The Secrets of the Writing Process

The Writing Process

Let’s talk about the first thing you have to do when you have to write copy. You have something you need to sell. What do you do?

First, you learn everything you can about what it is you are selling before you even write a single word. You want to know every single thing there is to know about your product.

For example, when I was writing about a signed lithograph of Joe DiMaggio, I researched Joe DiMaggio and his baseball games. I knew why he was famous down to the pitch that made him a legend. I just researched the heck out of him and did a lot of work on that.

If you are writing for someone else, you sit down and interview them. You are writing copy for someone else’s product. You ask them questions and become curious about the product they have to sell. You need to know everything there is about it.

If you are selling your own product, don’t overlook the fact that you really need to go in- depth and do some ancillary research.

Find out everything you can about that kind of product and that product in particular. You need to delineate it from the rest of the market place.

That is just one of the things you can get out of good research: what makes it different or unique from everything else on the market.

Write From the Reader’s Point of View

Then, organize your material and do it from the viewpoint of the reader and not your viewpoint.

I have taught people how to write copy since 1992, and that is going on 14 years now. One of the biggest problems they first have in writing copy is that they talk too much about themselves. It is easy to slip into this. Even experienced copywriters sometimes do it. Maybe because they don’t realize they are doing it.

We all are guilty of it at times. And that is okay when you are just getting it down.

A Good Writing Exercise

Right in the beginning I give my students a simple little exercise that I call “generating.” They just sit down and write continuously. In the case of writing about your product, you would sit down and write about your product and not stop writing for 10 or 15 minutes.

Sometimes you will get to a point where you say, “I can’t think of anything to write.” In that instance, don’t stop writing. Just put down, “I can’t think of anything to write” over and over until you think of something to write. Then, you can continue. You are going to get a lot of fodder and you might think you are writing down a lot of useless stuff that is not going to be of any use to you. That’s OK.

If you get crazy ideas, that is just fine; write them down. This is part of the creative process.

The Creative Process

A lot of people are not familiar with the creative process. I think we should talk about that a little. A very famous copywriter by the name of Eugene Schwartz had a system. He sat down for 33 minutes and 33 seconds for his writing time. He wouldn’t do anything but write. It was a set space.

He would set a timer, and that was his job – he was there to write. He wouldn’t necessarily just write something down. He could be sitting there sipping on his coffee, but he knew this was his time to write. Having a time to write is very important for the creative process to move along.

I learned something useful for this from a screenwriter, Dan Gordon. He taught me this for screenwriting but the technique is useful for all types of writing. Dan wrote the screenplay for “Hurricane” with Denzel Washington, “Murder in the First” with Christian Slater, “Wyatt Earp” with Kevin Costner and a host of others.

He taught me to have a space that you write in. Have the same space, the same time of day, and have a really good chair to sit in. These are your tools as a writer. Pens don’t cost very much. Now, we do it on computers. I assume every one has one of those. Get a comfortable chair; you need to be comfortable. Give yourself some comfort because you are going to be in that chair for quite a while.

That is your job, to write. Even if it is a temporary job, it is your job and you should treat it like it is.

Write During Your Set Time and Then Get Up and Do Something Else.

If you sit down at the same time every day and discipline yourself to do that, God bless you.

I can’t because that is just not my style. Everybody has a different style. In fact, just to show you how different writer’s habits can be let’s go back to screenwriting as an example.

I was with Dan Gordon and two other screenwriters, Ron Bass (Rain Man, Joy Luck Club) and Dan Petrie Jr. (Beverly Hills Cop, The Big Easy) when they were talking about their screenwriting styles.

Ron used to be an entertainment lawyer so he had to get up at 3 a.m. to start writing. He wrote until 6 or 7 a.m. Then, he took the kids to school and headed off to the law office. He still does that to this day, writing every morning from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m., even though he’s now an academy award winning writer and no longer a lawyer. He developed a habit that was suitable for him and he stuck to it.

After Ron told his story of his writing habit, Dan Petrie chimed in with, “I also get up at 3 to write. I write until 5, and then I have dinner.” (laugh) He liked writing in the afternoon.

So you see, it doesn’t matter whether you like to write early in the morning, late at night or whenever. Just find a time that is to your liking and stick to it.

