How to develop a unique writing style in one lifetime or less

In a recent e-mail exchange, Brian Clark from Copyblogger said my writing style was similar to his. And in a variety of comments, readers of this blog also have mentioned my style.

Years ago, I thought a lot about writing style, probably because I didn’t have one. These days, I don’t think about my style at all, though apparently it has evolved into something unique.

When did that happen? And how did I do it?

Here’s what I think: You can’t develop a writing style on purpose. You can mimic someone else’s style. But you can’t put on a style like you put on a hat.

Developing your style comes naturally from developing your writing skill. When you’re a novice, you bask in your own words. Your writing is affected, verbose, and shallow. You have little to say, but like a cat walking on piano keys, you love the random noise.

As you mature (if you mature), you become smarter and wiser. You have more to say and a greater desire to communicate something important to others. You think more about what you’re saying and less about how you’re saying it. If you develop into a good writer, you become obsessed with clarity. You edit ruthlessly. Over time, your writing becomes natural, crisp, and deeper in meaning.

In other words, as you stop trying to create a style, you create one. It just happens.

When I look back at things I wrote years ago, I’m shocked at how different it sounds. My writing today is leaner and more clear. How about you? How has your style evolved? Do you think about style as you write, or do you think about what you’re trying to say? Have you reached the point where you can appreciate what Strunk and White were trying to tell writers in The Elements of Style?

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Bob Bly’s secrets of marketing online and offline

Is there a copywriter anywhere who doesn’t know about Bob Bly? I doubt it.

Bob is the copywriter’s copywriter because he’s published so many books that have helped freelance copywriters get started and improve their business, such as Secrets of a Freelance Writer, The Copywriter’s Handbook, and Selling Your Services.

I’m pleased to have a chance to talk to Bob and share his thoughts with you.

Dean: What is the most common mistake you see direct marketers make?

Bob: Not understanding that in direct marketing, the money is made on the back end, not the front end.

Dean: What does the future hold for direct mail and print advertising?

Bob: I do not think print will disappear, but right now, all the focus and excitement is about online marketing. I am not a futurist so I don’t make predictions, but many feel that online marketing is fundamentally changing the way marketing is done … specifically, giving the customer a greater voice and moving away from advertiser-generated copy and content.

Dean: What effect do you think the Internet will have on direct marketing over the next few decades?

Bob: The Web is moving marketing from an advertiser-to-prospect model, where the advertiser sends promotions out to prospects, to a customer-centric model, where customers instead of marketers do a lot of the selling. Examples include viral videos where prospects pass your video on to other prospects, and Web 2.0 sites (e.g., Amazon.com) where customer-generated content (reviews) is more influential than marketer-generated content.

Dean: What is the most innovative thing you see happening or on the horizon in the direct marketing industry?

Bob: The big things are online video, viral marketing, and social networking. For a few thousand bucks, you can shoot a video, post it on YouTube, and get millions to watch it without paying to run commercials. Direct mail is just print, but with streaming video, Web sites can have it all: copy, photos, sound, and movies. Read more

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Cheap direct mail ideas can work wonders

Like all forms of direct response advertising, direct mail is a cost-conscious medium. Creativity in direct mail is not about dreaming up clever headlines or snazzy graphics. It’s about finding the least expensive way to make the most amount of money. Low cost, high value ideas turn copywriters into heroes.

Times bookmark insertConsider this simple insert from a direct mail package I received recently offering a subscription to The New York Times. They could have enclosed a large, four-color insert detailing the benefits of subscribing. But why?

Many subscription packages these days are little more than “invoice” letters, providing a deep-discount offer and a reply form. They’re about as simple as it gets for a direct mail package.

The reason? Popular newspapers and magazines are already well-known. Most people have read, or at least heard about, publications like The New York Times. They don’t need to be told in detail about why it’s a great paper to read. All they need is a good offer at the right time.

This particular direct mail package consists of a two-color letter, printed on one side, with a perforated reply form at the bottom. The letter copy is short but personalized. A brief list of benefits is on the right, with the most important being the offer of 50% off for 6 months.

You can return the reply form in the enclosed business reply envelope, call an 800 number, or subscribe online. It’s all very straightforward.

The insert is the nifty trick I want to point out.

In direct mail, getting people to open the envelope is difficult. Maybe 80 percent or more of recipients will throw away the envelope unopened. This is ironic, since I believe most copywriters and designers spend very little time thinking about the envelope, spending most of their time on the contents. But the envelope is crucial.

