Deciphering the clues of copy

Every morning for the past three years, my partner and I wake up. Have coffee. And do the New York Times Crossword Puzzle.

I hear they’re really good to keep your mind sharp and stave off dementia. Seems to be working so far.

I always avoided them because, well, I sucked at them.

Then Scott taught me some tricks. Look for plural clues and add an “s.” And make sure the word tense matches the clue tense.

Turns out I’m GREAT at pop culture. I know all the celebs, movies, songs, rappers, and awards. He’s killer at history and geography. Plus, he knows some French and I know some Spanish.

Together we’re a formidable team.

If you’re new to them, Mondays are the easiest ones. Then, as you go through the week, they get progressively harder.

By the time you get to Sunday…boy, howdy. They are brain stumpers.

You look at all these blank squares and bizarre clues and think, “NO WAY!”

Then little by little you start getting some words. And those words help you unscramble other words.

Before you know it, you’re on a roll. Then you’re not. Then you ARE again.

When you’re just starting out in copywriting it can feel a lot like a puzzle. It’s overwhelming how many moving pieces there are.

  • Research…
  • Creating a tarket (or avatar)…
  • Finding a hook…
  • Developing stories…
  • Enhancing empathy…
  • Stirring up their desires…

Then putting it all together in a piece that flows and demands action.

Once you have the skills, you have to market yourself and understand how to run a business. The ebbs and flows aren’t for the faint of heart.

After 20 years a lot of my skills are second-nature now. But it certainly didn’t start out that way.

Just like with crossword puzzles.

My suggestion is whether you’re new in the copywriting game or a seasoned pro is to keep studying the classics like Gene Schwartz, Robert Collier, and David Ogilvy (to name a few.) And definitely make sure you have Gary Halbert and John Carlton on your list of giants to learn from.

When I’m attacking a piece of copy obviously the research comes first.

From there I’ll create my tarket (the singular of “target” plus “market”…) You’re talking to one person in your copy, no matter how many slews of readers you get. So create a “character” and write your copy like you’re sitting in the same room with her having a conversation. Make sure to identify what objections she may have to pulling the trigger to buy.

To get myself more familiarized with what I’m selling I’ll often write the offer first. That’s the boiler plate stuff that needs to be in the copy to let the prospect know what they’re getting into.

Then I surround the nuts and bolts with persuasion. That’s where hooks and storytelling come in.

Finally, I’ll brainstorm headlines.

A pro trick is to set a timer for 15-30 minutes and write without stopping. Create as many as you can, even if you’re just changing a word or two. They don’t have to be perfect. And you may even Frankenstein a few to give birth to a better headline.

You’ll find your best headlines are often closer to the end of this exercise. Something about getting out of your own way and letting your brain do its thing.

That’s my writing process in a nutshell. Creating copy can seem overwhelming if you don’t break it down.

Just like a crossword puzzle.

Happy writing!