“What is copywriting?” srsly

Jan 6, 2022

Issue #148—January 4, 2022

It’s the first Copy Insiders issue of the new year, and I’m sitting here looking outside my window at the sun streaming in over snow-covered tree branches.

I’m also feeling thankful I’m not stuck on interstate 95 south of Washington, DC, where hundreds of people spent the night in their cars and trucks and have been stranded now for more than 15 hours.

Yes, that’s what 8 inches of snow does here in the DC area… it totally immobilizes the city. Yes, the capitol of the the biggest superpower in the world comes to a complete standstill thanks to less than a foot of snow!

In any case, today I’m going to focus on answering your most burning questions about copywriting… namely, how to get GOOD at writing copy (or should I say, dangerously good).

We’re going to sail right through them and I’ll give you my best, most concise answers. So let’s get started with this one that kind of floored me…

Q: What is copywriting, in a nutshell?

A: I would assume that anyone who’s a Copy Insider knows what copywriting is. We all know it’s not “copyrighting”, something I’ve found myself explaining to neighbors and accountants and others who think I get copyrights for a living.

But maybe it’s a kind of existential question… like “I exist, therefore I am”. Well, the simplest way I can phrase it is “Copywriting is salesmanship in print.” Now, that seems a bit dated… but the idea is that the exact same concepts used in print are also what we see applied for online advertising and video scripting… and even in ads without words (think about all those Budweiser ads with animals).

Okay, moving on to a flood of questions about how to get better at copywriting…

Q: I wonder if you can give me some hints on how to best learn copywriting? How did you learn copywriting? How to analyze ads to learn as much as possible from them? How to swipe?

A: I got pretty good at copywriting while working in-house as a marketer for a major direct response publisher (although I initially learned it while working for Blue Cross and Blue Shield and marketing insurance to the consumer/senior market).

When I went on my own as a freelance copywriter, I began collecting and studying successful control promos. I never simply “swiped” copy… I strived to understand why it was working. I would “reverse-engineer” it as much as possible and try to figure out how and why things were done the way they were.

Q: How can I do it (copywriting)? And do it continuously? Keeping in mind that I already know what to do and how to do it.

(Plus a related question…)

Q: What do I need to do every day to improve myself as a Copywriter?

A: My phone just pinged me and I got distracted for a moment checking Facebook. And in one of the copywriting groups someone was asking whether they should fork over $40k for a 2-year program to learn copywriting. Puh-leeze!

As a follow-up to the previous question–AND to answer this one: you will learn far more by actually DOING. Now, you do need to understand the how’s and why’s behind what to do (and courses like my Million-Dollar Controls master class will give you an inside, in-depth glimpse of how great copy is made).

But once you “already know what to do and how to do it”, then you need to make sure you DO it regularly. Just like a muscle, you can build it up and strengthen it–only to have it grow flaccid and weak when you stop exercising it.

Get out there and do work for clients… get your “reps” in regularly. Stay busy creating samples if you don’t have any clients yet. Practice writing EVERY day… create something from scratch, make assignments for yourself… don’t just “hand copy”.

Q: Can I learn copywriting withing 6 months?

A: I think you can learn at least the foundational aspects of copywriting within 6 months, but it totally depends on how you apply yourself. Put in a few hours every day going through a course, reading, or studying promos, and practicing writing.

If you really want to accelerate your learning, commit to a program like my 6-month Fast Track to A-List mentoring program that starts in about a week (but be prepared to roll up your sleeves and do the work) or other program that will put you on a structured, supportive path. However, it all starts with YOU… there is no “magic bullet”. It takes work and dedication.

Q: Can I make good money solely by learning how to write short copy?

A: The short answer (for those who prefer short copy) is yes. Of course, it depends on what you consider “good money”. But there are many people out there (including some of my past mentees) who rake in at least five figures every month doing strictly email copy or Facebook ads.

The path to higher income from writing short copy can include putting together revenue share deals, where you get a percent of sales of all income you generate from your emails… managing a list, including putting together and implementing marketing strategy and campaigns… becoming an agency and farming out work to other copywriters… and so forth.

Q: I have trouble finding story ideas and connecting them to my sales pitch.

A: Story ideas are everywhere you’re not looking… the key is to open up your eyes to them. They are often quite tangential to whatever it is you’re writing about. I would suggest staying up on current events (follow the news, including human interest stories), read unrelated non-fiction books, and most important of all, step away regularly from whatever you’re researching or writing and give time for ideas to come to light.

Let the connectivity in your brain happen… this is why the great Gene Schwartz recommended taking “mandatory leisure” after 33 minutes and 33 seconds (he’d set a timer) at his computer. Driving, taking a shower, or a walk in the woods often generates so many ideas I have to keep my phone or notepad handy.

A book that you’ll want to read (it’s a quick and valuable read) is “A Technique for Producing Ideas” by James Webb Young… I got so many “a-ha’s” from reading it last year I flagged multiple pages of this tiny, 48-page book.

