is important for you to soak up before I take you anywhere else: The MAIN thing you can do to better guarantee you’ll get what you want from the copywriters you hire is to figure out exactly WHAT it is you want to happen, first.

The better you know your strategy in advance, the better you can prep the copywriter before you bring him or her into the equation.

That understood, what comes next?

Now we get into the meat…

Seven Ways To Make Your Writer Write Better

In my experience, on both sides of the copy contract, here are seven easy ways to get more from your writers.

And again, writers, you read these too. Because it can’t hurt to know how good clients think, can it?

Here we go…

1) CHERRY-PICK YOUR WRITER

Let’s face it. Each copywriter, especially a good one, has his niche.

Some work with one kind of product well. Some with others. Some are great at telling stories. Others can work wonders with a track record.

If you’ve been in business any amount of time, you’ll start to know which writers have which talents. And you’ll match them carefully to your products.

Copywriters, there’s a lesson here for us too: Know your strengths and capitalize on them.

Make sure you accept the projects that fit with your talents. Unless you’re up to the challenge, avoid the projects that don’t.

2) HEAP ON THE RESEARCH

The better informed the copywriter, the better — usually — the copy he’ll crank out.

So if you’ve got the material, flaunt it.

You might resent, as I’ve seen some marketers do, the idea of doing footwork for someone you’ve hired to do just that.

But the fact is, even great copywriters will work even better if you arm with material to start the job.

Copywriters, there’s a lesson here too, albeit an obvious one: Writer’s block, fluff-laden copy, empty leads and offers and headlines… they all go away when you throw relevant specificity into your sales pieces.

Insist on asking for as much background material as you can get your hands on, at the very start of the assignment.

3) TALK IT OUT, AT LEAST TWICE

Talk to your copywriter at least twice — in detail — about what you’re hoping for in the first draft.

Talk once at the very start of the assignment and then ask to talk again, just to make sure the writer is on the right track.

And this, with enough lead time to make any changes before he or she turns in the first draft.

Copywriters: Realize that, as much as it’s essential to work alone and to protect undeveloped ideas, it’s also astounding what clarity you can get from a simple half-hour phone call.

If you wait for it to happen, it’s a distraction when it comes. But if you pursue the conversation, you might actually help the marketer clarify in his own mind exactly what he’s looking for.

4) PROVIDE A POINT MAN

I can tell you from personal experience, there’s nothing worse — when you’re working on selling someone’s sales copy — to have to hunt down someone, anyone, who will answer your emails to help you gather the things you need to complete the task.

Give your copywriter a gift up front — a handshake and introduction to a trusted person on the inside who will take calls and emails and attend to them promptly, as if completing the sales copy actually meant something to the organization doing the hiring.

And copywriters, don’t leave the scene of a first meeting without the name of this person.

Any client who can’t provide one, avoid working with more than once. They don’t take their marketing seriously.

5) LEARN HOW TO GIVE FEEDBACK

Patton’s quote at the start of today’s issue notwithstanding, sometimes you’re going to need a lot more in the way of first-draft feedback than, “doesn’t quite work” or “needs more” scribbled in the margins.

When I review copy, I famously almost double the original document length with my suggestions and comments. Nothing gets left to interpretation. Tell them more rather than less.

When something works, tell them that — absolutely. And when it doesn’t, tell them that too.

But tell them why.

If the writer is worth his salt, he’ll have a much better idea of how to make things right.

Copywriters, you need to push for this kind of feedback too. You’re not out to bait for praise or battle critiques. The whole process of review is to delve deeper into what your client wants — needs — from you to get the job done.

6) COME CLEAN ON DEADLINES

It might feel like courtesy to give your creative team lots of breathing room.

But, really, you’re much better off coming clean about your deadlines right up front.

Tell them what you need and when.

Some especially busy copywriters might have to turn you down. But if the time is available to work within those parameters, the pros will appreciate your clarity and efficiency.

Copywriters, this of course applies to us too.

Half of us are in this business because we like the freedom of setting our own schedules.

