How to Channel Brain Overload Into Sizzlin'-Hot Copy

I can't shut my brain off.

Ever since I became a freelance copywriter, the mental spigot is constantly "on."

I hear people talk about writer's block, but I have the opposite problem.

My mind is racing 16–18 hours a day.

I'm constantly coming up with new ideas as I read online articles, newspaper articles, or blog posts. I can't watch a TV commercial or infomercial without it triggering a new angle for a client's product. Even driving down the highway and looking at billboards sparks my creative genius.

While many people complain about the fact that we're bombarded with something like 3,000 marketing messages a day, I revel in it! I love taking it all in, analyzing it, and quickly tweaking it in my head to repurpose it.

The world is one giant swipe file. And all my brilliant ideas are subtle, or not-so-subtle, takeoffs on someone else's ideas.

Here's the problem: I haven't been applying these ideas, or doing enough research on projects, to write control-busting copy.

I mean, what good are brilliant ideas if they languish in your head or in your journal?

The only real purpose of developing lots of ideas is to put them into action. Ideally, put them into action in the form of red-hot copy that clients pay you mountains of money for. Right?

Master copywriter gives me an "aha" moment

Last week, I heard Katie Yeakle interview John Forde. He's been coming up with million-dollar ideas for his clients for almost 20 years.

John talked about the fact that he spends almost two weeks reading and researching for a 4–6 week project. It's the biggest part of the whole project.

Then it hit me.

When I get a new project, I'll do a little research, but I tend to rush into the writing.

Do you ever do that?

I feel like if I'm not writing, I'm not working. The end result is often less than stellar copy.

Yet in my "off time," I'm soaking up ideas.

So a new approach is in order.

I've been doing the first two steps, but the third step I'm sharing here is one I'll be implementing for the first time myself.

Whether you're currently working on client projects or not, this system should help you generate ideas any time, keep them organized for easy future access, and help you apply them directly to client projects when you do have them.

Step 1 is to get in the habit of gathering ideas all the time.

Some of my favorite sources:

  • Reading a lot. I heard Roy Furr talk recently about how he doesn't necessarily generate new ideas, but rather adapts ideas to new uses. My favorite reading spot is my local library. I can buzz through the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today in about 30 minutes. They also have a ton of magazines, so no matter what niche you work in, you can keep up in your area.
  • Watching late-night infomercials. Seriously. Most of these scripts are brilliant examples of direct-response selling.
  • The product itself, of course, when you're working on a project. Legendary Gene Schwartz was a huge advocate of really studying the product inside and out.
  • The customers (again, when you're working on a project). Internet forums and review sites are great for finding out what the users of the product are really saying. is my favorite source for much more than just books.
  • Competitors' websites and YouTube videos.
  • Books and articles in your niche. John Forde talked about how he routinely reads 100–150 articles and a few books for big projects.
  • My secret weapon: eavesdropping on conversations! It's amazing what you can learn about people by listening in. The key is to go where typical customers of your clients hang out. If I want to know what 70-year-old men are talking about these days, I go to my local McDonald's at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesdays. Middle-aged women? My independent coffee shop. High school students? Easy – the mall.

Step 2 is to "organize the chaos."

  • Write your ideas down immediately. If you wait until you're back at your computer, you'll lose them. I carry a small, black 3" x 5" Moleskine notebook with me everywhere I go. Much easier than dragging an iPad or laptop along. I usually have a hardcover composition book with me, too, as a journal.
  • Keep a journal by your bed. You've probably heard this one before, but it really does work. Some of your best ideas may happen at 3 a.m. or right when you wake up.
  • Keep a "swipe" journal in your office. This can be a physical book or computer file. It's a place where you transfer your best ideas from your notebooks into a permanent location. You want to keep a swipe file, too, of actual ads, but this is a journal of your notes – observations and ideas that you might be able to use in the future.
  • Organize your online or physical swipe journal. A simple way I've done it is to either label folders by niche ("personal development," "fitness," etc.) or write a simple 3-word description at the top of the entry for easy future access.

Step 3 is to channel all these ideas into your copy.

  • Before you get started on a project, remember that about 1/3 to 1/2 of your time will be spent on researching and digging for "golden nuggets." This is the time to do specific research, but also go back through your swipe journal to brainstorm ideas. Don't rush this part.
  • As John mentioned in his interview with Katie, your best copy is going to come out of a big pile of average copy. If the final project is 16 pages, realize that you'll probably have to write 30–40 pages and then cut stuff away. The key is to dive into the project and immerse yourself in it.
  • Since you'll be cutting away half of what you write, a good cure for writer's block is to just start writing without worrying about getting it right on the first draft.
  • Even when you're not working on a project, get in the daily habit of writing copy ideas down in your journal and organizing them into your swipe journal. I talked about Roy Furr in the beginning and how all of his ideas are adapted ideas from other sources. Practice adapting ideas to new uses.

Final Takeaways:

  1. Seek out ideas. Be a voracious reader, especially in your niche.
  2. Become an astute listener – of videos, commercials, and conversations. Hang out where your audience hangs out, online and in person.
  3. Develop an "idea journalist" mentality. Write it all down somewhere permanent, and label it so you can apply it to your future copy.
  4. Take your time in the research phase of projects. The deeper you dig, the more likely you are to uncover your Big Idea and golden nuggets of copy.

Is your brain bombarded daily with advertising overload? Harness it into creative ideas, then pull it out on command and turn it into the sizzlin'-hot copy you're capable of writing. Your clients will keep coming back for more.

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Published: May 4, 2011

2 Responses to “How to Channel Brain Overload Into Sizzlin'-Hot Copy”

  1. Steve,

    I enjoyed reading your article. It resonated with me. It really did.

    Carrying around a small, note-pad and a pen is an idea I learned, early on, from Albert Einstein: he was so absent-minded that he had to jot down ideas pronto.

    Unfortunately, that's about the only thing I have in common with that genius!

    The thing about ideas is that ideas can strike at any time. So, you must be prepared to receive ideas like a welcome guest in your home. Write it down pronto.

    It is with sadness, however, that I have to admit how many great ideas I have lost on account of forgetfulness and lack of discipline.

    Our memory tends to be selective and our attention spans tend to be short. All the more reason to treat ideas with grace and courtesy and the respect they deserve. Appreciate the timely reminder.


    Archan Mehta

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