How to Find a Hidden Goldmine of Writing Ideas


Sandy Franks

Sandy Franks here – AWAI’s newest addition and the new Managing Editor of The Writer’s Life …

Although I’m new to AWAI, I’ve been connected to this amazing company for a long time now.

I remember sitting in a small office with AWAI Co-Founder Don Mahoney, where all we had was a long, brown folding card table that served as our conference table, surrounded by a set of mismatched chairs.

There wasn’t even a supply cabinet in the room so we had to buy some pencils and pads of paper from the mini-market next door. Back then computers were expensive and Agora – the company I was working for – couldn’t afford to buy one for every single employee. We took turns having computer time; most everything we did was by hand.

Our task for this day was to figure out how copy bullets in sales letters are constructed. We gathered every direct mail sales letter we could find and went through each one page-by-page, line-by-line.

It was a time-consuming process. We thought we had figured out a pattern but weren’t sure. So we shared our work with Mark Ford. “This is a good start,” he told us, “but we have to make this easy to remember.”

Mark was (and still is) brilliant at coining phrases and terminology. (Hint: a knack all budding copywriters should master). It took him maybe an hour to develop the 4 U’s: Urgent, Unique, Useful and Ultra-specific. (If you have a copy of The Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting then you’re familiar with the 4 U’s.)

In fact, it was Mark who taught me how to review and critique copy. He saved every direct mail package he received. He pulled one out and said, “We’re going to read this together.” He made a copy for me and held onto the original. Then he took out a yellow highlighter and handed it to me.

My job was to highlight passages of copy that were benefits, promises or claims. He read the letter out loud and would signal when one of those elements appeared. I yellow highlighted them in my version of the letter.

It took time to get through the entire letter. When we were done, we did the same thing with another letter. By the end of the session, I could tell a benefit from a feature, and a promise from proof.

Each of these sit-downs, whether with Mark or Don, felt as if I were studying for an exam. Yet it wasn’t really studying at all. It’s what I call the “sweat equity” of building your business. It’s this intensive sweat equity that took Agora from a $10 million company to close to $500 million.

It’s the same type of sweat equity you can do to build your writing business. No doubt you’ve heard it said before, that, in addition to writing every day, you should read every day too.

If you’ve chosen the copywriting path, you should read a direct-response sales letter once a day. If you’ve chosen to write web content, read at least one piece daily in your niche. If you’re chosen to write travel articles, subscribe to your favorite travel site and make sure you’re reading at least one article a day.

But what I want you to do is take it one step further and actually study them …

Read through the pieces you’re reading to find their structures … the promises made … the proof used to support those promises … how the headline is constructed … how each paragraph connects to the other … how the offer is structured. Take as many notes as you can and keep those notes handy.

Each time you are tasked with a writing assignment, and well before you write a single word, pull out your notes and review them.

This studying … this sweat equity is how you are going to build your business and ultimately allow you to live the writer’s life.

Today I want you to start your new routine. It’s easier than you think. Find something you can read in the area of paid writing you plan to pursue. (Hint: If you’re taking AWAI’s Six-Figure Copywriting program you’ll find tons of samples in the Hall of Fame bonus that comes with it!) Get out a highlighter, and mark up all the places you find are interesting and strong.

Tomorrow, I’m going to share with you the secret of what I call the “golden rolodex” and why it could be the key to landing your first paying client.

So stay tuned. And by the way, if you have some questions or comments, please feel free to share them with me below.

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: October 13, 2015

12 Responses to “How to Find a Hidden Goldmine of Writing Ideas”

  1. This was interesting to read about how AWAI got started. Although it was in the 1990s, I was surprised to learn that Agora couldn't afford to buy a computer for every employee.

    In the 1990s, the personal computers appeared in the marketplace thanks to computer entrepreneurs Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Steve Jobs (Apple). I was able to afford a home personal computer from IBM.

