To Master Copywriting, Learn to Listen — to Yourself


Marcia Yudkin

If you think back to any complex physical skill you mastered, such as driving a stick shift, knitting, or dribbling a basketball while being guarded, you can probably remember a clumsy stage where you knew what you were supposed to do and may even have repeated the proper steps to yourself. Yet you couldn’t seem to get it right.

The same thing happens when you learn cognitive skills, like when you are trying to master copywriting. You read a lot of theory and understand the principles intellectually but fumble when it comes to applying them.

What I’ve learned, from mentoring dozens of aspiring copywriters one-on-one since 1998, is that during that klutzy stage of learning, you need to practice paying attention to your intuition. You know more than you realize you know, but the whispers of insight are soft, unsure, and easily ignored. Huge progress in mastery and confidence takes place when you listen in and use what your developing instinct is telling you.

This guideline emerged from noticing that when I went over my mentorees’ assignments with them, pointing out things they had overlooked or where they needed to adopt a different approach, they’d often comment, “You know, I thought about that.”

This happened so frequently, with so many different learners and in such a wondering tone of voice, that I knew this wasn’t defensiveness. I began replying, “And … ?” I explicitly encouraged mentorees to pay attention to that underwater thought, that tentative idea, that intuitive voice the next time. This shortened their learning curve to master copywriting like nothing else. Within weeks, they were self-assuredly making mostly sound decisions about how to say things and where to put what.

Although this process may feel or look like magic, it’s an ordinary and perfectly explainable psychological process. Studies of experts who work under pressure, like veteran firefighters or emergency room doctors, show that they don’t consciously reason their way to the strategy they use in the moment. Instead, they simply get to work, doing exactly what needs to be done for the complicated, unique situation at hand. Their intuition — or subconscious mind, if you prefer — has figured things out for them, so quickly that they’re not aware of any rapid-fire assessment and analysis. They simply know and do.

Likewise, experienced copywriters don’t normally get an assignment from clients and then sit there thinking, “Now let’s see, this is a Type L marketing situation, so I should use that kind of a headline with call-outs on such-and-such, and should I appeal to fear or hope here?” Instead, they get to work.

It’s not that they put the situation into a box and retrieve a formulaic answer. Quite the contrary. What gets crafted is completely particular and nuanced. Professional-level mastery involves having taken in and integrated a wealth of observations, examples, and teachings. The integration takes place naturally. That’s why, during the learning process, the better you learn to trust your developing instincts, the sooner you master copywriting and reach confident, reliable proficiency.

Even experts get stumped, of course, from time to time, which requires a more conscious reasoning process, as if they go back to the learning stage, consult their mental textbooks (or actual ones), and explicitly think the problem through.

Note that the dependable intuitions I’m talking about don’t come out of nowhere. You must first put in the study to master copywriting … the wanting to know and the close observation. But after a certain point, you need to shut the books, click out of the how-to lessons, and go with what comes to mind. With that mode of practice, you’ll fumble less and make fewer off-base decisions. And more quickly than you expected, you’ll know how to approach client projects and feel grounded in your knowledge when you speak with clients.

Editor’s Note: Marcia Yudkin is the author of 6 Steps to Free Publicity, Meatier Marketing Copy, and numerous other books, and she’ll be speaking at the 2016 AWAI Bootcamp on “Marketing for Introverts: Why No One Needs a Personality Transplant to Succeed as a Copywriter.” And the good news is, it’s not too late to sign up for Bootcamp. Spots still remain. But hurry. We sell it out every year and this year looks on course to do the same. The longer you wait, the less chance you’ll be able to reserve your spot. And if that happens, you miss Marcia’s presentation. Go here to reserve your spot at this year’s Bootcamp.

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Published: June 29, 2016

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