How can you use your writing to sell something? Whether you’re a novelist, a content marketer, or any other kind of writer, eventually you’ll have to write something that needs to be persuasive.
Decades ago, copywriters fought to get the attention of potential customers in print. Print ads ran in magazines or as mailbox-stuffers, and there was tremendous pressure to keep readers engaged long enough to sell a product or service. Joseph Sugarman was one of the most successful copywriters in this era. In one of his most popular ads, Sugarman sold a spelling computer by filling his ad with typos and offering $10 off the computer for each typo a customer found. He wrote a book, The Adweek Copywriting Handbook, that shows readers how he did it.
It turns out that no matter what — or in which decade — you write, you can learn a lot from copywriters like Sugarman. I’m a copywriter myself at my day job, and my fiction has greatly improved from what I’ve learned doing this job every day.
Here are the five best writing lessons from The Adweek Copywriting Handbook.
The blank page can be horrifying. Copywriters often work on tight deadlines, creating even more pressure to get it right the first time.
One of Sugarman’s first lessons is that the best way to start is to just start. It doesn’t matter how bad your first draft is as long as it exists and it’s on the page. You can put even the worst first draft through the editing wringer, but you can’t edit a blank page.
In my day job as a marketing copywriter, I’ve often had to take assignments that sat far outside my comfort zone. I’d written plenty of blog posts before, but a landing page? A marketplace listing? An advertising campaign? Sometimes, I’d freeze up and be completely unsure where to start.
When that happened, I just buckled down and wrote a terrible first draft just to get it done. Then, I’d usually busy myself with other tasks throughout the day — or take a walk — before coming back to my first draft. And guess what? Often it wasn’t even that bad.
Maybe you’ve managed to get your first draft down. Or maybe you haven’t written a single word. Either way, your writing project is looking intimidating, and you’re starting to ask yourself if you’re cut out for this whole thing.
What can you do? Writing is a creative process, and you can’t always force it.
Sometimes, the best thing to do is to let your project sit in the back of your mind. That time on the backburner allows you to examine your work from different angles, connect different ideas, and hopefully stumble upon the right approach.
Sugarman recommends that copywriters who are feeling particularly stuck leave their project alone and take a walk. Stepping away for a bit takes you out of your writing environment and purges the stress associated with your current project.
Even if you’re working on strict deadlines, you can structure your day around these walks. Set things up so that you’re working on first drafts and other big writing tasks first thing in the morning. That way, you can go out for your walk around lunchtime, and come back in the afternoon refreshed and reenergized.
It worked for Stephen King when he was facing writer’s block while writing The Stand, and it’ll work for your writing project.
Copywriting is about selling a product or service. Content marketing is similar, but depending on what you’re actually writing, there might be more of a focus on entertainment or education.
The Adweek Copywriting Handbook was written in the time of print ads and physical catalogues, so much of Sugarman’s copywriting appeared as print ads. That said, there are some similarities between print ads of yore and modern landing pages, websites, and blog posts. No matter what you’re writing, approach it like a greased-up slide.
What does Sugarman mean by this? For a print ad, every element, from the images to the font choice, exists only to get the reader to read the first line of your copy. Then, that line should get them to the second line, and so on. All of it leads to the end of your copy and — hopefully — a purchase from your reader.
This same concept can be applied to your writing. Working on a novel? Every scene should carry your reader through to the next part of the story until they can’t put your book down. Writing a blog post? Your introduction should hook your reader, and every section of your content should keep them engaged and curious.
Now, to be clear, you’re not using trickery and deceit to achieve this goal. Don’t make promises in your introduction that you don’t intend to keep later on. Just do what you can to make your content as engaging as possible.
In his book, Sugarman describes visiting a gallery in Hawaii where the gallery manager did something creative to get him to purchase a painting. When she noticed that he was looking at it intently, she took the painting off the wall and asked Sugarman to follow her. She set up the painting in a back room with low lighting, comfortable chairs, and a relaxed ambiance. They sat there for a moment, appreciating the atmosphere.
Sugarman bought the painting.
When you’re writing, you have control over your reader’s environment. While you might not be able to influence their physical environment, you can affect their inner state, what they think, and how they feel when reading your copy.
Everything from your word choice to the length of your sentences contributes to building a certain atmosphere. Whether you want your reader to buy something or just keep reading, you need to pay careful attention to that atmosphere.
At my day job, I write copy to get potential customers to sign up for a software product that makes managing their teams easier. Like any good marketing writer I hit the basics: mention a few pain points, cover a use case, and go into the product’s features.
But going right into these elements leaves copy feeling dry and pushy. That’s why I spend extra time making sure my readers know that I understand their problem and that they’re not the only ones experiencing it. I’m putting them at ease by setting up a more relaxed environment rather than bombarding them with statistics and technical information right away.
Earlier, I mentioned the terrible first draft. Obviously, changes need to be made to take your writing from terrible to terrific. Editing is its own discipline, and if you’re lucky you can work with an editor who can point out these changes for you. But even when working with an editor, you still need to refine your own writing.
Sugarman offers this axiom to guide you: Refine your copy so it says exactly what you want to say with the fewest possible words.
Now, that might seem cold and mechanical, but remember we’re talking about copywriting. Depending on the platform you’re writing for, you might only have a certain number of words — or even characters — to get your message across. When that’s the case, every single word needs to count, whether it’s generating curiosity or communicating a crucial piece of information. If you’re writing fiction, you don’t necessarily need to strip out all the words you can, but you should still watch out for extraneous words and purple prose.
Here are a few concrete tips from Sugarman on refining your writing:
These are just a few tips you can follow when refining your work. Don’t be afraid to take the time you need — sometimes you get it right on the first draft, sometimes the 12th.
All writers can benefit from studying the work of other writers, even if they’re in different fields. In The Adweek Copywriting Handbook, you learn the secrets of the copywriting trade from one of the best in the business.
I read this book early in my marketing career, since I didn’t have too much experience with copywriting. Now, no matter what I’m writing — from website copy to social media ad copy — I can write copy that sells.
In your own writing, remember that a bad first draft is better than no draft, a quick walk can get you unstuck, setting the right atmosphere is everything, and editing is your friend. And don’t forget to treat your writing like a greased-up slide. With these tips in hand, your writing will keep readers engaged from the first word to the last.
Nick wrote his first story at the age of nine when living in New York. It had a troll, a cave, and a magical voice, but not much else. There’s more to his stories now, but he can’t quite stay away from the monsters and dark places of the world. He does his best writing on a powder-blue typewriter—which he snagged for $25—despite the protests of those around him. Some of his best writing (and the occasional gushing post about the Marvel Cinematic Universe) can be found at whiskeyandstardust.com.