Whenever someone refers to the ten commandments, I picture Charlton Heston (as Moses) receiving two stone tablets…I know, religion is not Hollywood…but for me it keeps “the ten” top of mind.
But wait…there’s more. 🙂
One of the stories/lessons in my book Overdeliver (in chapter six on “Creative & Copy”), is a tribute (which was originally a blog post) that memorializes the “mad scientist” of all copywriters, Jim Rutz (who was also a great friend and marketing partner).
The original piece was titled “The copywriter closest to God”—written in 2014 as my eulogy to Jim—and it set the stage for many similar tributes to honor the greats who shaped direct response marketing history…and my career.
I am not being sacrilegious when I titled the piece as I did…I really believe there was divine intervention when it came to Jim.
He seemed joined at the hip with his God, who was a content/copywriting machine, who is responsible for the number one bestseller of all time.
No…not The Book of Inside Information (which sold 3 million copies, partially due to Jim’s copy chops) … I’m talking about something a bit more holy. 🙂
Years after Jim’s passing, while pouring through his archives (including everything he wrote and studied) I realized there was a method to his madness…and that all his “papers” had one thing in common:
Perfecting his craft and sharing what he perfected with others.
Those documents included every successful promotion he ever wrote…and the ones he most admired (but didn’t write) from colleagues he put on a pedestal…along with every piece of correspondence with those colleagues…letters of all kinds with clients, friends and even some enemies.
They are pure gold.
How I came in possession of Jim’s lifetime of work (and play) is a story for the P.S..
One wrinkled document I found buried at the bottom of one of the many boxes that were sent to me was titled, “Rutz’s 10 Rules for Writing.”
Since Moses (Charlton) had already given us ten established rules (i.e., commandments) for living nobly with integrity, I assume Jim saw these additional ten as “add-ons” to cover his other noble pursuit…writing.
At least that’s my premise for sharing them with you today.
Violating any “commandments 11-20” won’t have the same repercussions as breaking one of the original 10…but if you want to be a great copywriter or marketer, ignore them at your peril.
Dare I say “Read This or Die” which was the headline of one of Jim’s most successful promotions. 🙂
Rutz has the distinct reputation as being the “ballsiest” copywriter who has ever lived, a word for “tough and courageous.”
He took chances with his writing which were always high risk/high reward.
He didn’t have the patience for a 10% lift in response…for him it was either a big loser or a breakthrough blockbuster.
Jim’s Ten Commandments for writing are below–and I have made some notes of my own after each one (noted with a “BK” …and in italics).
They aren’t just statements of fact…they are principles to adapt to everything we write.
Going through his archives (and eventually creating a product with them…again, see the P.S.) made me realize how universal a thinker he is when it comes to writing, especially marketing copy.
And he lives on in all that is taught today by the most prolific copywriters and trainers/teachers of copy.
Rutz’s 10 Rules/Commandments for Writing (“11 through 20”)
11) The #1 sin in ad mail is being boring, and over half of it richly deserves its quick death by wastebasket
What is always boring? The predictable. You must surprise the reader at the outset and at every turn of the copy. This takes time and toil.
BK: I’ll add a corollary regarding length and boredom…no sales letter can be too long or too short…just too boring.
12) Never write to a crowd
Crowds don’t write checks, or even read. Individuals do.
Write to your brother, sister, or best friend, never to a group of targeted prospects.
BK: I think Jim would have thrived in the world of online marketing…being able to slice and dice his copy to more sub-segments economically and efficiently than he ever could in direct mail.
That he was able to “write to individuals” even toiling in the worlds of mass direct mail and print advertising was the result of Rutz’s genius.
The swipes in the “Read This or Die” product proves this time and again.
Check out the P.S.
13) Don’t be a jerk
The GOLDEN RULE as applied to ad mail:
It’s more important to do the reader good than to get his money.
Yes, getting his money is what you do for a living. But when his money becomes more important than his welfare, you’ve turned into a hollow shell and declared war on the human race.
BK: Once again, Jim would have had a field day online, giving away lots of stuff with an eye on doing “…the reader good…” while being patient to collect their money.
One of my other mentors, Gordon Grossman, used to lament that because direct mail was so expensive (namely printing and postage), anything you did in physical mail had to “sell something.”
Some online marketers would say the same thing…but it is not a requirement.
Living in the digital world, we need to make sure everything we send, in any medium, “achieves something” and sells when most appropriate.
Jim understood that as well as any copywriter in history, even though he never got to experience the world of all digital/all the time. He achieved and sold with the best of them.
14) Spend half your writing time on concept, teaser, offer, headline, and first paragraph
Up to 90% of your rejections will be caused by those elements, not the many pages that follow.
BK: All of the great copywriters I have ever worked with knew how to write “teasers” (what we called “fascinations”) well before they learned to write full blown sales letters.
It led to concepts, offers, headlines…and created the first paragraph.
It’s a profile of “the master of fascinations” …someone Jim admired (as did many of the copywriters of his era) …yet you probably never heard of him.
