(confessions from a 20 year copywriter) 4 Things I Wish I Knew, when I first started writing sales copy …

OK, so I’m writing this next post just for fun…

Ah heck, who are we kidding? Most of the articles I post here are fun (at least they’re fun for me to write).

The formula I use for these posts is to take a solid bit of wisdom, gained from experience, and I drop it right in the middle of the page. Then I get out of the way and see which direction it splatters.

Unlike sales copy, where I need know exactly which direction I’m going, I don’t really know, which way a post like this will flow, until I let it go.


Anyway, it looks like this one starts with a little autobiography (highly redacted) and then I get to the good stuff.

So if you’ll indulge me for 30 seconds while I take a short stroll down memory lane…
Trust it will be worth your time…


The year was 1994 and I had just walked away from the last official J-O-B that I would ever work at. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I knew that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life working for peanuts, just to make someone else rich.

On top of that, after a couple years in the Army followed by 7 years working at a New England sawmill; My 30 year old self was all done taking orders from idiots.


So off I went, headstrong and unsure what the future would bring, but cocksure that I could do it better on my own.


Like many new entrepreneurs I tried MLM for a while (because someone told me it was an easy way to make big money, in a short amount of time).

I was always good at face-to-face selling, so sure I made some money at it. But after about a year I began to suspect my MLM recruiter wasn’t completely honest about how easy it would be.
So while that was still bringing in a few bucks every month, I started a small home improvement company.


About 2 years into my solopreneur adventure (the time it took for me to blow through most of my savings) I began to realize that I didn’t know diddly squat about attracting customers to my business.

Like I said, I was good at face-to-face selling, but without a steady flow of leads my business wasn’t going anywhere.

So I knew I had to get good at advertising and marketing, in a hurry. Otherwise I’d need to choose between finding another J-O-B… or getting really drunk and driving my car over a cliff. (and both of those options had about the same appeal to me)

That’s when I started learning everything I could about advertising and marketing. And as I implemented what I learned, my phone started ringing more and more. Before long I was flush with cash, and I was hiring my first few employees.


Now as powerful as all marketing can be, the one thing that that drove my fascination the most, was the magic I saw happening whenever I changed a few words in my sales copy.

Simply shuffling them around, or re-phrasing something, often made the difference between a trickle of response, or a flood of leads pouring in.

Once I saw what was happening, I was hooked… My love affair with words was born, and I began devouring everything I could find on the art of copywriting. (all told, I’ve spent many thousands of dollars, and many thousands of hours studying the science and art of salescopy).


As the years went by I started a half dozen other small businesses, some of them online [a website design & SEO company… a successful Ecommerce site for about 7 years… and a few more that didn’t work out too well (so we won’t talk about those right now)]. And I still own that small home improvement company, to this day.

And every business I ever owned was a testing ground for learning new ways to bring in customers, increase conversions, and generate revenue.

I kept learning and testing different copywriting styles with every business. Until eventually (about 10 years ago) I began writing and consulting for other business owners.

And that brings us to today…


OK, I know that was a pretty long introduction. And I didn’t tell you that story just to impress you, or to bore you. I simply wanted you to know how I got started so the rest of this post makes a little more sense.


And now I imagine you’d like me to just get on with the 4 Things I Wish I Knew, when I first started writing sales copy… Like I promised in the headline of this post…


Well OK then, let’s go…

(note: I didn’t make any of these things up on my own. I learned these lessons over the years, and as I learned them my copy got better and better. These lessons may sound familiar or obvious to some of us, but based on a lot of the sales copy I see these days, there’s many people out there who still need to learn them)


#1 – Headlines, folks… Get your headlines right!

If your headline is weak, boring or confusing, your copy will never get a chance to survive.

Put a vague, boring, or obscure headline at the top of your copy, and it doesn’t matter what else you write. Because 99% of your audience will never stick around to read the first sentence.

Of course the best headline in the world won’t save your ad if the rest of the copy is weak. But we need to start at the top, and give people a quick reason to care about what you have to say.


