NFL Great Jerry Rice Holds the Secret to Long-Term Copywriting Success. It’s as Easy as Grabbing Pen and Paper

Will Newman

We’re going to talk today about a subject I discussed 2½ years ago in The Golden Thread.

In that time, this article has received more comments than any other I’ve written. And I’m still receiving comments on it.


Because it touches on a core AWAI strategy for copywriting success. The strategy’s so important, it’s the first exercise in The Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting.

This is something you should start doing right away.

The strategy only requires a pen and paper … and your time. It’s quite simple.

You start by choosing a successful promotion. The Accelerated Program suggests choosing a letter from the AWAI Hall of Fame Book. But you can choose any successful promotion.

How do you know a promo is successful? You see it in your mailbox several times. Or you keep coming across it online. Companies continue using their successful promos as long as they’re making the company money. (These are called “controls.”)

Now the strategy: You take the promo and copy out the words longhand on paper. I’ve found it’s even better if you read the words aloud while copying them.

Then do it again. And again.

Now, I've got a confession to make.

When I began studying The Accelerated Program about a million years ago, I didn’t do this. It sounded like a waste of time. But not doing it actually cost me time.

Doing the right thing — finally …

As I worked my way through the program, that instruction nagged me. I guess because of my early education with nuns, I had the sense if I didn't do what I was told, someone would know.

Reluctantly, I decided to do it.

I chose the best possible letter: The Wall Street Journal’s famous promotion by Martin Conroy. (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 — it took about 20 minutes — many of the secrets, strategies, and ideas became much clearer. So, I copied it out … two more times.

In recent years, a number of Circle of Success members asked me if I thought copying successful promos was worth the time. Of course, I told them “yes.”

Jerry Rice’s secret of success …

Why does this strategy work?

Think about athletes who practice the same moves repeatedly. Jerry Rice — to my mind the greatest NFL Player of all time — practiced plays three hours after his teammates left the field.

Over-practicing football moves builds muscle memory. Copying good writing builds “written muscle memory.”

I’m not sure the originators of this copywriting success strategy — Mark Ford, Paul Hollingshead, and Don Mahoney — knew that this practice has a name: Structural priming.

When I wrote my first article about structural priming, I researched it. The number of academic research papers about written structural priming astounded me. Of the over 700 research papers my Google search brought up, three-fourths of them supported its effectiveness.

Writing out successful promotions by hand is not a waste of time. It saves time in the long run. And this isn’t a strategy just for beginning copywriters. I still use it when I come across a particularly engaging promotion.

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 Rhodia notebook and start copying.

If you haven't already started doing this, try it. I know you’ll find after a small amount of effort, you’ve spent your time well.

More important, your copywriting will improve. And you'll be a more successful copywriter.

I’d love to hear if you’re already using structural priming as a strategy for achieving the writer's life. Or if you think you’re going to start. Let us all know by commenting below.

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Published: August 19, 2016

21 Responses to “NFL Great Jerry Rice Holds the Secret to Long-Term Copywriting Success. It’s as Easy as Grabbing Pen and Paper”

  1. I had to chuckle when reading Will's comments regarding the Accelerated Program's exercises involving copying successful promotions. I had the same reaction as he did originally. And like him, went back and did the exercises. I also attended parochial school, and suspect he's right about the nuns....evidently their influence has remained with me all these years! I now believe these exercises are beneficial. After doing them several times, you do pick up a sort of "tempo" that I found helpful.


  2. I am wondering what you do if you've got carpel tunnel syndrome. I love hand writing but my old injury is coming back

    How do u deal with that?

    Guest (Mari)

  3. Well taken. Thank you. I'm using this approach for writing in general. I rewrite segments of writing from authors I admire. I'm doing this now with Shakespeare sonnets. It's a great exercise!!!

    HK Soubhi

  4. Dear Mr Will Newman,

    Your statement touched my very true feeling and imagination of entire copy-writing instincts.Your "structural priming" is circling in my memory day and night.I am proud of you to help us improving our visions of different strategies colliding our skills.
    I must admit that i love to rewrite everything and i am happy so to grab out those hidden points and key-structures.
    I admit that there is a long way to go.
    But i never,ever ever give up.I love copy-writing.

    Ali Rely.

    Guest (ali rely)

  5. I intend to start doing structural priming.

    Guest (Peter Wilks)

  6. When I got to the first assignment in the AWAI Accelerated Program, I thought to myself, "Are you serious?!?"

    I decided to do it anyways - partially because I thought that if I was going to go buy a course, I might as well do it as intended, and partially because I wasn't particularly busy at the time.

    And guess what happened?

    Because I did the exercises (and have since then copied tons of successful copy), I feel confident that I can write decent copy.

    I will warn you though, you should probably get a really comfortable pen and a pad of paper and write on a really comfortable desk. AND take breaks. It's OK to take a 5 minute break when you get tired... and believe me, you WILL get tired.

