Secrets of a Master:
How to Write a Promo “Overnight”

Just this past week, I spent some time in meetings with my old friend and fellow copywriter Don Mahoney. Don is pretty easygoing. Even mellow. But the way he cranks out promo packages, you'd think he was a whirling dervish with a word processor.

I've been trying to get him to reveal his secret for years. He keeps telling me it's simply because he gets up early (5 a.m.) and starts writing immediately, not stopping until about 12 noon. I hate to believe it's that simple. Of course, hate it or not, I know he's telling the truth.

For the most part, to produce more, you have to spend more time being productive.

But could it be that there are other ways for copywriters to speed up production time? Fortunately, for those of us without Don's discipline, there's "just-in-time" copywriting …

Maybe you've heard about "just-in-time" manufacturing. This is where companies streamline the production process so they can fill orders almost the moment they're made … but without the waste or risk of stockpiled inventory.

There's also a form of "just-in-time" copywriting. In truth, it's almost an inverse metaphor to its factory-tooled cousin.

In "just-in-time" copywriting, what you're doing IS stockpiling. You're actually preparing yourself to write several promos at once by using shortcuts already figured out for you by other writers. Here are some of the ways you can make it work:

  1. Follow the formula(s).

    This might be the most obvious of the secrets. Surely you've seen a formulaic movie you've loved, read a formulaic book you couldn't put down, or heard a verse-chorus-verse pop song that worked just fine. In sales copy, there are formulas too. Identify them and use them as framework for your next sales letter (Attention-Interest-Desire-Action, Promise-Picture-Proof-Push, etc).

    Keep a blank "framework" document that lists each element of your favorite formula, followed by enough white space or a line-break. When you're ready to start your next promo, simply fill in the blanks as you sift through your pile of research.

  2. Build a "plot-line" library from past controls.

    There are only so many classic "plots" for stories. (I remember an article claiming every Hollywood movie, for instance, was built around one or another of 13 recycled themes.) If that's true for movies and literature, it's definitely true of direct-marketing letters.

    Visit your swipe file and pick out the winners. Take apart the best controls to see how they were put together. I call this the "filet of soul" approach to package outlining – where you carve away the copy and extract the bones of its outline.

    Use a similar outline to build your own promo, using your own research and prose. Keep a file of outlines for use later on.

    This is also a great way to get jumpstarted when you're stuck. Just be careful how much you borrow. You don't want to get accused of plagiarism.

  3. Create your own promo construction kit.

    For products you write for over and over, ready yourself ahead of time with a "toolbox" of key elements. This is especially useful for sales letters that use the same sidebars between packages.

    For instance, you might not know the lead of your next promo for "Widget X," but you know testimonials will come in handy. Write the testimonial sidebar. Then write one with news clippings. Write another with a third-party endorsement letter. Then drop them all into a folder on your computer desktop called "Widget X Credibility Sidebars."

    You'll have them ready to go when the next assignment for that project rolls in.

  4. Prepare more.

    For the writer who gets lost or loses steam, spending more time on the outline before actually writing can be tedious at first, but help speed the process. Especially in the later stages and in the revision process.

    More preliminary work is also great advice for any newbie writer who's nervous about what to do next.

  5. Prepare less.

    On the other hand, maybe your problem is too much preparation.

    Lawrence Block, a novelist, says he prefers writing fast. He just plunges in and lets momentum take him where it will. The resulting copy, for him, is fresher and more powerful. This might be especially profitable for the experienced writer.

    Outlining is good. Research is good. But once you've poured your coffee and cracked your knuckles, sometimes the best thing to do is just start typing.

  6. Build a library of graphic templates.

    I know a few writers who actually write their copy inside a desktop-publishing program. If you know Quark or Adobe InDesign, this tip might work for you too.

    Start collecting a library of graphic templates. Ask designers to give you their files on CD. Use the files to create graphic templates with notes to yourself – "track record goes here" … "sales close starts here" … "main headline goes here."

    Next time you're in a rush, fill in the blanks. It's a little like writing on an assembly line. Plus, I've done this and have found that watching the design and copy develop at the same time is educational. I had a better feel for how the reader would see what I'd produced.

    Warning: The downside is that, if you're a perfectionist, you could lose time tinkering with the graphics in the same way you tinker with the copy. So be careful. Know thyself.

  7. Don't re-invent the wheel.

    Of course, you can't churn out every new promo to be like the last one. If you do, you'd deflate the value of your own innovations. Who wants to keep paying for the same work – no matter how creative – over and over again?

    Still, since some things are just so much the same between files, it would be a shame to start from scratch each time. For instance, keep a generic guarantee paragraph that you re-write between packages. Do the same for the reply page. Paste the old one into your new document and adapt. Couldn't be simpler.

    Even if you keep only the formatting of the original pieces, you save time. And you get a de facto checklist of elements you know you'll need to include

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: December 2, 2002

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