Create a Writing Practice for Success

As a professional copywriter, I know a lot of other copywriters, including some really great writers and others who struggle.

I imagine that several factors separate the great from the struggling. But I know that one thing contributes to success in copywriting more than just about any other single technique. And I have never seen a successful copywriter who didn’t use it.

The Habit of Practice

I’m talking about developing a writing practice. Others may call it something else, but I like the term “practice.” In her book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg compared writing practice to Zen practice. I’ve heard other writers compare their writing habits to practicing yoga or martial arts.

No matter what you call it, the habit I refer to as writing practice remains a requirement for those who want to succeed as copywriters.

Exactly what is a writing practice? It’s pretty simple, actually. It’s the daily practice of writing. Even more, it’s the daily practice of writing with the goal of becoming a better writer.

If you survey a hundred writers, a good number of them will tell you that they don’t write every day or have a writing routine. The ones who regularly get clients or get published will tell you something different.

Write Every Day

They’ll tell you that they write every day, in the mood or not, paid or not, whether they feel like they have the time or whether they’re inspired or not. Because writing every day is what the best writers do.

Consider the staggering output of these writers according to

R.F. Delderfield, the English author of family sagas, wrote 33 pages each day, and he wrote until four o’clock in the afternoon.

Another English writer, Charles Hamilton, wrote a million and a half words a year or about 20 pages each working day (assuming 250 working days in a year).

Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason novels, wrote a million words a year … about 13 pages each working day. Victor Hugo wrote 20 pages each day. John Grisham wrote The Pelican Brief in 100 days and The Client in six months.

Not all writers write at this pace. For instance …

Jack London wrote between 1,000 and 1,500 words each day.

Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day and says in his memoir On Writing, “and only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.”

But WHY write every day?

Again, I’ll let Stephen King tell you why he does it in fiction and then why you, as a non-fiction writer, should do the same.

King says that if he writes slower or misses days, “ … The tale’s narrative edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Raymond Chandler also agreed: “The faster I write the better my output. If I’m going slow I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.”

I love that quote: “ … pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.”

I’ve found the same to be true in my own copywriting with clients. The more I write, the faster I write, and the faster I write, the more I write – and it’s often much better writing too.

OK, I hear you. What are you supposed to write about when you don't have a paying client to write for?

There are actually several things you can do …

You could keep a journal or a blog where you write about the process of writing. Let it get all the frustration, anger, despair, triumph, and joys out there.

You could also stretch your writing muscles. How? Get a copy of the book The Artist’s Way by Julie Cameron, and follow her program for unblocking your creativity. Or try a writing prompt book like The Write-Brain Workbook where each day has a new writing exercise to get your writing brain engaged and moving forward.

My very successful colleague, whom I admire greatly for her writing output, suggests you need just 10 minutes to warm up your writing muscles in her article Ten Minutes to Better, Faster Writing.

In other words, find something to warm up your writing muscles before you start on the actual project of the day.

Next …

Copy the Best

The second element for budding copywriters is to spend some of that writing practice time copying out the best ads they see and really studying those ads as they write.

I know you’ve heard that before, but do you do it?

Practice is more than just copying, though. You have to study and understand why good copy works and why ineffective copy doesn’t.

Which leads me to the next point …

Deliberate Practice

This is what author Geoff Colvin in The Myth of Talent refers to as deliberate practice. You don’t just practice to put in the time, but you truly seek with every word to improve and learn.

Here’s what I mean by practicing to improve. Say you’re working through an AWAI lesson and the assignment is to copy out ads by hand. That sounds kind of tedious, and you just copy them without really thinking about them. You will still absorb something that way.

But consider this. If you set aside half an hour each day to do nothing but copy ads with concentration, you will begin to understand what works and what doesn’t. If you then write your own version of each of those ads each day, and compare each day’s work to the previous days’, you will see yourself improving.

Study, Study, Study

Study, along with writing every day and deliberate practice, forms the third element of a writing practice. You may think of this as reading books and doing assignments, and certainly those activities are important.

True study, however, involves constantly learning and increasing your understanding of copywriting, even when you’re not in the middle of a copywriting study session.

