Tagged: writing

When Clichés Work “Like Gangbusters”

cliche pic.png I joked in an issue of my e-letter about writing “good,” and got a note from a reader soon after that said…

“So there I was reading my favorite newsletter writer and I come across, ‘For career success: lather, rinse, repeat.’ A cliche!

“Say it ain’t so. You’re beyond trite phrases and careless writing. So please don’t do it again. I can’t stand to be disillusioned.”

In my defense, this was my reply…

“Me, beyond trite phrases? Never!

“I admit that I agree — we need yet another hackneyed piece of writing like we need a hole in the head. There’s nothing worse, after all, than phrases as worn out as an old shoe. As writer and grammarian extraordinaire, William Safire, once said, ‘last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.’

“But please, when it comes to the ‘rules’ on using cliches, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, shall we? That is to say, with this knee-jerk critique, I fear you might be barking up the wrong tree.

“After all, while I know it’s never too late to learn something new about writing (better late than never, I always say) the tradition of using cliches in copy is about as old as dirt and not always the refuge of the village idiot, as you make it seem.

“In short, never say never.

“Because sometimes, frankly, a well-worn cliche can actually be just what the doctor ordered, especially when you’re caught between a rock and a hard place at the end of a piece and you want to convey an idea both quickly and maybe with a little irony.

“To put it simply, the point of the article is to look at new challenges with innocence and new ideas, rather than falling back on the tried and true… and shopworn.  With the irony here being, that’s a piece of advice we’ll have to return to over a lifetime of writing, much in the same way a dog returns to his own vomit. It is an  insight that can only come from, well, experience.

“It is what it is.”

To which my reader wisely replied, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” And so it is. Except when it isn’t. But that’s for another time.

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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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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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What’s The “Big Idea?”

bulb.png What’s the single toughest secret you’ll ever learn, if you hope to blow the doors off the world of writing sales copy?

For all the clever metaphors you’ll ever come up with, for all the phrases and images, the formatting breakthroughs, the clever taglines, and everything else… nothing will pack more career-building punch for a copywriter… than mastering the art of coming up with “big ideas.”

By no coincidence, that alone could take you a lifetime of writing.

Great copywriter and originator of the “big idea” idea himself, David Ogilvy, once claimed that he came up with only about 20 so-called “big ideas” in his entire career. And yet, that was enough to more than create his fame and fortune.

So what does a “big idea” look like? I’ve seen many try to define it.

Here’s one more list of filters to add to your collection…

* Big Ideas Have Instant Appeal:

Have you ever had a ‘gut’ feeling about a person? Have you ever asked a long-married couple when they decided to get married, only to find out they ‘just knew’ after just meeting each other?

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Blink,” calls it ‘thin-slicing.’ And it’s what we do, naturally, whenever we encounter something new.

Your target audience will do it too. Which is why you have ZERO luxury for trying to convey a complex idea in that very first instant your copy flashes them in the face.

They’ll “thin-slice” you, as a reflex.

They’ll compress all their judgment about whether to read on into that moment. If you don’t manage to win them over, in milliseconds, say hello to the trashcan.

So, the Big Idea is an idea that can be sorted, absorbed, and understood instantaneously. Which is why cleverness and complexity in advertising can be so dangerous for even the most skilled of copy wordsmiths.

* Big Ideas are Tightly Expressed:

Just because an idea has impact, doesn’t mean it has to be dense. In fact, the opposite is the idea. The more insightful the idea, the tighter you can usually sum it up.

And you should aim to do exactly that. Preferably in 8 words or less. And as early as possible, so that your reader knows as soon as possible what you’re getting at.

* Big Ideas Have Momentum:

Gladwell has another more famous book that I’m sure you’ve read, “The Tipping Point.” He starts off talking about a suede shoe.

It was big in the ’70s, and then disappeared. Suddenly, over 20 years later, it came back with a vengeance. First, on the hip street corners of Manhattan’s East Village. Then across town… uptown… then to young and artsy areas in cities across the U.S. Why?

Nobody, even the shoemaker, could tell.

Only that an idea started to build. It spread. By the time everyone noticed, it suddenly petered out again. It was too late. The trend had come and gone, elusive to all who’d tried to do anything but hang on for the ride.

Ideas are like that.

They catch on, they build, and then, just when you least expect it, they can recede out of popularity again. The best marketer is plugged in enough to see the swell of the wave coming, before it crests.

* Big Ideas Are Timely:

Related to the idea of momentum is the timeliness of an idea, especially when you’re selling information products. How so?

I write almost exclusively, these days, for financial products. My best promos tend to hinge on what’s happening in the markets.

For example, when oil sold at $147 per barrel, anything I wrote about oil and energy related investment products was almost a sure bet to do well.

In the mid 1990s, the market’s mind was elsewhere. You couldn’t say anything about investing without talking about the Internet, telecoms, or biotech.

When that market crashed in 2000, the tide of desire had shifted over night. Trying to write tech pitches suddenly became about as tough as talking a tabby into taking a dip in a hot tub.

