July 24, 2017

“Copy is not written. Copy is assembled. You do not write copy, you assemble it”

-Gene Schwartz

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from the greatest copywriters who have ever lived is to never be satisfied with a product “as is.”

And to always ask the question, “What’s not here that could be here?”

Gene Schwartz, for example, never claimed to be a writer of books…however, when we handed him a book and asked him to write a winning promotion for it, he would start with asking us what was NOT in the book that would inspire him to write the most compelling copy he could.

This would force us, the client, to find even more cutting edge material so he could do his best work.

He made an assumption that what we had was good but not great…and even if it was great, there was huge upside and no downside in pushing our editors and marketers to find the material that no one else was talking about…which would then enable him to write much more compelling copy and teasers.

Simply put: Nothing you ever promote is ever a finished product.

And more often than not, the way to enhance and improve your product might be in your mind already but no one has pulled it out of you yet; or the best stuff might have been tossed aside and you were not aware of it.

Let me expand on this with some examples…examples that initiated from copywriters not being satisfied with their assignment as given.

Any copywriter who does not do a deep dive interview with their client–and everyone associated with the product or service they plan to write about–is a copywriter you probably don’t want to hire.

I hear stories all the time about how simple questions from copywriters to their clients yield the most impactful copy…and breakthroughs.

My favorite is the story of Gene Schwartz interviewing Marty Edelston about the new publication Marty wanted to launch in 1972 which he titled, Boardroom Reports.

Marty had a vision for a newsletter that would teach business owners and entrepreneurs what they really needed to know about running their businesses…the most important information from the best experts (through interviews and books)…without the fluff that was considered “content” by many of the business magazines at the time.

Useful and practical was the goal of Boardroom Reports.

Marty asked Gene to write the promotion to launch his big idea…gave him the premise above…but Gene was too smart to simply run off and start writing without grilling Marty on everything that went into why Marty would take his life savings at the time to launch such a publication.

They spent many hours over many days together before Gene wrote one word of copy.

The result was the headline that launched everything:



And get the guts of every one of their most valuable ideas—in super condensation form you just can’t forget!

Looking back, knowing that Boardroom eventually became one of the most successful direct marketers of newsletters in the decades that followed, we all would just assume that it was Gene’s brilliant copy that started it all.

And of course Marty gave him all the credit.

However, in talking with Gene some years later, I asked him about this headline (which was just the beginning of an incredible and engaging sales letter).

He said to me:

“You can give me all the credit you want…but I didn’t write it. Marty did.”

Gene’s genius was not in the writing…it was in how he probed Marty’s brain; and all of the best copy in that sales letter, according to Gene, was stuff that was in Marty’s head already that just needed to come to the surface.

Gene’s genius was how he questioned Marty and then created the story around his answers.
OK…there was some genius in Gene’s writing to…

I just had a similar experience with a client of mine…I wasn’t writing their copy from scratch but I was brainstorming with them on how to create a copy approach on a landing page that would get prospects to order (which they were not with the current approach).

All I did was ask questions of the entrepreneur/visionary about “why should I listen to her” and “what’s in it for me if I buy her product.”

What poured out of her was passion and pure gold…and a copy platform.

It was her story of persistence and grit, how she got to where she is today, why she wants her tribe to have the same success, and why the product will be a game changer for their businesses.

And in the end, we had copy that vibrated at a whole new level.

She is the one who wrote it—not a copywriter.

Here’s another interesting story about how your best material (and copy approach) might not be in a “spec assignment” but rather in a wastebasket somewhere…ready to be snatched back before it gets shredded forever.

I was working on an alternative health newsletter written by a naturopath/guru…and I needed a new control badly.

I approached one of our A+ copywriters and asked him if he would take on the assignment.

When he started digging in to the past issues of the newsletter and previous promotions, he was underwhelmed:

“There’s nothing new or groundbreaking here…and this is an area of health that should be all about new and groundbreaking. I don’t think I can take this assignment since what I will write will be boring and not likely to be very successful.”

After some begging and pleading on my part, the copywriter consented to dive in some more.

He interviewed the doctor/guru, all of the editors…and all of the marketers who were working on the newsletter too.

What he found out was startling: There were all sorts of cutting edge stories and ideas that never got past an initial idea meeting for fear that the subject(s) would be too controversial.

Our finding became an incredible opportunity: Could “controversial” become “new and groundbreaking?”

Rather than lament the fact that we couldn’t cover the controversial material, we went back to the editors to see which of these potential stories could be researched further and resurrected so that they could be shared with a hungry audience for brand new health information they had never heard about before.

And of course without risk of being incomplete or irresponsible.

Well we didn’t revive all of those discarded ideas, stories and research…but we were able to revive a lot…and this resurrected.

​The goal was to share as much brand new health information ​with a hungry audience…information ​they had never heard about before​…and information previously thought to be off limits.​

And of course we did all of this without any risk of being incomplete or irresponsible.

Well we didn’t revive all of those discarded ideas, stories and research…but we were able to revive a lot…and this resurrected material ended up being some of the most exciting articles the newsletter had ever published.

And more importantly, our copywriter had many new entry points into the promotion with leads, headlines and stories—not risky but super exciting—and the result was a new control that beat the old control by a wide margin.

In summary, I’d like to leave you with two important takeaways from these stories:

1) While I always say that you should never leave your copy and creative to amateurs and only hire the best copywriters and creative talent, I also think you are often your own best copywriter…and with the right copywriter guiding you, you might actually write your next great promotion simply by talking and thinking about your ”big why.”

2) Never assume that there isn’t more to your product, service or message…and the more you can differentiate from what’s out there already, the better…and please look everywhere where some of those differentiators might have been dismissed in the process before the proper research or hard work had been done.

In the past, I have readily admitted that I am a “copywriter wannabe.

But I have gained a new perspective on how we are all copywriters at some point from the experiences I’ve shared with you today.

I have also learned new lessons from so many of you, my online family, accusing me of being a better writer than I would have ever given myself credit for.

Takeaway: We all need to be a bigger part of the creative process whether we think we can write or not.

Many marketers and entrepreneurs make the mistake all the time of simply giving a copywriter an assignment without immersing themselves in the process right at the beginning.

I encourage you to hire the best copywriters you can find to push the envelope (pun intended) on your behalf–but it’s not just about their writing talent.

It’s also about their gut instinct about what will make your audience vibrate and what will differentiate you from your competition.

So keep an open mind, spill your guts (to a seasoned professional!)…and search the dumpsters for your next best idea.



About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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