Writing Archives

How to increase your productivity in 33 minutes

Early in my copywriting career someone in a copywriting forum mentioned how copywriter legend Eugene Schwartz recommended setting an egg timer and writing in 33 minute chunks.

He wrote in six 33 minute blocks of time every morning and took 5 minute breaks in between.

In my case, it also works when I do 2-3 blocks in the morning and the remaining in the afternoon or evening.

I’ve since learned that the six 33 minute segments should be done in their order of priority.

Do the most difficult task first,  or the thing that will most move forward your business today, whether it’s writing bullets for a sales letter, writing a blog post, prepping for an important phone call, etc.

I reply to emails and dabble in social media and Google Reader outside of those 33 minute segments.

33 minutes of concentrating solely on one particular task with pure concentration is always more productive for me than, say, three hours of writing a little, checking Facebook, writing a little more, checking email, doing some research, etc.

It helps if you choose the 6 tasks the evening before and list them in their order of priority. I list mine in Gmail’s handy little task list.

I use this free online egg timer when timing my 33 minute segments. It doesn’t have a pause button so it really keeps me on track. The buzzer is nice and loud.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to stand up and take at least a 5 minute break doing something completely different when the buzzer goes off.

Anyway, that’s my tip for the day.

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A test copywriters had to take in the 1940s

My new copywriting hero is Bernice Fitz-Gibbon (1894-1982), who was a famous retail copywriter and ad manager from the 1920s – 1960s. Her ads routinely appeared in the New York Times during that time period and she’s on Ad Age’s list of Top 100 people of the century.

Another reason I’m fond of her is because she grew up on a farm just 10 miles from me near Madison, WI and attended my alma mater, UW-Madison.

I recently read her delightful book Macy’s, Gimbels, and me; how to earn $90,000 a year in retail advertising, which she wrote in 1967 (and I suspect many copywriters today, 43 years later, would be happy with a $90K income).

In this book she includes a copy of a test of mythology, grammar and literature she gave to prospective copywriters when she ran their advertising department in the 1940s.

Before you read this test, keep in mind there wasn’t the slightest thing boring or stuffy about her copy (as you’ll see in my upcoming posts about her copy).

Rather, she believed knowledge like this was important because “it’s much easier to write with that what-the-hell abandon when you know and observe all the ground rules.” She also said “nothing else will give you the same surge of self-confidence that knowing the English language will give you.”

Here goes:

Who was sulking in his tent and why?

What was the Buddhists’ law of karma?

What is the Plimsoll mark?

Who was Lucullus?

What was the name of Don Quixote’s horse?

Why did Alfred let the cakes burn?

What was Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption?

Who was Caligula?

Why did Diogenes carry a lamp?

Explain Scylla and Charybdis.

What is a Judas goat?

Locate the Flea Market, Rotten Row, Epsom Downs.

Why did Thales fall into the well?

What is a Pythagorean theorem?

She also gave synonym tests. If the person couldn’t rattle off a sufficient number of synonyms, she didn’t hire them. If they told her that there’s no such thing as a synonym because each word has a different meaning, no two words are alike, she hired them.

In my next post I’ll feature some of her headlines and copywriting tips.

In the meantime, check out the book The 100 Greatest Advertisements 1852-1958 on Google Books. It’s only a preview, but you can see some cool vintage ads there. Enjoy!

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3 ways to put the writing back into copywriting

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a copywriter say something like,”For copywriters, sales skills are WAY more important than writing skills.”

Sorry, but I’m here to say that the writing skills are very important too.

Obviously being a good writer doesn’t automatically mean you’ll know how to write copy. But even if you have a lot of knowledge about persuasion, being a poor writer will cost you sales.

For example, when I see the phrase “loose weight” (the most common typo on the internet) in an article or sales page about weight loss, I stop taking that person seriously.

And let’s not discuss all the glaring apostrophe errors I see in sales copy.

Above all, let’s not discuss how often I see “could of” instead of “could have.” Aaarrrgh!

When your sales page has sloppy grammar and typos, it’s like showing up for a job interview in flip flops and distressed jeans. You disrespect your reader.

Here are 3 ways to put the writing back into your copywriting:

1. Regularly read a grammar blog, such as the Grammarphobia blog and FWJ’s Grammar Guide.

2. If you can’t afford a proofreader, ask a friend or relative to proofread your copy for typos and basic grammar mistakes.