In this package, the envelope is clearly branded with the Times logo and return address. So people know who it’s from. And there’s a simple envelope teaser:

FREE GIFT INSIDE

Save 50% for 6 months when you resubscribe today.

Those three words, “FREE GIFT INSIDE,” is the extra incentive to open the envelope. And the gift? The nifty insert, which is a bookmark. It’s just a little bit of paper and a smidgen of ink. But it’s not a rip-off, because the bookmark is printed on slightly stiff paper, enough to serve as a real bookmark. People who read the Times are “readers,” so a bookmark is appropriate. And the bookmark provides five handy tips on solving The New York Times Crossword Puzzle, one of the most popular features of the paper.

This makes the insert just enough to get people inside the envelope and just enough to be a real gift. There’s the cleverness of it. Low cost, but high value. And a potential boost in the number of people who open the envelope and therefore read the offer inside and respond.

Question: What “cheap” direct mail ideas have you seen or used recently that offered the winning combination of low cost and high value?

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Reports of the death of advertising as we know it are greatly exaggerated

In a recent report from eMarketer, Geoff Ramsey says there is a fundamental change taking place in the advertising industry.

Read what he says, then I’ll give you my take.

For decades, the ad industry was built on the interruption-disruption model. Consumers understood that if they wanted to experience free content—in the form of television shows, music on the radio and magazine articles—they would have to put up with ads, most of which were perceived as irrelevant, boring, annoying or all three. In this standard construct, ads were seen as a “necessary evil” to support the content consumers really wanted to see.

But the interruption-disruption model is dying out, thanks to shifting consumer trends. Consumers are increasingly in control of their media content and can easily eradicate ads they don’t want to see. They also have less trust in advertisers and their messages. Further, consumers are creating their own content with the help of blogs, social networks, wikis and other digital-communication platforms.

As a result, advertisers and their agencies who want to engage with today’s consumers will have to start turning their ads into content. Ultimately, they will need to be able to produce content that is so compelling, relevant and entertaining that consumers will seek it out and want to share it with others. The new ad model is about creating great content and finding clever ways to embed it in the fabric of communities and content platforms where consumers are hanging out and actively participating.

Okay, now my take.

I don’t believe for a minute that there will ever be a time when consumers are totally in control of the ads they are exposed to or that advertisers aren’t interrupting and disrupting.

I understand that consumers are gaining more control through opt-out and opt-in programs or technologies such as TiVo. And I know it will continue. But only to a point.

Will magazines and newspapers stop printing ads? Will television embed all ads into content? Will direct mailers sit on their hands waiting for prospects to ask for their ads? No.

Mr. Ramsey has it wrong when he says the “interruption-disruption” model is decades old. It is thousands of years old. The ancient Greeks shouted in the streets about the sale of cattle. Romans pasted signs announcing gladiatorial games. In the Middle Ages, street barkers drew passers by into shops.

Advertising has changed little over the ages. It has always been about reaching out and capturing people’s attention. The technology changes. The laws modify techniques. And those with new ad services to sell are always predicting doomsday for old ad services. But it never happens and it never will.

If history doesn’t convince you, then human psychology or common sense should. People are lazy and they simply won’t spend lots of time seeking out new products. And even if lots of advertisers were foolish enough to stop being interruptive, then smart advertisers would simply have an easier time growing market share.

My prediction? People love and respond to advertising far more than they’ll ever admit. And the interruption-disruption model may be tinkered with and modified, but it will never die. Ever. Because no matter what you call it, selling means pushing products. And if you aren’t pushing, you aren’t selling. And if you aren’t selling, you’re out of business.

Read a related post about the future of advertising intrusiveness.

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Is it hypocritical for a professional copywriter to hate the commercialism of Christmas?

The holidays are over. And I have to admit that I’m glad.

That sounds so incredibly cynical. But there it is.

I’m a professional copywriter. I’ve helped over 200 businesses sell all manner of products and services: books, magazine subscriptions, insurance, credit cards, software, sex education videos, corporate training materials, Internet services, computers, newsletters, high-end fashion, mailing lists, nutritional supplements, sports equipment, and on and on.

In other words I sell stuff. Lots of stuff. Yet, I dislike buying stuff. I loath shopping. And when Christmas rolls around, I feel oppressed by the incessant push to buy, buy, buy.

There are things I love about Christmas, though, particularly doing good things for others. At my wife’s workplace, the corporation has a “giving tree” where tags are hung bearing the names and wishes of poor local children.

Employees take the tags and buy gifts for the children. Most people take one tag. My wife waits a few days, then strips the tree of all remaining tags.

