Ego-Butter: How to Give a Copy Critique

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.



  1. Good points, John. I’ve had critiques where I went in thinking my copy was… how can I put it?… s*** hot.

    So the ‘corrections’ did sting.

    But, I know I can improve. And I know there are soooo many copywriters waaaay better than me.

    So I just bite my tongue and learn.


  2. Wonderful post! I liked how you captured the feelings from both sides of the table.

    Now here’s what I didn’t like about it…

    Just kidding.

    This can be a touchy subject, and I think the key to a successful outcome is the respect level on both sides. As a copywriter, conversion is my only goal so I am happy to take suggestions (I can’t make myself say “criticism”) from an employer who understands what they are talking about, and has the same goals… However, I have also written some copy for less experienced people who don’t have the first clue about selling anything, and I would have been less excited to get criticism from them.

    Great work, I’m glad I found your site.

  3. I got some negative comments from a short past customer re-activation letter. Some were outright dismissive of the piece.

    It took some effort to take all the hits but I hung in there and took notes on every thing they said and even repeated their comments back to them to make sure I heard everything they said correctly.

    Then I took each criticism and examined how I could write the piece that met the clients expectations while keeping the integrity of the purpose of the letter. Man it took some determination to keep me in front of the piece which I was doing AS A FAVOR.

    Anyway the result was the client felt infinitely better about the piece. I reduced the letter by half a page, learned a heap about communicating clearly and quickly while getting all the information in, and turned out a 10% response rate.

    The client now has more regular customers paying more per visit more often. And they’re stoked for the privilege.

    Criticism is gold. Take the view that the person criticizing loves you and wants the best from you and really look honestly at how and where the criticism fits.

  4. Nobody likes criticism. And criticism of writing seems to be one of the cruelest punishments of all. Writing is a cerebral process. You cannot make a six figure income writing if you don’t have a cerebellum. The way to beat the criticism blues is to write more – more often. I think Mike Masterson said that: “Writers write”. I can truthfully say, if I was being critiqued by Mike Masterson and John Forde, I would “get in, sit down, buckle up, and shut-up…”
    Some copywriters have a right to criticize anyway they want. And it’s up to the critiquee, to gratefully use that for growth.

  5. To improve you have to listen.

    I have to disagree with you Robert. I like criticism. In fact I ask for it! The only stipulation I have is that it has to be constructive criticism.

    Constructive criticism is what makes you better at what you do – or makes what you did better. It doesn’t matter how great you think you are, there is always someone out there who can help you improve.

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