Category: Procrastination

Why you can’t get started and what you can do about it.

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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Finding the Elephant…

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

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

What’s it mean to be “creative?”

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

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

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

Watch below and be both enlightened and amazed…

John Cleese Reveals How to Be More Creative

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

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Seven Toxic Habits That Could Wreck Your Writing Career

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

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

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

Bad Habit #1: Compulsive “Inboxing”

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

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

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

 Email especially.

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

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

 Don’t get me wrong.

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

Which is a good way to segue into…

Bad Habit #2: Inverting the Checklist

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

 Think about it.

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

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

 Pick up dry cleaning. Send fax. Order paperclips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Habit #3: Chronic Cathode Overloading

 Oh boy, is this one a tar trap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Habit #4: Writing from the Mountaintop

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

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

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

Bad Habit #5: Tossing the Road Map

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

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

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

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

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

 Bad Habit #6: Radical Revisionism

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

 So when do you stop perfecting?

 Where do you draw the line?

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

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

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

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

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

 Bad Habit #7: Thin-skinned Amateurism

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

Don’t.

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

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

You never know until you give it a shot.

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The Single Secret to Success?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Really incredible, don’t you think?

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

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

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

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    How Other Writers Get “In the Mood”

    typewriterTennessee Williams wrote from sunrise until noon, had lunch (washed down with lots of bourbon), and then edited all afternoon. Meanwhile, novelist Walker Percy did his writing in bed.

    Toni Morrison does hers sitting on the sofa, in longhand, and while wearing a robe. E.B. White worked in a sparse wooden cabin by a lake.  Stephen King and Susan Sontag surround themselves with clutter.

    What’s the parallel between writers? No matter how different their writing routines, each of these writers — and thousands of others who actually produce — had just that: a routine.

    A little over 2300 years ago, Aristotle called it the “soul of genius.” He wrote extensively about “habits of virtue.”  And if you’re serious about what you do — no matter what it is — you’ll go out and get yourself some of those virtuous habits, too. And don’t think that aiding and abetting those virtues with a few of the regular kinds of habits is such a bad idea.

    For instance, if you need a favorite writing hat or a lucky pen, go ahead and get one.  Even better, if you’ve got a place you like to write, stick to it. Go there at the same time every day.  And write. Here’s something more: Make sure you stop writing at the same time every day too. The routine is actually better for your productivity than allowing yourself to rely on working overtime.

    That said, here’s another lesson we can borrow from other writing realms: set a goal.

    For example, author Evelyn Waugh sat down to write every day and refused to get up until he’d cranked out at least 2,000 words (roughly five typed pages). And Hemingway didn’t call it a good day’s work until he had worn down seven number-two pencils.

    Then there’s Anthony Trollope — who pumped out 47 novels while working in the post office — wrote exactly seven pages every day except Sunday, 49 pages a week. Never more, never less. How? Trollope started writing every morning at 5:30 am.  And stopped at the same time, just a few hours later, to go to his regular job as a postmaster. He did this without fail for 33 years — and became one of the most prolific writers in literary history.

    The message: Setting a regular writing goal can work wonders.

    So… how many hours should you, a copywriter, aim to write per day?

    That answer might surprise you too. I’m going to suggest… four.

    Simply because writing — actual writing — is fatiguing work. If you’re doing it right, you should be wiped after a four hour stint. But hang on. Because before you head off to happy hour at lunchtime, remember that there’s plenty more you can and will need to do — including more research, meetings, and yep… sure… even answering email.

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    Gene Schwartz’s 33-minute Secret

    eggsaredoneGet a kitchen timer and put it on your desk.

    Set it for 33 minutes. Now start writing.

    Write anything.  Just fill the page.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And with that, I’ll…

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    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.

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    Thinking Inside The Box

    theboxWhat is creativity?

    I’m sure you’ve heard the cliche that gets kicked around, about the value of thinking “outside the box.” But in my experience, that’s the opposite of true.

    In fact, there was a time when I considered becoming a cartoonist. And I was a big fan (still am) of the cartoons that appear in the New Yorker. While reading a collection of essays by repeat cartoonists in those pages, I was struck by what one of them said.

    The best way, he reported, to get an idea for the perfect funny moment… was to draw an empty box. Those were the bounds of the space you had to work with. And that reminder was enough to help you focus on what could — and couldn’t — go inside.

