I’m opening up the mailbox and answering YOUR questions!

Today, I feel like a work in progress…

That feeling comes, in part, from this question.  And how it relates to my weekly planning call for client work.

In short, I’m not getting copy out as quickly as I’d love to.

(I always have the most optimistic aspirations.)

And I’ve been wondering — even before I read this question:

— How much is just the way things are?

— And how much comes from the process and can be fixed?

So that’s the frame of mind I’m bringing into answering this week’s Mailbox Monday question about copywriting, researching and outlining.

Remember, every Monday I answer your questions.  About marketing, copywriting, selling, business-building, and more.

Click here to submit your question to be answered in an upcoming Mailbox Monday issue.

Here’s today’s question…

Hey Roy,

I’ve asked you several questions before. And the answers have always been great.

So here’s another one, and I’ll keep it brief this time…

You’re always emphasizing that outlining is a very important part of the writing process. And I totally agree.

My question is: How does this outlining process fit in with your research? Do you research first and once you have all the ideas laid out, you create an outline? Or do you work on both things simultaneously? I highly doubt that it’s the first thing you do… so that option should fall away.

Thanks for your awesome content,


First things first: when does a good copywriter do research?

The answer: all the time.

A good project starts with research.

It includes research in the outline phase.

It includes research in the writing phase.

It includes research beginning-to-end.

There are some periods — especially in the beginning — when I do a LOT of research.

Later on in the project, I tend to do really casual or relaxed research, where I’m not searching for anything in particular but I’m always reading and have my antennae up for anything good.

And when I’m writing, if I need to bolster a point I’m the first to pop onto Google and start researching like crazy.

So yeah, I’m always researching.

Which brings us to…

Where does outlining fit in this?

Well, first things first, you can’t create an outline if you don’t know what you’re going to say.

While you can use some underlying templates or story structures to have an idea of what you want to cover, a specific outline can only come when you have your big idea nailed down.

And so I’ll often do a bunch of research up front to try to define the big idea.

Usually what I’m doing while I’m doing this broader research is clipping everything relevant to Evernote, using the Chrome Extension.

And as I’m doing all that research, I’m looking for the one idea or story (or unique combination of stories) that resonates most strongly.

I want to find the item that I can feature that feels brand new and interesting and beneficial to my core audience.  It needs to immediately catch their attention and interest.

This is typically an Urgent Problem they have that I can solve, a 10X Opportunity to get something they want, or an Imminent Prediction of an event that will create an Urgent Problem or a 10X Opportunity.

When I’ve identified the idea that fits one of these criteria and is emotionally and intellectually appealing, then I start to create a narrative around that.

Here I start to lay out a general story arc…

What series of points need to be made to for the prospect to want my product?

So, for example, I had a promo a bit back that was basically an 80/20 promo on the stock market.  Not that exact ratio.  But it was about a tiny number of stocks that delivered a disproportionately large percentage of returns.

— I knew we had to establish that this was undeniably true.

— Then we had to establish that my guy really understood what made these stocks different.

— Then we had to establish that my guy knew how to figure out which would be the winners tomorrow, not just today.

— Then we had to offer the list.

With a series of points like this, you can start to fill in your research.  Here you can use various items that you’ve already researched.  But you’ll usually need to dig even further.

At this point, my goal is to create an outline that’s at least a thousand to two thousand words.  Not because I’m going for word count.  But because that means it’s a pretty thorough outline for a promo that will be 8,000 to 10,000 words in the end.

The more thorough your outline, the less work it will actually be to write the dang thing.

Once you have this outline, you can start writing…

And what you’ll find as you write is that the story will change.

Hopefully, it won’t veer too far off from where you started.  But it may — and if that makes it significantly better, that’s okay.

What you’ll usually find though is that you missed things in the outline.

There are additional proof points you’ll need.  There are places where your supporting arguments seem thin.  Or places where the outline really seemed to be cooking, but in execution you decide it needs to change.

So you do more research, and adapt.

An outline is a useful tool, and a way to get your thoughts organized.

With that in mind, it fits really nicely between that moment where you land on what you want to say, and figure out exactly how to say it.  The outline is bridge between those two points.  And it allows you to see what you’re trying to say, and rearrange it if necessary before you have written too much.

The challenge comes when the project doesn’t follow this ideal…

What I’ve just laid out is the ideal process.

But things are never 100% ideal.

The question is, how far off are they?

More and more recently, I’m considering leaning heavier on drafting the lead before I even worry about the outline.

This involves nailing down that idea and trying to crank out some copy around it first.

Because you can lose as much time to an outline as to writing.  But if you lost the time to outlining, you still don’t have that compelling first few pages of copy.  And sometimes that idea that feels good in outline format just doesn’t work the same when you try to put it into a more conversational selling message.

So, when do you outline, as part of the bigger process?

In short, when it works best for you.  And be willing to experiment and change.

If you do it too early, you’ll have to force your message to an outline and it won’t work as well.

If you do it too late, you may miss on the benefit of really nailing down the logic and the story arc that will make your promotion or sales message ultra-believable.

Instead, think of it as one stage of a draft.  It’s a really rough, really sparse draft.

When would you do that?  Well, you’re going to do that at the point where it makes sense!  And where it makes sense for you may be a little different from where it makes sense for me.

Yours for bigger breakthroughs,

Roy Furr

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