Archive for the 'Writing' Category

Avoid writing boring copy or being a bored copywriter

June 20th, 2017 by Bob Bly

“There are a lot of sins in life,” Senator Lindsey Graham was
quoted as saying in New York magazine (3/5/17, p. 24). “But the
one that’s intolerable is being bored. I hate boring.”

The problem with saying that something is “boring,” however, is
that the statement is meaningless unless you ask: “Boring to
WHOM?”

For instance, I recently had the assignment of writing, for a
chemical company, a white paper on “clean agent fire suppression
systems for data centers.”

While this topic would put the majority of copywriters I know
into a coma, for me, being a chemical engineer and former
chemistry major, it was absolutely fascinating — and pure joy.

Especially in sales copy, being boring is an absolute sin and a
sure road to lack of interest and dismal response rates.

As David Ogilvy once observed, “You cannot sell the consumer by
boring her to death.”

So … how do you avoid being bored with your copywriting projects
as well as boring prospects with the copy you write?

Making sure the copy you write is not boring is a five-step
process:

>> Step one is to, as much as is humanly possible, only take on
assignments that — if they don’t absolutely fascinate you — at
least are interesting to you.

That way, you don’t have to fake enthusiasm, because you will
enjoy learning about that product and selling it to others.

>> Step two is to dig into the topic to find the area of it with
the greatest interest to the reader.

One high-tech copywriter told me, “The most fascinating thing
about technology is that people invented it.”

Joseph Kelly, a former speechwriter for Eisenhower, said: “There
is a kernel of interest in everything man or God made.”

Your job is to find that kernel. In copy, it must either arouse
curiosity, lure the prospect into reading the copy, or make her
want to own the product being advertised.

>> Step three is to do the hard work of research.

Most copywriters I know enjoy learning, so the research is often
fun and intellectually stimulating.

Research is important because, in copy, specifics sell.
Generalities bore the reader and cause her to quickly lose
interest and click away.

But wait. There are two additional steps that can help ensure you
are never bored as a copywriter….

>> Step four: Always have multiple writing projects.

Isaac Asimov said the secret to his great writing productivity
was having many projects, so when he got bored or tired or just
felt he could not go further with his book that day…

…he switched to his columns and articles on other topics, which
kept him fresh and interested.

>> Step five: Write things other than copy.

My 80/20 rule for copywriters is to spend 80% of your time
writing copy for clients.

This is the key to a six-figure annual income year after year.

But to vary things up, spend 20% of your time with non-copy
writing projects that are purely yours.

Mark Ford writes poetry, short stories, and movie scripts.

The late Herschell Gordon Lewis wrote and produced grade B horror
movies.

I write short stories and had a book of them come out from Quill
Driver Books last year:

http://amzn.to/2r7qtyd

I have had a blast on writing nonfiction books on everything
from sex and Star Trek, to careers and satire.

I also did cartoons and wrote the occasional newspaper or
magazine article, published in periodicals ranging from
Cosmopolitan to the Baltimore City Paper.

This keeps me fresh and ensures I am virtually never bored, except
by paperwork, which I loathe.

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The 80/20 formula for freelance writing success

May 26th, 2017 by Bob Bly

I hear from hundreds of freelance writers each year, many of whom
are not entirely happy with their careers.

And they fall into two distinct groups:

>> The first group is freelancers who are primarily pursuing
their literary or journalistic calling.

They mostly write plays, poems, movies, novels, nonfiction books,
articles, essays, short stories, screenplays, and whatever else they
are passionate about.

They love what they do. And find it fulfilling.

Only problem is: most writers in this first group tell me they
are hardly making any money … and are barely getting by.

>> The second group is freelance writers who pursue high-paying
commercial projects.

These assignments include technical articles for scientific and
medical journals … white papers … long-form direct response sales
letters … video sales letters … web sites … speeches … and many
other lucrative gigs.

Most of the writers in this group who reveal their income to me
say they are earning $100,000 to $200,000 a year or more.

As a result, they can afford to live in a nice house in a good
neighborhood … pay tuition for their kids at Ivy League colleges
… take great vacations at five-star resorts … drive late-model
luxury cars … and build a big enough IRA to retire secure for
life.

Only problem is: many tell me that, while this commercial writing
pays the bills, it doesn’t fulfill them artistically.

The solution for both groups is simple. I call it “the 80/20
formula for freelance writing success.”

The formula says you spend 80% or so of your time on high-paying
projects for commercial clients — and the other 20% on your
literary, journalistic, and artistic writings.

By spending 80% of your time on high-profit writing, you earn
enough money to provide well for your family — while remaining
freelance and avoiding having to work at a 9-to-5 job for someone
else.

