Secrets of a Master:
Michael Masterson and Don Mahoney on Structure, Logic, and the Biggest Mistake Most Beginning Copywriters Make

Recently, Michael Masterson and Don Mahoney sat down and had an informal conversation about what it takes to get a successful copywriting career off the ground. We asked them to tape it so we could share what they had to say with you.

MM: Don, how did you get started in copywriting?

DM: I had a wood-working business in upstate New York, which I'd had some success with for a few years. But when the recession hit in the early 90s, two things happened: (1) The economy was very bad so my business was down, and (2) the fumes and the dust started affecting my health. (I was having respiratory problems, which I had never had before.) So I began to look for a way out.

You and I had been keeping in touch and I knew that you were doing a few different things at the time. Then, one day, you called me up and told me about this opportunity to get into copywriting – and I made the decision to do it. In retrospect, it was a smart decision, but at the time it seemed that I might have been foolish to abandon what I was doing and what I knew to plunge headlong into something new. But that's what I did in late 1993.

MM: It's amazing how many copywriters come to AWAI from different professions. I'm working with someone right now (also a friend) who's been in the airline business his whole life. He's in that very early period, his first few weeks, when I know he's thinking some of the same things you must have been thinking: "Am I crazy?" "Can I really do this?" "Is this really what I want to do?"

DM: Well, I can tell you that for me, that kind of thinking went on for a couple of months. Then we sat down one day over lunch and you said, "Look, Don, your writing is fine. You can write sentences and paragraphs, which anybody with average intelligence should be able to do. But what you need to learn is structure."

And I think that's the key. In fact, the reason we teach structure at AWAI is because we know how important it is. If you can write a simple paragraph – and you're smart enough (and the average person is) – you just have to follow a plan and a flow. The secret is to learn the hidden structure of a sales letter.

So it was at that point, when I had been copywriting for only a few months, that I started to concentrate on structure.

MM: When you say "structure," you mean "what to say when." Right?

DM: Exactly! What to say when, what to put where, how to direct your reader without him being aware of it.

MM: Ultimately, of course, our business is one of persuasion. The bottom line thing we do is persuade people to make decisions. And there's a science behind that.

DM: I agree. And one big secret we teach at AWAI is that a lot of copywriters approach this the wrong way. What we all were taught in school – that the way to persuade people is with logic – doesn't work. Yet, all beginning copywriters try to do it. As soon as you can unlearn this, you have a good shot at going far.

MM: That's certainly a big barrier you have to get through in the early days. Another one is talking about yourself. It's a big mistake to pay more attention to yourself and the product than to your prospect.

DM: Yes! You can't make the mistake of telling him what YOU want to hear instead of putting yourself in the prospect's shoes and talking about what HE wants to hear.

MM: So, when was it that you finally said to yourself, "This is going to work"?

DM: I remember the early days, when I'd get my work back with countless corrections. As I studied the revisions to try and understand what had been done, I'd think, "Am I going to be able to learn this? And if so, when?" But, eventually, I started to see how to do it. Really, once I started applying myself, it took only a few months. Between three and six months, I'd say.

My first successes happened within my first few months, but I didn't really feel as if I "owned" them, because I'd been given so much guidance. Within five months or so, I got my first control – and though I had a lot of help on that one, too, a lot of it was really my work. With that one, I felt ownership. I think it was in my fifth month as a copywriter that it became a control.

MM: I know that some of our students out there are seeing a lot of red ink on their work. But if they push themselves hard, they can experience that same feeling you had – the sense of "I can do it!"

DM: I don't know that there's any other way to do it. I didn't just start writing and find that I didn't need any correction or guidance. My work was all red ink at first. You could probably graph the diminishing amounts of red ink on my copy during my first few months. The point is, nobody should be discouraged.

MM: Absolutely! After having trained dozens of copywriters, I find that ultimate success in this business is not related to early strength in terms of writing. In fact, many experienced writers find that they are at a slight disadvantage because they have to unlearn some things that they were sure they "knew." For example (as you mentioned before), that the way to persuade people is with logic.

Success in this business depends on how much you continue to learn. There seem to be two stages: (1) the early stage, when you are not sure you can do it, and (2) the stage when you realize that all your hard work is paying off and you really are getting better and better. From that level, where you are struggling to make 100 grand a year, you eventually get to the point where you can make much more than that without working as hard.

I think it's really just a question of paying attention, being open to learning, and following the basic rules.

We teach our students to read a direct mail package every day, even after they've been in the business for a while. I still read one every day and I've been in the business for around 30 years now – and I still feel like I'm growing. I've seen that with your copy too. It's matured. You're writing about all different subjects now. I'm actually astonished, sometimes, by the breadth of the topics you've been able to take on successfully, from financial to self-improvement.

DM: The interesting thing is that there's actually a shortcut to success. I did it the hard way. It took me longer because I kept pushing myself to try many different styles and approaches. And now, down the road, that has paid off for me. But there are people who learn only one type of copywriting – and they can do that in a matter of months if they apply themselves to it. They take one successful style of copywriting, learn that style, commit to it … and they can easily make $100,000 a year.

And there are other things a beginning copywriter needs to remember. For example, you're going to hit plateaus. And when you do (I think this has happened to everybody), don't think that's the end. When you feel stuck, that's when you push yourself – and you'll get through it. This happened to me not too long ago when a style of copywriting I'd been using for years stopped working for me. I had to go back and look at what else was out there. I found a shorter, stronger style, a little quicker and less dense. I thought, "I need to do this." So I studied it – and I did it. And I reached another level of expertise.

MM: I think it's important to understand that you can expect obstacles along the way. The market is constantly moving and you have to adjust. The secret (just as in any other business) is to keep on learning and to push through those obstacles.

Years ago, I had a promotion that I was very proud of – but it didn't work. I thought, "Maybe I'm a complete fraud and I really don't know anything about copywriting." I imagined myself ending up in a one-room apartment somewhere, eating TV dinners. But then I woke up the next day, got myself together, and pushed on. That's what you do. You think about what went wrong and you move on and you learn. And once you go through an experience like that, chances are you'll find that your writing becomes less dense and moves faster – and that's what you want to accomplish.

DM: I firmly believe that when you master copywriting, you can write anything. You can then turn around and look at any piece of writing – a novel, a screenplay, anything – and understand how it's done.

MM: I think what happens is that when you understand what copywriting is about, you understand what we call the "invisible architecture" of a piece: those things that grab a person's attention, whether he is reading a book or an article or is watching a movie. An ordinary writer doesn't pay attention to the things that people really care about, because he's writing about what HE cares about. But in copywriting, you learn to write about what your reader wants to know, wants to hear, wants to feel. In doing that, you can give him a very good feeling. Whether you're writing fiction, screenplays, or magazine articles, you are able to do something that's invisible to other writers but very obvious to you.

DM: Right. But it takes a while for a new copywriter to get a feel for exactly how that invisible structure works – how to dig it out of a successful promotion and how to use it in your own. That's why I'm helping AWAI launch a new program that'll really dig deep into the heart of a control. I'm going to critique one sales letter each month and go into great detail about what makes certain sales letters into winning controls. I think it can make a huge difference for students who want to speed up their learning process.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: January 13, 2003

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