    Maybe that’s why I was also struck by a quote I found years ago in BusinessWeek, courtesy of Marissa Ann Mayer, a VP at Google:

    “Creativity is often misunderstood. People often think of it in terms of artistic work — unbridled, unguided effort that leads to beautiful effect. If you look deeper, however, you’ll find that some of the most inspiring art forms — haikus, sonatas, and religious paintings — are fraught with constraints.

    “They’re beautiful because creativity triumphed over the rules. Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as inspiration. Creativity, in fact, thrives best when constrained.

    “Yet constraints must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible. Disregarding the bounds of what we know or what we accept gives rise to ideas that are non-obvious, unconventional, or simply unexplored. The creativity realized in this balance between constraint and disregard for the impossible are fueled by passion and result in revolutionary change.”

    Well said, Marissa. Well said.

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    The Curse of the Modern Age

    3DD92E8C-7CDE-4F5A-8C69-C3B6EA13D930.jpg “For a list of the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life,” says Alice Kahn, “please press three.”

    I’m sure you know what she’s talking about.

    And even if you don’t, let me ask you this: How often do you, you know, do “it?” Maybe once in the morning… and again in the afternoon?

    I’ll bet. Or maybe you like to do “it” just before lunch… or just after lunch… or before and after and during? That wouldn’t surprise me either.

    And then there’s your coffee break… what else are you going to do while waiting for a pot to brew? Not to mention just before meetings… or during meetings… and as soon as one ends.

    Yep, you do “it” all the time. You just can’t stop yourself. Sadly, you’re not alone. Because the rest of us probably do “it” too often too.

    Of course, I’m talking about checking your email… your tweets… your texts… and your Facebook alerts.

    Not so long ago, it was a non-issue. Now every computer in the world seems to ding all day with new message alerts. And if not the computers, it’s the cell-phones. Or even iPods and iPads, since they connect too.

    It’s everywhere.

    You can even log in on your way to the bathroom… or IN the bathroom… (please tell me you’re not reading this in a stall).

    And how about that quick download before dinner… or during dinner… or just before drifting off to sleep?

    How about in the elevator… at a stop light… or in motion. Maybe even over the shoulder of your loved one, during a warm but, let’s be honest, not so time-efficient embrace.

    If any six of the scenarios above sound familiar… or if you’ve wondered if a Ziploc bag could protect your iPad in the shower… you might have a problem. And you wouldn’t be alone again, you wouldn’t be alone. Or so says Matt Richtel, a tech-writer for the New York Times.

    Maybe this comes to you as no surprise.

    This is, after all, the age of high tech multi-tasking. Or is it? Not according to a handful of studies cited in one of Richtel’s recent articles.

    And if you’re wondering why you feel busy all the time but you don’t get anything done — this might be the reason why.

    In short, our brains just aren’t built for the perpetually “plugged in” lifestyle. It may, in fact, be costing you.

    Now hang on there, cupcake.

    Yes, I DO realize the irony.

    After all, I’m a direct response copywriter. My bread and butter relies on people opening messages, including email. And yes, I also write an e-letter, which is delivered by email and in which this article originally appeared (sign up in the box to the right).

    But between you and me, have you noticed your relationship changing at all with your inbox? Mine certainly has.

    Case in point, in the beginning days of Compuserve, I could barely get enough. I too was a serial email reader. I must have hit the “get mail” button a dozen times a day, eager for contact.

    Not so much anymore.

    I now have, for example, 778 emails sitting waiting for an answer. Some are dated from last summer. I want to answer them. I feel compelled to answer them.

    But I won’t. I’ve even actively decided not to.

    Why?

    Like anything, it’s complicated.

    I recently heard a radio host sum up at least one part of the problemlike this: each email is a moment on someone else’s agenda. Tell me this, answer me that, find and send me this info.

    How true.

    And yet, she said, she can’t resist knowing if anything new has come in. So she checks — just for a second — and finds herself lost, an hour or more later.

    Sound familiar?

    I don’t want that. I can’t afford that. So I stay away. These days, much as I want to, I try not to start checking email until after 4 pm… 3 pm if I’m feeling weak. Because it’s the only way.

    How about you?

    I ask because I know what it is to be writing, like you’re aspiring to do. And whether it’s novels or sales copy, it’s the same.