As I mentioned earlier Eugene Schwartz would write for no longer than 33 minutes and 33 seconds. After that, the timer went off and he would get up and do something else. Find the rhythm that suits you and stick to it.

No matter how much time you set aside to write, you should just write because that is what you are there for.

Then, you have to take a break. You get away from it, and then come back to approach it from a new viewpoint.

When you are done writing your sales letter, your Web copy, your autoresponder messages, or whatever it may be, just set it down and do something else.

The best thing to do is give it a day or two if you can. Then, when you come back to it, you will have a fresh viewpoint on it.

Let’s get back to writing from the buyer’s viewpoint. After you write your sales copy or your Web copy and come back to it a day or two later, you should evaluate it from different points of view.

One might be to check for continuity. Another to check that it makes sense and builds interest.

There are many techniques you use in writing but you can’t be checking while you’re writing. That would shut down your creative mind and you’d stop writing. It’s called writer’s block. Don’t evaluate your writing while you’re putting your words down for the first time. Do it later, after you’ve taken a break and come back to it with a fresh viewpoint.

For instance, I may sit down to say, “Okay, I want to see if this comes from the buyer’s point of view. Do I say ‘we’ too much? Do I talk about myself too much?” It is extremely important

in the beginning that you talk about the reader’s interest. You have to hook the reader or they’ll never get to your offer.

I find if you use the word “you” or “your” a lot, it almost forces the issue. If I find a sentence that says, “We have found this technique to be very successful” I would turn it around to “You can use this technique to become very successful.” It is a real simple turnaround phrase.

It is not bad that you put “we” in there while you were getting it down on paper, but when you are reviewing it, you should learn how to transition those into a “you” oriented viewpoint.

The more you take the attention off of the reader and put it onto you, the writer, the less interesting it is for the reader.

When people sit down to read your Website or your ad, they have three things foremost in their minds. They are: “So what?” “Who cares?” and “What’s in it for me?”

If you don’t address that, you are going to lose them right away. You have to immediately capture their attention because there are so many other people trying to capture their attention. It will be very difficult for you to break through all of the clutter unless you have something exceptional to say, and say it in an exceptional way.

Namely, by addressing the reader’s interests, not yours or anyone else’s.

It’s really very simple. Just address the reader directly. Talk about them. Don’t talk about you.

Think about the song by that country singer, Toby Keith, “I Want to Talk About Me.” That is what the reader wants, too. They want you to talk about them. They want to know what they can get from what you have.

I just read a Website that talked for 5 pages until it told me what the heck the product was.

I couldn’t believe it! It is a decent product, but the problem is most readers aren’t going to stick in there that long. He was talking about something with his girlfriend; he was trying to build a story.

You have to get their attention first, at least tell them something that will interest them somewhere up front.

That is another good point. You have to get your big guns and fire them right away – right up front. I find a lot of times as I am looking through someone’s copy that the best thing they have to say is about halfway to three-quarters through their piece.

By just taking it and moving it right up front, you can double, triple or quadruple your sales.


My favorite types of headlines are “how to” headlines. I just love “how to” because it does several different things.

First, it gets my attention because I want to know how to do things and I figure there is good information there. Secondly, I figure they are going to tell me something useful – what this product is, what it does – because it is a how to - “How to write better copy in 3 minutes or less.”

You can use “how you can.” But, sometimes it just flows better if you use “how to”. “You” is implied in there. “You” is almost magical in a headline.

John Caples did an analysis of the top ten headlines of all time and found the number one word used in the most effective headlines was the word “you” or “your”. “Your” is a variation of “you”, so I count that as the same word.

The second most frequent word used is way behind that. So, “you” and “your” are extremely powerful. They force you to do a fairly good job at writing the copy.

If you learn to write good headlines, by the way, they translate into other things, too, like book titles and chapter headings. One of the best headlines of all time was How to Win Friends and Influence People which was also the title of the book by Dale Carnegie.

It started out with a totally different headline. They tested both of them and the How to Win Friends and Influence People won out head and shoulders above the other title. Keep in mind that certain headlines are just kind of magical. If you are writing a book, and you can name it, why not come up with a title that can also be your headline?

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