But to make that work, you have to… well… set them. That means making sure you know up front what’s being asked of you.

Insist on establishing this early in the game.

7) CUT THE FAIREST DEAL

The best businessmen I know don’t mess around trying to gain an upper hand. Nor do they give away the store.

They focus instead on the middle ground, making sure both sides benefit when a strategy pans out.

Between client and copywriter, that often means a royalty on sales. The better a piece performs, the more you both make.

Sure, some of the best copywriters do flat-fee only. But those fees are high… along with the quality of the copy they’ve earned a reputation for producing.

Copywriters, heed this: You’ll generally do your best work if your biggest payoff is performance-based.

Client or copywriter, I hope all that came in handy!

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How to Write Faster

Regardless of what kind of writing you do, says a study from the National Writing Project of Louisiana, three key components seemed to have the biggest influence on how creatively productive you’ll be.  What are those components?

1) A More Consistent Working Environment:

Almost all of the writers in the study had a designated ‘place’ where they did all their best writing.  Simply being there gave them focus. I concur.  I can write almost anywhere — but I prefer dark, quiet spaces.  I travel a lot, but have a designated spot in each of the five spaces I typically find myself in during a given year.

I also need certain “supplies” to get going.  A long yellow legal pad or a tab of French graph paper.  Black Bic pens.  My ever-present Macbook Pro.

Environment includes sound, of course.  Personally, I work best with dead quiet.  Or sometimes, music.  But anything with lyrics is poison.  I know other many other writers –including copywriters — who agree.

Classical or jazz.  Bach Cello Suites or the Goldberg Variations.  Chopin Etudes.  Beethoven’s piano sonatas.  “Kind of Blue” or “Some Day My Prince Will Come” by Miles Davis.  Old Coltrane (but not the crazier, more recent stuff).

(Caveat: I know at least one brilliant copywriter who keeps the TV droning on in the background!  I couldn’t do it.  But it works for him.)

2) A Set Time For Working:

If you’re a freelancer, working outside of an office environment, this might be a hard truth to face. Yet, almost all the writers in the study said they wrote better if they did so at a certain time, the same time, every single day.

And best of all, if you write in the morning. I know, I know. I sympathize with anyone who says they prefer to work at night. I used to be one myself. But having young kids, who don’t understand why Dad won’t come away from the computer, has changed that. And for the better.

Not only am I much more productive when I get good work done early, but I’m happier too. And yes, all the best copywriters I know also get started early.  And not just early, but make sure the first thing you do is start working on your largest project, too.  No e-mails.  No phone calls.  Writing first, trivial stuff later.

(Remember when there was no email? Could you imagine wasting two hours a day sending and receiving faxes with your buddies? Of course you couldn’t. Just because email is more automatic doesn’t mean it’s any better for you.)

And then there’s the intelligent use of deadlines, as long as we’re talking about time for writing. Even daily deadlines. It’s the pressure — the end goal — that makes you move more quickly. Consider the famous Eugene Schwarz story. Everyday, to get himself started, he’d set his egg timer to 33.33 minutes. Then he sat down to write, even if it just meant staring at the blank page until beads of blood formed on his forehead.

3) Last, Rituals that Boost Confidence

This last component — writer’s behavior rituals — was the broadest category of observed creativity patterns.

It’s critical to how productive you are.  Unfortunately, it’s the most ambiguous.

For instance, some of the rituals writers had in the Louisiana study didn’t seem to have anything to do with writing at all.

Sharpening pencils.  Wearing lucky sweaters.  Using a certain coffee mug.  The theory was that the consistency of the rituals bred confidence, and helped melt away potential “writer’s block” anxiety.

That may be true.  What seems just as true is that some rituals manage to mildly distract your senses so your subconscious can get to work.

Walking, for example, seems to work for writers. The next time you’re feeling around for an idea, fast track it by filling up your mind with information about what you hope to sell… and then stepping outside for a stroll.

If not that, then a drive.  Or a shower.

