What Time Do Real Writers Get Up?

shopping What time do real writers get out of bed?

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

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

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

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

Check it out by clicking here

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Advice to a Young Writer

“If I had to give young writers advice,
I would say don’t listen to writers
talking about writing or themselves.”

– Lillian Hellman

Via an old friend, a young writer sent me an email: How, he wanted to know, should he get started?

He’s a good-hearted guy, a poet, and does some work in the non-profit, fundraising field.

From what I could tell, he’s not really sure if copywriting is the field for him. Or moving ahead with trying to publish his poems. Or some other kind of writing.

Is there a future for him, he wonders, in fund-raising? And how about the money thing? Is every writer destined to starve?

(He didn’t ask that, but I know he’s thinking it.)

Ah… to be young and full of questions. I remember it like it was yesterday. Because, let’s face it, it WAS yesterday… wasn’t it?

Well, anyway, I sent him an answer.

Maybe more of an answer than he wanted.

In fact, I think I scared him. Because I haven’t heard from him since. Just the same, it’s what I would tell any writer… and hey, you’re writers… so how about it? Care to take a gander at what I said? Sure you do.

So here you go…

ADVICE TO A YOUNG WRITER

Dear “Al,”

I think I was telling your girlfriend, I used to be a living-room novelist. That is, I’d sit around in my apartment living room… usually in a t-shirt and boxers on Saturday mornings… with a beer and a hangover, trying to kick start various pieces I was working on.

Either that, or I’d spent a lot of time scribbling furiously in a journal. I piled up a lot of pages. But here’s the thing…

It’s hard to make time for writing if all you’re doing with your writing is making time.

You don’t want to squeeze off shots into the air. You need a target. 25 poems and a publishing deadline. 3 short stories sold by the end of the year. A publisher breathing down your neck for a manuscript.

Imagine someone will take a limb if you don’t meet the goal. Better, ask someone to take one if you don’t. That’s a metaphor, of course, about making it real.

Point being, if you’re not on the line for your writing, you’ll probably never make it happen. Blunt but true.

Fear to write? That goes away fast when you’re more afraid of what will happen to your paycheck — and your reputation — for not turning in the stuff you’ve promised to turn in.

Fear of not being persuasive? I’m not kidding, one of my writing mentors used to take me over to the window and say, “Imagine you were standing out there in the park, trying to sell a watch to that guy on the bench… and I had a deer rifle trained on your head… if he didn’t buy, you didn’t survive. What would you say to him then? Because that’s how you need to make it happen on paper.”

For me, I ultimately moved away from fiction not because I didn’t love it, but because I wasn’t doing it. I wasn’t working at it the way I knew I would need to if I really wanted to make it happen. And the rent check was due.

To get my foot in the door at the publishing company where I started, I took a $15-per-day internship as an editorial writer (this was in 1991).

I was still in grad school at the time, working during the day… going to classes at night… playing guitar with a friend in a bar after classes until closing… then getting up to do it all over again the next day.

The bar and guitar part, I could have done without. But I had to work and wiggle my way into place for the rest of it.

I was terrible at the start.

That is, my writing was technically pretty good, but I didn’t know how to write sales copy. So a lot of my earlier stuff got thrown away. Either by me or the guy who first started training me.

After about four months, I had a promo in the mail. After about six months, I had my first winning (by a narrow margin) promo, after my first year I was finally starting to get the hang of it. But I had to work at it. And the deadlines are what kept me going, when all else failed.

That’s not to say this kind of writing is for you, by the way. It might be. But you have to know first what it involves.

For instance, there are generally two types of advertising. What most agencies do is called “Brand Advertising” or “Awareness Advertising.”

They put a message out there, hope it gets noticed, and then hope it leads customers back to the product (well, the good ones hope that… the bad ad professionals just want to win awards and impress clients with how cool and witty they can be).

This can be a lucrative field if you can (a) stick out the abusive apprentice phase in which the agency tries to chew you up and spit you out, for very meager pay and (b) you don’t mind working on ads that may or may not ever sell anything.

What I do is called “direct response” or “direct mail” advertising. Basically, junk mail. Though these days, most of what we do is really happening online.

This is considered the ugly duckling of the ad world. Where copywriters from the big agencies are drinking martinis at the bar and wearing black turtleneck sweaters, direct-response copywriters are in the corner drinking beer and, probably, hovering over the free happy-hour slices of pizza.

