In this post, my friend and mentor John Forde discusses a very important area for you. Life experience. So many people, ignore the wisdom of others who have already trodden a path of mistakes, readjustments, perhaps a few more mistakes, until final glory.
Instead of using their experience to beat a faster path to success, inexperienced marketers and entrepreneurs “think they know best”, and ignore their advice. End results? They make the same mistakes, and end up wasting valuable time.
Months or even years can be wasted following this pathetic model. Instead, my advice to you today, is LEARN from the masters, LISTEN to the masters.
And achieve your end goals faster. And with less stress and nightmares. So over to you John…
Ok, five tough lessons I’ve had to learn… and learn… and learn again, over the last 25+ years…
THE FIVE TOUGHEST LESSONS I’VE LEARNED IN 25 YEARS OF COPYWRITING One of the first things I had to learn was that EVERYBODY BLUFFS. What do I mean by that? To tell the truth, I’m still not sure.
Except that it’s some mix of “fake it to you make it” and a recommendation to ask stupid questions when you’ve got ‘em, because it’s better than not knowing.
When I first started out, for instance, there were industry terms I didn’t know and never asked about. At some point, it got too embarrassing to ask. So I was more or less lost until the Internet came around.
“Don’t do that,” I said. “Be the one who speaks up.” At the same time, there were times that bluffing my way through paid off. I got to take on assignments where the only special edge that I had was a library card.
My first assignment, for instance, was to ghostwrite a book on wealth. Me, a guy who at the time was still living on tuna fish three times a week. “And on page 76,” the sales letter for the book said, “you’ll find the greatest wealth-building secret of all time.” I had no idea what that secret would be, up until about page 62.
And I was in a panic about it. “Don’t sweat it,” said my boss and mentor, “we’ll figure it out.” When it couldn’t wait any longer, about halfway into page 76, I pressed him for the ultimate secret again.
“Easy,” he said, “just write something like, ‘By the way, I promised you the greatest wealth secret of all time and here it is — throw out your television.” It seemed reasonable enough to me.
And by the way, the book turned out fine. One customer even called to say he liked it so much, he kept it under his pillow. I told him I wasn’t sure that was how it worked. But the point was, with a ton of research and a few smart interviews, you can learn to write about almost anything.
Experience, in other words, is valuable. But intense curiosity and a little ambition — maybe a lot of ambition — can be a reasonable substitute.
Since then, I’ve written about natural health secrets, water filters, hedge funds, options trading, stem cell breakthroughs, nuclear power, wireless energy, gold mining, geothermal power, you name it.
Even though I started out knowing next to nothing about any of it. In short, don’t let lack of knowledge — or the fear of looking stupid — get in your way. If it interests you enough to research it, you’ll find a way.
The second hard lesson I had to learn, and I’ll bet you’ve learned it already too, is that EASY-TO-READ IS HARD-TO-WRITE.
And that’s a lesson we keep learning, too. In our business, good copy looks so basic. And the best copy just downright disappears, letting the message shine through instead. When you’re just starting out, you might think — as I did — that this means that the writing itself doesn’t much matter.
And in some ways, you’d be right. That is, a great message can sometimes survive bad grammar and inelegant phrasing. Selling isn’t about wordplay and subtlety.
That’s just icing.
Likewise, a bad sales message won’t work, even if you write like a sales-copy Hemingway. Finesse gets lost if there’s never a customer connection.
However, it’s wrong to say that writing skill or style doesn’t matter at all. For one, I’ve never met a good copywriter that didn’t love words.
Most of the writers I know also have a great sense of humor, which is all about phrasing. Most of all, the copywriters I admire most, and there are many, and who all have the best track records seem to have mastered one style in particular.
Call it “elegant hype.” That is, they manage to write about big ideas in a very simple way, without all-caps or lots of bolded, underlined, and italicized text. Yet without sacrificing an ounce of enthusiasm.
All the passion comes across, in a style that’s still easy to trust.
