John’s Top rules for  copywriters

Nobody can teach you to be a good copywriter; that comes from your own desire… from paying attention to good copywriting… from listening to your inner reader… from actually tracking what works and what doesn’t (direct marketing only). There are, however, a few tips, tricks and rules that can help make you better than you already are:

The overarching rules

  1. Be interested in everything. Read widely – you never know what is going to come in handy.
  2. Pay attention to good writing. Notice how good writing is effortless to read, or nearly so.
  3. Read a few good books on writing
  4. Grab attention right away.
  5. Keep on grabbing attention.
  6. Bring your personal knowledge and experiences into play to add fascinating facts and dramatic scenarios and details.
  7. Look beyond the obvious and keep your mind receptive to ideas.

The nitty-gritty rules

  1. Lay it out so it’s easy to read.
  2. Just sit down and write. For longer pieces, do an outline, then write.
  3. Don’t revise as you go, that’s just a way of procrastinating.
  4. Write it, forget it for awhile, then re-write it.
  5. There are close to a million words in English, try to pick the best ones for your topic, audience and tone. Among those million words are thousands of words of jargon. Avoid jargon, unless your audience really expects it. Look up ‘jargon’ in your dictionary. Pin the definition up where you can see it.
  6. Don’t fall in love with what you’ve written. What seems charming, witty or affecting to you may just be affected and trite to others.
  7. Trim away the fat, especially that ‘just warming up’ lard you started out with. Remember that your real lead may be two or more paragraphs away from your starting point.
  8. Seek non-sycophantic second opinions.
  9. Collect as much information as you can. You’re not just looking for facts to use, but also deep background that gives you a better understanding of the topic, product or service. Prepare a list of at least 20 questions before interviewing a client or subject.
  10. Try not to let committees suck the life out of your work. But remember who’s paying your bill.
  11. Don’t be afraid to fire clients, especially those who force you to work with intransigent committees.
  12. Charge by the project, not by the hour or day. Charging by time limits your earning capacity.
  13. If you’re working too hard, you aren’t charging enough.

A few good books

On the art of writing copy – Herschell Gordon Lewis
Direct Mail Copy That Sells – Herschell Gordon Lewis
Selling Your Services – Robert Bly
On Writing Well – William Zinsser
The Careful Writer – Theodore M. Bernstein
Tested Advertising Methods – John Caples
Telling Lies for Fun and Profit – Lawrence Block
Being Direct – Lester Wunderman

You can find all those books at reasonable prices on, or on Amazon, or as e-books (maybe) for Kobo, Kindle or other e-readers. Anything by Lewis or Bly will give you lots of tips for writing DM copy and, in Bly’s case, marketing yourself.

Here are a few samples of banner ads that were successful.

The first one, “Suddenly, after 17 years,” got a 7% response from websites in Germany (there are a lot of English-speakers in Germany). Why such a good response? Because it told a dramatic story that people could relate to. Germany was once the very model of job stability, but since the 1990s, lifelong job security has become increasingly rare.

The second one did well in Australia because Aussies react to kangaroos in ads (even if they do think they are pests) and because of the ‘artful’ use of slang — a ‘bludger’ is what we would call a mooch, or freeloader.

The third was targeted to gay websites in Australia and worked, I think, because it’s a bit rude, and appeals to a general Aussie love of rawness and rudeness, which they call ‘ocker’. It’s not a good, clear image, but it’s the only one I have.

The fourth was just a visually arresting image with a simple message.

Finally, another rotating banner that made use of the popularity of tweeting.

NOTE: If you click on the kangaroo ad and the tweet facsimile, you’ll see them in all their animated glory.

The thing with all of these ads is that they do not look like any of the other banner ads you see. They are not dull and corporate. They are not sophisticated or intricate. They simply grab your attention and present an easy-to-grasp, benefit-oriented message. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how it is done.

The story here is that I was contracted to write some informational pieces for a major Dinosaur show at the Toronto Zoo.

As I happens, I’m a longtime fan of dinosaurs, but find myself strangely bored by the way websites and museums present the information about them. So I wondered if there was a different way to approach the task.

At some point I sat down and just began to write, and what I wrote was an interview between a Velociraptor and a paleontologist. Then I wrote another interview with a Stegosaurus. I sent them in as samples of what I was proposing and everybody loved them, so I wrote about a dozen interviews in all, to be used as rail cards beside the models or fossils.

In each interview, I tried to give the dinosaur a personality in keeping with its place in the ecosystem and its supposed intelligence.

The Velociraptor interview didn’t get  used; they had no such fossil or model in the show. But my other ones were used. I also wrote most of the rest of the display materials for the show.