But by spending the other 20% of your time writing for fun and
artistic fulfillment, you also get to write the things that
matter most to you.

And because of your cash flow from the high-paying 80% of your
work, you don’t even need to make a dime from your more literary
endeavors — although for some of us it does in fact generate
additional, and in some cases even significant, cash flow.

By the way, the magic of the formula is that you spend some time
writing what others will pay you a lot of money to write … and
some time writing things for your own pleasure, self-expression,
and amusement — whether they pay well, poorly, or not at all.

There is no magic, however, about the actual ratio. You can
adjust it to fit your temperament and needs. For instance, I do
90/10, not 80/20, and that works for me.

Full disclosure: the great advantage I have is that I actually
love writing the high-profit stuff — in my case, copy.

Some writers do. Others not so much. But the 80/20 formula works
in either case. Try it!

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Is great research really necessary to write great copy?

May 16th, 2017 by Bob Bly

Subscriber JL writes:

“Bob, I was hoping that you could do a few posts about research.

“How much time do you spend just on product research for a
copywriting job?

“Where do you start and how do you know when you are finished?”

Well, as to the first question, I would say that of the total
time I spend on a copywriting project, 25% to 40% is devoted to
research.

By “research” I mean:

–Reading the background material the client provides.
–Reading the additional research I request from my freelance
online researcher.
–Doing additional research on my own.

I start by reading everything the client gives me, and then going
on to supplement that with additional research by me and my
researcher.

The research materials I study for a copywriting project
generally cover three areas:

1–Information about the product.
2–Information about the market.
3–Promotions for competing products.

As to JL’s second question, I created this short video to give you
as precise an answer as to when you know you are finished:

I’ve already said where I start — with the background materials
the client has provided.

And as for when to start, I would say: start within 24 hours of
getting the assignment.

Reason: If you put off research, you may find that when the
deadline is around the corner, then it’s too late.

So you don’t have enough time to do a proper research job and
still get A-level copy written on time.

The late, great David Ogilvy said, “Advertising people who ignore
research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy
signals.”

One more thing….

My client AS has said to me repeatedly, “To get a big idea for a
winning promotion, you have to do research until you find the
core idea in the research materials.”

I would add that sometimes the great promo idea leaps out at you
and strikes like a bolt of lightning the instant you come across
it.

Other times, it doesn’t come easily. You have to dig and dig. But
you almost always find something good eventually in the research.
And if you are lucky, you often find something great.

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Does the world really need the book you are writing?

May 12th, 2017 by Bob Bly

My FB friend BL writes:

“We need fewer books by people who feel having a book is good for
their career. If you’re going to write a business book, take time
to put some meaty information in it. It pisses me off when I
spend good money on a fluffy ‘ego’ book.”

It may surprise you, but I agree with BL.

“Wait a minute, Bob, you hypocrite,” you may be thinking. “You
have written dozens of books on marketing and copywriting to
boost your career. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!”

Well, here’s what you may not see….

Yes, the business books I have written certainly have boosted my
freelance writing career and helped build my reputation in the
marketing field.

But, that was a byproduct of writing the books — although I was
well aware of that benefit and it was a part of the motivation
for doing them.

My main reason for writing how-to books however, has always
been this….

Whenever I learn new skills or information of a practical nature,
I feel immediately compelled to put what I know into a book about
the topic — and teach it to others.

Especially when I feel my grasp of the material is strong and my
application of it has been effective.

So my primary motivation for how-to book authorship is to teach …
to pass on what I know to those who might find it interesting,
useful, or both.

This has three benefits:

First, it creates a loyal readership that appreciates the books I
write, so that they continue to buy new books and other info
products by me.

Second, writing a book builds your reputation as an expert in
your field, which in turn helps promote you and your services.

Third — and this is the one benefit many newbie authors don’t
realize — writing a book on a subject probably teaches you as
much or more as the people who buy and read your book!

That’s because writing a book forces you to do further research
on your topic … think more deeply about it … organize your
material more logically … and then explain it so clearly that
even a layperson can easily understand, enjoy, and profit from
it.

By the way, the same is true of teaching a course in the subject.

So IMHO, writing a book or teaching a course on your specialty is
one of the most worthwhile activities you can pursue.

On the other hand, some people only write their nonfiction book
for the sole purpose of achieving guru status.

This has resulted in a tidal wave of the fluffy “ego” books BL is
talking about.

If you ever read a business book and think, “This is a book that
should never have been written,” you are reading a fluffy ego
book produced solely to promote the author, and not to educate
the world or even herself.

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The secret of “M-Day”

May 2nd, 2017 by Bob Bly

For decades, I have been a semi-workaholic who works 11 to 12
hour days and rarely takes a vacation.

But I do have a technique I want to share with you for giving
yourself a break once a month.

