What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You...

Are you familiar with American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim?

He’s the one who wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy and the music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum …

He is the winner of an Academy Award, eight Tony Awards (more than any other composer), including a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, multiple Grammy Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize.

At the age of ten, Sondheim became friends with Jimmy Hammerstein, the son of lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II. The elder Hammerstein was very influential to Sondheim and helped him develop his love of musical theatre.

In fact, one of the most famous apprenticeships in musical theatre resulted from this relationship.

It began when Sondheim was in high school. Sondheim wrote a musical comedy based on stuff happening at his school, and his peers loved it. Feeling confident after lots of positive feedback from his schoolmates, Sondheim took it to Hammerstein and asked him to evaluate it as though he had no knowledge of its author.

Hammerstein said it was the worst thing he had ever seen, but offered to tell him why it was terrible.

According to Sondheim, he “learned more in that one afternoon than most would learn in a lifetime.” So he persuaded Hammerstein to continue looking at his compositions and tell him why they needed more work.

Hammerstein set up a composer “course” for Sondheim, having him write four musicals based on the following different conditions:

  • One musical was based on a play Sondheim admired
  • Another was based on a play he liked but thought was flawed
  • The third was based on an existing novel or short story that hadn’t previously been dramatized
  • And Sondheim’s final assignment was to write an original musical

Sondheim continued working with Hammerstein for years until he got better. He repeatedly auditioned songs and finally starting seeing success in 1957 when he wrote the lyrics for West Side Story.

Imagine if Sondheim never showed his high school musical to Hammerstein. Sondheim might have gone on thinking his work was great and never pushed himself to become better. Think of the fame, fortune, and recognition he would have missed out on.

But instead, Sondheim did a really smart and courageous thing. He went to Hammerstein, an expert in the field, and asked his opinion instead of relying on the opinions of friends who didn’t know much, if anything, about writing a musical.

Just like Sondheim, you can build false confidence in your writing ability when you rely solely on feedback from people who aren’t working in the copywriting field. Or worse yet, when you don’t submit your copy for review at all before turning it in to a prospect or client. Handing in low-quality copy to a client can seriously damage your reputation, costing you additional paying assignments and even referrals to new paying clients.

Let me explain …

Recently, I picked up a new client. He was extremely hesitant to hire a copywriter because he felt past copywriters he used brought him copy that required a lot of editing and didn’t bring him any better results than what he could write himself. As a result, he hired them for one project and never used them again.

Before submitting my copy, I went through numerous peer reviews with working copywriters that I trusted and did a lot of rewriting. It paid off, though. His reaction to my sales letter was, “WOW, WOW, WOW! I’m impressed.”

Was it extra work for me to go through the peer review multiple times and do all that rewriting?

Yes. However, it was worth it because it secured more work and a continuing relationship with this client. In addition, he has already referred two people to me and we’ve only been working together for a couple of months.

Using the peer review process and taking advantage of instructor feedback can correct potential problems in your copy before you turn it in. Not only will you feel more confident about submitting your copy, it will make you a much better writer too, no matter what level writer you are.

And when you continually apply these suggestions, you’ll submit the best piece of copy possible, which will win you more jobs and loyal customers.

Plus, by getting feedback from instructors and working copywriters, you’ll be a better judge of what level your skills are at, which will help you confidently approach prospective clients.

For more on how to build your confidence in your writing ability, check out the article I wrote: How to Build Confidence in Yourself (and your writing ability) – Even if You're a Complete Newbie.

So remember, to make sure you aren’t overlooking problems in your copy that could cost you clients and future projects, always submit your copy for a peer review.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »


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Published: May 12, 2011

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