A friend once spent an hour on the phone with me going over a sales letter draft and I was amazed at all the great suggestions she had for improving the wording of certain sentences.

3. Read  The Elements of Style by William Strunk & E.B. White once a year. It’s a very slim book but packed with suggestions about how to write clearly and also outlines the basic grammar rules. If you have a different favorite book about writing and grammar, read that one once a year.

Saying that the writing portion of copywriting isn’t important is like a carpenter saying nails aren’t important. I like for my carpenters to care about little things like the proper use of nails. So you should care about little things like typos and grammar.

Also, part of the fun of writing is occasionally breaking the rules. But you have to know what the rules are first before you can break them. So go to it!

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How ten cent words will improve your copy

Perhaps the most indispensable tool for a copywriter, right behind the computer, is a thesaurus.

A thesaurus is a simple but powerful way to make your writing more compelling and persuasive.

As Strunk & White said in The Elements of Style, “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”

If you find yourself using a twenty-dollar work, or you notice that you use the same word too often on a page (I try not to use the same verb more than once in a paragraph, for example), whip out a thesaurus.

Let’s take a look at some print/offline thesauruses:

Rodale’s Synonym Finder The Synonym Finder is terrific. An Amazon reviewer sums it up well: “There are 1.5 million words in “The Synonym Finder”, including variations on the same root word. That’s more than 4 times the number of words in “Roget’s International Thesaurus”. If you simply want to find synonyms, this is the book for you. It isn’t as versatile as a thesaurus that is organized by subject, but it’s more to the point and easier to use if you are simply looking for word alternatives.”

Roget’s Thesaurus Roget’s International Thesaurus, 6th Edition
is the classic thesaurus and is also organized by subject in addition to alphabetically. It’s a bit more scholarly than Rodale’s Synonym Finder.

Here are some online thesauruses:

Answers.com has a thesaurus and much more. In addition to giving you the synonyms for each word it gives you the dictionary definition and a description of the history of the word as well as information about foreign language and idioms. It’s a complete reference for words.

Thesaurus.com is similar to Answers.com. It gives you encyclopedia and dictionary information in addition to the thesaurus.

If you enjoy mind maps you’ll enjoy Visual Thesaurus. Go to the website and in the white box type a word. Then select “look it up.” A box will come up. Select “try.” After a few seconds it will expand and grow. It’s like a living thesaurus. The desktop version works faster than the online version. It’s $19.95 per year or $2.95 per month.

If you have a favorite thesaurus please share it in the comments.

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Oh how I love a good metaphor.

You already know how important stories are.

Metaphors are like mini stories.

I would argue that the right metaphor is even more powerful than a story.

A metaphor is a comparison between two or more unrelated objects.

A friend of mine regularly uses metaphors in her emails to me and they are brilliant.

They are so good I copy and paste them into a document filled just with her metaphors.

Here are a few examples:

“Her blood pressure was lower than the Mississippi Valley.”

“There are more wires involved in that desktop than there are pit vipers in India.”

“He ate like a human forklift at a three county landfill.”

“He started snoring like Gunga Din’s chainsaw.”

“…eating like Kirstie Alley in a Fettucini Alfredo factory.”

“I feel like I’m trying to teach Aristotelian logic to Mike Tyson.”

I’ve asked her how she thinks up these metaphors and she just says that they pop into her head spontaneously as she’s writing.

Here are some other metaphors I’ve found from various places:

“”The sun was behind the wood, very red, looking over the paling of trees like a farmer inspecting his own hogs.” (Flannery O’Connor)

“Burst of energy just hit me like a train carrying 10 tons of espresso.” (Dooce.com)

“The landing at JFK was like being on the back of a motorcycle when it crashes through a brick wall.” (Dooce.com)

“All over me like melted cheese on a radiator.” (Elizabeth George)

“As loose as the rivets on a Southwest Airlines 737.” (source unknown)

I’m no expert on how to write metaphors but I do know that the more specific they are, the better.

For example, saying “You look like a madman” just wouldn’t have the same chops as “You look like you might have swallowed a mad dog.” (Flannery O’Connor)

I also know that you should read Gary Bencivenga’s bullet about metaphors.

He says you’ll be one of the most persuasive people on the planet if you master metaphors.

Or, as Aristotle said, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.”

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