I want to share another piece from The Lost Chapters of Overdeliver (one of the eleven bonuses for buying my book at www.OverdeliverBook.com). This one is special.
I found the“10 Commandments” below (makes 20 in total if you are counting) at the bottom of one of the boxes of promotions from the archives of Jim Rutz sent to me by Jim’s sister Ginger—which I have guarded with my life.
These 10 commandments are for copywriters…but they are also for those of us who hire copywriters …and they are articulated beautifully by the most colorful, controversial and successful copywriter who ever put pen to paper.
The swipe file of all of Jim’s work (everything that his sister Ginger accumulated) — including letters, interviews, recollections and more—will be available to you, my online family, within a few weeks.
The product is called Read This Or Die: The Lost Files of Jim Rutz.
And don’t worry–Read this or Die refers to one of Jim’s most successful packages, it’s not a chain letter—and yes it is part of the product.
Below are “Rutz’s 10 commandments of copy.”
And I have added additional info after each one since I last sent this (and since I included it in “The Lost Chapters ofOverdeliver”) based on going through all of those boxes of archives.
I learned a lot from Jim when he was alive and I am still learning from him—I expect you will too.
Rutz’s 10 (11?) Commandments of Copy
Being a movie buff, whenever someone refers to the story about Moses receiving The Ten Commandments, I picture Charlton Heston delivering some pretty good rules of thumb to live by.
What a perfect Moses–and even better commandments.
But wait…there’s more.
One of the stories/lessons in my new bookOverdeliver (from the chapter on “Creative & Copy”), is a portion of a blog post I am most proud of since it profiles and memorializes the “mad scientist” of all copywriters, Jim Rutz (who was also a great friend and marketing partner).
The piece was titled The copywriter closest to God and I will share that with you when I launch the new Jim Rutz product.
(Note that I am not being sacrilegious when I say that he had a “writing partnership” with God…but you’ll have to wait to hear more about that.)
But today I want to share Jim’s 10 Commandments–violating any of these won’t have the same repercussions as breaking one of the original Ten Commandments…but if you want to be a great copywriter or marketer, ignore them at your peril.
After each one, I have made some notes of my own (in italics)—Jim taught me so much. As I read through Jim’s rules, I realized how much he lives on with these commandments–and with his body of work.
The best living copywriters and trainers and teachers of copy, many who call him a mentor like I do, have passed it on…and I am playing my part with these commandments and in the upcoming Read This or Die product.
1) 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.
I’ll add a corollary regarding length and boredom…no sales letter can be too long or too short…just too boring.
And in Overdeliver, I talk about writers who were trained by Jim who were never satisfied with what was in the product they were writing about…they wanted to know what isn’t in the product that is surprising, unpredictable—and can be researched so there’s backup, leading to better sales copy.
“What’s on the cutting room floor that can be revived?”
That is what takes time and toil…and makes the top copywriters the top copywriters.
2) 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 targeted prospect.
I think Jim would have loved to “toil” in the world of online marketing (which he never really got the opportunity)…being able to slice and dice his copy to more sub-segments economically and efficiently than he ever could in direct mail…and write to individuals rather than a crowd.
However, even in direct mail, he was able to “write to individuals” even when direct mail made it more difficult to do that–that was part of Rutz’s genius. The swipes in the “Read This Or Die” product will prove this time and again.
3) 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.
Once again, Jim would have had a field day online, giving away lots of stuff and doing “…the reader good…” while being patient for the money.
He was one of the first writers to perfect the magalog (a direct mail piece that was 16-24 pages and looked like a magazine)—and with that format, he was able to give away some of the steak with the sizzle, something that was not done so for the most part before.
One of my other mentors, Gordon Grossman, used to lament that with direct mail being so expensive, anything you did in physical mail had to “sell something.” Jim attacked that notion with his long and fascinating copy.
Living in the world today of inexpensive email and other online media, this rule reminds us of the need to make sure everything we send, in every medium, “achieves something.” That is, you can give away your best stuff for free because you will have more “best stuff” in the future.
Jim understood that as well as any copywriter in history, even pre-Internet.