    Dennis L

  7. Ok, before I drop my comment, below is for you laughter, an a excerpt from will.N article, sure its typo error:

    "When I began studying The Accelerated Program about a million years ago, I didn't do this. It sounded like a waste of time. But not doing it actually cost me time".

    Hahaha, someone is older than Methuselah my point is: "about a million years ago".

    Thats by the way.

    I will pick one promo copy from Awai's hall of fame and do exactly that.
    I absolutely concur, it reminds me of Former Manchester player:David Beckham, he's good with deadballs, English football analysts calls him dead ball specialist, that's bcs he finds time to practice taking free kicks at his backyard.

    Guest (wilfred)

  8. I frequently copy the headline and lead. It's a lot of work copying the whole letter especially if it's 20 pages long But if it will make me a better copywriter quicker, I'm all for it. One question. Should you do this exercise everyday and if not how often? I always enjoy your articles...very informative.

    Guest (Melvin)

  9. I am currently using a program by Michael Katz about newsletters. I am transferring the information in the program to my own notebook. Most of the time I use longhand. But sometimes I print out the word by printing. Does this invalidate the experience which you noted in your discussion. Jed

    Jed Kelsn

  10. I admit l haven't tried structual priming. Only reading promotions from beginning to end. Some things click in my mind and others not quite. So I'm going to start phrase two,combining the two hopefully will connect all the pieces together for me. Thanks your advice.

    Guest (Sandra Bowman)

  11. Repetition of a sentence and similar syntactic structures effectively applies the law of exercise in both written and verbal practice. Linguistic training uses it – the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. Primary educators use it – A Apple, B Ball. So it makes sense that when we are learning a new “Marketing” language, structural priming will be effective.

    The consequences of schools using computers and questioning the value of cursive writing have not yet been experienced.

    Guest (Maxine Brink)

  12. Will, Thanks for this article. I'm new to AWAI and find your articles to be interesting and informative. I have been copying the sales letters in the "Accelerated Program" but wondering if it was really helpful. This article shows that it will be helpful. I confess that I've become discouraged by the continuing flow of emails from AWAI promoting yet another program needed for success as a copywriter and costing more money. My finances are extremely limited and I have no more to spend.

    Guest (Dennis Shipp)

  13. I just finished Exercise 3 of the Accelerated Course.
    I find the reading and writing to be the most tedious thing I do each day. I would much rather be leaping ahead to the next part of the course.
    But it is also the most important thing I do each day.
    I am a baseball fan. I read about batting practice and fielding skills. I see guys who come up "too early" from the minors because they did not get enough repetitions.
    I GOT IT!

    Ron from the Philippines

  14. Mr. Newman,

    Your article on "structural priming" makes perfect sense. It stands to reason that something practiced over and over becomes embedded in your muscle memory.

    "Structural priming" while not an overly used term, has been practiced every day by people and every industry. Probably since the beginning of conscious thinking.

    I think of it as of re-lighting the torch. Thank you for bringing this back to the forefront of our copywriting thought processes.


    John Hull

    Guest (John Hull)

  15. Coming from a background of creative and performing arts the structural priming idea makes a lot of sense. Before a production is stage for the audience we have do the same thing a million times to build competence that ensures confidence. All that is in this article is pragmatical and empirically true.

    Guest (MIKE NYAGA)

  16. I can see how it will make sense.As an educator who has used the same text book for years.(as directed by the health care program)I can attest that writing out scripts enhances learning.

    Guest (Rita)

  17. Thanx Will for the encouragement.
    In fact, I am still copying the letters from THE 50 MOST SUCCESSFUL SALES LETTERS. What is even more helpful is to copy other research material that I find online. Anything that helps in the creative process is good material to just grab a piece of paper and just start writing it out. The longer you do this the greater chance you have for the writing to stick into your head. Structural Priming is great for the beginner. The more you repeat yourself over and over the better chance you have of learning it.

    Guest (steven lane)

  18. I just reached for my pen and paper.


  19. I am such a newbie to this although I have been writing business letters for some 30 years or so. But I am enjoying all of the recommendations and will put to use the structural priming. I have yet to begin the AWAI program but am looking forward to what I will gain. Thanks to all of you for your honesty and input, it gives me more confidence in pursuing this further.

    Guest (Yolanda Belvin)

  20. Ha! Good article.

    Are you aware that this idea is at least 3,400 years old? Yep.

    In the Old Testament of the Bible, (Deuteronomy chapter 6,if I recall correctly)God commanded that the people would write His Words on the doorposts and fences of their homes. Later, God told the Kings of Israel to hand write their own copy of the Torah (the five books of Moses).

    As you know, handwriting imprints the author's Words as well as delivers insights to your inner person like nothing else can!

    George Austin

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