The benefit of that second kind of advertising, however, is that every single “piece” or sales letter that gets mailed has an individual reply device, coded with the date of the mailing and, usually, the name of the copywriter who wrote it.

The same is true of sales letters online, only they’re tracked via clicks. When a customer makes an order from a letter you wrote, everybody knows it. And they pay you a royalty on it. Those royalties are part of what you negotiate when you take on the job.

I happen to work in the newsletter publishing business. But there are lots of other businesses that depend on direct-response copy. Fund raising is one of them. Business-driving brochures and websites for non-profits is another. These both tend to be less lucrative than what I’m doing, but can be pretty profitable nonetheless.

How would I suggest you get started?

You mentioned just going after the jobs without the portfolio. I think that’s best, with a twist. Rather than try to fake your way in, blind, something you can always do is go after the freelance jobs with the intention of building a portfolio. And you can say that to a prospective client too.

“Look,” you tell them, “I have experience in the non-profit field, but I’m looking to branch out. Since I’m just getting started, I can see why you’d want some kind of guarantee of getting quality copy, so how about this? Let’s settle on a base fee that’s half the normal rate. I’ll write the project and we’ll go through the draft phases. If you end up liking what we produce, you can pay me the rest of the fee. And if not, then we can cancel the project and you don’t have to pay me anything more. Does that sound fair? That way, I get to build my portfolio and you get the copy…”

Forget the school and forget building a portfolio with no clear purpose in mind, unless you’ve got a lot of time to spare. Training is good. But getting right in there and getting started is better.

That said, you do need some kind of education in the techniques. And there are piles of online courses. They cost money and you can’t be sure if what you’re getting is worthwhile.

Though, I do recommend one that some friends of mine started, called the American Writers & Artists Inc. It’s mostly about copywriting but they have other courses. You can Google it. I teach some of their writing seminars from time to time. At the very least, looking over their site will start giving you some ideas about available writer’s markets.

You can also go to a library or bookstore and look for books by Bob Bly on this and other kinds of writing careers (not “Robert Bly,” the poet, but “Bob Bly” the copywriter). If you end up going the copywriter route, let me know and I’ll send you a list of some more books that might help.

If it’s article writing you want to do, you might get a copy of “Writer’s Market 2007.” Just be aware that it’s pretty tough to make a living only writing magazine articles. Most magazine writers can be found in the kitchen washing dishes… next to the poets ūüėČ

As for leaving your job… you could do that, but I recommend you don’t. Not until you’ve at least taken a look at some of the resources I mention above to decide if they’re really for you.

And if they are, still dig into them first and make sure you like what they have to offer. Get a couple of clients or other repeating gigs, and THEN you can plunge in head first.

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

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

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

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

I know more than I can count.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What else have I noticed about copywriting types?

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

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

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

We like movies. And music.

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

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

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

Not necessarily the usual compulsions, either.

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

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

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

Copywriters are also a curious bunch.

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

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

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

The same goes for analogies.

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

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

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

Not everybody can do both.

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

This list could go on.

But you more than get the picture.

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

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

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Gene Schwartz’s 33-minute Secret

eggsaredoneGet a kitchen timer and put it on your desk.

Set it for 33 minutes. Now start writing.

Write anything.  Just fill the page.

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

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

“When I press the start button, I can do anything I want. All willpower is dissolved. I can do anything as long as it relates to the piece of copy in front of me. I can ignore it. I don‚Äôt have to touch it. I don‚Äôt have to look at it. But I can‚Äôt get up from the desk, and I can‚Äôt 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‚Äôt I beautiful? Why don‚Äôt you pull me out and put me on top?’ Or, ‘Why don‚Äôt you change this phraseology? It‚Äôs extremely ineptly put’… ¬†What happens is that I begin to get into it. ¬†Within about five minutes I am working…”

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

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

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

And with that, I’ll…

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The Marketing Test That Saved the World

needleIn 1977 in the Horn of Africa…¬† a marketing test saved the world. But let’s back up just a second.¬†What’s “testing” exactly? If you’re a working pro, you know already. To test is the soul of good marketing.

 You test different versions of headlines to see which pulls the biggest response. You test the price, you test the mailing lists, you test the guarantee. You even test the size of your envelope, the color of your paper, or the format of your landing page.

¬†Without testing, you’ve put all your eggs in one basket. With testing, you can blow open windows, doors, and whole vistas of opportunity.¬†Keep that message in mind as we roll back to Africa, deep in the rough and raw territories of Somalia and Ethiopia, in the summer of 1977.

