A Common Mistakes Writers Make in Their Lead …

John Wood here confessing to you a mistake I recently made.

Back when I worked on staff with AWAI, I was lucky enough to participate in copy peer reviews. This is where a number of writers took turns offering suggestions (never criticisms) on how to improve a particular piece of writing.

A frequent suggestion was to eliminate the first few paragraphs of the lead. Often, writer's needlessly set the stage or introduce what they're about to talk about instead of getting right to the point.

Recently I was guilty of doing this.

I was tasked with coming up with a new headline and lead for a promotion I wrote for AWAI.

This was my original take on the first lines of the new lead:

Ok, the economy has seen better days – we get it.

But just like the familiar saying "Life is what you make of it … "

 … so is your financial future.

If the status quo isn't working, we try something new.

It's what enterprising people do.

We don't fret and worry, we take action.

It's why you're reading this letter.

It's pretty embarrassing now that I re-read it.

Michael Masterson, who was in the mini-review, called it "warm up material" and suggested getting rid of it.

Looking back on it, I was trying to connect with people by talking about what currently might be on their mind. But it really says nothing. In fact, it could be accused of being a rah-rah speech for the workers of the world rather than anything really resembling good copy.

This is what I ended up go with (the headline was about how to create your very own "pension plan"):

Besides having X number of millions of dollars in the bank …

 … what's better than a pension plan?

A pension is something that comes in every month like clockwork.

It takes care of your bills and living expenses while you essentially do whatever you choose.

Having a solid pension plan in place makes for a comfortable, stress-free, happy life.

And while pensions are quickly becoming a thing of the past for the middle class, what you're about to discover is how everyday, salt-of-the-earth people are turning a few hours a week into a lifetime of financial security, personal freedom, and peace of mind.

They're achieving this by creating for themselves what amounts to their very own personal "pension plan."

And what makes this "pension plan" so remarkable is it's not dependant on the whims of politicians or corporations. As long as the Internet remains up and running, the money flows into your bank account consistently and uninterrupted.

I think you can see how much more effective this lead is without the "warm up material."

While I was fortunate to get a second shot at it because of the peer review process, when it comes to landing a new client having “warm-up copy” start off your lead could get your relationship off to a rocky start.

John Caples talks about this in his book Tested Advertising Methods. Caples asks you to imagine walking into a store with the intention of buying a television set. The sales person comes up to you and says …

"This is an age of beauty … charm … style."

Caples notes that the above words were exactly how an ad for a television set began. Can you see how they are ineffective and downright confusing to someone interested in buying a TV? Like Michael Masterson, Caples says that often a writer's copy can be improved by "simply omitting the opening sentences or paragraphs."

If you aren't in a position where you have a copy editor (or people to peer review your copy), Caples recommends you set your copy aside for a day or two and then come back to it with a fresh mind.

At that time one of three things will happen: 1) The opening is fine as is; 2) You think of something to replace your opening lines; or 3) You omit your first few paragraphs of your copy.

Caples tells about a trick that Morton Levin used. Levin was the advertising director for a successful syndicated book catalog.

He told his writers to begin every description with "This is a story about" or "This is a book about" then eliminate that phrase from the description.

Thus, "This is a book about how to write better advertising copy than you ever thought possible … " became "How to write better adverting copy … etc."

Caples says, "It still works. Every time."

(It's important to note that Levin's tip was specifically for writing advertising copy so he's not necessarily saying to start every sales letter lead you write this way.)

To help you identify "warm up copy," always ask yourself the following questions for whatever it is your writing, whether it be a sales letter, article or a short story or whatever:

If I eliminate the opening lines, does it make it stronger?

Am I getting to the point immediately or am I writing about things that do not help the overall persuasion and/or storytelling process?

Have you ever had an experience where eliminating the first few paragraphs of your lead improved your copy? If so, I'd love to hear about it here.

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Published: December 23, 2011

3 Responses to “A Common Mistake Writers Make in Their Lead...”

  1. This is a great article. Thanks!

    G Orwell84December 24, 2011 at 2:52 pm

  2. I wonder if the lead I'm considering would be considered warm-up material.
    Here's a sales letter I've been working on. I commented on the emotion I wanted to exploit. Later the letter talks about making a career in copywriting look possible.

    Here's my effort so far. The emotion I settled on was the one of feeling trapped and the promise of a way out of a confined life. In a great many of the AWAI testimonials I see a lot of gratitude that a copywriter's life provided liberation. I know I definitely relate to the emotion expressed in the lead, but surely the feeling is not confined to just me.
    At no point in the letter did I want the prospect to realize that he is reading a sales letter. I hoped that talking about writing a sales letter would draw attention away from the fact that the reader is, in fact, reading one.
    I also tried for conciseness, making a point as quickly as I could and moving on to the next point. Very long letters look discouraging to a s

    W WinkelmanDecember 26, 2011 at 9:14 pm

  3. Thanks! It makes me feel better to hear that even the pros make mistakes. Great article John Wood. Even greater info.

    Al JonesDecember 27, 2011 at 10:27 am


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