Q: When studying sales letters, for me, it’s easy to analyze it and know what the Copywriter tried to do with each paragraph but I find it difficult to know how to arrange a sales letter in such a way that I know what should come first and what should come later.. It’s like everything is all over the place for me.

A: I would suggest a few things. First off, as a rule of thumb think about your copy flow from the prospect’s point of view… what would they expect to hear next?

Secondly, take the time to do a rough outline once you’ve done your research and come up with your copy platform. Know that you may end up changing it or deviating from it, but it will at least give you a blueprint that you can then fill in as much as possible to get that “shitty first draft” done and ready to be turned into something much better.

Q: How does your research process look like or, more specifically, do you have a system you follow?

A: I’ve written before about using a PRISM exercise to do avatar research, as well as a 5-step features and benefits exercise that helps link unique aspects of the product or service to the problems, desires, and dominant emotions of the prospect. I plan to come out with a course soon on this approach (which I also teach my Fast Track to A-List mentees).

But I will say beyond learning as much as you can about putting yourself in the same shoes as your prospect so that you can feel and experience the impact of your copy on them as you write it, it’s also important to leave no stone unturned on the proof you need to convince them that your solution is the best.

This is one reason why I prefer to do my own research (it also helps with story ideas and other copy ideas). Always dig deeper to find that “golden nugget” of proof that will convince the prospect why your product will work when others failed. He or she who has the best proof and support wins, especially in ultra-competitive markets.

Q: What was the most insightful moment or breakthrough in your copywriting journey?

A: There have been many, but the biggest lessons I learned early on were from my failures. This was the topic of my talk when I spoke at the first live event that Kira Hug and Rob Marsh of The Copywriter Club held in 2018.

I talked about 3 big failures that ended up turning into 3 of my biggest successes (the time I beat the late Jim Rutz; the time I beat Parris Lampropoulus and became the first female copywriter to get a Boardroom control; and the time I turned a “bomb” into a 10-year control).

It’s a lot to sum up here, but I’ll try: 1) Be clear (about the benefit or problem you’re solving), 2) Look valuable (masquerade as information, don’t look like an ad), and 3) Speak to ONE specific desire (don’t try to do everything!)

Q: What are the best books on copywriting that I need to read in order to arm myself as a “newbie” copywriter?

A: I’m going to keep this list short and simple. There are many other recommended reading lists out there, and my list would just duplicate the others. But I’ll admit, I’ve actually read very few books on copywriting from start to finish. I’ve learned more from DOING and studying other successful promos.

However, the ONE (actually TWO) books I read after leaving Phillips Publishing and becoming a freelance copywriter that I have found the most valuable was My Life in Advertising and Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins.

The latter is a relatively short read that I re-read each year and have my mentees read also. And even though it was written nearly 100 years ago, I always gain new insights and ideas I can apply today. Did I mention it’s a short read? Perfect for people like me (and maybe you).

I also recommend Gene Schwartz’s must-have book, Breakthrough Advertising. I’ve particularly found the third chapter on market sophistication invaluable, especially for coming up with headlines.

Q: What are the best non-copywriting and non-business books to learn more about storytelling, writing, life, being an awesome person overall – to dig the you who’s inside, perhaps dormant, and bring to the forefront to shine your light over others…

A: I love this question and there really is no one right answer. Years ago I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s “On Writing”, and this book may prove helpful on making your writing and storytelling flow more easily. But I greatly prefer reading fiction.

To me it provides a much-needed escape that frees my mind from the daily worries of the real world, and can help you master storytelling, get deeper within yourself, and help “bring your light out” as you write.

This past year I picked up a copy of My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante and at first, found it hard to get through. I’ve never read such detailed, personal story-based writing. But by the end of the book I was hooked, and immediately ordered the remaining 3 books of her famed Neapolitan Novels. Each novel somehow got even better, hooked me in even more, and the storytelling was amazing.

Other books I recently read and absolutely loved include The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd (an incredible story about Jesus’ wife) and The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (I found each of the 4 main characters fascinating).

(And for the dudes, these may seem like “chick books” but one of my male friends just read My Brilliant Friend and is now going through the rest of the Neapolitan Novels and is completely hooked and blown away by them… he’s finding a lot of the story line relatable to his rough childhood growing up in Israel).

That’s all I’ve got for this week’s issue… I’ll be back at you soon with more new, exciting things as this new year unfolds. In the meantime, stay healthy and stay the heck off 1-95 south of DC! (My husband just let me know it’s STILL closed…)

P.S. If you don’t already have my Million-Dollar Controls master class (or the original Copy Teardown Master Class that was the live version), then you’ll want to check out the New Year’s sale I’m kicking off that goes through this Friday.

Right now you can save 50% when you use MDC50 as your coupon code at checkout (look for where it asks if you have a coupon and enter the code). This is truly a master class on writing successful copy from start to finish that you can apply to anything you write.

Go here for all the details on this one-of-a-kind training.