Here’s the story…

 A Microbe Hunt That Almost Hit a Dead End

Dr. Greene was just one of many top scientists on the ground that year, with the World Health Organization (WHO).¬†For 20 years straight, the WHO had waged a war against smallpox, one of the world’s deadliest diseases.

You might not know diddly about the history of smallpox. And consider yourself lucky. Because this little, invisible, pernicious virus had been killing indiscriminately for at least 3,000 years.

 Egyptian mummies have shown signs of infection. Recorded cases appear in China and India, going back to 1,500 B.C. Smallpox helped wipe out the Aztecs and the Incas. And killed 400,000 Europeans per year, for most of the 1700s.

 Countless faceless millions fell.

Along with at least five European monarchs, including King Louis XV and most of his family. 

Queen Elizabeth got lucky. She had it and survived. So did Stalin, Lincoln, and George Washington along with Mozart and Beethoven.

 Still, even during the 20th century, the disease killed up to 500 million. Even 150 years after Edward Jenner discovered the smallpox vaccine, in 1950, over the virus still infected 50 million.

 As late as 1967, 15 million people had it. Of those, another 2 million died. But by 1977, that changed.

¬†The WHO had the disease cornered.¬†Only the territory on Africa’s tip still hosted outbreaks. Only a handful of towns and villages had yet to get vaccinated.

¬†But that’s when the doctors hit a roadblock.

¬†Local wars, terrible roads, and famine already made the job of spreading the vaccine tough. But paranoid local leaders made it impossible.¬†They distrusted the West. They didn’t have any knowledge of or faith in the WHO. And none of the local leaders, more militant than political, wanted these strange doctors anywhere near their people.

Especially not doctors armed with needles.

¬†Tensions ran so high, at one point it looked like the WHO team was about to get tossed out on their tails… with their medical kits following close behind.

 Then one of the doctors got an idea.

The Test That Changed Everything 

In every village, the WHO team had gone straight to the political junta… the men who sat on the council and held the leadership… and pitched the political and scientific advantages of allowing the vaccinations.

¬†It didn’t take. But then one of the doctors decided that if taking the case to the men in charge wouldn’t work… what about the women?

He cornered the top wife (the leader had more than one) and talked to her about the children… about personal loss in the village… and about medical miracles, already happening elsewhere.

 The next morning, the doctors got a message.

 The village council wanted to hear more about the vaccine. Within days, the doctors vaccination centers set up and a line of villagers going out the door.

 Within a week, the local leaders had sent messages to other nearby towns, endorsing the treatment.

 Over and over, the doctors used the technique in other villages across the Horn of Africa.

 On October 26, 1977, a cook from Somalia named Ali Maow Maalin checked into a small hospital with the last known naturally occurring case of smallpox.

¬†It’s the first and last time we’ve eradicated a human disease. And one of the greatest feats of modern medicine.

¬†Could it have happened without the “test” of both audience and message? Probably not.

¬†I worked briefly for Dr. Greene in 1990, doing some transcription work. He showed me snapshots he’d taken during the trip. And told me this story.¬†It was an afterthought, he said. A last ditch effort and an almost-missed opportunity. Like many tests in our business, too — almost missed opportunities.

Sound familiar? Let’s hope not.

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The Details That Close Sales

magnifyMies van der Rohe, a twentieth-century architect, once said that God hides in the details. And says writer Anne Lamott, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.”

What is it that they know that we don’t?¬†Not much, actually.

Since, after all, any good copywriter also knows that when you really… really… want to make for a powerful sales pitch, digging into the small details can be your most powerful technique.¬†

Here’s an example. Which of the following descriptions sounds better to you?

“I live on a big street in the city.”

Or…

“I live on a leafy, sun-dappled boulevard in Paris?”

For me, both are true. Because they’re one and the same.

But doesn’t the second “option” sound better?

Here’s another example…

Some years ago, I gave a copy seminar in Poland. I knew nothing about the country, honestly,
except what I’d seen on the news about labor strikes in the 1980s… and what I’d read in history books about World War II.

I came away, however, as travelers often do after seeing a totally new place up close. In fact, some of those images still stick with me today. It was, in short, a really nice place.

Oh… wait… just saying it was “nice” isn’t enough?

Okay, here’s more: Outside of Krakow, we saw an underground cathedral built deep inside a salt mine and decorated with a dozen crystal chandeliers and life-size religious statues made entirely of salt.