4) Bonus Tip:

You say you’ve tried all that and you’re still stuck?

Try re-working your diet.  The January 19 issue of “Science” reports a single protein in the brain – SCN – that controls your entire ‘master clock,’ allowing you to feel awake or tired, hot or cold, bleary or focused, etc.

Just two days of tinkering with eating schedules in lab rats threw off the SCN balance in the brain.

Eating a light, protein-centric breakfast can help you stay focused on anything.  Lunch, on the other hand, should be light or even skipped. A lot of people claim they can think better on an empty stomach (yours truly included).

I hope all those ideas help.

Okay, some more last minute ways to get jumpstarted — most of them, a rehash of ideas we’ve talked about in past issues.  Ready? Write out ideas on index cards.  Talk ideas into a tape recorder. Sketch out the pages of your promo, even before writing a single word.  Copy a strong lead paragraph two or three times. Go to bed early tonight.  Study the outline behind your last great promo.  Start re-reading your pile of research from top to bottom. Good luck!

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The Procrastinator’s Creed

Somebody wrote this, somewhere. But as far as I can tell, he or she never got around to signing it. So how about we just run the following under the byline “anonymous”…

1. I believe that if anything is worth doing, it would have been done already.

2. I shall never move quickly, except to avoid more work or find excuses.

3. I will never rush into a job without a lifetime of consideration.

4. I shall meet all of my deadlines directly in proportion to the amount of bodily injury I could expect to receive from missing them.

5. I firmly believe that tomorrow holds the possibility for new technologies, astounding discoveries, and a reprieve from my obligations.

6. I truly believe that all deadlines are unreasonable regardless of the amount of time given.

7. I shall never forget that the probability of a miracle, though infinitesmally small, is not exactly zero.

8. If at first I don’t succeed, there is always next year.

9. I shall always decide not to decide, unless of course I decide to change my mind.

10. I shall always begin, start, initiate, take the first step, and/or write the first word, when I get around to it.

11. I obey the law of inverse excuses which demands that the greater the task to be done, the more insignificant the work that must be done prior to beginning the greater task.

12. I know that the work cycle is not plan/start/finish, but is wait/plan/plan.

13. I will never put off until tomorrow, what I can forget about forever.

14. I will become a member of the ancient Order of Two-Headed Turtles (the Procrastinator’s Society) if they ever get it organized.

Any of this sound familiar?

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The Two Best Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

twriterAn interviewer once asked me, “How do you tackle writer’s block?”

“Writer’s block?” I said. “What’s that?”

Seriously, I don’t much believe in writer’s block. Oh, there have been times I don’t know what to write. And even times I’ve felt a little desperate about that. But I’ve never been afraid or unaware of how to plow right through it. Why? Because I don’t think blocked writing is where the problem originates.

See, most of the time, I believe what stops a writer from writing isn’t a lack of output at all. It’s a lack of input.

When I find myself losing steam, I stop and read. Then I start taking notes. Before I realize it, I’m chasing a new and original idea all over the page. And more often than not, an idea that doesn’t appear at all in the thing I first picked up to read for inspiration.

That’s the most immediate “cure-all.” Then, like any ailment, there are long-term steps you can take. Some include other ways to get more input. Like making sure you stick around people who will talk intelligently about what you’d like to write about. Pick up the phone, raise the topic in the right company, invite smart people to lunch and get them chattering.

But one of the best “curatives” many writers overlook is to simply try writing — anything — more often. How’s that? So many writers, especially newbies, imagine they get blocked when they pour out too much of their best stuff onto the page. They think of the well containing a limited quantity of ideas.

Nothing could — or at least should — be farther from the truth.

What really happens when you write often, preferably on a fixed schedule, is that you get more accustomed to the habit of writing and your brain is mixing and matching all those inputs you come across, in constant preparation for the next scheduled session in front of that blank, blinking screen.

Try it. You’ll be surprised.