It makes you feel as if you are playing hooky for the day, though
in fact, you are getting a lot done.

I call it “M-Day” or “Miscellaneous Day.”

Each month, I pick one day.

It has to be a day when I have no pressing deadlines, no phone
meetings, no other appointments, and nothing to deliver to a
client or publisher due that same week.

On regular days, I schedule my work during the day so I am
working on one project or another during every hour, with a short
rest between hour increments.

On Miscellaneous Day, there is no schedule. So I don’t HAVE to do
anything at any particular time.

I crank up the music.

And I spend M-Day working on whatever project or task strikes my
fancy.

Then I jump to something else … well, whenever the mood strikes
me.

I often start M-Day with easy, light work — like a magazine
article, working on one of my info marketing projects, or writing
an article for my e-newsletter, as I am doing right now.

But often I will get inspired to tackle one or more tougher jobs
on M-Day … such as a particularly challenging sales letter … and
if that mood strikes me, I do it with great gusto.

And somehow, because of the immense freedom I have on M-Day, if
anything I enjoy it even more than usual (and I really enjoy
writing sales letters) … and do it even better and faster than
usual!

M-Day is also a good day for me to handle miscellaneous tasks
that I often put aside because of my usual multiple writing
deadlines, such as filling out paperwork or straightening out the
occasional problem with a health insurance claim or similar
stuff. Miscellany that is boring and distasteful, but still needs
to be done.

(For instance, recently my health insurance didn’t pay a provider
because they said my other health insurance carrier should handle
it. And you guessed it, I do not HAVE another insurance plan.
They are my sole carrier. But I had to spend time on the phone
and filling out forms to prove it before they would pay the
claim!)

For me, M-Day relaxes and revitalizes me, while giving me a full
day in the office that is different and therefore even more fun
than usual. And, it is always a very productive day — not really
a hooky day at all!

I think it’s the change of pace in an otherwise fairly set
routine that is part of the secret of M-Day — it’s a full-day
“pattern interruption.”

The other aspect is, with all the projects I can work on during
M-Day to choose from, I feel like a kid in a candy store, picking
whatever I want as the mood strikes me. There is a big smile on
my face and a lightness of spirit that is so invigorating!

So why don’t I do more Miscellaneous Days?

One M-Day a month is just about right for me. I tried doing two
Miscellaneous Days a few months ago, and it didn’t feel right — I
felt like a slacker. You may be different.

My suggestion is that you try giving yourself a Miscellaneous Day
soon.

If it works for you as it does for me, give yourself one M-Day
a month.

You will thank me for it.

Time to sign off now and get back to more M-Day fun!

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The #1 challenge of writing a weekly e-newsletter

April 25th, 2017 by Bob Bly

I am a big advocate of publishing your own e-newsletter,
because it is one of the best ways to build a large opt-in e-list
… and to establish a good relationship with your subscribers.
Doing so builds trust that leads to sales.

“But where do you get ideas for all those newsletter articles
seemingly without end?” I am often asked (I have been publishing
this online newsletter continually since 2004).

If you wish to publish an e-newsletter — whether sporadically,
monthly, or weekly — all of which can work … let me share with
you my 5 favorite sources of ideas and inspiration:

1–Things I learn.

If you are an active practitioner in your field, and given the
breakneck speed with which new techniques and developments are
invented, you are learning all the time.

Many of my articles are based on things I learn doing and
observing marketing.

I don’t invent most of them. I merely study and then explain them
in my newsletter essays.

2–Things I see.

When I observe and admire a particularly clever or effective
marketing campaign, I tell you about it here — so you can learn
it and perhaps adapt it to your business.

3–Things I know.

After almost 40 years as a copywriter and marketer, I’ve seen,
read, and tested a lot of things most other marketers have not.

Many of them are evergreen, and I present these rules and tactics
here for you — hidden gems not 1 in 100 of your competitors even
know about — giving you an almost unfair advantage.

4–Rants.

When I see people repeatedly making egregious marketing mistakes,
ignoring time-tested principles, or saying things that are wrong
or stupid, I report their errors (not naming the person
responsible) so you can learn from their mistakes.

I call these “rants” because I do tend to get worked up about it.
I have a highly sensitive B.S. detector and share what it detects
with you — often in opinionated and forceful terms.

5–Recommendations.

Whether it is a new book, new guru, recognized expert, online
course, vendor, or other resource that I think you should take a
closer look at, you’ll read about it here.

I could go on, but for me, these 5 sources give me 90% of the
ideas I need to keep on writing two fresh essays every week like
clockwork.

As for frequency, start with monthly. If open rates are good and
unsubscribe rates low, test going to weekly.

If the unsubscribe rate doesn’t spike, then your subscribers like
your missives well enough to want one a week.

