Wood Chips and Lazy Writers

by Dean Rieck

About 12 years ago, I went through a woodworking phase.

You see, I had admired solid wood furniture all my life. The gentle curves of an oak chair. The subtle grain of a maple desk. The rich color of a walnut bureau. I concluded that this would be my hobby. I would take raw wood and shape it into beautiful furniture and gifts. I even entertained the idea of turning this noble craft into a full-time business.

So, burning with enthusiasm, I emptied my garage of its natural inhabitants and began populating it with giant, whirring cast-iron monstrosities that variously cut, smoothed, and drilled pieces of wood.

I was in man heaven.

Christmas was just around the corner, and I decided I would put my new hobby to good use. I would build four walnut coat racks with brass fittings for various members of my family. "A simple project," I thought. "A weekend of work and I'm done."

A couple weeks later, I was racing against the clock to complete my simple project before the holidays. I had overlooked all the prep work - measuring, cutting, fitting, sanding - the days of careful labor before I could even start assembling the darn things. It seemed that every step required ten steps before it.

When I was done, I looked at my handiwork. I was pleased. But once I had swept up, there was no evidence of the amount of work that went into those coat racks. And while everyone on my list enjoyed the gift, none really understood the effort.

Now what does a garage full of wood chips and sawdust have to do with direct response advertising? Over the years, I have come to the startling but obvious conclusion that a lot of copywriters are just plain lazy. They don't understand the amount of work that a successful direct mail package or ad requires. Because the end product often looks simple, they conclude that the process is simple.

So they skip the prep work, rush into writing, and cobble up a mishmash of limp verbiage. Or they experience writer's block because they just don't have anything to say. Or perhaps worse, they simply repeat a tired formula they've used a hundred times. And when the results disappoint, no one can figure out what went wrong.

Tell me, would you start hammering boards together to build your dream house without drawing up a blueprint first? Not likely. So why would you start writing your direct mail package or ad without doing the necessary prep work?

There's no guaranteed formula for success, but you stand a much better chance of creating a winner if you put down your pen, turn off your computer, tell the designer to take the day off, and follow a few simple steps before writing a single word.

1. Define your goal. Describe your situation and decide exactly what you want to accomplish. Write it down in plain, jargon-free language. As Charles F. Kettering once said, "A problem well-stated is a problem half solved."

2. Explore your resources. Gather information about your product and your promotion. Collect samples, press releases, competitor information, memos, testimonials, articles and reviews, marketing reports, whatever is available.

3. Analyze results. Look at past response rates, conversions, ROI, cost per customer, everything. Arrange tests chronologically or by response. Do you see a pattern? What has worked and what has not? Why? If there's a control, analyze it by itself and in context with all past tests.

4. Take a break. By now, your eyes are bleary and your brain is numb. It's time for a break. Set everything aside and do something else. Take a walk. Golf. Nap. Anything. The time off will allow your brain to sift and organize subconsciously.

5. Brainstorm ideas. Consider different approaches. Sketch a variety of formats. Play with offers and appeals and benefit statements. Go through your swipe file. Write a hundred headlines. Fill a notebook or two with ideas.

6. Evaluate your ideas. Weed out all but the best. If you don't like anything or think you can do better, brainstorm a little longer. When the deadline gets close or when you stop generating useful ideas, move on.

7. Act on your best idea. Only now is it time to write. And if you've done everything I've suggested up to this point, you'll find this part of the job much faster and easier than ever before. Because you'll have something to say. The words will seem to write themselves.

I learned from woodworking that preparation pays off in quality results. The same holds true for copywriting. Will everyone understand the effort? Of course not. But when the numbers crash through the roof, you can explain it to them.

Copyright © 2001 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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