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The Positioning Myth

Sponsor: “Then They Handed Bob a Check for $60,000…”

You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” – Mark Twain

What does it mean to “position” a product? According to Harry Beckwith, author of “Selling the Invisible,” it doesn’t mean a thing. He writes, “‘Position’ is a noun, not an active verb.”

So what is it  then that other marketing mavens the world over keep babbling about? No doubt, the process of establishing a product’s “positioning” matters big time for marketers. But, if you listen to Beckwith, there’s a misconception about how to go about that. The good news is, getting a product’s position right can mean doing LESS work rather than more.

But before we get to all that…

The Big Mistake Many “Branding” Pros Make

In the classic marketing book, “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind,” authors Trout and Ries made it clear. In any marketing challenge, you often get one shot at staking out your territory inside your customer’s cranium.

You’re done for after that.

Either you’ll get it right and have loyal customers lined up at your back door, ad infinitum… or you’ll blow it and spend a fortune trying to re-invent their perception of you, possibly for years to come.

It’s a sound insight.

And the so-called art of “branding” products claims to be built on that bedrock. But here’s where a lot of “branding” pros have gotten a wrong idea. A lot of brand-based marketers think their job is to build from the ground up. To force some idea on the customer where it never existed before.

But as Beckwith’s book points out, this is backward.

What you’re really doing, if you’re doing it right, is leveraging the mental positioning you’ve already got.

Four “Branded” Building Blocks

So what makes for unshakeable, effective positioning? Here’s how Beckwith boils it down…

1) To sell well, you need to decisively occupy a single position in your prospect’s mind

2) That single position must be stripped of complexity and ambiguity. Simple is best.

3) That single position has to be different from the position your competitors occupy.

4) You can’t be everything to everybody. You have to sacrifice claims on what lies outside the position you occupy.

You can see the thread that runs through this. When faced with the challenge of product positioning, what Beckwith says to start with is not so much to complicate customer perceptions by adding something new…

But to simplify your pitch so it focuses on what’s already there, defining what’s most fundamental and unique about it.

Isn’t it a relief to know that, when you want to sell more, sometimes doing LESS is actually best? 

Why Simple Sells Best

Last weekend, I taught a writing class, as part of a seminar. We did one exercise where, in small groups, we critiqued each other’s writing. What was the one most common mistake, above all others? A failure to answer a single, simple question. And, by the way, it’s a question you have to ask yourself every time you sit down to write…

“What is this about?”

I had a similar experience a week earlier. An old friend and mentor sent me a promo written by another copywriter. The copy had many problems. But it’s primary weakness, above all others, was that it also failed to ask — and answer — the question: “What is this about?”

Don’t get this message wrong. By simplicity, I’m not saying “short copy works better.” Or anything even close to that.

 Rather, the key is relevance.

 You can say plenty — and often get better results doing it — as long as every syllable is relevant to what your prospect cares about.

Finding What Matters, Ignoring the Rest

Beckwith offered seven clarifying questions that help marketers define a product position. For the sake of space and — well — clarity, I narrowed that list even further.

In short…

Who are your customers?

What do they want?

And finally, how does that match a primary benefit only YOU can deliver?

Your “product position” depends on how well you answer those questions.

Miss the mark, and the gap between what they see and what you want them to see will run wide. Nail it and suddenly selling everything gets simpler. Easier said than done?

Two words: Look closer.

Often the difference between a creative and non-creative answer to a problem is simply exposure. The deeper you’ve got your arms in the details, the more you ‘get’ what you’re selling and who you’re selling it to.

 It’s really that simple.

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How Curiosity Can Save a Copywriter

questionsSomebody once asked David Ogilvy for a list of traits that matter most when hiring copywriters. Above all, he said, they have to have an unwavering, overpowering, enormous sense of curiosity.

I can’t help but think that has to be right. Why?

Because sometimes you need to dig deep — really deep –into a product, a target audience, and so much more to find that one gem that’s going to make your ad sing better, louder, and more in tune than all your attention-seeking competitors. And frankly, those who are uninterested in the world too readily give up before they find that one gem.