Interview with a Velociraptor

Paleontologist: Your leg bones and skull tell me you are a Velociraptor. Some see traces of fur or feathers pressed into the sandstone.

Velociraptor: So that’s what you call us: “Swift thief.” Fur certainly comes in handy on cold desert nights… feathers, too.

These fossils tell even more about you: Your long, thin leg bones and a jaw full of sharp teeth say you were a fast, fierce hunter. You could sprint at 40 kilometres an hour – faster than the world’s fastest man.

Oh, I’m fast! When I join my kin and hunt in a pack at full speed, it’s like a hurricane. No prey can escape us.

You know, we found the fossil remains of one of your kin with its 9 centimetre, scythe-like talon still embedded in the throat of a Protoceratops.

Protoceratops and Velociraptor locked in combat

They are tough to kill with that armoured crest, but tasty and fairly slow. Easy to catch. How did they both die?

We think a sandstorm brought a dune crashing down on them, like a huge, breaking wave.

Well, the edge of the desert is a fine place for hunting, but not without its dangers. Next time you’re there, imagine that I’m stalking you from the top of a dune!

Yes, well….We haven’t talked about your intelligence.

Not to boast, but I am three times smarter than most other dinosaurs. In fact, I’m surprised to see we’ve been replaced by you, and that those dull crocodiles are still around after 200 million years.

For all our brains, we may yet join you if we aren’t more careful about this planet.

Yes, control the things you can and hope the things you can’t aren’t as catastrophic as gigantic, crashing asteroids.

Thank you.

My pleasure…. See you in the desert!

Interview with a Stegosaurus

Palaeontologist: You don’t have a reputation for being the brightest penny in the jar…

Stegosaurus: Huh?

You’re not a thinker. You’ve got a brain the size of a walnut.

Walnut? Is that good?

Let’s change the subject! You are one of the most recognizable of dinosaurs because of the two rows of alternating bony plates on your back and that tail full of long spikes.

Oh, yeah. It’s a hard world, ‘specially when Big Al, the Allosaurus, is around. You gotta be able to protect yourself. The smaller meat eaters are just a nuisance. I generally swat them one and keep on eating…. What’s alternating?

Tell me about your bony plates?

Well, the girls like them… or the guys… I’m not sure which I am, until I lay some eggs…or don’t. Ask that baby Stegosaurus that’s been following me. I think the plates also have something to do with heat.

You mean they radiate heat when you need to cool down and absorb heat when you need to warm up, especially first thing in the morning.

Sure. What you said.

Thanks for your time.

This is an example of a long-form case study. The client referred to them as “Client Success Stories”.

Department of Revenue implements
new tax compliance data warehouse

The Washington State Department of Revenue’s (DOR) mission is to fairly and efficiently collect revenues and administer programs to fund public services and advocate sound tax policy. DOR collected $15.4 billion General Fund revenues during fiscal year 2000. Other functions of the DOR include generating estimates of the fiscal impact of proposed legislation and providing other tax-related analyses, overseeing the work of county assessors and working with other agencies on economic development issues.

The Challenge

The DOR operating division’s staff had limited access to internal data. Tax administration data was downloaded from the Tandem mainframe environment on a quarterly basis, and limited data from the Employment Security Department and Internal Revenue Service was also available. Access to this data required intervention from the Information Services and Research Division.In 2002, DOR decided to investigate applying data warehousing technology to its large volume of operational taxation application data, with the goal of increasing tax revenues and increasing audit efficiency.

By employing a data warehousing approach to aggregate and analyze this data, along with data feeds from external sources such as local and federal government and private industry, they could improve their tax discovery and compliance processes by providing greater access to data and better analysis capabilities.

The Solution

The DOR defined a three-phase approach to the project:

Phase 1 involved defining the project scope and approach.

Phase 2 included defining detailed business and technical requirements, developing a Request for Proposal (RFP) for the solution and performing the procurement process.

Phase 3 included implementing the chosen solution.

Sierra Systems was selected to complete Phase 1 of the project, and subsequently was requested to perform Phase 2. For Phase 1, Sierra Systems defined the overall Project Charter, encompassing the agency’s objectives, goals and constraints.

The approach to project management for the remainder of the initiative was also defined at this time. A detailed plan for completing Phase 2 (requirements and RFP) was also developed, and a high-level plan for implementing the solution was identified, based on an iterative approach congruent with data warehouse industry best practices.

In Phase 2, Sierra Systems developed the detailed Business Requirements and Technical Requirements. Business Requirements included:

  • Identifying desired report outcomes by subject area
  • Detailed data analysis of all data sources
  • ETL processes definition
  • Data matching (e.g. “soft match”) requirements
  • General reporting application functional requirements including access, security and performance

Technical Requirements included:

  • Analysis of DOR’s current environment
  • A complete definition of the target solution architecture including infrastructure, data architecture and application architecture
  • After completing the requirements, Sierra Systems developed the extensive RFP for the data warehouse solution including hardware, software and integration services. Sierra Systems then assisted with the procurement process, developing and negotiating the contract for the vendor selected.

