“Can I use this as a swipe for my own work?”
It’s an innocent enough and well-intentioned question.
And, given the total context, you’d think it was asked in a responsible way.
Yet I’ve had enough experience with the nasty little habit of swiping, that I basically have to say…
No — don’t swipe my copy.
I’ll get back to that in a moment.
Yesterday, I reviewed the contract for the new client I took on for a junior writer arrangement.
And I noticed an interesting clause in the contract. (Pretty much any clause in a contract represents at least one instance of bad behavior that’s now being protected against.)
The clause in the contract fell under the heading of “Exclusive Content.”
And basically it stated that any work done under this contract must not be “copied or adopted from any other source.” With a harsh penalty, if this behavior is discovered.
Because dumb copywriters have, in the past, tried to copy and paste other copywriters’ copy into their own promotion, and called that good.
Now, this is plagiarism and a copyright violation, and shouldn’t be done for that reason.
But perhaps even more so, it shouldn’t be done because it doesn’t work.
Incredibly compelling ideas, narratives, and messages come out of original thought. And you don’t get original thought by creating a patchwork cacophony of other writers’ work.
More horror stories…
At one point I was serving as copy chief for a client. They tasked me with finding new financial copywriters.
It was a pretty good opportunity, and I laid it out in a cattle call. If you wanted to work for my client, you’d have to submit a spec. If I liked the spec, I’d offer you a contract.
I got a bunch of submissions. Some were horrible. Some were okay. Some were good. But one was a little off. It didn’t make a ton of sense, and felt disjointed. But the writing itself had some punch to it. And, it felt a little familiar.
I copied and pasted sentences from the promo into Google. And I found promos by Clayton Makepeace, Gary Bencivenga, and others.
I called out the writer. He flipped out on me. He ended up complaining to my boss, and to the client’s customer service department.
After I got grilled on what happened, he got blacklisted from that client.
That doesn’t fly.
Another time, I helped a client develop some materials for a business opportunity product they were launching.
The product actually involved approaching copywriters and marketers to offer a service. I wrote example pitches, which they put into the product. I also wrote explicit instructions to use these for the idea only, to rewrite in your own voice from scratch.
I ended up getting dozens of pitches. Other copywriters I knew who knew my involvement complained to me for all the pitches they got, too.
And the worst part? Maybe 1 in 20 even edited the pitch before sending.
They all sounded cookie-cutter… Indistinguishable.
Which clearly told me those people didn’t pay attention to detail — a prerequisite for providing that service.
Great marketing doesn’t involve putting words on paper — it involves thinking…
If it were merely a matter of putting words on paper, perhaps swiping would be enough.
In fact, in many smaller, less-competitive, and geographically-constrained markets, that can be enough.
For example, your local dentist could swipe effective patient-acquisition strategies from someone outside of their area, put their name on it, and call it good.
In fact, it can be a very effective business strategy to build an area-exclusive program for a profession like dentistry, where you can package up and productize the same copy and sell it to 100 dentists in different areas, who do not compete with each other for patients.
Same goes for dozens of different local markets and professions.
That’s probably where this bad habit took root. A copywriter writing ads for their local whatever could look at ads that had worked for whatevers in any other market, and basically borrow any inspiring ideas.
Or a prolific copywriter whose name rhymes with Kan Dennedy could put out a program to attract that type of business, write ads for the first one through the door, and basically copy and paste his own work into the next noncompeting client, and the next, and the next… Then turn around and teach that as a lazy copywriter’s way to riches.
But then you get to the big direct response markets, and suddenly you’re playing a different game.
You’re dealing with seasoned, jaded prospects who’ve seen every pitch, technique, and tactic under the sun.
You’re competing, directly or indirectly, against the world’s best copywriters and marketers, who will go to any length to have an edge.
You’re fighting for the attention of prospects who’ve seen and heard it all.
Your headline formulas just won’t cut it. “Who else wants [INSERT BENEFIT HERE] — without [IMAGE OF EXCESSIVE WORK]?” Yawn.
Even if you’ve got the most compelling offer in the world, you’re never going to make them vibrate with that.
So: what works?
Well, big idea types work. Archetypes work. Deep structure works. Underlying psychology works.
Those are your first string. Your star players. Your starters.
Use those to create your advantage. Make your big investments there. And when they’ve given you the lead or the advantage, then consider subbing in your second string.
What’s your second string? Well, a good example would be my internalized and habitual way of wording refund text. “Get a prompt and courteous full refund.” That’s not very original. But by the time you’re reading that, I’ve already got the lead in this game.
And, occasionally, it’s okay to give a third-string player some game time. Especially when you’re up.
So when you’re really rocking, 40% of the way through your sales message, in a flow state, and your subconscious feeds you a headline formula as the best way to word your next subhead — go for it. At least throw it in the first draft. Decide later if it still makes sense. And if it does, that’s okay — leave it.
But anything more than that — and especially at the level of having someone else’s copy open as a template you’re using to write some or all of yours — and you’re playing with fire.
In a noncompetitive market, it might work, but even so it’s fraught with risk well beyond what I’ve mentioned or have room to explain here.
In competitive markets, you’re just asking for your head to be handed to you.
If you find a really inspiring piece of copy and want to capture the magic…
Let me give you this simple process…
- Read it carefully, line-by-line.
- Grab a notepad and pen, because you’re about to take some notes.
- Ask yourself in every paragraph what they’re trying to accomplish and what ideas they’re trying to convey, and take notes.
- Consider what the deep structure and narrative arc of the copy is, and take notes.
- For any sentence, phrase, or idea that really moves you, ask yourself what it is about the message inside the copy that really moves you, and note that.
- For anything else short of specific wording that you find interesting, take notes on that, too.
- Now, put away the original copy for at least 24 hours before writing your own copy — and don’t touch it or refer to it while writing or editing.
It’s smart to study what other copywriters have done. It’s smart to learn from others. It’s smart to get inspired by what’s working in the marketplace.
But then stop there, and go be original.
Coming full circle…
If you want to “swipe” my copy, don’t. That word represents a lazy and dumb bad habit that too many novices have clung to as a shortcut instead of just getting good and thinking for themselves.
If you want to be inspired? Go ahead! A huge part of what I do and what I share is meant to give you actionable inspiration you can turn around to apply to your situation, with thoughtfulness and care, to create breakthroughs in your own copy, marketing, business, and life.
There is a difference. And it’s not insignificant.
And if you want the best way to learn deep structure and big ideas (your first string superstar players), go through High-Velocity Copywriting and the companion Templates program at BTMSinsiders. That’s the precise reason I created that training.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,