In the Royal Palace, the walls were covered with etched leather. On Sunday, we fed walnuts to the peacocks that wander Warsaw’s park. We dined on spinach-filled perogi and drank warm honey wine.

Now… which description wakes up your imagination?

“Nice” or the ones that actually painted a picture. No, I’m not writing a travel brochure here, but I’m sure you get the point. Those details that make the images more alluring, are what some writers call “actualities.” And they can make all the difference when you’re trying to persuade somebody to do anything in print.

See, many new copywriters get in the bad habit of painting their word pictures in only broad strokes. And sometimes, that’s enough. For instance, when you’re breezing past a point that’s already clearly imprinted on your prospect’s mind… and that’s been illustrated ad infinitum elsewhere.

But other times, you’ve got a lot of selling power locked in the “actualities” or fine details of the images you’re presenting or the product you’re selling.

Dig out the right ones and trot them past your prospect, and you could just unlock the selling opportunity that otherwise might have passed you by.

Here’s another example…

A LEAD THAT’S WORKED FOR 17 YEARS

For at least the last 17 years, the newsletter INTERNATIONAL LIVING has mailed a sales package that begins:

“You look out your window, past your gardener, who is busily pruning the lemon, cherry, and fig trees…amidst the splendor of gardenias, hibiscus, and hollyhocks.

“The sky is clear blue. The sea is a deeper blue, sparkling with sunlight.

“A gentle breeze comes drifting in from the ocean, clean and refreshing, as your maid brings you breakfast in bed.

“For a moment, you think you have died and gone to heaven. But this paradise is real. And affordable. In fact, it costs only half as much to live this dream lifestyle…as it would to stay in your own home!”

What makes that work, in your mind?

The newsletter is about retiring overseas… it’s about travel to exotic, undiscovered places… it’s about a life transformation that begins when you take a step out into the world.

Could a letter selling the product possibly start in any other way? As it happens, in this case, they’ve never really beaten it… except with other letters that were just as focused on those fine and enticing kinds of travel details.

And even then, only for a short while.

Too much detail, of course, is just as much of a hindrance as too little. But just the right touch, like a dash of paint in just the right spot on a canvas… or a splash of the right spice in a stew… can make your copy incredibly powerful.

Here’s a rundown of what a really well chosen “actuality” can do…

IT CAN MAKE YOUR MESSAGE “REAL”: The right “actuality” can give a story a much greater presence, a feel of truth.

IT CAN MAKE YOUR MESSAGE UNIQUE: Getting specific is often the fastest way to make average copy rise above the mean. Why?

Because the details prevent the reader from lumping your message in with other ones that would otherwise sound so similar. Simple enough.

IT CAN EXPRESS MORE IN A SMALL SPACE: Again, good description doesn’t mean writing longer. In fact, it often means the opposite.

A good word-picture example can make a message clear faster than a drawn-out explanation of a point.

IT CAN TRANSPORT THE READER: Like a good movie or book, where the audience gets lost in the story, careful use of detail can draw a prospect into getting “lost” in (wrapped up in) the excitement of your sales message.

How much detail is TOO much?

You need just enough detail to stir emotions and put images inside the reader’s head.

Some other tips…

* Try delivering the detailed image first, then follow up with a promise… either to deliver on a good image or to help a prospect avoid a bad one, depending on what you’ve presented.

* Focus on sensory details (touch, sight, sound, taste, smell) and numbers. The former appeal most to emotions, the latter to logic.

* Use details to show transition or improvement: “Jeff Johansen used to take a city bus to the unemployment office. Now he drives an S-class Mercedes to the gym…”

* Describe an emotional reaction you want your prospect to feel. “Dear Friend, When I read the latest report from the FDA, I just about dropped my coffee mug. Let me show you what it said…”

You get the point. The goal of the actuality is simple. It is to allow the reader to see your writing as more than just word patterns on a white page.

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A Painful Lesson in Supreme Service

 Call it an airport casualty.

¬†A ruptured tendon in your poor editor’s left calf, thanks to a nearly missed flight this past week, in Frankfurt Germany.

 Seems the TSA in Philly pulled a surprise security inspection on the first leg (no pun intended) of my Lufthansa flight back to Europe. It took just long enough to eat away at my connection window on the other end, and I was left to sprint O.J. style (pre-crime spree) to my gate.

¬†In case you’ve yet to visit, the Frankfurt airport is an interesting place. Especially when you’re running late.¬†Long corridors, lots of stairs, moving walkways, stupefied crowds trying to make sense of the overly complicated signs and directives.