We then choose a store or two and begin filling shopping carts with clothing, toys, and games. And I enjoy it. Why? Because I know I’m doing something worthwhile. Because I know the gifts will make the kids happy. Mostly, because it’s my choice to buy the gifts.

Now if someone told me I “must” buy those gifts, I wouldn’t enjoy it at all. And I think that’s my problem with all the other Christmas gifts I buy. I feel I “must” buy them. The season demands it. It’s the culmination of a year of holidays and birthdays where cards and gifts seem mandatory.

But is a gift you are forced to buy really a gift? What would my family think if I took all the money I spent on gifts for them and bought more gifts for needy children? Could I convince my wife to try it? I floated the idea to her, but it didn’t go over very well.

My wife is incredibly generous. But she loves to shop for family, even if none of them really need anything.

So am I a hypocrite for loathing holiday commercialism? Do you feel this way sometimes?

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The danger of getting too creative with type

My wife dragged me to a mall recently and I ran across a good example of why getting super creative with type endangers legibility.

Take a look. (Forgive the poor quality of the photo. I snapped this with my cell phone.)

example of poor legibility

Sure, you can tell that it reads “SALE.” But it takes a second for your brain to make it out, doesn’t it?

This sign violates two basic principles of legibility. It spells a word vertically rather than left to right, which is the standard in English. And it crams the letters together so that the familiar configuration of the word is damaged.

Now take a look at an example of good legibility just a few stores down in the same mall.

example of good legibility

Same word, but it reads left to right and uses the natural shape of the word to make it instantly recognizable. The brain doesn’t need to read this sign, it recognizes and understands the word “sale” instantly.

From a designer’s perspective, the creative sign is more interesting. But that’s irrelevant, since the purpose of the sign is to announce a sale and bring people into the store. All things being equal, the less creative sign is more interesting to customers since they’re interested in the sale, not the sign.

By the way, you should also note that the less creative sign uses the colors red and yellow, which are more dramatic than the soft blue of the other sign. Plus it adds some copywriting savvy by calling the sale an “ultimate sale” and providing some detail on the number of styles marked down.

I recently referred to an article that provides a primer on reading and legibility in design. If you didn’t read it then, read it now. Even if you’re not a designer, you need to understand these ideas since most direct response advertising is about reading.

(Oh, and for the people out there who hate shopping but get suckered into malling anyway, this illustrates a great way to eat up time when a mall is about to close. Announce that you have an idea for your blog and take photos. Don’t take the pictures when you first see a good subject. Walk way past it, then say you have to go back. Then fiddle with your camera for a while. If you’re good, you should be able to reduce your shop time by 10 minutes or more.)

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10 obvious ideas for spectacular success

They say, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” And it must be true. Because there’s no end to people who think there are shortcuts to success.

There aren’t. Sorry.

The keys to success are the same today as in years past. The most important being “have something people want.” (Which ironically includes get rich quick schemes. Am I evil for thinking that’s funny?)

Obvious? Sure. So are all the other keys to success. Like “be persistent.” Or “don’t be afraid to fail.”

I got to thinking about this recently when I read a list of 10 ways to get ink at 37signals, which provides basic ideas for getting people to notice you or your product. It’s a nice little list of things to do if you want to be successful.

Why are such obvious ideas so often ignored? I have a few ideas about this, but I’m curious about what you think. Why do people seek the miraculous when the obvious is right in front of them?

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Copywriter Ivan Levison talks about direct mail

Ivan Levison is a professional freelance copywriter who builds profits for high tech companies. He’s spent over twenty-five years writing direct mail, e-mail, and ads for industry leaders like Microsoft, Intel, Adobe, and Hewlett-Packard, as well as a bunch of great little companies too.

I’ve been a fan of Ivan for a long time and I’m thrilled to have a chance to pick his mind on a variety of direct marketing and direct mail topics.

Dean: Let’s start with an easy question. What’s the most common mistake you see direct marketers make?

Ivan: On the whole, I think dms do a pretty good job. That’s because they watch the numbers and learn. But perhaps they miss the little things. How to handle the business reply card. How to optimize the envelope, etc.

Dean: What does the future hold for direct mail and print advertising? Some say direct mail and print will disappear. Others say they will simply become more targeted. Still others say they will grow and become more important than ever. What is your opinion?

Ivan: As mailing decreases, the medium will become even more valuable because there will be fewer pieces crowding the mail box. I think direct mail will always have a place.

Dean: I agree. Direct mail is simply too effective to disappear. Now let’s turn to the Internet. What effect do you think the Internet will have on direct marketing over the next few decades? I’m thinking not just about the Web, but the whole Internet, including e-mail, intelligent devices, wireless, everything.

