“Copy winning sales letters and ads by hand…” So the advice goes… Do I agree? Yes or no?
It’s Monday! Which means, it’s time to open up the ol’ mailbox, and see what kinda questions you’ve sent me.
Remember, to have YOUR questions about marketing, selling, copywriting, business, life, whatever answered here — all you have to do is send them in to [email protected] (or, hit reply if you get these essays by email).
Looking forward to answering YOUR question here soon.
For now, let’s dive into today’s question!
What’s the best way to get good at copywriting, fast?
So my question is about copywriting. What do you think of Gary Halbert’s advice about learning copywriting i.e to write proven sales letters by hand? And what in your opinion is the most effective way to go about learning copywriting?
So… Was Halbert right or wrong?
Let’s start by looking at the case for handwriting. I can think of at least three major points in support of Halbert’s recommendation…
First, copying by hand is better than not copying by hand.
I know, it sounds dumb. But stick with me. When we’re learning things, there’s a natural inclination to just get through it as fast as possible. Especially when there’s no test at the end, where we’re going to be graded on what we’ve retained.
And so if you don’t copy by hand, here’s how I’ll bet you study great ads… You maybe print it out, or look at it on your screen. You start reading at the headline. You read that, then the first few lines. Even if you’re sucked into it, suddenly your phone vibrates, or a little notification pops up on your computer. So you go check your email. Then, you log onto Facebook, and see what’s going on there. An hour later, you remember you were supposed to be studying that ad, but now you don’t have time left today to do it so you’ll have to do it tomorrow. Which you try to do again, with the best of intentions, until another email notification comes through…
If you actually commit to the process of copying that great ad by hand, you’re going to spend more time studying it than you would otherwise. Of course, the same would apply to typing it by hand. Either way, assuming you stay committed, you’re going to have spent much more time studying the ad and internalizing its strengths than you would if you just read it.
Second, copying by hand slows you down and forces you to digest every word.
This is a continuation of the last point, but it comes at the same idea from a new angle. Even if you were to read every word of an ad, you wouldn’t get the gist of it.
As I wrote recently, I’ve been listening to the recording of the Hamilton musical a lot in the last few weeks. It has depth. Every time I listen, something else captures my curiosity. I go off, do some research, and learn a little more about the world surrounding Hamilton, as well as the language used in the musical, and a whole lot more. For example, did you know 1) that “outstand” is a word (even though Scrivener is trying to tell me right now that it is not), and 2) that it basically means to stand longer than the other side, for example in a battle, and 3) it perfectly describes the approach that George Washington had to take in the Revolutionary war, because he was drastically outmatched militarily by the occupying British forces?
The same depth applies to a great ad. There are things that the copywriter is doing that you’re never going to pick up on the first read through. Or even the 5th. But when you spend the time copying it by hand, it sinks in, in a new way. You discover the depth that’s not obvious without serious study. And handwriting the ad is a great way to slow you down enough for that level of serious study.
For this purpose, I think handwriting beats typing — although I do think you get a lot of the benefit of slowing down, even if you wanted to type rather than handwrite the ad.
Third, there is actually a hand-brain connection.
Writing by hand activates more of your brain than typing. Students who take notes by hand retain more of the material than those who take notes by typing. Handwriting may actually improve parts of your brain associated with critical thinking, language, and working memory. One study found that young students who wrote an essay by hand expressed more complex ideas than those who typed.
There’s more and more scientific research out there suggesting there’s a link between the hand and brain associated with handwriting that’s far more powerful than typing. (Interestingly, cursive may even be more beneficial than print — and it’s clear that they are unique in how they activate your brain.)
So, if you’re writing out great ads by hand, there’s actually a scientific basis to suggest you’re internalizing the ads themselves in a better, stronger way than by simply reading them, or even copying them by typing.
All-in, copying great ads by hand is hard to argue against!
I probably have done less of it than I should. It’s a practice that I’ll admit I haven’t done recently — although I’ve certainly done a lot of it.
I do occasionally hand-write out ads — especially my big ideas and leads.
But all-in-all, I do think it’s a beneficial practice, and I strongly recommend it as part of a well-balanced diet of developing your copywriting chops.
Also, I have typed out ads as a way of copying them faster, while still learning for them. This gets some of the benefit. However, after reading what I’ve just written above, maybe there’s a strong case that if I’m going to take the time, I should probably just pick up a pen and paper!
So… What else will help you accelerate your copywriting skills?
I do think that this is one of many things you should do to improve your copywriting. I do not think it’s exclusively what you should focus on, however.
I think a lot of copywriters are prone to a big mistake when copying ads. They get caught up in the language and writing. And so you get a lot of swiping, and me-too ads that are pretty much blatant rip-offs of other ads out there.
What you don’t realize is that great ads always exist in context. They exist in the context of the culture when they were written (especially important for classic ads, but even Stansberry’s End of America was far more relevant a couple years ago than it is today). They exist in the context of a certain market, and a certain business, and certain product. If there is a “voice” or “guru” involved, they exist in the context of that guru’s relationship with the market, and their own personal story. I could go on. If you miss all that, you probably miss a ton about why that ad worked in the first place, and why it became a classic.
(For example, the Wall Street Journal’s famous “Two young men” letter existed in a culture of very little testing. Once they had a control, they kept running it until it stopped being profitable. Which meant its “1 billion pieces mailed” claim is a bit suspect, because it wouldn’t have lasted nearly as long in a marketing department more committed to testing. Still a damn good letter, just not quite as exciting once you know that.)
What I think you need to supplement that study of ads with is learning from copywriters themselves. Whether you’re talking a book for $10 or a workshop for $10,000, the more you get directly from the copywriters about their thinking process in creating the ad, the better it will “stick.”
To not just see John Caples’s famous ads, but to read Tested Advertising Methods and get the context behind it is invaluable. Same with Gary Halbert’s newsletter. Or my work.
Often the thinking behind the copy is even more important than the actual copy itself. To understand where the copy came from will help you far more when it comes time to create your own ads, than to have simply copied the ads themselves.
It all exists in context. For example, if you want a GREAT example of how to write a totally risk-free offer, read the ad for The Lazy Man’s Way To Riches. “I won’t even cash your check or money order for 31 days after I’ve sent my material. That’ll give you plenty of time to get it, look it over, try it out. If you don’t agree it’s worth at least a hundred times what you invested, send it back. Your uncashed check or money order will be put in the return mail.” That’s very tactical and easy to pick up when it comes time to sit down and write your offer.
But Dan Kennedy’s presentation at The Titans of Direct Response, where he talked about the 7 Dark Desires behind great copy — that’s very hard to pick up simply by copying his ads (even though it’s obvious to see and apply yourself once you’ve heard the presentation).
So what’s the “best” approach?
All of it. Yes, hand-copy great ads until your fingers hurt (and then copy some more).
Also, keep reading my daily essays, and other explanatory work from great copywriters.
Buy books. Buy programs. Listen to podcasts. Attend programs.
It’s all helpful.
Remember, if you do a little bit each week to improve just 1% that week, the skills you build over a lifetime in this business are astronomical.
Just copying by hand will help for some weeks. Other weeks, maybe do something different. The key though is to keep moving forward, a little bit at a time, all the time.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,