speed

What’s the fastest way to master copywriting… or anything, for that matter?

You could sign up for the courses online. You can read all the books. You can go to the seminars, drink protein shakes at the keyboard, or slaughter goats at the foot of a guru. And all are good, except maybe the goat bit. 

But there’s an even easier way.

Said Edmund Burke, “It is by imitation that we learn everything.” Of course, he was just copying Aristotle who had said it a couple thousand years earlier.  Classical Roman rhetoricians taught the technique as “imitatio.” And then there was Ben Franklin, who educated himself using an imitation technique he describes in his autobiography.

Who else? Before Stephen King wrote blockbusters, he wrote out passages of “Moby Dick” over and over in college.  Virgil did the same with passages of Homeric verse. Daniel Defoe holed up with a copy of Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” and copied it out a few times, long before launching into “Robinson Crusoe.” 

Painters, actors, and musicians — imitating the masters plays a key role in all their training.

I’ve even got a local example for you: My wife is a classically trained musician with a graduate degree in Baroque opera. At the conservatory, aside from actually singing the arias, she and fellow students had to sit down with fat scores of famous pieces and write them out — note for note — over and over again.

Once, she says, she and three friends once spent 72 hours hand-copying all 300 pages of Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion. After finishing, they had to write their own fugues, but with Bach-esque flourishes sprinkled generously throughout. 

Here’s where the magic happens. The bridge between strict imitation and your own mastery is the spark that awakens, shapes, and educates that handy little tool we all call “creativity.”

Even in the natural world, you’ve got your irrefutable examples. Think about it. Not only do babies learn to speak by imitation. But also, beavers learn to build dams by imitation. Seals learn to swim by imitation.  Lions learn to hunt by imitation. Zebras learn to run by imitation.

So what’s stopping copywriters? Imitation, for some, has a stigma. It feels like cheating. Or a lack of confidence. Or maybe… illegal. And yes, if you’re talking about copying someone’s work and then passing it off as your own… that’s just not kosher. It’s even counter-productive to the growth of your own talents.

However, what we’re talking about here is different.

You’re copying — verbatim — the best stuff. But only to learn, in a way that you just can’t do by memorizing theory or learning from books and seminars, what’s working between the lines of the ads you’re studying. It’s an education of the subconscious. And you’ll be surprised by how well it works.

To try it yourself, do this:

First, get your hands on a blockbuster sales letter that’s similar to whatever you’re selling. Make sure it’s a good one and not a dud. Check the marketing reports, talk to the product managers, get on the mailing list.

When you’ve picked your piece, and before you do anything else, read it. Front to back, at least twice. Getting familiar with the words before you start copying will help you stay focused during the actual work of the exercise.

And here’s where the real benefit begins, in the last step.  You’re not going to do anything complicated.  You’re just going to copy out the sales letter page by page, word for word.  All of it.  If it’s too big to do in one sitting, then I recommend you spread out the task over a few days, a week, whatever you need.  But try to put in at least a half hour to 45 minutes each time you sit down.

And yes, I do believe you have to do this by hand on paper and not at the keyboard. Why? Studies show we learn differently when taking notes by hand. Where those studies are right now, I don’t know. But really, I promise, they’re out there. Anecdotally, though, I can tell you that I can touch-type so automatically that I can daydream while reading the words. They seem to flow straight from eyes to fingers. 

Yet, when I write on paper, I have to stay fully focused on the task. I read a line, remember it, then turn to the page to right it out. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s much more effective. But what if you hunt-and-peck when you type? Well… maybe… but I strongly recommend the pen and paper approach. 

Think of the martial arts master. Slow movements and perfection. Not a rhinoceros plowing through the program. Yes, you’re knodding, you’ll try this. It sounds like a great idea. And I promise you, you’ll put it off… because frankly, it isn’t fun. And it makes your elbow hurt.

But I also promise you this: It’s worth it, in the end.