Interview With a Pro:
Copywriting Master Bob Bly
AWAI Board Member Bob Bly has been a professional writer for more than 15 years, receiving more than $2 million in advances, fees, and royalties from more than 100 publishers, editors, and corporate clients worldwide. Bob has written over a dozen books that have helped thousands advance their writing careers. These include "Secrets of a Freelance Writer," "The Copywriter's Handbook," "Business-to-Business Direct Marketing," and others. Bob not only knows how to create winning copy, he also knows a great deal about the business of copywriting.
TGT: Bob, please tell us how you got started in copywriting.
BB: Right out of college, I got a technical writing job for Westinghouse in Baltimore. I wrote press releases, brochures, slide presentations, and such – all pretty dry stuff meant for industry. One day, my boss gave me a magazine on direct mail. I was intrigued. The direct mail copy I saw there was more fun and the articles more interesting than the industrial stuff I was doing for work. So I started to do some freelancing on the side.
I then changed jobs and moved to New York where I signed up for a copywriting course at NYU. I studied with Milt Pierce and began to make contacts in the industry. When my second employer decided to transfer me to Wichita, I decided to resign and pursue freelance copywriting full-time.
TGT: You're a tremendously prolific writer. How do you accomplish so much?
BB: Not too many years ago, I wrote a book, "101 Ways to Make Every Second Count." I use many tips included there, but one of the most effective is the one that Michael Masterson espouses: Get up an hour early every day. In addition to that single tip, I admit to being a "workaholic." It's not uncommon for me to put in 12-hour days Monday through Friday. I have an able assistant that takes care of many of the non-writing office duties which helps me maintain my focus.
TGT: How long do you work at one stretch?
BB: I find that after 3 or 4 hours, I need to go on to something different. I try to always have a change-of-pace project that I can switch to when what I'm working on goes stale. Having said that, I can sometimes get in the groove, where I'm neither bored nor overwhelmed, and I can work for much longer periods.
TGT: In the process of creating a complete direct mail package, about how much of your time do you spend on research, writing, and editing?
BB: Some writers would tell you half their time is spent on research, but I spend about one-third of my time on each activity. I tend to do small edits during the writing portion, which shortens the actual edit phase.
TGT: What would you say is the biggest obstacle you have to tackle in writing a successful package?
BB: Usually, what takes the longest is trying to write copy for an audience of prospects I'm totally unfamiliar with. For instance, I recently had to write a sales letter targeted at pediatricians and another targeted at college deans. The only way to overcome the problem was to actually interview some prospects in order to learn what their concerns are.
TGT: You are quite the master at networking. How important is it to your copywriting career?
BB: I find that the transfer of information is imperfect. Nearly everything anyone wants to know is already known, but the difficulty comes in accessing it. So when I see an article that would benefit a friend, it would drive me crazy not to send it to him. Besides, it is remarkable how often people mention their appreciation for a clipping or reference I've sent them. This is a great way to keep in touch and network. I'm also the beneficiary of a lot of good information that people send my way. It makes a huge difference.
TGT: Do you prefer to work on larger 8-12 page packages or smaller inserts?
BB: I take on two and sometimes three major assignments each month, but I also manage to fit several small projects in between. Recently, I did four short sales letters (4 pages or less) and earned $2,000 each. Those four letters were completed in far less time than some of my major assignments, but the pay, $8,000, was nearly the same. Longer projects tend to take disproportionately more time than short assignments, but they do have potential for rollout royalties. Short assignments frequently don't.
TGT: Tell us a little bit about royalties.
BB: Royalties are great, but I try not to count on them. When I plan my finances, I rely only on the copywriting fees I expect to earn – not the royalties. After all, royalties depend on the client mailing the piece you write, and sometimes that doesn't happen to the degree you expect. It's better to forget about the royalties and then, when one shows up as a check in my mailbox, it's all the sweeter. They usually amount to substantial extra income.
TGT: What secrets or hints would you give to a beginning copywriter?
BB: When you're doing your research for a new assignment, don't just talk with the client. You need to talk to the prospective readers of the package and find out what their biggest problems or concerns are. Find out what's keeping him up at night and address those concerns. Strive to reach your prospect on an emotional level rather than on an intellectual level. In other words, start with the prospect, not the product.
TGT: How do you put a package together?
BB: Two things. First, I come to an agreement with the client and make certain assumptions about the prospect and the product. And then, I work those assumptions into a copy platform. A copy platform is a written brief that specifies all the key points that the package should cover. Typically, I will put in writing what I intend to include, based on the original discussions with the client. The subheadings from a copy platform would include at least the following:
- Overview of the assignment
- Audience to be addressed
- Offer to include price and terms (if any)
- Unique selling proposition
- Core complex of the target audience
- The Promise (big idea)
- Track record
- Format and length
TGT: What do you like most about copywriting?
BB: The "lifestyle" is not the main reason I got into copywriting. As I've already indicated, I work a lot. But for me, work is more fun than fun. What drives me more than anything is that I can't stand to be bored. I like my career because I can do what interests me, work when I want – and I am well paid for it.