Since at least half of your messages should be content, and half
or fewer sales pitches, a weekly newsletter gives you at least
one opportunity to sell a product a week.

Which can substantially increase your online revenues to the
$100,000 to $200,000 a year level or more — a stream of passive
income that can make your life easier without you working too
hard to get it.

Who wouldn’t want that?

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Copywriters: Stop whining about client edits

April 4th, 2017 by Bob Bly

A lot of people are complainers and whiners.

We copywriters are no exception.

One of the most common complaints I hear from copywriters centers
around clients requesting edits and changes.

But the great novelist and poet, Charles Bukowski, had a more
positive take on rewrites.

In his book “On Writing” (Ecco, 2015, p. 163), Bukowski writes:

“Writing has never been work to me, and even when it comes out
badly, I like the action, the sound of the typer, a way to go.

“And even when I write badly and it comes back, I look at it and
I don’t mind too much: I’ve got a chance to improve.

“That’s the matter of staying with it, tapping away … until it
sounds and reads and feels better.”

Three quick points for freelance copywriters to think about:

1–You may know more about copywriting than your client. But he
may know more about his market than you — and almost certainly
knows more about his product than you.

2–You will have some clients who know as much or even more about
copywriting than you do. You know who they are. Writing for these
clients takes your skills to the next level.

Once, when my client MF, one of the masters of copywriting, was
reviewing a draft of mine, his comments were all so on target I
was moved to say to him aloud, “I am learning so much — I should
be paying YOU.”

He wryly replied: “You’re damned right.”

3–We don’t always write as well as we would like to. But we must
always write as well as we can.

Of course, it helps if you — like Charles Bukowski, Isaac Asimov,
and David McCullough — belong to the segment of writers who not
only like but actually love to write.

“There is nothing more magic than lines forming across paper,”
said Bukowski. “It’s all there. It’s all there ever was. What
comes afterwards is more than secondary.

“I can’t understand any writer who stops writing. It’s like
taking your heart out and flushing it away. I’ll write to my last
breath. I was meant to be like this.

“And when my skeleton rests upon the bottom of the casket,
nothing will be able to subtract from these splendid nights,
sitting here at this machine.”

Bukowski’s words remind me of when Barbara Walters interviewed
Isaac Asimov.

She asked Asimov, “What would you do if you found out you had
only 6 months to live?”

Without missing a beat, Asimov replied: “I’d type faster.”

My kind of guys….

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Self-publishing: the good, the bad, and the ugly

March 24th, 2017 by Bob Bly

Whenever I mention that I prefer traditional publishing to
self-publishing, two things happen.

First, I get a slew of e-mails from writers telling me
traditional publishing is awful — small advances, low royalties,
and publishers not promoting their books.

Second, I get another flood of e-mails from authors telling me
that they or other self-publishers are “crushing it,” making
money hand over fist.

They often cite Amanda Hocking, who has sales of over $2.5
million for her self-published Kindle e-book.

But according to a survey of 1,007 self-publishing authors by the
web site Taleist, conducted by Dave Cornford and Steven Lewis in
2011 (yes, it’s a bit dated), the truth is quite different.

“The majority of the information out there is about the outliers,
whose success is inspiring, but as we can now confirm bears scant
resemblance to the experience of most authors,” said Dave
Cornford and Steven Lewis.

According to their survey, half of self-published authors make
less than $500 a year.

That’s because, as reported in a 2015 article by Chris McMullen,
the average self-published book sells less than 250 copies.

Derek Murphy, an expert in independent publishing, says, “The
average self-published author spends $2,000 to $5,000 to publish
their books, and few earn any money.”

If you spend two grand and sell 250 copies, you are losing a lot
of money on your self-published book!

By comparison, in traditional publishing, the money flows from
publisher to author, even though advances are much smaller today
than when I started writing books 25 years ago.

The mainstream publishers not only give you money up front; they
also pay for everything, from printing and cover design to
editing and proofreading — saving you a considerable amount of
cash.

The bell curve for self-publishing is skewed, with less than 10%
of self-published authors earning about three-quarters of the
total revenues from sales of self-published books.

The average self-publisher from the group surveyed by Taleist
earns just $10,000 a year.

Notice also that many self-publishers with good sales, from El
James (“Fifty Shades of Grey”), Robert Ringer (“Looking Out for
#1”), and Roger von Oech (“A Whack on the Side of the Head”)
either immediately or eventually look for and get a deal with a
mainstream publishing house.

Take note: I am not saying mainstream publishing is great or the
better way to go.

My purpose here is to just present some cold, hard facts for all
those self-publishing cheerleaders I constantly hear from to
ponder — and to inform the rest of us about the good, the bad,
and the ugly of being your own publisher.

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