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.