The Magic of Copywriting

I often tell the story of my earliest days as my own client, writing sales letters for my own products, sending them out to fetch and bring back money, bootstrapping my first information-marketing business week by week, with my only asset and associate, my cat, who licked stamps.

She was left behind by a departing ex-wife. She, the cat, not the ex-wife, would sit facing me on my little coffee table while I sat on the couch, stick out her little tongue and keep it out while I ran a strip of postage stamps across it, and then plunked them on my envelopes. While I plunked she dipped her tongue in water, and we did the next strip. And the next.

This may have shortened the little furball’s life, but she had nine. I could, of course, have used a little sponge, but there was something cheering about the two of us in it together, broke, struggling, needing to get enough back from these mailings to fulfill orders, buy my frozen dinners and her cat food, and buy more printing and stamps.

These days, of course, the cat would have to be posting to Facebook. We have the internet and all its media.

However, were it necessary, God forbid I pray, I could start from zero today, with nothing but an idea, good sales copy, letters and stamps and a cat to lick them. To me, there’s magic in that.

It is endlessly fascinating to me, this odd alchemy, this taking ideas and weaving them into stories and hooking them to propositions and exchanging them for money.

If more people understood it, more would envy this strange ability.

As example, last summer, a new client came to me with nothing but an idea for a new service to sell to certain kinds of doctors. Three months later, the idea was generating money from doctors brought to an online presentation by direct-mail.

Last month, my royalty check from that client was $1,440.00. 3% of $48,000.00. Meaning he’s bringing in over $570,000.00 a year from an almost auto-pilot side business, while still in practice himself.

With some of that money he has erased debt, is quickly creating financial security. With some of that money, he is quietly providing college scholarships to several under-privileged kids in his small town. His little side business has created the perfect part-time job for a stay-at-home mom, who needs to be home with her special needs son.

All from something hatched in my conference room, and fed with several days of output of copy by me. Isn’t that cool? I still like essentially being my own client, too, and writing copy for my own products or businesses, established and new projects, and creating new money from thin air. This, to me, is what copywriting is really all about.


I have on my desk a square wood block with diagrams of the brain on it, labeled The Writer’s Block, given to me back in 1974 by Roger Stern, who wrote and produced TV shows like ‘McMillan and Wife’ starring Rock Hudson, and co-created the popular game Mad Libs.

It sits there because it does not scare me. I do not share this affliction with the other writers.

As a practical matter, I can’t. I have a mandate to be incredibly prolific at high speed under heavy deadline pressure. In fact, the main reason I earn so much more money as a copywriter part-time than 90% – including “names” – do full-time is that I produce a lot more a lot quicker.

Henry Kissinger once said, “There can be no crisis this week. My schedule is full.”

Similarly, for me, there can be no writer’s block. Ever. And I know there won’t. So the little block of wood has been my constant companion as a paper weight, moved with me across country three times, stayed through two divorces, and I greet it cheerfully each morning. A writer visiting my office saw it, picked it up curiously and recoiled in terror, dropping it from his hand as if burned – he said, “Oh my God, how will I ever get this damned thing out of my mind!”

Today I’m going to give you one of my top three ways to get writer’s block out of your life permanently. This is important because you really can’t afford to have it hanging around.

So –

Writer’s Block Killer #1: Never start with a blank slate.

I’m amazed to hear of copywriters who sit down at the computer and hope for an idea.

There are creative types who advocate blank slate-ism as the only legitimate creativity, to be admired and indulged in. Theatrical impresario Twyla Tharp comes to mind. Fine, so I won’t have the admiration of purists. I’ll take money instead. The secret to a sure, fast start is a lot of raw material amassed, piled up, pawed through and organized before you ever even think about writing, let alone sit down to write.

For any given project, I’ll have raw material secured from the client, including his literature, transcripts of our meeting cut up into pieces and sorted by topic or idea, transcripts of his speeches or his staff’s sales presentations similarly sliced and sorted. I’ll have competitors’ stuff, trade journals. Things pulled from my swipe files. Then there’s my library of thousands of books I can wander through, find a few with promise for the project. My reference material, like lists of 500 headline templates.

To be entirely truthful, I don’t need to rely on this as much as I once did, as my subconscious has its own vast archives and has been trained and conditioned to do preparatory work for me, often overnight, while I sleep, handing me the starting point, theme, big idea, etc. when I awake in the morning. But I once created four or five tables of raw material before writing. I still do it physically on a smaller scale.

Finally, I have my room full of crap. That’s a technical term, and crap is different from stuff. Crap means objects – which might be used as grabbers, lumpy mail enclosures, photographed, as gifts with appointment, and so on. Often, a piece of crap found in this big pile of crap can provide the focus of the entire campaign, or at least the jumping off point.

If I find nothing handy, I’ll make a trip to the Dollar Store near-by, or peruse my favorite vendors for this sort of thing, including I built an entire multi-media, multi-step campaign around a circus theme because I had an inflatable monkey in my crap room and a book about P.T. Barnum on my shelf. (The campaign made the client a million dollars). I’ve used Mardi Gras masks, Hot Wheels® cars, paper airplanes, small metal trash cans, and on and on.

A great one of these returned with me from a Disney vacation: great big “Goofy® erasers” imprinted with ‘for people who make goofy mistakes.’ This led to this opening for a sales letter – its structure classic Gary Halbert, incidentally:

“As you can see, I’ve attached a GIANT ERASER with this letter, for people who make goofy mistakes. Why have I done such a thing? And spent the postage money to send you such a heavy thing?

Because I believe you’ve made a very big, “goofy” mistake, that you still have a chance to correct – but you must hurry.

Please read my letter and the enclosed booklet titled ‘While You Said No, These 37 Doctors Said Yes – And Look How Many Millions Of Dollars They’ve Made’. I promise: you’ve never seen anything like their experiences! Reading their reports may save you from a very costly mistake.”

This came together instantly, thanks to the object triggering the copy right out of my subconscious. That “instantly” is important. It got a 28-page sales letter started and finished in under 4 hours. While most blank slaters would still by waiting for a muse.

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The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: April 6, 2010

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