Interview with a Pro:
Master Copywriter Arthur Johnson Tells All to Michael Masterson, Part 2
Recently, Michael Masterson asked master copywriter, Arthur Johnson, to tell us the secrets behind his success. In Part 1 of the interview, in your last issue of The Golden Thread Online, Arthur explained the techniques he uses to get in touch with his audience. He also spoke at length about writing for the health field and what kinds of feelings, beliefs, and desires are important to that particular audience.
Today, in Part 2, we find out the secrets that have made him one of the best in the business. He lays out the steps he takes before he even starts to write … tells us how he gets in "the zone" … and gives specific advice on how to overcome writer's block – advice you should keep in mind every time you sit down to write. And as if that's not enough, he also talks about the different things you can do with a "jumbo" package that you can't do with a magalog. Arthur gives us his trick for crafting these complicated, multi-component promotions.
MM: People are becoming much more concerned about the way they spend their time – about the quality of their lives. I write a daily advice column called "Early to Rise," and one of the things I talked about recently was that your quality of life is highly dependent on how far you live from your office. And that the ideal thing is to be able to walk to work.
AJ: That's what I do. And there's no going back once you've been spoiled that way. For one thing, it allows you to pretty much dictate your own hours.
I find that I'm doing less and less traveling these days. I used to spend half my time on the road and now I spend maybe a day a month away from home. It's not necessarily because technology has changed so much, but because clients have changed. They're very comfortable with it. In fact, I have clients that I've never met or seen.
It makes me a lot more efficient – and it's good for my clients too, because they don't have to pay for me to come to them.
MM: So when do you actually write? What's your typical day like?
AJ. I get up around 8 o'clock and work out for about an hour, hour and a half. Then I have a good breakfast and sit down and start to work. I pretty much keep working. When I'm in the writing phase, I find that it takes me several hours just to get into the zone. But once I get there, I'm locked in and I don't stop until 7 o'clock or 7:30. In fact, I actually have to set a timer just so I'll get up and walk around to get my circulation going.
MM: How often do you get in a zone? Every day?
AJ: I wish I did get in a zone every day. No, I find that's the toughest part about a project. Those first few pages. You hate every sentence you're writing until, finally – somewhere around the second or third day – something clicks and you say to yourself, "Yes, yes, now I'm getting the rhythm."
MM: During the first couple of days, what is your process? Do you force yourself to keep going?
AJ: I used to try to force it, even if I had no inspiration. But now I find that if I get stuck in one place, I can start someplace else. If all I can write that day is the order form, I write the order form. I've got to do it eventually, anyway, and the action of writing something easy loosens me up a little. Before long, I find that I'm moving and shaking. One of the things I've had to teach myself over the years is that if, for example, a headline isn't right, don't torture it for the next six hours. Leave it and go on to something else.
MM: That's very true. It has something to do with the way your non-conscious mind works. And I notice that the same thing happens when I do a crossword puzzle. I can stare at a clue and just not get it at all, but if I run through the rest of the puzzle and come back to it, the answer is suddenly obvious.
AJ: That's a great analogy. Writing a long promotion, particularly a long promotion like a magalog or digest, is somewhat like doing a crossword puzzle. There are all these little sliders and locks and bolts that have to slip in and fit in exactly the right way. If you get obsessed with that in the beginning, you will never get anything done. What you've got to do is say, "OK, here are the pieces. I'm going to make one component at a time, and then gradually I'll figure out how to put them together."
MM: Besides magalogs (which you're a master at), what other forms have you been writing?
AJ: Well, just about everything. Component packages are my favorite. Six-by-nines, nine-by-twelves. I love them.
MM: What is it that you like about them?
AJ: I'm really attracted by the letter, which is a greatly under-appreciated art form. The downside is that it's tough to get somebody's attention with a letter – but the upside is that this is the ultimate medium for getting your reader's confidence. It is intensely personal to talk to someone one on one, just me and you. It's a great way to develop your relationship with him. If you've got a strong argument to make, you've got to do it with a letter.
