Harlan Ellison rants about writer’s pay and the amateurs who screw things up for the pros

Do you like writing for free? Do you enjoy businesses asking you to just “give” them your work for the supposed PR value? I’m guessing the answer is “no” to both questions.

Harlan Ellison agrees with you. And in this video, he talks about how writer’s should get paid and how amateurs willing to work for nothing make things difficult for the professionals.

Now, if you know anything about Ellison, you know this isn’t going to be a polite Sunday sermon. So be warned. He’s a man who speaks his mind bluntly.

What do you think? Do you agree with Ellison’s sentiments?

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Links for copywriters and would-be designers

I’ve started contributing articles to Copyblogger, which is one of the best blogs for copywriting even if you’re not a blogger. 11 Top Secret Recipes for the Aspiring Copywriting Chef is one of my recent posts. Another is The 5-Step POWER Copywriting Method for writing ads.

SEO has become a vital part of copywriting for the Web. But one of the confusing things about this subject is that different gurus have different ideas about best practices. So SEOmoz has collected the wisdom of 37 top SEO experts to decipher Google’s secret algorithm in a meaty resource called Search Engine Ranking Factors.

Can you teach yourself graphic design? That’s a good question and the Graphic Design Blog cites several people who have done it, though they left me out of their list. Harumph. They also go over various learning styles and provide a collection of resources for teaching yourself the basics of design for print and the Web.

Has a client ever asked you what kind of response rate is typical for a particular promotion? That’s a tough question. But that doesn’t stop Ted Grigg from tackling it and coming up with some benchmarks for a variety of typical promotions.

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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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Happiness drives consumer behavior

People-centered marketing always outperforms product-centered marketing. And ultimately, all marketing comes down to one thing: making people happy.

An article at MarketingProfs talks about how happiness is the driving force behind everything Americans do and that it’s the “who not the what” that really matters.

Think about this. Think about it hard. It’s one of the core ideas behind the very best copywriting. Here’s an article with some practical applications for the idea of people power.

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Good copywriting often requires “bad” writing!

Some of the worst copywriters are “writers” who enter the commercial copywriting profession. Why? Because they’ve learned the formal rules of writing so well, they can’t break free of the grammar and style shackles. They’re forever obsessing about what is correct rather than what is effective.

On the other hand, some of the best copywriters are salesmen or businesspeople or other folk who would normally have no credentials to write much of anything. They aren’t fixated on rules as much as they are on results.

To illustrate what I mean, here are some writing rule breakers that are often part of effective copywriting.

Read the full article or or browse my Direct Marketing Article Archive. I’m adding articles all the time. Read them. Digg and Stumble them. Share them. These are all articles I’ve published over the years in Direct Marketing Magazine, DM News, Target Marketing, and other publications.

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The brutal truth about how people read mail

Every time I see a piece of direct mail that’s a work of art or filled with clever copy, I wonder what the creative team is thinking.

Like the other day when I got a clever mailer from Sprint. The cover headline was “You can’t add hours to the day …” That’s it. No other words. No explanation. No offer. No clue. Of course, the rest of the headline was inside, assuming you have nothing better to do and keep reading.

Most people won’t. Because they have 20 other pieces of mail. And have to pick up the kids from band practice, and fix dinner, and feed the dog, and do the laundry, and finish a report for work, and on and on and on.

I guess many creative people in marketing departments and ad agencies are so busy being creative, they simply don’t have time to think about how busy other people are.

If they did, they’re realize that maybe eight out of 10 people will chuck their mail right out of the box simply because it’s advertising. Those who do look at it will only glance at it. And they’ll be glancing for something that interests them. Notice I didn’t say they’re glancing for something that “entertains” them. When they don’t see anything interesting in a few seconds, whoosh! Two-pointer into the round file.

That’s how I read my mail. I bring it into the kitchen and stand next to the trash bin. Or I sort it in my garage on top of the row of garbage cans so I can instantly stuff what I don’t want into one of the recycling containers. It never even gets into the house.

People are fast and ruthless. Aren’t you? I’ll bet all copywriters and designers are too. They’ll chuck the junk as fast as the rest of us.

But somehow there’s a disconnect between the real world they live in and the fantasy world they assume the rest of us live in.

Watch your spouse or a workmate open mail sometime. Then think about how that should affect the way you write and design mail. Sort of makes you sick. But it should inspire you to be a little more realistic too. And the same applies for any other type of ad.

I have a more detailed look at how people read direct mail over in my article archive.

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The world’s most powerful selling word isn’t in the dictionary!

In Ted Grigg’s excellent direct marketing blog, he lists 13 powerful words in direct response advertising. This includes many of the words you would expect, such as “you,” “easy,” “free,” “guarantee,” and so on.

These are all hardworking words, to be sure. And on more than one occasion, I’ve said that “free” is nearly as powerful as words get in the selling business, eclipsed only by “you.”

But there’s one word that is conspicuously absent on the list. Can you guess what it is? It’s the word that will always get your attention. It’s the sweetest word in the language, the one that you love to hear and has an almost magical effect on you every time you see it or hear it. But it’s not in the dictionary.

Any idea?