Of course, the greatest asset you get by finding the timeliest ideas is that timeliness brings with a sense of urgency to your message. Maybe as a warning. Maybe as an unfolding opportunity.

But either way, you’re much better off when you’ve got that element to whatever you’re writing.

* Big Ideas Are Original:

Ideas feel biggest when you’re among the first to deliver the message. When you’re playing catch up to everyone else, not so much.

Even an idea that’s already current, already popular, and already talked about… gains new life when you can make it even more ‘new,’ simply by finding the extra twist.

This is why headlines built on “secrets” are so effective. We naturally want to read the story nobody else is telling.

The new angle… the new information… the overlooked discovery… there are many ways to do this. All of them, almost always, are buried in the unique details of the story you’re telling.

* Big Ideas Have Depth:

Yep, I said that ideas need to be simply and clearly expressed. But can you have clarity and substance, even in a short line?

Absolutely, you can.

When we say that Big Ideas need “depth” what we mean is richness and life-altering impact. Ask yourself; does the Idea suggest major change ahead? Is it something that will shock, awaken, or fascinate your reader?

If not, why would the reader want to read on? And why would you want to get the success of that letter… or your business… on something that thin?

* Big Ideas Are Emotionally Stirring:

Too often, we mistake the preponderance of proof behind an Idea as all the “Bigness” we need for selling.

With smugness, we script any old headline, knowing it’s just a set up to hit the reader with blazing, double guns of the most rock-solid bullet points and factoids you’ve ever seen.

Sure, proofs matter in persuasion.

But, in the end, the one thing that makes one Big Idea compelling beyond any other, is it’s ability to sneak behind that locked door of the mind, where the emotional reasoning resides.

It must make a connection with that core, unspoken, and perhaps unrecognized place where the reader’s heart really resides.

Are there other ways to know if you’ve got your mitts on a “big idea” or not? Absolutely, there are. But this is a pretty good start. Try putting your next piece of copy through these paces and see for yourself.

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How to Write Faster

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

1) A More Consistent Working Environment:

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

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

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

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

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

2) A Set Time For Working:

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

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

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

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

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

3) Last, Rituals that Boost Confidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) Bonus Tip:

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

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

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

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

I hope all those ideas help.

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

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The Two Best Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try it. You’ll be surprised.

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How Curiosity Can Save a Copywriter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s hoping you do.

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Better Than Money

beach worker.png “We must not be free because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.”

– William Faulkner

My friend Paul Hollingshead is pretty smart fella.

He recently wrote a piece that shared the math on this career path we’ve chosen, direct response copywriting.

In case you don’t know how you got here — and some don’t — let’s backtrack a bit: copywriting means writing writing ad copy. The headlines. The print ads you see. Billboards. TV ads. And sales letters.

In the role that Paul and I and many others play, we’re talking most of all about the sales letters. Really long ones, that can range 8… 16… even 24 pages or longer.

These days, we’re talking more specifically about sales letters on the Internet. Usually posted to a website or read off in “video” form, with text on screen.

I’m almost sure you’ve seen these ads. Maybe you’ve even responded to a few of them. But what happens on the other side of the screen? As Paul spelled out, people like us get paid to write those ads. And we often get paid pretty well.

Two weeks of writing or maybe three can bring you, the writer, a $10,000 fee. Throw in another two or three weeks of good sales, and you could see $30,000 in royalties. That’s a pretty tidy sum — $40,000 — for about a month of work and waiting.

That’s not unprecedented. For some us, it’s the norm or even a slow return. At the very top, it would be downright depressing. I’ve seen writers make twice that in a month. I’ve done it myself. I’ve seen a handful do that much in a week.

In short, Paul’s right. This gig can pay.

But the writing students I meet are so focused on the income potential, I don’t get asked often enough about other benefits. Since you can start enjoying these benefits even before you hit the big time — and perhaps if you never do — let’s talk about them now.

One of the big ones is, of course, the freedom. I used to work in an office, on someone else’s schedule. But you really can write copy from anywhere. All you need is a laptop and a Wifi connection. Heck, you could pull off a productive afternoon with a legal pad.

It did take work to get “good,” but once demand for my copy started to go up, I started working from home. Then from London, for a couple months. After that, I spent two months writing in a French farmhouse. Then I fulfilled a dream and moved to a sun-dappled apartment on the best street in the West Village, in New York City.

Since then, I’ve also worked seaside in Greece… under a friend’s grape arbor and in a family gazebo… poolside in Florida and pub-side in Dublin… on a cruise ship… and right now, from a favorite armchair in our apartment, here in Paris.

I didn’t need to put in for vacation time. I didn’t even ask anybody’s permission. I just packed up and went. These days, I bring my family.

When we go on vacation, I just get up a little earlier than they do and work until lunchtime. This way, we can take two or three vacations a year. Sometimes more.

Honestly, I have to remind myself now NOT to work when we go away.