Of course, that means you stumble across a lot of stuff you don’t need too. And a lot of trivia that just grabs hold of you. And you never know when that trivia is going to come in handy, popping up in your copy when you least expect it. This is one reason, of course, why you never want to play Trivial Pursuit against a very good copywriter.

But it’s also why I’ve piled up a lot of little facts that I don’t know what to do with. Except maybe, share them here. Are you ready? File these, if you like, in the drawer labeled “truly useless information”…

  • Did you know that King Louis XIV once locked up a nine-year old boy in his dungeon for making a joke about his Royal Highness’ bald head? Yep. And he kept him there, too. Agents of the court told the distraught and wealthy parents the boy had simply disappeared. But they knew where he was — in the basement of Versailles, for the next sixty-nine years. Sheesh.
  • Did you know, too, that you’ll never see a rainbow in mid-afternoon? They only appear later in the day or in the morning, when the sun is 40 degrees or less above the horizon (that’s position, not temperature). Meanwhile, there are approximately 1,800 thunderstorms in progress at any given time during the day. And at lest 100 lightning strikes on the planet any given second.
  • Did you further know that, while nearly 25% of the world’s population lives on less than $200 per year, it costs more to buy a new car in the U.S. than it cost Christopher Columbus to equip and undertake not just one but THREE voyages to the New World?
  • Peter Mustafic of Botovo, Yugoslavia, spoke nary a word for 40 years. Suddenly, he broke the silence. When asked by a local newspaper why, he said, “I stopped speaking in 1920 to get out of military service.” Yes, they prodded, but… uh… then what happened? “Well,” he answered, “I got used to it.”
  • Please read the following passage quietly to yourself for the next 30 seconds. Ready? Here it is: “ .” Congratulations. You have just performed the entire Samuel Beckett play, “Breath,” first introduced to the stage in April 1970. Without actors or dialogue. Even the original presentation lasted only half a minute.
  • Don’t wear blue unless you like mosquitoes. They’ll target blue twice as often as any other color. If it’s a female, she’ll even bite (since it’s only the females that do.)
  • Did you know that Peter the Great had any Russian who wore a beard pay a special tax? Good thing Chopin wasn’t living in Russia then — apparently the composer/pianist habitually wore half a beard. Reason? “When I play, my audience only sees half my face.” No kidding.

Will you ever find a use for these tidbits? Maybe. Maybe not.

Here’s hoping you do.

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Idea Angst and How to Beat It

padandpenYou hear a lot about something called “writer’s block.”

Then there’s that thing we all used to get when most writing was done with a pencil, called “writer’s cramp.”

This, not to be confused with “writer’s camp,” when a gaggle of would-be-novelists disappear into the Maine woods to drink wine and avoid their manuscripts.

Then there’s what I call “writer’s angst.”

What’s that?

Back when I was going to an office to work rather than working from my “office” at home (a comfortable chair in our living room), I was standing at a bus stop reading a good book.

This, mind you, was not just any bus stop. It’s a block from the apartment we use while in Paris, on a sun-dappled and leafy, on a corner of the Quai de la Tournelle and the Pont de l’Archêché. Boats float down the Seine nearby. The gothic towers of Notre Dame shadow the river. Parisians stroll past while les bouquinistes set up shop.

It was a beautiful day, after almost a week of chill and rain. The breeze fluttered the leaves. And in that moment before a moment, I had just been thinking how much better this was than a 45 commute through traffic to a cubicle in an office park.

But suddenly, it hit me. Out of the blue, a week’s worth of research for a new promo suddenly gelled together. No, collided. Like a tangle of monkeys on bicycles.

Headlines and leads… points and counterpoints… resistance-melting proofs… a battering close… phrases, metaphors, images, and subheads…

It was good stuff and I knew it. Too good to lose. I had to stop reading, for fear that the words in the book might drown my idea. God willing, I thought, nobody would talk to me. Where the h**l was that bus? I fingered the metro ticket in my pocket.

I looked at my watch.

