How the Secret of the “Chinese Finger Trap” Can Transform Your Copywriting Career

Michael Masterson put my copy down, looked up at me through his reading glasses, and said …”Guillermo, you’re a damn good writer!”

I was in total shock. In high school and college, English was my worst subject. In fact, I scored a 2 out of 6 on Florida’s fifth grade writing test, and came close to failing 10th grade English.

As far as writing was concerned, I was convinced I was a total benchwarmer.

So I was blown away when Michael said he liked my writing. He said, “You write your thoughts down simply. Not one in a hundred new writers knows how to do that.”

He said he wanted me to write an essay for TGT, explaining how I do it. “Tell them your secret,” he said.

“Great,” I thought. “Just great!” I had no idea what I was doing!

But once I got to thinking about it, I realized my childhood traumas in English class actually paved the way. And I even figured out my “secret.”

As I said earlier, English was my worse subject in school. I dreaded writing personal letters. And forget about formal essays. I’d rather fish chicken bones out of the garbage disposal.

But I was okay with that. I had no talent to be a writer … and that was fine with me.

But then one day I got AWAI’s famous sales letter, the one that begins, “Can You Write a Letter like This One?” Somehow that amazing little letter convinced me to give writing a try.

You heard my story two weeks ago: I bought the course, gave Katie some writing samples, and before I knew it I was writing a promo for AWAI – the very same promo that got Michael Masterson to give me that amazing compliment.

So what’s my secret?

It’s funny, but the “I’m not a writer attitude” is what helps me write the way I do. And it’s this thought process that I call the Secret of the Chinese Finger Trap.

When I was writing in high school and college, I was trying too hard. And the harder I tried, the worse I did. AWAI taught me how to relax and write like I speak. Right now – what you’re reading here – is just how I speak.

How to use this secret in your writing

The problem I was having was getting stuck in the wrong idea about writing. It’s like the Chinese finger trap.

If you’ve ever seen one, you know that it looks deceptively simple. It’s a soft hollow tube, about 5 inches long, and you stick your index fingers into both ends of the tube.

When you pull your fingers apart to try to get them out, it only tightens the tube around them. The key to freeing your fingers is to relax. Then push your fingers together. This widens the tube and makes it easy to get your fingers out.

It’s the same with writing. Many new writers make the mistake of writing to impress. They complicate the job by using big words and complex sentence structures and taking too long to get to the heart of things. Because they try so hard to “be” a writer, they end up with stilted, wordy copy.

The solution is to do what you should do when you’re caught in a Chinese finger trap.

Relax!

Instead of trying harder and harder to write “better,” ease up. Don’t worry about impressing anyone. Simply write like you talk. Do this and your writing will flow naturally – just like easing the finger trap’s tension allows your fingers to come free.

Think about it. During a conversation at dinner would you say, “I find that lawyers can be an idiosyncratic bunch of supercilious buffoons.”? I hope not. Instead, you’d say something like “Lawyers can be weird, stuck up fools.” (I apologize to any lawyers out there. This is just an example, not a put-down.)

So don’t change into a “writer” when you write. Just think, “I’m going to write whatever comes out. I’m not going to worry about it.”

I just let myself go. And once I’ve got everything down on paper, I go through it, taking out the big words and clumsy phrases. I look for places where I can say something in a simpler way. I shoot for making the copy as conversational as possible. Once I’ve done that, I read it back to myself out loud.

I always keep in mind that I’m no big expert. I’m just an average guy, just like the person I’m writing to.

Part of what causes bad writing, I think, is a lack of confidence. That’s why some writers feel the need to use big words. They want to impress the reader. There’s also the idea that good writing is highfalutin’ … the kind you’d find in corporate memos.

Good writing, Michael Masterson says, is putting down your best thought simply and concisely.

If you use the secret of the “Chinese Finger Trap,” you can become a good writer quickly and easily.

Here are some more practical tips to help “relax” your writing:

  • Write short sentences. Usually, this means no more than 20 words per sentence. If they go longer, make sure you use your commas, ellipses, and dashes to break it up.
  • Eliminate language like “hitherto,” “therefore,” and “insofar as.” Find better ways to convey the same meaning.
  • Use short, simple words. Instead of saying “voluminous,” say “big.”
  • Use the Barstool Test. If you were at a bar, sitting next to your pal, how would you talk to him? Always use this test to keep yourself on track.
  • Score your writing using the Flesch-Kincaid (FK) scale. Shoot for a grade level of 8 or below and a reading ease of 70 or more. (You can learn more about using the Flesch-Kincaid Scale in “How to Improve the Clarity of Your Writing”.)

If you’re having trouble getting the FK score down on the copy you’re writing, record yourself speaking – as if you’re talking to your good friend at a sports bar. At first, you’ll feel awkward. That’s okay. It’ll feel more comfortable the more you do it. Just try to relax. (After all, you’re simply talking to a good friend … someone you’ve known for years.)

Play back what you recorded, and get it down on paper. Now you’ve got something to work with that’s truly in your “natural” voice … not your “writer” voice.

If someone like me who scored a 2 out of 6 on a fifth grade writing test can become a professional writer by way of the Secret of the Chinese Finger Trap, think how quickly you can do it!

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: February 4, 2008

5 Responses to “How the Secret of the “Chinese Finger Trap” Can Transform Your Copywriting Career”

  1. "Relax and write like I speak." Something so simple can be so effective. Thank you... that's something that I've been struggling with.

    Christopher McCargarFebruary 26, 2010 at 8:23 am

  2. Awesome advice! Thanks Guillermo

    Bob IsbellJanuary 18, 2013 at 2:51 pm

  3. What a great article and I will never forget this. The Chinese finger trap. So clever, well done. thank you!

    Cheryl

    Cheryl DavisApril 17, 2014 at 2:02 am

  4. Best practical tips ever received. Using the Chinese finger trap is an excellent example worth visualizing. This is also the KISS formula in action: Keep It Simple and Straightforward. You are way too humble my friend---no big shot---just a small shot that kept shooting and look at where you are today---outstanding.

    MylesOctober 12, 2015 at 1:17 am

  5. Guillermo, you wove genius into an idea that's so simple and mundane. Thanks for sharing mate!!

    Donald C ObiiMay 10, 2016 at 8:53 am


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