When I first started writing ads my headlines were all about me and my company. My newspaper ads would start with “Steve’s Home Improvements” (or something along those lines). I always started out talking about “me” and what I did.

After much testing, and learning, I began starting my ads with headlines that would say something like “Sheetrock Repairs – Done Right The First Time” or “I’ll Paint That Room So You Don’t Have To”.

Simply put, my headlines were no longer about me. They were about what I can do for you, my customer. Once I shifted my mindset, my response rates started getting better.


In my experience, the best headlines directly call out your target audience. And they either offer a big bold promise, or they touch on a big ass problem your reader is having.
If you can do all those things in one headline… even better.


OK, I can already hear someone saying… “Wait a minute… What about the headline for this post? ”
“4 Things I Wish I Knew, when I first started writing sales copy”

“It has none of those things”…


Well, out in the wild I would agree. But for anyone who knows me, it does touch on a promise that I’m going to share a few bits of my experience. And it also offers hope for anyone who’s still trying to figure out how to sell with the written word. (Which equates to a sizable number of people reading this right now)


So depending on the audience, the headline still works. How do I know it works? Because you’re reading this post right now, and the headline is what brought you here…

Which brings me to the next thing I wish someone had taught me when I first started learning copy…


#2 – It’s not just about words…

The first time someone told me that, all I could say was… “What kind of backwards logic is that? Copywriting is all about words!”

Well yes… and no.

One thing that’s more important than using words in your copy, is using the right words. And the best words to use, are the one’s that mean something to your audience.

Which means that it’s really… “All about your audience”.


When I began to really understand what this meant, my copy got better and my response rates started going up across the board.


The point is… You can have a great product, and a great offer, and still get crap for response, if you don’t know your audience.

And the more you understand your audience, the easier it is to understand why they might buy what you’re selling.

So when you research your target audience, don’t be afraid to dig deep and become part of their world for a little while.

No, you don’t need to actually join the local “Moose Lodge”, but you do want to learn how your market thinks, and talks. That way we can use language in our copy that’s more familiar to them, and it can get your reader to think “Hey, this guy is just like me. We’re part of the same group”.

And people are more likely to do business with people they can relate to.


So the real lesson I learned here was…

Become good at writing copy… But become great at understanding your target audience.

Because when we can put ourselves in the shoes of our reader, then we’re just a few words away from making the sale.

And speaking of research, that brings me to the third thing I wish I knew when I started writing copy…


#3 – Do your research

Most good copywriters I know are hard-core researchers.

We research the audience, the product, the competition, the current news cycle (if it affects our offer) and basically gather more info than we’ll probably ever use in a promotion.

Why do we do it? Because you never know what nuggets of intel might lead to the perfect hook.


When I first started writing, I just wanted to jump right in using “power words” and exciting adjectives, because that’s what I noticed other people doing. But I soon figured out that if I wanted to stand out from the crowd, I couldn’t just keep doing what everyone else was doing.

And besides, even when I wrote it, that hyped-up empty copy always made me feel like a cheezy used car salesman (my apologies to any used car salesmen reading this. It’s just an analogy to emphasize a point. Nothing personal.)


When you really research your product, and research your target market, It becomes a whole lot easier to figure out how to tie your offer into what the market already wants.

We can still sprinkle so called “power words” throughout our copy, but we no longer need to rely on them to do all the heavy lifting.


So become good at writing copy… become great at understanding your target audience… and don’t skimp on the research.
Because you never know what little nugget of intel might lead to the perfect hook.


And speaking of finding the perfect hook, this ties into the next thing I wish I knew when I started writing copy…
The power of sticking to one big idea at a time…


#4 – Stay focused on the one big idea

When I first started writing copy I would try to pack as many things as possible into every ad. I figured since we never really know what causes different people to buy from us, I should just throw everything I had at them, and hope something would stick.

