Why Great Copywriters Don't Grow on Trees

"Beware of advice – even this."
- Carl Sandburg

How do you train a writer? And before that, how do you hire a writer to train?

In most other writing trades – screenwriting, journalism, the local poetry factory – it's easy.

You just go into a restaurant and ask the bartender what he studied in school. Chances are, it's something literary.

In copywriting, it's tougher.

Today, I jotted down a few ideas for a friend who's gearing up to take over a copywriting group.

How about I share some of those ideas here, recast to fit a Q&A that makes sense to you guys?

As follows …

Q: How do you hire and train new copywriters?

A: First, realize, it's worth talking about hiring in one breath and training in another.

The "it" you want in a copywriter can be hard to peg. It's not enough to hire somebody with a writing past. In fact, it's probably a bad idea.

The best I've seen aren't literary types. At least, not exclusively. Or even publicly.

At the same time, I've never met a good copywriter who wasn't also a great storyteller. So you DO want someone who loves a good story. Or movies. Or just sitting around, keeping a circle of friends entertained.

Funny helps … even when good copy is rarely funny … because it often reveals a sharp mind, a good ear, and someone who's easy to work with.

That said, you don't want someone who's 100% clown. The really great writers, I find, are chronically curious and ambitious by default.

As for training, theory's good but practice is better. Anybody who asks, I'll tell them that American Writers & Artists Institute out of Florida has a great program.

I'm not entirely unbiased. They're all friends and colleagues. The founder, Michael Masterson, is one of my personal mentors. And I'm one of their speakers every year at the annual AWAI Bootcamp.

But it really is a good program – probably the best program – out there, for training a copywriter (a lot of it, by the way, happened to evolve out of small copywriting team which I participated in and helped to create … even though I'm not a partner in the AWAI business).

Beyond that, every new copywriter should read "Breakthrough Advertising" by Gene Schwartz. Also, "Scientific Advertising" by Claude Hopkins. And, dare I add, a book called "Ready, Fire, Aim" and another called "Great Leads," both by Michael Masterson (and the latter, co-written by me).

By far, though, the best way to become a great copywriter is to get right into the pool and start reading and writing. Period.

Do it in this order:

  1. Read a lot of good copy …
  2. Write out a lot of someone else's good copy …
  3. Try writing your own copy, ASAP.

Especially (b), a technique many praise but never try as much as they should. This is called "copywork" and it's a trick as old as time.

Some great writers who learned to write via "copywork?" Jack London. Ben Franklin. Robert Louis Stevenson. Hunter S. Thompson. And the list goes on.

Before you ask, copying others copy by hand is better than re-typing it. Doing it daily for a little bit is better than one marathon session. And yes, it matters who you copy. Pick the best, in the field where you want to write.

Frankly, just recommending it makes me ashamed I don't do more of it myself. Tomorrow, first thing.

Q: How do you manage other copywriters as they write? I end up rewriting a lot of their stuff, but that's not ideal. What else works for you?

A: Ah, we've all been there. Or if you haven't been there yet, as soon as you're pegged as "good enough to help another writer" you will be.

Even working with a seasoned writer, to improve a piece, can be tricky. With a newbie, it's obviously even tougher.

The AWAI folks have something they call the "peer review." I've written about it here. I was even there when it was developed (late night, at a chateau, and wine was involved).

The sum of it is, you get a group of people around … you share your copy with all … and they rate and revise it, on the fly … in a way that tries to recreate the reader experience first … and then forces them to write too, rather than lapse into lazy criticism.

I've probably hosted as many or more of these peer review sessions, between the client I work with, the private bootcamps I run, and the annual AWAI events, than most other copy-group leaders on the globe.

And I can tell you, I think such processes are both under … and over … rated.

Over-rated in the sense that there are lots of things that rating just the copy itself – headline and lead alone – cannot do.

For instance, group writing reviews like this can rarely do more than look at the headline and lead (or "lede") of the sales letter on the table. In fact, that's the idea, considering that's all a prospect will give you time for, at first.

Yet, if the whole idea has a fundamental problem or the product is bad, just reviewing those few starter words – and out of context – might not reveal it. Likewise if the same pitch has a big problem with the offer, which rarely shows up so early. Or if the idea feels great, in principle, but the market timing is terrible.

On the flip side, such peer review techniques are great for training, because it makes everybody think like a writer. And they're perfect for copy that's already 3/4s of the way there. It can, in other words, make good copy great.

It can also help you spot the better thinkers in a group, because they'll be the bolder ones with the better suggestions. For more on peer reviews, search the term at the AWAI link I gave you earlier.

Best, though, in my opinion would be to make sure you talk to the writers – twice or even thrice – in advance of every project, to make sure you peg the perfect that initial "story nobody else is telling" big idea … as early as possible.

Preferably, before a word is written.

Then, after the first draft, spend two hours on the phone or in person doing a page-by-page read. Spend four hours or eight or ten if you can spare it.

It's faster than going back and forth with typed line edits and, in the end, it's far better than training a junior writer to let you do all the cleanup.

Gee, that's only two questions answered. But that's probably enough, don't you think?

[Ed. Note: Reprinted with permission by www.copywritersroundtable.com.]

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Published: April 2, 2014

3 Responses to “Why Great Copywriters Don't Grow on Trees”

  1. Educating the general public is my main reason for embarking on this copywritting idea. There is much to read in your informational emails, but my main interest is to get started at sharing my knowledge and skills and wondering at this time what the first step would be to get started.

    dr huizing

  2. Well here I am, having just spent forty-nine hard-earned dollars to join this nebulous organization in the hopes of a happier tomorrow.
    I leave the house shortly to go to work in a restaurant. I do this not because I enjoy it. I do this because it is the means in which I pay the bills. I do not earn enough to ever think of retiring or even taking a pleasant vacation once in a while. I do enjoy writing though, thus my willingness to invest time and money in this pursuit. I trust you are bonafide.


  3. Hi Michael, I got a note saying someone had commented to the piece above and saw your post. I just wanted to drop in with a quick reply to wish you luck and encourage you to stick with it. Maybe it will work for you, maybe not. But giving it your best shot is still worthwhile, right? Do know -- you've GOT to put in the time, including time spent reading and writing real copy. Anyway, I wish you luck! P.S. Before I started writing copy, I waited tables awhile too. - John F.

    Guest (John F)

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