What about the client? I take calls on Skype. We email. Sometimes I combine a vacation with an onsite visit. Sometimes they even pay for the travel, because I “trade” it for a brainstorming meeting or a mini-seminar.

As long as the work gets done, they’re happy.

You can’t imagine how great this is when you have young kids. Every morning, I walk them to school. Every afternoon, I’m here when they get home. No rush hour or missed family dinners. Even if I have a deadline, I still get to be nearby.

You can’t say that about most office jobs.

You can’t even say it about most jobs in sales. But with my kind of copy career, I don’t need to do cold calls or hit the road, either. One letter gets scaled up to mail worldwide, with results that roll in overnight. I like that too.

Perhaps least obvious to the early writer, though, is the job security.

After you do this awhile, you start to realize that the better you can sell, the more indispensable you become.

Suddenly, you’re the one people look to at meetings. You’re the one they count on. You’re even among those they call first, when any new project comes along.

Why? Because nothing happens in any business, until somebody sells something. By being the copywriter, you become that somebody. It’s that simple.

You would think that in today’s market, with so much of the job characteristics a lot of people look for, that there would be a glut of copywriters out there… fighting for clients.

You might even think that people like me would want to keep new writers out, just to short circuit new competition.

But the truth is, demand for good copywriters has never been higher.

With the Internet, every sales piece reaches out to many more markets. And many more people get to see each ad, more often. New ads need writing, just to replace them.

Meanwhile, many more businesses continue to crop up online. The industry is constantly looking for new “talent” to fill the void.

So why not be that talent, yes?

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Sleep, The Ultimate Writing Tool

snoringIn a 2004 study from the University of Luebeck in Germany, 106 volunteers showed they could do three times better on a simple test than those who had piled up LESS than 8 hours of sleep.

 Sleep, it turns out, gives your brain time to “repack” the day’s collected memories for longer-term storage. In the process, your powers of creativity get a boost. The more you sleep, the faster it seems you’re able to sort through all those ideas and make the connections you need to come up with something new.

 For the same reasons… sleep works as a writing tool too.

Think about it…

Have you ever fell asleep with a problem on your mind, only to wake up with the solution.Countless writers, businessmen, musicians, and other creative types make similar claims.

 Per psych Professor Richard of the University of Hertfordshire, England, “In our dreams we produce unusual combinations of ideas that can seem surreal, but every once in a while result in an amazingly creative solution to an important problem.”

 How to take advantage of these findings?

Here are some ways…

 1. Skip “must-see” TV. In fact, throw out your television altogether. Studies show television disrupts sleep even if you’re NOT staying up late to watch Conan or Letterman.

 2. Give late-night net surfing a pass too, if you have trouble sleeping. As well as answering late-night email. I’m working on these two bad habits myself.

 3. Go easy on late-night sugar or caffeine. That double coffee-ice cream mocha fudge sundae with espresso bean sprinkles might sound delicious after dinner, but you’ll be sorry come 3 am.

 4. Go easy on workaholic behavior too. Working until 10 pm every night might feel righteous and good, but it’s not only hard on family life, you deny your body time to ‘untighten.”

 5. That said, if you do have a tough problem to work out, give it a 15-minute review before going to bed. You just might wake up with the solution.

 6. Exercise, they tell me, helps you sleep even more deeply. So do breathing exercises before bed (like the ones where you inhale and exhale using only your abdomen).

 7. Sleep late? Not hardly. It turns out one of the best ways to guarantee a good night’s sleep is to load up on sunlight the preceding morning, the earlier the better.

 8. Besides, say early-risers, you really do get more done when you start early. Even, by the way, if you work the same number of hours as the night owls. Nothing helps you sleep better than knowing you’ve gotten a lot done.

Yes, they’re just tips on getting better sleep. But I can tell you, as a parent of two kids under age five, there are the nights you get no sleep… and the nights you get plenty… and there’s a world of difference. In every way, including in front of the keyboard.

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When It Pays to Praise

butterI’ve gotten a few copy critiques in my day. I’ve given a few, too. And I’ve discovered there’s one essential element to making them effective: “ego butter.” Let me back up a bit, so I can explain by way of example.

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. 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.

No, not all copywriters are the egoists and temperamental “artistes” like this guy might have been. But we are only human. Good copywriters put a lot of work goes into what they produce. Great ones put a little heart and soul into 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.

The good writers, unlike our phone call friend, take it with a smile. But there’s a way to get an even better result. And it’s simple. You simply start with the positive.

Not excessively so, not insincerely. But clearly and immediately. “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.”

Pandering? Perhaps.

But what’s the goal of the critic? Is it to toughen the recipient’s skin or to get the best possible result?

(I, by the way, really DO think that the purest professionals become immune to most negative criticism. But when you’re in a situation where you’re giving direct review… still say this advice is going to get you further. Try it yourself and you’ll see. Or better yet, try the peer review technique perfected by my friends over at AWAI.)

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