 I jumped, I dodged, I hurtled.

¬†Three hallways, five flights of steps, a tunnel, one passport and security checkpoint each, and two 100 meter moving walkways later… and with a 30-lb backpack over my shoulder… I made the gate, sweating but relieved.¬†Until I figured out that this wasn’t the right gate anymore. The sign that should have said “Paris” now said “Hamburg.”

¬†With less than 60 seconds to spare and no sign anywhere indicating the new gate, I got news from a desk agent that the new departure deck was a hefty 29 gates away… easily 15 minutes on foot.

 But I had to try, and try I did.

With a pivot and a leap, I landed back on another moving walkway ready for another full tilt run… when something went “pop” in my left leg.¬†Like a bullet, like a hammer, like something your leg is not supposed to do… especially when you’ve got a flight to catch… but it went ahead and did it anyway.

¬†I couldn’t move forward another inch.

¬†And that’s where luck steps in, in the form of Lufthansa’s extremely helpful crew.

 At exactly that moment, a yellow electric cart pulled up, carting two older French women who also now happened to be at the wrong gate for their flight. I hopped over and explained what just happened to the driver. She helped me up on the back, jumped off to call and ask them to hold the plane, then whisked us over to the right gate. I never would have made it, even without the injury, any other way.

¬†At the desk, she checked me in and suggested a wheelchair. I couldn’t even hop the length of the boarding tunnel without whimpering like a kicked dog. So I accepted.

¬†She called ahead and arranged another one for Paris. And on the flight, an attendant just coming off a 22-hour shift… and heading back home to Paris… insisted on getting me ice, checking in on me, and even offering to drop me off at my apartment after getting me through customs.

I told her I’d be fine. But another airport rep on the French side rolled me through the labyrinth of Terminal One at CDG, waited while I picked up my bag, and helped me into a taxi.¬†Three days later, I’m well on the way to better. Two weeks from now, I’ll have forgotten the injury (almost) entirely.

¬†But what I’ll remember is the customer care.

We don’t fly Lufthansa often, because we prefer to skip making that connection in Germany.¬†Still, should the need ever come up again, I’ll fly with them gladly. And I know I’ll talk them up to friends looking to book flights on the same route.

¬†As copywriters, we spend so much time getting customers in the door. It’s too easy to forget about them once that’s done.¬†Yet look what happens when a business that’s already made the sale and banked the money, still insists on going the extra mile.

© 2008 John Forde

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Ego-Butter: How to Give a Copy Critique

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

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

Let me back up.

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

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

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

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

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

But here’s the thing…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, of course I’m kidding here.

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

Is that pandering? Perhaps.

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

The latter, I’d assume.

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Help Wanted…

help wanted

Know WordPress? 

How about PHP? 

And anything else along those lines, for that matter. 

Because yours truly is looking for a little help. Yep, I’m hiring. Well… in a manner of speaking. Truthfully, what I’m most likely to do is go to one of the many excellent outsourcing sites I’ve seen (DoMyStuff.com, GetFriday, Yo

urManInIndia, etc.) and hire someone from there. 

But just in case you find it interesting, here’s what I’m looking for: This website needs tweaking. For instance, I’ve discovered that it’s programmed to crash Internet Explorer 6. Not intentionally so. But it’s successful at it nonetheless.¬†

It also has a strange stickiness to it that hangs on to some design changes I’d like to dump, even after I’ve tweaked them in the behind-the-scenes customization interface. And it “breaks” some features. Like the Archives, for instance (go ahead, click ’em… you won’t get anything, even though there’s a plug in set up to deliver archives that’s supposed to do the trick.)

Then there are the things I just don’t know how to do but would like to. Add in design pages that don’t have the sidebars and header. Have sales pages that I can link to but that remain hidden until they’re referenced in ads. Create a forum for you guys to poke around and chat with each other. Create a membership only paid part of the site where I can give away lots of extra goodies. Program in some SEO keywords, etc.

And so on.

So how about it? Anyone out there a closet programming whiz? Warning… since I can outsource a lot of this stuff fairly easily, I’m not looking to hire full-time or to spend a bundle. I just want to get a couple of repairs made so I can open up access to the site and increase the traffic.¬†

Drop a comment onto this article and it will get to me via email.

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A Surprising Storytelling Secret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First ideas are rarely amazing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something worth thinking about.

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