On my bookshelf in my office, I have books on how to develop plots, how to write good sentences, how to research for stories, how to interview … and sales books, marketing books, books of quotes, books of metaphors, books of similes, books of analogies, books on psychology, books on … well … books.

Hopefully, you get the point. I don’t just read about how to write copy. I study writing. Some I can use, some gets tossed, and some gets adapted to copywriting. The point is, I’m attacking my skill development from all angles. Cross-training, if you will.

Another good example is while you’re watching TV. No, I’m not going to tell you to watch more TV. I just want you to pay more attention to the commercials. Think about what works and what doesn’t. Pay particular attention to the direct-response commercials. These are the commercials actually selling something right then with a website address or phone number.

I suggest you keep a log for two or three weeks of the ads that you see. Record the ads if you can, and watch the most frequent and longest-running ones repeatedly. Those commercials are some of the hardest copywriting in the industry. It is extremely tough to convince someone to act in 60 seconds on the television. So that’s the toughest copywriting and some of the best worth studying.

Study your junk mail, physical and electronic. Start a swipe file with the best writing that you find to help you develop your own ideas and augment your studies.

When I said that I want you to develop a writing practice, it may have initially sounded like all you were going to do is practice writing.

I guess what I really meant is that I want you to develop a life devoted to becoming the best and most successful writer you can be.

As time passes, you will understand even more how this practice of writing works, and you’ll never give it up.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: July 18, 2012

8 Responses to “Create a Writing Practice for Success”

  1. Sean,Thank you for the great tips--they are necessary prompts for us who get tangled up in the day-to-day and forget that, like olympians, we must practice to deliver our best. Regarding paying attention to TV copy...I find when I listen only--substracting the visual--I hear the narrative differently minus the "distraction" of the video. The impact of each word is enhanced and the voice inflections, pauses, etc. all become useful input to my evaluation. I love AWAI!-thank you for your input. Be well.

    Guest (Anne)

  2. Thank you for contributing this article. I really enjoyed reading it.

    You seem to equate writing with discipline, which is well and good.

    However, you have neglected to mention the power of the subconscious mind.

    After all, there is something to be said about "divine madness" of any artist.

    Inspiration is not a myth: it does exist.
    Through time immemorial, gifted artists and scientists have received their ideas from an unknown source.

    It is helpful at such time to keep a pen and paper near you. Immediately, jot it down and you may just be surprised.

    Discipline and inspiration both are equally important.

    We should not have to choose one over the other: they are complementary.

    Archan Mehta

  3. I know you have doubts and concerns.

    That's why you really need to read "The Fourth Eye."

    It is a book about creativity written by a famous professor and PhD from Carnegie-Mellon University, namely, Pradip Khandwallah.

    The book makes it clear that you need to take time away from your daily grind.

    Creative breakthroughs are achieved through the power of your subconscious.

    Hard work and discipline are over-rated in our culture.

    Kekule discovered the structure of the benzene molecule in a dream-like state, after all. Please read this book.

    Archan Mehta

  4. Sean, This gave me clarity - how to create a writing practice and the elements to incorporate. I started hand writing ads and soon began question ing if it is really helping. Being new I'm challenged in understanding why good copy works and why ineffective copy doesn’t. So the exercise began to feel a waste of time and decided I need to learn what makes good and what makes ineffective copy via AWAI courses - chicken/egg? Great article, thanks!


  5. I love 2 read AWAI articles and/or advertisements. I often, however, wonder why it takes up to 12 or more pages to say something remarkable about your products using less pages. Your products sell and speak for themselves. In this time of less is more, brevity is for more welcome given the demands on everyone's time than having to read througy massive amounts of information.

    Less is more; and printing costs are constrained as well.

    Please consider offering informational webinars where one would just click on a link and get the same information from a live voice. You could have Microsoft presentations accompanying the webinar so viewers could print out the salient bulletined points. Please also work to webenize your boot camps as not everyone is able to take journeys to attend the sessions. thank u!

    My fee: $15,000.

    Guest (Annette A Barry)

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