Benefits and ROI

The first two iterations of the DOR Tax Compliance Data Warehouse were implemented by June 2003. DOR expects the initiative to pay for itself almost immediately through:

A quantitative improvement in identifying non-reporting and under-reporting businesses, resulting in increased revenue through compliance activities and increased compliance through education/enforcement activities.

More data available with more frequent updates; access to that data will be easier to deploy while still meeting the strict security requirements of the agency and its data providers.

The data warehouse will be combined with powerful new business end-user tools such as complex query, analysis and reporting software to allow maximum and efficient use of all of the data that is available.

Staff in the operating divisions (end-users) will be able to access current and historical data, create customized reports and queries, analyze data and automate processes without intervention by Information Services or Research staff.

The solution is flexible and scalable to meet DOR’s immediate needs, while also forming the foundation for future expansion as additional data sources and applications are identified and incorporated over time.

Sierra Systems helped DOR to define the framework upon which this solution could be acquired and implemented. Sierra Systems’ work on this project was completed on time and on budget and helped DOR to acquire the best possible solution to meet their specific needs.

Articles published in trade and business publications are an excellent way of gaining publicity and developing new leads. Here’s one I wrote for Sonic Environmental Solutions Inc., for publication in Site Remediation News.


In Vancouver, British Columbia, an environmental company has built and successfully deployed the first practical, industrial-scale sonic generator for remediating polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contaminated soils.

In March 2004, engineers from Sonic Environmental Solutions Inc. (Sonic) loaded 250 kilograms of PCB-contaminated soil into a tank where it was slurried with a low cost solvent. They then powered up an array of electromagnets surrounding a 2,500 kg steel rod attached to a reaction chamber and pumped the slurry through the chamber.

Within seconds, the vibrating bar blasted the soil and solvent mixture with enough energy to shake the PCB molecules loose from the soil, liberating the PCB into the solvent. Then a reagent added to the solvent destroyed the PCB, converting it to ordinary table salt and leaving behind a low-grade fuel mixture, suitable for use as an industrial fuel.

The soil was cleaned of any residual solvent ready for re-use on the site or elsewhere.

That was the first demonstration of Sonic’s PCB Sonoprocess and it was a huge success.

A $40 Billion Problem

There are over 200 types of PCBs, and the very thermal stability, non-conductivity and resistance to breakdown that made them so attractive to business and industry also makes them a highly persistent environmental contaminant.

Health and environmental agencies believe all PCBs are toxic to some degree. Many cause cancers in lab animals and likely in people, too. They are known to cause nerve and liver damage, skin and reproductive problems and may also trigger autoimmune responses. Even worse, PCBs were almost always contaminated by furans and dioxins during manufacture – two chemicals that are much more toxic than the PCBs themselves.

Since PCBs were manufactured in such quantity for so long – more than 1.4 billion pounds over about 40 years – and were so useful in so many ways, they have literally spread around the world, to virtually every factory of any size, large military bases and any other facilities using PCB oils in heat exchangers, electric transformers and other industrial uses.

Through accidental spills and subsequent seepage, PCBs have found their way into many water, soil and sediment systems (in fact, because of the volatility of some PCBs, you can even find traces of them in Arctic ice). In soils, PCBs adsorb tightly to soil particles and persist for many years.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are at least 55 million tonnes of PCB contaminated earth in more than 500 sites designated as priority sites for cleanup. There are thousands of other sites – “brownfields” – that need to be remediated before they can be redeveloped.

In Canada there are an estimated five million tonnes of similarly contaminated soil tagged for urgent cleanup, plus many more less-critical sites.

“Environmental assessment studies indicate that the value of the worldwide market for remediating PCB-contaminated soils may be as high as $40 billion,” says Adam R. Sumel, President and CEO of Sonic Environmental Solutions Inc.

New Solution for a New Century

As we entered this century, the engineers and management were examining a new technology, developed in the 1990s as a process for mixing and grinding ores.
Unlike previous attempts to use sound energy on an industrial-scale, this process had no difficulty producing levels of energy that would destroy most normal industrial machinery.

“Although we liked it for its mining applications,” says Mr. Sumel, “we saw it had even more commercial promise in soil remediation – especially as a transportable unit. In 2002 we acquired the technology and began working flat out to perfect what we call our PCB Sonoprocess.”