As copy goes, it’s an art form — by not trying to be. My third hard-won lesson was that FLEXIBILITY COMES AT A PRICE. When you start out in this biz, the first things dangled before you are the perks — you can write from anywhere, at any time, and on your own. And it’s all true.
Unfortunately, the job comes with a few innate challenges too — namely, that you can write from anywhere, at any time, and on your own. In other words, to paraphrase Spiderman’s dad, with great flexibility comes great responsibility.
Because you can work anywhere, work never leaves you.
Suddenly, you’ll notice that every conversation, every movie, and every book you come across has something to do with your latest project. You’ll start dreaming test leads and jotting down headlines on napkins.
Will you write at the beach? Absolutely. Also, in the shower, the car, and elsewhere. It’s why, I’ve heard, it’s hell to be married to a writer. And why you should probably have a voice recording app ready to go on your smartphone.
If that seems weird to you, then there’s a chance the writing life isn’t for you. My fourth tough lesson is that CRITICISM IS A BETTER FRIEND THAN PRAISE. This one is probably obvious, even to a writing newbie.
But that doesn’t make it any less painful to absorb. For instance, early on I thought I’d written some pretty good stuff. I wanted my first writing mentor to think so too. He didn’t agree.
On the first eight pages of copy I ever wrote, he crossed out six. Not long after, I was lucky enough to get a second mentor too.
And both loved red ink. By the time a piece of a copy came back to my desk, I could practically wring it out and get a crimson-colored puddle on my desk. The invention of “Track Changes” in Microsoft Word, a new feature at the time, barely made it better.
My many critics added so many corrections and suggestions, it nearly froze the program when I opened my drafts. With time, I got better. The critics eased up, they started writing less. “It’s probably fine,” they said.
And at first, I was glad for it. But too much leeway can make you lazy. Well, it can make me lazy anyway. So I sometimes beg for tougher reviews. But maybe not enough.
All writers, even good ones, can benefit from a stringent review. Worth never forgetting. My fifth tough lesson learned — and it’s a doozy — was that, contrary to the popular saying, FAILURE IS AN OPTION.
In fact, it’s a requirement. On my laptop, I’ve got copies of my old promos. Some worked, some didn’t. Strangely, I barely remember writing the good ones.
The flops, though, still eat at me years later — I remember every meeting, every 11th-hour correction, the rewrites, the hell that is legal review.
And all for nothing. Except, that is, the retrospect discovery of muddled thinking, bad timing or a bad read of my audience, and other embarrassing mistakes that I’ve made — and I’ve made many. If you’re doing this job right, your copy will flop once in a while too.
Maybe even more than once in a while.
Just remember, Babe Ruth had the strikeout record too.
And when it does, it sucks.
But if you’re failing because you’re testing new limits, that’s a good thing. Not only will it toughen your skin, it informs your next attempt. And the next one.
And the next one.
And the one after that. Resilience matters. I should have stopped there, but of course there are lots of tough lessons I could have thrown in. For example, the idea of the BIG IDEA itself.
You’ll hear that term often and right out of the gate. Figuring out what it means, though, is another story. And sometimes, an ongoing struggle. Picking the perfect core idea for a pitch is a big challenge. But worth pursuing.
As Abe Lincoln said — and my friend Joe above often reminds — if you’ve got five hours to chop wood, spend the first four sharpening your ax. And then, this last bonus — LEARN TO LET IT GO.
I once heard a story once about a French painter.
Everybody loved his work with light and shadow, his brushwork and the subjects he picked to paint.
A genius, they said. But one problem… He was such a perfectionist, at one point he was even caught trying to touch up one of his paintings… 16 years AFTER he’d sold… in the museum where it hung.
As the saying goes, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In copy, that means that at some point you’ve got to let it go.
Get it tested.
Then move on to the next challenge. Speaking of which, here’s as good a spot to stop as any, don’t you think?
See you soon!
P.S “Build a man a fire, he’ll be warm for an hour” said Terry Pratchett, “Set him on fire, he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.”
This ought to light a few sparks: http://copywritersroundtable.
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