And then there’s what David Ogilvy said about headlines:
“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar”
And copywriter and raconteur, Bill Jayme, cut right to the chase when he said that the outer envelope (i.e. headline) was like the “…hot pants on the hooker…” –and I am sure he would say the same today about subject lines.
15) Your reader is not stupid; he or she is as smart as you are…
…they are just not paying attention!
This is your starting point…then talk to them like adults.
BK: Ogilvy waxes poetic about this too:
“The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife.”
16) Competence will make you a living; creativity will make you a fortune
Because few other writers are willing to sweat any more than is necessary.
Truly creative perspiration is rare.
BK: In today’s world of AI fanaticism, this is even more important that ever. I bet Jim knew ChatGPT was coming. 🙂
Gary Halbert could chime in on this one as well with a technique to sweat profusely (i.e., produce “creative perspiration”):
“Get yourself a collection of good ads and DM pieces and read them aloud and copy them in your own handwriting.”
It’s a start to get to what Jim is talking about.
Jim, like Gary, also preferred pen and paper to fingers on a keyboard.
In the words of Jim’s sister Ginger (who is the reason we have all of Jim’s archives—she saved everything):
“Picture Jim, sitting on the floor, his back against the sofa and feet under the coffee table, with a legal pad and a green pen; to later in his career, peering into a CRT. He fought it all the way–and he struggled.”
17) Light humor and wit are terrific salesmen
Without them, some products are sunk.
With them, you will soon be sitting in your very own beachside condo in Belize.
BK: In a video that I created to accompany Jim’s archives after his death, copywriting legends John Carlton and David Deutsch talk at length why Rutz is so hard to emulate…and how he got away with “light humor and wit”—what we labeled as his “whimsy”—and he used it more successfully than any copywriter we have ever studied.
You often hear that there is no place for humor in direct response copy…Jim broke that rule more than any other writer.
Dissecting how he got away with it is worth our time—that’s a big reason why I wanted to get all of his archives in one place and then make them readily available.
Here’s a whimsical headline Jim wrote when writing an ad looking for a bride:
“Knight in Shining Armor Seeks Damsel…Distress Optional”
Not your typical “how-to pick-up-women copy.” 🙂
18) Any hack can make a product look desirable; if you aspire to greatness, make it look irresistible
Of course, that means you must pick and choose your clients carefully too.
Some products are sow’s ears. And some clients are too.
But given a decent product (and a client with integrity), you still must, prior to writing about it, answer the question:
“What could make this thing look irresistible?”
BK: All of the great copywriters, including Jim, talk about the clients they “refused to work for” like it’s a badge of honor.
Jim taught all his copy cubs and students to assess opportunity cost with every assignment and when you enter your “copy room,” never check your ethics at the door.
If it doesn’t feel right to you, it’s probably not right.
19) Learn to stand up to your clients
Even the most sophisticated clients in the world may be too close to their product to understand it…what is best about it…and where the flaws are.
You will frequently find it misnamed, wrongly positioned, poorly offered, incorrectly priced, or intrinsically flawed and needing revision.
Tell your client the truth.
The truly great clients will agree—and love you for it!
BK: Jim’s view here is what Dan Kennedy teaches—that is, don’t just “write copy for food” …be a trusted advisor in addition to writing kick ass copy.
20) God will not let you starve because you refused to promote a product that is unethical, harmful, or at odds with the greater good of society
BK: Never compromise your ethics…especially since you didn’t leave them outside the door (see #18 above). 🙂
I hope these insights from the world’s “ballsiest” copywriter will whet your appetite to read and study everything Jim Rutz wrote (and admired).
These 10 are profound in their simplicity.
Here’s a “21st commandment” which I came up with after studying Rutz:
21) Be bold, take chances and stay crazy (and brilliant and “ballsy”) like my good friend and mentor Jim Rutz.
P.S. Read This or Die: The Lost Files of Jim Rutz is much more than a swipe file…it’s a window into the mind and work of the most “complex yet practical” copywriters who has ever lived.
Complex because he wrote without formulas, always took big chances (which resulted in some of the biggest winners and most disastrous losers) …and he used humor, whimsy, religion, current events, history…sometimes all at the same time…while taking those chances.
Practical because he chose his assignments wisely, always writing about something he was passionate about, and turning down assignments that didn’t fit with his mindset…and also to leave room for other pro bono writing projects that were more about mission than money.
- He used promotional material to furnish his home
- He created a school for wayward boys on his own dime
- He “shopped” for a Russian bride using direct marketing techniques
- He commanded and got paid upwards of $100,000 for a single promotion (with royalties on top!)
- He invented and pioneered new formats including the “magalog” (along with Gary Bencivenga)
- He has mentored some of the best copywriters currently working today
- He trained (and was trained by) “The Copy Sister”…who thankfully saved everything he wrote and everyone he wrote to
- He wrote in every category imaginable…with success in all of them
You’ve learned a bit about him in the post above (with his ten commandments on the religion of writing) …and you will learn (and be able to apply) his other teachings through Read This or Die.
Click here to enter (and go deep into) the world of Jim Rutz.