Through trial and error, and studying other great copywriters, I soon discovered the flaw with that way of thinking…


What I was doing with my “chop suey” style of writing was watering down the entire message, and turning it into a bland mix of nothing special.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with weaving multiple benefits into our copy (in fact, I usually recommend it) but the overall message should revolve around only one (1) main idea.

Sticking with one main idea allows us to focus on presenting our offer as big and important, to a specific issue, instead of just a blurr of mixed chatter that has no real impact.


For example: If we’re selling weight loss products to fat people (no, I’m not picking on fat people. I’ve just never sold weight-loss products to skinny people), we can talk about the health benefits of being lean… and the way they’ll look and feelwhen they’re 30 pounds lighter… and even how attractive they might be to other people.

Heck, we can even slip in a bit about how our organically grown ingredients help sustain the natural balance of the environment, while sustaining the natural balance of your weight and health.

All of this ties into the big idea of how they’ll look and feel great.


But don’t start talking about how people in third world countries don’t have enough food to eat. Or how your audience can donate their old fat clothes to charity, so it can be recycled into blankets for impoverished people. (your audience might also be concerned about the ills of the world, but that’s not why they’re reading your ad. And we don’t want to run the HUGE risk of breaking their trance about our offer, and sending them off in a different, equally powerful direction of thought)


So the lesson I learned here was to stay focused on only 1 main concept for each piece of copy.

When I stick to this lesson my copy almost always gets a better response rate.

How do we discover our one big idea…? Well, go back to #3 and “do your research”

And if you can’t help but come up with multiple big ideas for your offer, then turn them into multiple ads. That way you can split-test them against each other, or put different offers in front of different market segments.



OK, I know that I promised to keep this post to only 4 things. But I really have a lot more I’d love to share with you.

On the other hand, this post is starting to get a bit long, and I don’t want to take up your entire day. So if you’re willing to stick around for just another minute, what do you say we squeeze in one more thing I wish I Knew, when

I first started writing copy…


#5 – Have someone read your copy back to you, out loud…

This one doesn’t really apply if we’re only writing banner ads, or small space ads. But when your copy is more than a few paragraphs long, it applies Big Time!

When I first started writing copy, I figured as long as I was using the right techniques and proper grammar, it would be fine.

It was only after I looked back over some of my less successful attempts that I spotted the choppiness in the writing.

Copy that was smooth flowing when I wrote it, had somehow magically turned into choppy grammar and hesitating syntax. (my first thought was that some prankster must have broken into my office, and messed around with the sentence structure in my old sales pieces. But since there were no other signs of a break-in, I considered the remote possibility that maybe, just maybe, I had screwed it up when I originally wrote it?)


The problem starts with the fact that when writing the copy, we’re already fully engaged with our own train of thought. We know the ins and outs of our offer, which makes it all too easy to forget that our readers have not spent the last couple weeks researching the same intimate details like we have.

They’re looking at our copy with a fresh perspective. And what makes perfect sense to us, might come across as a broken thought to a first time reader.

Also, grammar errors and typos are easy to overlook when we’re writing a story that we already know the ending to.


The most effective way I’ve discovered to assure smooth flowing copy, is to have someone else read it out loud to me. This way I can easily hear when they hesitate, or get stuck on a sentence.

If the copy sounds choppy when you hear it spoken out loud, then you can be pretty sure that it’s choppy when your audience is reading it silently to themselves.

So the lesson I learned here is… Have someone read your copy out loud. And if they hesitate on a word, or look confused while reading a sentence, make a note of it and then go back and fix it.


Well the clock on the wall is telling me it’s time to start my workday. So I want to thank you for sharing these past few minutes with me.

And my greatest wish is that I’ve given you something of value, in exchange for you giving me a few minutes of your valuable time.

And like I always say…

This post is not just for me, it’s for all of us. So if you’re an experienced writer, feel free to add something to it in the comments below…


Here’s to writing more successful copy, more often…

All the best,

Posted in Copywriting, Email Copy, Offline Copywriting, Online Copywriting and tagged .

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