How "Structural Priming" Will Make You a Better Copywriter
I’ve got a confession to make.
My entry into copywriting coincided closely with the founding of AWAI. And because of my relationship with a very successful copywriter who was one of the original AWAI consultants, I was able to get the very first version of the Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting.
But that’s not my confession. This is …
When I began studying the program, I failed to follow what was probably the most important instruction.
Here’s the essence of that exercise …
“Pick a promotion in your Hall of Fame book and copy it out by hand. Several times.”
It may have been a bit of arrogance on my part, but I felt this would be a waste of my time. Boy, was I wrong.
Doing the right thing – finally …
As I worked my way through the program, that ignored instruction kept nagging at me. I guess, because of my early education with nuns, I had the sense that if I didn’t do what I was told, someone would know. And they’d think less of me.
So, reluctantly, I decided to go back and complete the exercise.
Inadvertently, I chose the best possible letter I could’ve chosen: The Wall Street Journal promotion at the front of the book. (I think I chose it because it was short, and I wouldn’t have to do a lot of work.)
After copying it out by hand once – which only took about 20 minutes – many of the secrets, strategies, and ideas that had been muddy up till then took on much greater clarity. So, I copied it out … two more times.
In recent years I’ve had a number of Circle of Success members tell me how valuable copying out successful promotions has been for them. But I’ve also had AWAI members at Bootcamp ask me if I thought it was a worthwhile activity. Given my experience and that of other members, of course I told them, “Yes, it is.”
It’s not just my opinion …
I originally based my recommendation solely on the fact that it worked for me. But two days ago, my favorite language podcast – A Way with Words – gave me a whole new reason to enthusiastically support this idea.
Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett host this stimulating, informative excursion into language. That evening they were discussing what they call “structural priming.” It turns out what the Accelerated Program told me to do is an example of “written structural priming.”
Martha Barnette’s passion is, of course, writing about language. But when she first began as a professional writer, she couldn’t make any money writing about language. So she wrote for a women’s fashion magazine. She enjoyed her work, but she struggled to get the right tone.
What did she do? She picked out articles by writers she admired and copied them. This allowed her to learn how to write in the proper style and get the proper voice for the magazine. Structural priming.
Jerry Rice’s secret of success …
Martha likened this activity to athletes who train by practicing the same moves repeatedly. (Jerry Rice – in my mind the greatest NFL player of all time – practiced three hours more after his teammates finished practicing plays he routinely ran.) This over-practicing builds up what’s called “muscle memory.” Martha said copying good writing builds up “written muscle memory.”
She also compared written structural priming to the way master craftsmen train their apprentices.
The moment I heard this section of the podcast, I knew I had to share it with you. But before I did, I researched structural priming. The effectiveness of written structural priming isn’t just Martha Barnette’s opinion. It isn’t just AWAI’s opinion. And it isn’t just my opinion. The number of academic research papers supporting the effectiveness of written structural priming astounded me. Of the over 700 research papers my Google search brought up, three fourths of them support its effectiveness.
Writing out successful promotions by hand is not a waste of time … not by a long shot. It will save you time in the long run. And this is not a strategy just for beginning copywriters. I still use it when I come across a promotion I feel is particularly engaging.
First I read the promotion all the way through. Then I highlight parts I feel are exceptionally effective. I study how those parts interact with the copy around them.
Then I pull out my fountain pen and my lined yellow paper and start copying.
If you haven’t already started doing this, try it. I know you’ll find, after a very small amount of effort, you’ve spent your time well. More importantly, your copywriting will improve. And you’ll be a more successful copywriter.
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