    SheilaOctober 13, 2015 at 10:57 am

  2. As a retired computer guy I was immediately attracted to Social Media as a writing platform. So I bought that training package. Your letter, however, provided the first aha! moment by suggesting that I study ads and save them into a "swipe file".
    Thank you for that. By the way my favorite long written ads are the little booklets published by Bottom Line Publications. They get me almost every time even though they seldom live up to the hype.

    Guest (Sid)October 13, 2015 at 1:57 pm

  3. I plan to take advantage of this offer as soon as my new laptop arrives.

    Guest (Kimberly)October 13, 2015 at 1:58 pm

  4. Love the new masthead! Very professional. Looking forward to The Writers Life with Sandy Franks on board. Keep up the good work AWAI.

    Kurt SimmonsOctober 13, 2015 at 2:19 pm

  5. SANDY, This letter is much closer to what I am wishing to learn. Much of the fluff letters of past from AWAI were full of nonsense. I am a pro Photog, Wrote an article for a barter. Never have I been to the location . I am a Cert. Photographic Counselor finished first in class at Hasselblad, I wish to move to Spain or Panama as nothing is keeping me here in Tampa. Get disability but not enough from what I read, but I continue to research. I am single. Hope I have been helpful here.Judy

    Guest (Judy Deese)October 13, 2015 at 2:28 pm

  6. thank you for this "sweat equity" article - it is exactly the encouragement i needed to read today

    all best,
    -g-

    Guest (georgy)October 13, 2015 at 2:59 pm

  7. C'mon, Sandy... Building our very own "swipe file" w/o which we'd run out of ideas? Just a quick gander at Leonardo's notebooks or van Gogh's Fauvist throes will conjure up thousands of ideas. Or a peek into the very skies under which Einstein's relativity renders space and time inseparable. Or a walk in a Frederick Law Olmsted whose clearings in a distance frame our staying power's greatest move. Where light's sustained by the very ideas even time can't keep.

    Guest (Chris Morris)October 13, 2015 at 4:27 pm

  8. Ms. Franks:
    Are you a freelance copywriter, or retained by several companies to have a successful monthly and/or yearly income? Do you receive a salary from AWAI for your position as Managing Editor and if so, were you not successful as a freelance writer and/or copywriter? Thank you

    SaSOctober 13, 2015 at 5:18 pm

  9. Ms. Sandy, Thank you for this information. My question is due to my employment of 13 yrs. within the company and all the changes the past year I feel led to follow my long dream of writing. Is it okay to begin the program with AWAI before knowing exactly what direction I desire to go. Leaning toward copywriting or travel writing but just not sure exactly at the moment.

    Appreciate you

    Guest (Laura )October 13, 2015 at 6:48 pm

  10. Hi Sandy,

    Question? I am a 73 y.o. Non-Spanish speaking guy living in Ecuador on only my $1527 monthly SS check. I am almost finished with the Accelerated course. I am also taking Nick's course on building a business with confidence. Do you think it is still possible for me to build a successful copywriting business with real clients all the way down here in Ecuador? Can this be done from here with only the Internet and a Skype phone?
    Scott Crosby

    Guest (Scott Crosby )October 13, 2015 at 10:50 pm

  11. Hi, You have presented a very elaborative thoughts how to be a successful copywriter. Both points, daily reading and writing is a must for copywriters. The third idea to have a swipe file is most important to have ideas for writing. Practice reading, highlighting the important and writing again are the essentials of success. reading gives you new ideas and writing provides you with how to scale those ideas and turn them important. Kudos

    Guest (Mahesh seelvi)October 14, 2015 at 3:27 am

  12. Hi Sandy, i was deeply touched by your article, namely the part about reading a sale letter in your niche every day and taking time to study its different aspects and taking useful notes. I welcome and thank you for this article and will be watching for the next one with anticipation.
    Pierre Lysius

    Guest (Pierre Lysius)October 18, 2015 at 5:37 pm


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