What I Would Do If I Were You
Five Simple (and Often Ignored) Habits that Pretty Much Guarantee Your
Success as a Copywriter

1. What goes in determines what comes out.

Warren Buffett's partner Charlie Munger once said, “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn't read all the time — none, zero.”

For three hours the day before yesterday, I taught some students at the UK's Institute of Direct Marketing. None had read Claude Hopkins, John Caples, or David Ogilvy.

This is like becoming a philosopher without ever studying Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle.

Very few would-be copywriters read enough.

Even those who do tend to read, read the wrong things. They restrict their reading to copywriters who are working currently. Or to work that is running currently.

But those copywriters who are doing well currently — the good ones — learned their craft by studying the old masters.

Before I even got my first job as a copywriter I started studying. I have never stopped. The day you stop studying, you start to die mentally — and to fail professionally.

If you want to reach the summit of your craft, don't just read about copywriting. Also read about every aspect of marketing and business. Unless you understand both properly, you don't know why you are doing what you are doing.

Don't stop there, either.

A really good copywriter is a good writer.

2. The wider your knowledge, the greater your potential.

If all you read is in a narrow field, your writing will be narrow and restricted.

David Ogilvy had a huge library — which is still there in Chateau Touffou. Only a small percentage is about business, advertising, or marketing.

A good copywriter is a well-read copywriter. Ideas only come from what you have in your brain. It is your fodder. The wider and more varied that fodder, the more ideas are possible.

Read the classics — Mark Twain, Dickens. Read trash. Read, read, read!

The more you have in the brain, the more connections you can make.

3. Watch where your money comes from.

Peter Drucker was one of the most influential business thinkers ever.

He said: “There is only one profit center in business. It is your customer.”

Customers are your pot of gold. Spend as much time as possible noting what they do and how they behave.

Study especially why they do the things they do, and when they do things that make no sense.

Logic and sense are almost irrelevant when we look at people — and this applies to business buyers just as much as “consumers” — a word I hate as it suggests all we are here for is to gobble up the world's plenty.

Leo Burnett said many interesting things, one of which was: “I listen to everybody and take notes. Particularly salesmen. They get close to people.”

We managed to improve a client's sales by around 45% just by pretending to be prospects and enduring a two-hour pitch from their top salesman — then applying what we learned to their direct mail.

Nobody could ever do better at selling than that man. It was his living — and a very good one. Remember, you are just selling.

4. What you do before you write matters more than anything else.

I know a lady whose native tongue is not English, but whose copy quietly brings in millions of pounds, month after month. Her secret is that she does more research than anyone I know.

I have known a few excellent copywriters — they tended to have the same habit.

Ogilvy said he studied all the advertising in a given field for the previous 20 years before he wrote a word.

Gene Schwartz — who sold more books through the post than anyone ever has — told me he spent most of his time just reading the books and making notes.

In a talk he gave to people at Rodale Books, he said that when he had finished doing his research, he could remember more about the book than the author.

5. Don't always use the same language.

There has been a fashion for “one-to-one” marketing, and a few people made fortunes as a result.

The truth is, you are hardly ever one person writing to another. You are talking to groups who have common characteristics.

But the average copywriter generally writes in the same tone to everyone. It could be one of synthetic enthusiasm where everything is “great” or “awesome.”

It could be at the other extreme, where they bore the pants off people, talking fatuous jargon about “customer engagement” and such.

People and subjects vary enormously. Therefore, vary your language. Otherwise, you sound like everyone else — and will be ignored, like everyone else.

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: August 26, 2013

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