    You’re either in the zone… or you’re not.

    When you’re in it, you know. Because that’s when even a five alarm fire would have a tough time getting you to move from your chair or stop what you’re doing.

    I’m sure you “get” the feeling. So, you might still be asking… how did we get so hooked on email and tweets and Facebook and the rest in the first place, especially when the cost to productivity is so obvious?

    Say California researchers, the reason you have such a tough time stopping yourself from checking your email or whatever other inputs you’ve got going is simple.

    It’s because it delivers dopamine “squirts” to your brain. You get hooked, it turns out, to that series of tiny excitements as one email after another rolls in.

    Not unlike the smoker taking his first puff after a long international flight… or a drinker getting a martini after a long day in the salt mines.

    It’s a joy to get the jolt, over and over again. And without it, you learn to feel perpetually bored. But it’s a bigger issue now than ever, says Richtel.

    Today, we’re hit with three times as much daily media as we were in the 1960s. What’s more, your average computer user visits 40 web pages per day.

    Think about that.

    We email colleagues at the next desk. We tweet our insights to friends, then meet up with nothing to talk about. We bask in the glow of unending online Facebook reunions, without actually seeing the people we’re “talking” to for years on end.

    It’s all got its merits.

    Business-wise, it’s been amazing. Many a direct-response company has been saved thanks to new media. Some have learned how to turn it into $100s of millions per year. And I’m happy to be one of the beneficiaries.

    But what’s it tell you when even the Pope feels like it’s time to weigh in? Here’s what he told the NYT:

    “Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others, provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world…

    “In the search for sharing, for ‘friends’, there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.”

    (Intrigued? You can check out Papal (no, I didn’t mean to write “Paypal”) proclamations like this one in eight languages, courtesy of the Vatican’s iPhone app. I kid you not.)

    But addiction and virtual loneliness are just the beginning of the problem. Even bigger, in my opinion, is the illusion of productivity that goes with all this message fueled effort.

    It gives us the illusion, yes, that we’re getting lots done. We are, if the email feeds are to believed, multi-tasking our way through lots of things that demand our attention, all at once.

    The document feedback, the afternoon call, the kid’s b-day party… when you bang out a message on each in under a few minutes, you feel like you’re changing the world.

    But multi-tasking, says Richtel’s research for his article, is bunk. An illusion. If you think you’re good at it, he suggests, there’s a likelihood you’re kidding yourself.

    How so?

    First, let me freely admit, I’m not a multi-tasker at all. I never have been. Walk and chew gum? I’m lucky I get through breakfast without falling out of my chair.

    Without 100% focus, I can’t work.

    That makes me a pain in the you-know-what to be around during the day. I scowl when I type, I’m told. And look up at interruptions like I’m ready to bite.

    And I don’t doubt it. Because I now that once I stop, I’ll need another half hour to get rolling again.

    I’ve always felt a little bad about that.

    But it turns out, according to what Richtel says is “half a century of proof,” many more of us are that way than I ever imagined.

    What’s more, you’re probably better off resigning yourself to focusing on one thing than you realize.

    Even though, with your email alerts dinging and your cell-phone vibrating, it doesn’t always feel that way.

    When you multi-task, says a particular set of scientists from the University of San Diego, it might feel like you’re doing a lot at once.

    But what you’re actually doing is switching back and forth between tasks. And most likely, you’re not doing it well.

    Think cocktail party and trying to register two conversations simultaneously… think airline pilot tweeting to his girlfriend during a landing… think surgeon calling the deli for a roast-beef on rye, while he’s wrapping up a brain operation.

    If we’re paying attention to one process, say the tests, our brains are hard-wired to ignore everything else. Even if only for microseconds at a time.

    So what, if we get it done, right?

    I know one guy who writes with the TV on, he says. And he’s good. I know others who keep IM and email windows open and cell phones within reach. And they all still earn a good living.

    But you have to wonder, how much better would they do without the willing distractions? Maybe a lot better, if these findings are right.

    In fact, the research even shows that those that cling their multi-tasking beliefs end up being SLOWER in tests than the single-minded simpletons, who score better at both noticing small details and juggling when forced to balance between different assignments.

    I guess what I’m saying is… wait, hang on a sec… I just got an email… this is good… ha… I’ll be right back, I swear…

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    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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