I had exactly 20 minutes from here to my keyboard. Would I make it in time? That big old elevator was so slow. It would take three minutes to climb the stairs. Did I have a pen anywhere? Something to write on? Maybe in my bag. Where the h*ll is that bus?

Ah wait, here’s a pen. Maybe I can get this down on the blank inside cover of the book. Here’s the bus. C’mon people, file in. Show him your ticket. Tourist… question… fumbling in English. Let’s get this thing moving!

Scenery, great. Fountains. Cool. What’s with all this traffic? Getting out, walking from the stop, punching in the door code, up the creaky wood stairs, at the desk, opening the laptop… I made it. Someone says hello, but I’m already typing. It’s in. On the page. Phew.

Years ago, I wanted to be a novelist. And I remembered what a fiction teacher in college once warned us. “You’re not really a writer,” he said, “until you can’t wait to get to your office… or get home, if you have to… to write.”

Now I’m a copywriter instead.

But really, when we’re talking process, is there that much of a difference?

Aside from the pay, I mean. (Holler “copywriter” in a New York restaurant, and someone will hand you a business card. Holler “novelist” and someone will come out of the kitchen and hand you another dinner roll.)

The bottom line is simple: Every kind of productive writer spends time in the chaos of ideas, the maelstrom of data and research that marks the start of a new project. This is the whole theory, by the way, behind James Webb Young’s already short book, “A Technique For Producing Ideas.”

For instance, think about what it’s like — or should be like — to start from scratch with a new client or product. You end up throwing yourself completely into the research, from the ground up, with the hopes of knowing the thing you’re writing about better than the insiders themselves.

At first it’s too much. A mess of notions, no clear thread linking them together. You’re sure it will never make sense. Then it does. In an instant. And it’s all you can do to type fast enough to get it down. You need this to happen. But you cannot will it to happen. The connecting ideas, it turns out, find you. Not the other way around.

You can no more order yourself to be creative than you can order a dog to sneak up on its tail.

What you can do, however, is steep yourself in reports, in articles, in books, in recorded interviews and conversations, in related websites and — for our purposes — past promos and brochures. What you pour in, you’ll get back out. Organized by your subconscious. Stuff it in, pack it in, sit on top of it and pound if you have to.

Then take a walk. Take a shower. Go stand at the bus stop and wait.

Just make sure you’ve got a pen handy when you do.

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The World’s Most Famous Copywriter?

Claude HopkinsClaude Hopkins looks like a crotchedty chemist. Or a vacuum cleaner salesman. At least, he does in most of the pictures you’ll find of him online.

Which is appropriate considering that he sold both, as a house copywriter, until at age 41 he got a job writing ads under Albert Lasker, at the Lord & Thomas ad agency.

Today, your average modern ad man might not think much of Claude Hopkins’ “antiquated” ideas.

Many working copywriters might not even know who Claude was, let alone why he mattered.

His most famous book, “Scientific Advertising,” was written and published more than a lifetime ago, in 1923. And it sold for 10 cents. Today, you can find it free online.

So why care about Claude Hopkins and what he had to say at all? Because so much of what he had to say then… still matters. The examples have changed. So has the medium. But the fundamentals are still the same.

Keep in mind, Hopkins ads from the 1920s are still among some of the most famous ever written. He was so talented, Lasker paid him $185,000 a year in 1907.

That’s like making $4,048,173 today. Actually more than that, since accurate inflation calculators only goes back to 1913. And Hopkins earned every penny.

He sold a fortune in Schlitz Beer, by being the first to write an ad about how their “bottles are washed with live steam.”

He sold carpet sweepers as, can you believe it, the “Queen of Christmas presents” and VanCamp’s pork and beans because they were “baked for hours at 245 degrees.” It was Hopkins’ stroke of genius to sell tires as “all weather,” putting Goodyear on the map.

His secret was simple. Find the benefit in whatever he was hired to sell, and make it unique. Own that territory. It was enough to make him one of the most successful copywriters who ever lived.

You can read a free copy of Scientific Advertising yourself, by downloading it from here.

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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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