MM: I agree with you 100%. And I think of it the same way. A letter is much more intimate than a magalog. I've been groping for a way to explain it. But basically, a magalog is like walking through a mall with someone and trying to convince him to buy something when there are all these other things to divert his attention. A letter is like sitting on a bench with someone by the side of the lake. No one else is around. And once you start to talk to him, it's tough (maybe even embarrassing) for him to pull his attention away from you. That really works in your favor.
AJ: Yes. And it gives you the opportunity to create an atmosphere and a kind of mood. So by the time your reader finishes the letter, he feels better about himself – and he feels really good about your product and he's got a hopeful attitude that this will be a good thing to buy.
MM: With those jumbo packages, you can also include some of the fun, colorful elements that are used in the magalog.
AJ: That's right. One of the reasons I like the component package is that it gives you room to put in something for everyone. Sure, you put most of your energy into the letter. But by the time you're finished with it, you generally have a lot of good stuff left over. With the jumbo packages, you have a chance to use it.
MM: I know exactly what you're talking about. You had 42 things you wanted to say when you started to write the letter. But by the time you got done with it, you had said only 35 of them. The seven things that were unsaid can be put into the other elements in the package. The other elements also allow you to make your argument in a different way.
AJ: The jumbo format gives you a chance to second-guess yourself. You can take a look at your letter and say, "Well, gee. It makes a great argument there, but it totally misses this approach."
MM: Right, exactly. One copywriter used to refer to the different elements as gates. He used to say that not everybody can fit through the same gate.
AJ: That's a good analogy. Also, there are some people who are very visually oriented and some who are very word oriented. When you send a magalog out to 10 different kinds of people, they're going to read 10 different things into it. In a component package, you have an opportunity to say, "This element is for the guy who is looking for pictures and a strong headline. This one is for the guy who likes to sit down and have a good read. And this one is for somebody who just wants to know what the offer is."
MM: One topic we haven't talked about is money. I'm not going to ask you to present your tax returns, but let me tell you the basic claims we make to our students – and then you can respond from your own experience.
We say that copywriting is a business in which you can make a six-figure income. We say it is a business which allows you to work from your home (or anywhere you want to work from), to choose your own hours, to eventually choose the people you work for, to write about subjects you want to write about, and to dress any way you wish. At the same time, your mind is constantly being stimulated because you're working with smart, creative people in many kinds of diverse situations.
AJ: I think that's all true. It's certainly why I'm hooked on it. Copywriting gives you an opportunity to make a very good income, doing stuff that you like to do, while continuing to expand your knowledge and your own understanding of things. You're always learning.
MM: I agree 100%. It's also endlessly challenging. You can always write a better ad, come up with a way to improve your product or position it more cleverly or effectively. And you're in a dynamic environment where you're competing against smart, hard-working, competitive people.
AJ: One of the greatest things about copywriting is that you can you change rules about how an ad is written. That's what you're being paid to do – and that's one of the things I find most stimulating about it. I never want to write the same unit the same way twice. I always want to come up with a slightly different way to approach it. That's part of the fun.
MM: How long does a typical direct mail package take?
AJ: Anywhere between a week and three weeks – sometimes even a month. The time is pretty much evenly divided between the research and the writing. I find that the research is probably the most underestimated part of copywriting. You really have to do your homework. By the time you start writing that piece, you had better know at least as much about the product as the person who developed it.
If I'm writing about a publication, for example, the editor might say, "Where on earth did you find that?" And I'll say, "Take a look – it's on page 86!" "Oh, yeah," he'll say, "OK."
MM: There's a great story about Gene Schwartz. He used to go through the books that he sold for Rodale or for Boardroom. And when he handed them back, virtually every single sentence had been underlined – in three different colors. That's what he said it took. At least three complete reads to get ready to write a bout a book that you were going to sell.
AJ: That's probably pretty accurate. I try different approaches. Sometimes I try going through a book two or three times. Sometimes I try chunking it – taking each chapter and going over it once and then going through it again and actually taking notes. I find that often helps.
MM: Arthur, our time is up. Thank you very much. I appreciate having had the chance to get your insights on copywriting – for myself as well as for our students.
AJ: Thank you, Michael.