A Behind-The-Scenes Look into Creating Direct Response Copy (Plus 11 Other Rules for Writing from Legendary Copywriter David Ogilvy)

writer typing on a laptop

No one gets it perfect the first time … especially when it comes to writing.

Best-selling author Stephen King is known as a "three draft" writer … meaning he writes at least three rough manuscripts before he settles on the final version that gets published.

Sir Terry Pratchett, an English author and humorist, who is best known for writing a series of popular fantasy novels, said this about the writing process, "The first draft is just you telling yourself the story."

Well, it's no different in the world of direct response copywriting.

Great copy comes from practice, patience, and persistence. But you also have to learn how to revise and refine what you write.

It's one of the behind-the scenes secrets to crafting copy that gets attention.

Legendary direct response copywriter David Ogilvy would tell you the same thing.

In 1948, David started a Manhattan-based advertising agency that would eventually be known as Ogilvy & Mather. It's responsible for creating some of the world's most successful direct response campaigns.

To this day, the company is still a dominant part of the industry. The latest numbers available show the company produced over $990 million in revenues last year.

David, who passed away at the age of 88 in July 1999 was the driving force behind many iconic ads. For instance, he wrote the copy for the now famous Rolls Royce ad with the headline, "At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock."

He was also responsible for Esso's, (now known as Exxon-Mobile) "Put a Tiger in Your Tank" marketing campaign.

His copy worked so darn well that in 1962 Time Magazine called David "the most sought-after wizard in today's advertising industry."

David wasn't just a copywriter; he was also an author.

In 1963 he wrote Confessions of an Advertising Man, which became a bestseller and is considered an essential read for anyone who wants to learn the art and craft of direct response copywriting.

And while you recognize his name and know his work, here's what few people realize … he was an obsessive editor of whatever direct response copy he wrote.

Back in 1955 when Ray Calt, a writer for Atlantic Magazine asked David about his writing process, he listed out 12 steps, and, not so surprisingly, one of those included editing his work.

Of this step in his process he said, "I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor. So I go to work editing my own draft. After four or five editings, it looks good enough to show to the client."

Why does this matter so much? Because a kind of magic happens when you go back through and refine what you write.

You're actually putting yourself in the shoes, or I should say the mind, of the reader. And that mind shift helps you understand your target audience in a much deeper and better way.

Ultimately when you take the time to make things right, it shows you care and will do what it takes to get the message right. And that's something your client values. And it will make you stand out as a true professional.

How many revisions does it take to get copy right?

Every direct response copywriter's answer will vary. Some might tell you they review two or three times before turning in the final version to their client.

Heck, David once revised a headline a total of 104 times before writing the final one used for the ad he was working on.

If your goal is to become a sought-after direct response copywriter, then you'll want to make revising your work part of your writing habit.

As for David's other 11 steps to creating good copy, here they are from his letter:

  1. I have never written an advertisement in the office. Too many interruptions. I do all my writing at home.
  2. I spend a long time studying the precedents. I look at every advertisement which has appeared for competing products during the past 20 years.
  3. I am helpless without research material—and the more "motivational" the better.
  4. I write out a definition of the problem and a statement of the purpose which I wish the campaign to achieve. Then I go no further until the statement and its principles have been accepted by the client.
  5. Before actually writing the copy, I write down every conceivable fact and selling idea. Then I get them organized and relate them to research and the copy platform.
  6. Then I write the headline. As a matter of fact I try to write 20 alternative headlines for every advertisement. And I never select the final headline without asking the opinion of other people in the agency. In some cases I seek the help of the research department and get them to do a split-run on a battery of headlines.
  7. At this point I can no longer postpone the actual copy. So I go home and sit down at my desk. I find myself entirely without ideas. I get bad-tempered. If my wife comes into the room I growl at her. (This has gotten worse since I gave up smoking.)
  8. I am terrified of producing a lousy advertisement. This causes me to throw away the first 20 attempts.
  9. If all else fails, I drink half a bottle of rum and play a Handel oratorio on the gramophone. This generally produces an uncontrollable gush of copy.
  10. The next morning I get up early and edit the gush.
  11. Then I take the train to New York and my secretary types a draft. (I cannot type, which is very inconvenient.)
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Published: March 15, 2024

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