Ivan: I think the changes ahead will be enormous but it’s hard to pin down … things are changing so fast. Ten years ago, who would have predicted where we are today?!

Dean: True. I remember when I was in college a million years ago and thought about majoring in computers. But I couldn’t figure out what people would use them for. I guess that’s why I’m not Bill Gates. But if you could put on your wizard hat for a minute, what is the most innovative thing you see happening or on the horizon in the direct marketing industry?

Ivan: I think the new frontier is analytics; exploiting the data. The big mailers are already into this but I think insights garnered by analytics will work their way down the food chain.

Dean: Is branding important in direct marketing?

Ivan: The short answer is YES but it’s not as important as in the packaged goods arena. Branding in dm is most important to catalog mailers like Harry and David and LL Bean. Brand look and continuity are very important for them.

Dean: You’re a big time direct mail guy. So let’s talk shop for a while. Is there one thing you ALWAYS do when you create a direct mail piece?

Ivan: Yup. Try to identify the prospect’s pain and make sure that my piece promises a cure.

Dean: That’s short and sweet. You can’t go wrong with a problem / solution approach. Is there anything you NEVER do?

Ivan: I personally stay away from humor or getting “cute.” I’m more an old fashioned, straight ahead dm copywriter.

Dean: Well, I don’t think that makes you old fashioned. I think that just makes you pragmatic. I prefer a simple, straightforward approach too. I’m curious, in all your direct mail experience, what’s the strangest thing you ever saw that actually worked? For example, I had a client show me an order form that was broken up into four separate inserts, each a different color with random products on each piece. It looked crazy to me, but it worked.

Ivan: Perhaps this is not strange, but it struck me. A client wanted to do a “we pay the postage and handling” test. I thought they would be leaving money on the table but they were right. The offer was a fabulous success.

Dean: More proof that you never know until you test. In your opinion, what is the single most important element of a direct mail piece?

Ivan: The letter. That’s where you do the emotional, motivating selling … but of course, everything is important in a dm package.

Dean: What’s your preference: plain envelope or envelope with teaser copy?

Ivan: That’s one of those “it all depends” situations. This is well worth testing!

Dean: Have you ever created a direct mail package without a letter? Did it work?

Ivan: No. I’ve done self mailers, of course, but in a dm package with an envelope I’d never put down my most potent weapon.

Dean: I had to ask. I’ve never seen a package work without a letter. How about dimensional mail? Is worth the extra cost?

Ivan: For sure. Dimensionals get opened but they’re expensive. Again, it all depends.

Dean: Do you have a certain approach for creating direct mail?

Ivan: Again, I always start with understanding the target audience, the list, and the prospect’s pain points.

Dean: Most people know that you can improve response to a lead effort if you offer something free. Apart from that, what can sales organizations do to improve their lead generation efforts today?

Ivan: Keep mailing until the mailings don’t pay for themselves. Don’t give up after only one drop

Dean: How about lead quality? Many organizations have trouble getting good quality leads. Where are most companies going wrong and what can they do to fix the problem?

Ivan: They might consider spending more on a dimensional package and providing something tangible in the first mailing. I’ve had clients mail a book to prospects with very good results.

Dean: Excellent advice. Now let’s talk about copywriting and design in general. Do you write elements of your copy in a particular order?

Ivan: I start with the outer envelope, then move to the letter, then the other elements.

Dean: That’s interesting. I often do the same. I like the envelope and letter to work together as if the envelope is a “headline” for the letter. Also, I’ve found that it helps to set copy aside for a few days and look at it fresh to see areas where I can improve and strengthen. Do you do that? Do you have any tricks for staying objective and fresh while working on a project?

Ivan: I write the complete first draft and then put it away. I revisit it with fresh eyes the next day. VERY helpful!

Dean: If you could give just one piece of advice for better copy, what would you say?

Ivan: Sorry to go on about understanding the prospect, but that’s the place to work hard. If you can identify with the prospect, show that you understand their problem and then provide proof that you can help them, you’re on your way to success!

Dean: Don’t apologize. You’ve nailed it. It’s all about the prospect. Now about design, how important is it?

Ivan: VERY important! Most designers don’t have a clue. They just want things to look pretty. Working with a good designer, a dm designer, can make all the difference!

Dean: Is there a certain medium in which you especially like to work?

Ivan: I like the fun of writing letters. You can really do some persuasive writing in a letter. It’s the big canvas that’s fun to paint on.

Dean: Thanks, Ivan. I think you’ve shown why you’re a top gun.

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