Following their successful demonstration in 2004 of a complete pilot scale process, Sonic received confirmation of compliance with the Hazardous Waste Regulations in B.C. and also satisfied the emission requirements of the GVRD – some of the most stringent air quality requirements in North America.

Sonic demonstrated that it could successfully remediate a soil contaminated to levels of 500 ppm to below 2 ppm, easily meeting the requirements for commercial and residential land use accepted by regulators.

How PCB Sonoprocess Works

Conventional methods for generating high intensity sound require a lot of costly energy. But Sonic’s PCB Sonoprocess uses the principles of sonic resonance to create industrial strength low frequency sound.

In the process, electromagnets vibrate a large, 2.5 tonne steel bar at low frequencies (100-500 Hz). The bar is attached to a special reaction chambers. As the bar vibrates at its natural, or resonant, frequency, the electromagnets produce an intensity in the reaction chamber at least 10 times more powerful than conventional industrial mixing systems.

Within seconds, these powerful waves can cause the complete deagglomeration of PCB from the soil, literally shaking the PCB molecules loose from the soil particles and helping to suspend them in the solvent.

Fast, Effective – and Portable

In situ remediation is usually complicated and expensive, or very slow.
Incineration is also problematic: besides the expense and risks of transporting soil to one of the few approved PCB soil incinerators in North America (there are fewer than 20), incineration destroys the soil. That means it can’t be resold for other uses, and that new soil has to be imported to the remediated site.

The PCB Sonoprocess has a capacity of 30 to 90 tonnes of soil per day, and can remove contamination to below 2 ppm, rendering the soil and the site completely safe for redevelopment, including for human habitation.

The process consumes very little energy – far less than incineration – and can be at least partially self-sustaining by using the spent solvent as low-grade fuel.
Best of all, says Mr. Sumel, “PCB Sonoprocess has a modular transportable design, which means it can be taken right to the contaminated site. Why transport the soil, when you can more easily transport the technology?”

Looking Ahead

Sonic has recently completed construction and testing of their first full scale, commercial transportable facility, and has deployed the plant at a contracted clean up site in Delta, B.C., where it is being commissioned.

The company is working on developing alliances with major environmental engineering firms in the U.S., to ensure its technology complies with the different environmental regulations there.

The company also showcased its technology at the WASTEC 2004 trade show in Japan last November, where demand for environmentally friendly solutions is growing quickly.

“We have already received follow-up interest from some of the multi-billion dollar companies we met there,” says Mr. Sumel. “We also expect potential partners and clients we met at WASTEC to visit our facilities here, soon, as a prelude to launching our technology in Japan, and in other countries in Europe and South America.”

SIDEBAR #1: What were PCBs used for?

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, PCBs were used in capacitors, transformers  and hydraulic fluids, such as those for

  • gas transmission turbines
  • flame retardants inks and adhesives
  • microencapsulation of dyes
  • paints, plasticizers and pesticide extenders
  • slide-mounting mediums for microscopes
  • surface coatings, wire insulators, and metal coatings.

All told, some 1,400,000,000 pounds of PCBs were manufactured in the U.S., although none were made in Canada. They’ve been barred from use in Canada and the USA since the mid-1970s, but a grandfather provision allowed existing equipment using PCBs to remain in use.

SIDEBAR #2: A primer in resonant frequency

If you give a playground swing a small push (input), it swings back and forth, but doesn’t go far with each swing (low amplitude). If it hits you, even with somebody sitting on it, it doesn’t do so with much force.

But if you keep giving the swing small pushes, it begins to swing higher and higher – its amplitude grows. The bottom of the swing moves through a greater distance, but in the same time (frequency) as with the initial small push. That frequency is its natural frequency, sometimes called ‘resonant’ frequency.

As the amplitude of the swing grows, so does the force of the person sitting in it – enough in some cases to knock you off your feet or remove some teeth.

From a steady input of small pushes resonant frequency delivers big resultant forces. If you’ve ever seen film of the Tacoma Narrows bridge being destroyed by a steadily blowing wind (November 1940), then you have some idea of the energy resonant frequencies can produce.

Note: You’ll find it very easy to get the swing to move with its natural frequency, but very hard to get it to move faster. And as soon as you stop pushing harder and faster, the swing returns to its natural frequency.

*You can see a short clip of the bridge in motion here:

Find out more about the copywriting services of Blue Giant Media

We provide B2B marketing, Direct Response strategies, communications and campaigns, plus a wide range of corporate communications:

  • Online and electronic media
  • Banner ads
  • Blog and Facebook postings
  • Print and mail advertising
  • Press releases
  • Brochures
  • White papers
  • Case Studies
  • Articles
  • Speeches
  • and More

This is where you can see samples of my work and read some of my reflections on the job of being a copywriter.