If you guessed “your name,” kudos to you. For me, it’s “Dean.” For you it may be “Bob” or “Mary” or whatever. Dale Carnegie had this figured out back in 1936 when he wrote How to Win Friends & Influence People. He wrote, “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

In direct response advertising, this translates to the tactic of personalization. I use this in direct mail wheever possible because I’ve seen how it can boost response rates. The difference between a headline that reads “Here’s how to make money from home sitting at your computer” and one that reads “Dean, here’s now to make money from home sitting at your computer” is vast. The first is about an idea but the second is about ME. And nothing is more interesting to me than me.

I might dust off my copy of How to Win Friends & Influence People for future posts. There’s a lot you can learn from that book that is directly applicable to selling and to direct mail and other forms of direct response advertising. We’re in the people business, after all.

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Postcard copywriting and design blunders

Most people sort their mail ruthlessly. They spend maybe two seconds at the most deciding whether they’ll read something or trash it. So if you’re writing or designing any direct mail piece, you need to capture their attention and get them interested FAST!

I got this postcard in the mail yesterday. Glance at it for no more than a couple seconds then continue reading below.

real estate postcard

Okay your two seconds are up. Do you know what this postcard is selling? Kitchen cabinets? No. Mortgages? No. Hard to tell by looking at it, but it’s actually advertising some condos up the street from me.

Now I know about the condos. I’ve heard about the real estate group selling them. But I honestly couldn’t figure out what this card was about until I studied it, which is something most people will never do.

To be fair, on the back there is copy that uses the words “ranch and townhome condominiums.” But the copy is structured so you have to piece it together in your head to understand it.

The problem here is one of both copywriting and design. The writing doesn’t clearly state the subject. And the design makes the headline and copy hard to read. That’s death for any selling message.

The headline reads, “I looked at 19 different types of cabinets.” That makes me think the postcard is about kitchen cabinets, not condos. The copy doesn’t clarify this at all. It goes on, “This one spoke to me. More choices. More quality…” And so I remain confused about the real subject.

The copy ends with “…more reason to buy than ever before.” Buy what? Then there’s a box with a mortgage rate. Whoa! Now I’m really confused. I thought we were talking about cabinets.

This is a classic problem. The creative concept masks the intended message. The headline and photo are focused on an idea that is not instantly connected to the actual subject, which is buying a condo.

Worse, there’s no call to action anywhere on the postcard. So I have no idea what they want me to do. Visit? Call for an appointment?

This is an example of how NOT to write and design a postcard. What would I do to correct it? Trash the whole thing and start again. I’d come up with an offer, say a free interior design guide. Then I’d offer it to anyone who toured the condos. You could still show a great photo of an impressive kitchen, but I’d want to show people enjoying the kitchen, not holding a door.

I’d give a clear call to action. Give dates when people should take the tour. Provide a map on the back so people could find the neighborhood. I’d even insert a personalized message to summarize the offer, which is one of my trademark techniques for postcards,

And of course my headline would be crystal clear. Something like “Visit The Estates this week to see how you can have a beautiful new home with a kitchen like this, with your choice of high-end cabinets and granite countertops, all for less than $800 a month!” The design would lay out the headline so that “you can have a beautiful new home with a kitchen like this” would be emphasized in larger type, sort of a headline within the headline.

Now I didn’t put much work into that headline, but it immediately issues a call to action and makes a promise that’s enticing. I’d follow this up by explaining how home buyers could design their own kitchen and get their free designer guide.

See the difference? My approach focuses on getting people to tour the homes so the sales people can do their work. The original approach just throws ideas out there with no consideration of whether people understand what the subject is or what action they should take.

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Yogi Berra talks about persuasive copywriting at Copyblogger

Did you know that Yogi Berra is a copywriting guru? He is, sort of, if you listen closely. To the uninitiated, his jumbled statements may be a little confusing. So I translated some of Yogi’s best quotations on persuasive copywriting and published them at Copyblogger.

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Copywriting news, notes, tips, and warnings

Kyle at Good Copywriting bemoans the state of copywriting and the web and I’d say I agree, at least in part. Frankly I think most writing in most places is bad, so there’s nothing special about the Web. Like everything else in life, the Web requires effort to find what’s good.

Here’s an article you’ll enjoy. Why? Because it’s about the magic word “because.” You may already know that “you” and “free” are two of the most powerful words in the English language, but “because” can add a whole new dimension to your copywriting.

Matt Ambrose talks about 10 ways to become a more confident writer. There’s some good advice here. Lots of people have writing talent, but confidence is not easy to have if you’re not a naturally confident person, which most writers are not.

And from the “Duh” file, we have this little reminder from BtoB Magazine about how imagery and message must work together. No kidding.

Finally, there’s Kristen King’s 9 tips for making your blog suck and how NOT to promote your services. That last article strikes a chord with me because I’m constantly getting e-mails and letters from copywriters who are promoting their services all wrong. One keeps sending me long, rambling letters marked up with handwritten notes and coffee stains. Others send me hardball letters with giant screaming headlines promising to make me rich with their powerful copy. One guy actually sent a note from his mother telling me what a good writer her son is. What are these people thinking?

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