4) 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.
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.
Read this if you want to learn more about this technique. It’s a profile of someone else I call a “mad scientist” and might be the most successful copywriter you never heard of.
And we can add “subject lines” (as part of that 90%) to this commandment too.
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”
80 cents or 90 percent…it’s important.
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.
More about Jayme in the P.S.
Rutz would agree on all of the above and you’ll have to trust me on that.
5) Your reader is not stupid. He or she is as smart as you are…
…they are just not paying attention! So make sure you get that first, then talk to them like adults.
Ogilvy waxes poetic about this too: “The consumer isn’t a moron, she is your wife.”
Get their attention intelligently and then build a case. That’s a much better way to communicate than tricking them into buying by some gimmick or impulse which will lead to higher dissatisfaction…and returns.
6) Competence will make you a living. Creativity will make you a fortune.
Why? Because few other writers are willing to sweat any more than is absolutely necessary. Truly creative perspiration is rare.
Gary Halbert could chime in on this one with a technique to “sweat” profusely: “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 always preferred pen to paper to fingers on a keyboard–and in the words of his sister Ginger (who is the reason we will be able to bring you all of Jim’s work since she saved it all): “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 on in his career, peering into a CRT. He fought it all the way…”
He is not alone…even today.
7) 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.
In a video that will be part of the “Read This Or Die” product, copywriting legends who were also mentored by Jim Rutz, 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 want to get all of his archives in one place and then make them available to you.
Here’s a whimsical headline Jim wrote when writing an ad looking for a bride, dressed as a knight in shining armor:
“Knight in Shining Armor Seeks Damsel…Distress Optional”
8) Any hack can make a product look desirable. If you aspire to greatness, make it look irresistible. Of course, that means you have to pick and choose your clients. Some products are sow’s ears. But given a decent product, you must, prior to writing, answer the question: “What could make this thing look irresistible?”
All of the great copywriters, including Jim, talk about the clients they “refused to work for” like it’s a badge of honor.
Jim also taught all of his copy cubs to assess opportunity cost with every assignment and never check your ethics at the door. If it doesn’t feel right to you, it’s probably not right.
As a client, keep this in mind too—you know what is ethical and what is not—and if you or your copywriter try to make something irresistible with false claims or promises you can’t keep, beware of the curse of customer service calls, unhappy buyers, and refunds.
9) 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. You will frequently find it misnamed, wrongly positioned, poorly offered, incorrectly priced, or intrinsically flawed and needing revision. Tell ’em. The truly great clients will agree—and love you for it!
Jim’s view here is similar to what Dan Kennedy teaches—that is, don’t just “write copy for food”…be a trusted adviser in addition to writing kick ass copy. And tell your clients the truth.
In addition, as a copywriter, interview your clients like a detective; and as a client, spill your guts because you actually have all the answers in your head and you know your avatar best– and the best copywriters will then turn your words into poetry.
10) 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.
This is an extension of #’s 8 and 9:
Never compromise your ethics since you didn’t leave them at the door.
I hope these insights from one of the world’s most prolific copywriters will whet your appetite to read and study everything Jim Rutz wrote (and admired).
In Read This or Die, we will not only have packages and promotions he wrote himself but also the packages and promotions he admired most which he used as “furniture” in his house (when you read “The Copywriter Closest to God” you will appreciate that even more).
And now an 11th commandment:
11) Be bold, take chances, and stay crazy (and brilliant and “ballsy”) like my good friend and mentor Jim Rutz.
P.S. Before the Jim Rutz product is released, grab one of the last copies of The Bill Jayme Collection.
Like Jim, Bill is worthy of an archive of his work and I have 7 left in inventory.
If you don’t know who Bill Jayme is, read “Deeply and irrevocably personal.”
And if you want to order The Bill Jayme Collection, 210 individual direct mail efforts in PDF format for 138 different mailers in all categories (on one USB drive), you can order here.
P.P.S. And stay tuned for Read This or Die, coming in a Sunday blog to your email soon.
The copywriter closest to God will soon be close to you too.