How To Get Great Copywriters to
Mentor You For Free

Mentor

If you’ve ever longed to write with the same persuasive power and attention-holding prose as your copywriting heroes, a one-on-one mentorship could be your most effective way of getting very good, very fast. But what if you don’t have the money or opportunity to mentor with the best of the best (or worse, your copywriter of choice is no longer with us)? What do you do then?

It’s easy. You get inside their head, and you get all the mentoring you need … for free. Here’s how.

Copywriting Class Is In Session … And It Always Has Been

When I first started writing blog posts, web content, and sales pages, I was able to skip a lot of the learning curve by following a simple technique: every time I saw a compelling headline, an effective opening paragraph or a persuasive sales page, I set aside some time and copied it down.

Not copied as in “plagiarized.” I mean copied as in slowly and carefully writing those masterly crafted words down, by hand, in a notebook. The simple act of writing by hand – something so basic that most people overlook or dismiss it – helped me get very good, very fast, and it can do the same for you. Here’s why.

Writing Other People’s Words By Hand Opens Your Eyes

Most people get their copywriting education by reading the words that others write, and I won’t dismiss the usefulness of that. But reading alone will give you just a fraction of the benefit you would gain by writing.

When you read someone else’s copy, you might say to yourself “I need to use that style,” or “I’d never write like that,” but you’re only doing a superficial analysis (and you’re prone to distraction, to boot). But when you write by hand, you slow down. You engage the part of your brain that creates, not just the part that takes in the sights, and it changes your perspective.

All at once, your eyes are opened to the creative process as someone else sees it, and you truly get “into their mind” as if they were personally mentoring you.

Why Mental “Muscle Memory” Is Holding You Back

“Muscle memory” is the term used to describe the way you can condition your body to perform certain movements almost on autopilot by steady practice. It’s what allows you to touch type, or tie your shoes, or even dial a phone number without looking at your hands.

But that muscle memory comes at a price – it locks you into a pattern that you’re destined to repeat again and again (which is great for dialing the phone, but not so great for your writing style). You experience the downside of muscle memory when you write checks in January, and you’re still putting the previous year in the date field by accident. And you’ll see just how strongly this is ingrained in you the very first time you copy down someone else’s writing.

Prepare Yourself For A Bumpy Ride

As you write down sentences that other people have written, you will immediately feel a vague sense of discomfort as you challenge that mental muscle memory – your mind will push back, as if to say “This is not how I would do it!” The words will feel foreign to you because they are spilling out in a pattern that’s different than you’re used to. And it’s weird.

It’s weird because you’re totally used to reading things written by people who aren’t … well, you. But you’re not used to writing things that didn’t come from your imagination. The brain-to-hand transaction is coming through all scrambled … and it could be the best thing that’s ever happened to your writing.

How Challenging Your Muscle Memory Will Help You Grow

The point of copying down other people’s writing isn’t to become a parrot – instead, it’s to evaluate why your copywriting peers and “superiors” write like they do. As your pen moves across the paper, you’ll gain a whole new appreciation for why your mentors selected those exact words, why they focused on those specific details and you’ll be able to judge whether each turn of phrase is a teachable moment or a call you wouldn’t make for yourself.

And this all happens on a much more visceral level than a simple read through of your swipe file.

Does it work? It’s how I landed on the Digg front page over and over again in 2008 and how I consistently owned 50% of the “Most Popular” article section at FreelanceFolder during the same time. And it wasn’t because I’m brilliant or anything like that – it was because I practiced.

What You Should Do Right Now To Challenge Your Status Quo

Grab a pen (or at the very least open a text editor) and copy down the first three paragraphs of this post. See how it feels to write in someone else’s style, and as you challenge your own mental muscle memory, ask yourself what you can learn from the experience. Then leave your comments below, and realize that you’ve just done what only the smallest percentage of copywriters will do … and that you’re already a step ahead because of it.

Make this a habit, and you’ll discover your writing gets better and better as you become a more discerning and well-rounded writer. Go ahead and get started – you’ll thank yourself for it.

About the Author: Dave Navarro is coach-turned-blogger who writes at Rock Your Day and The Launch Coach, and loves to do more by 9 am than most people do all day.

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  1. Good point Dave.

    I have felt the positives of following this method. I started to learn copywriting a few months ago and am still learning. I find all the best ads in the internet and also print ads (especially the ones by Gene Schwartz).

    Once I have a list of ads, I sit down and write everything down in a notebook (just as you said). This is the best way to feel the emotions the writer is trying to convey.

    One more thing I do is, after I write down the sales page by hand, I read it once again and note down the format of the copy (AIDA or if it a modification of AIDA).

    By doing this for many products, I learn which format works best.

  2. Dave,

    I came up through the world of traditional ad agencies and made the switch to all digital a little over a year ago. While I also went to grad school at the Brandcenter in Richmond, VA, it wasn’t there that I learned to write. I learned how to think in grad school. Writing has come from the many people who have influenced me along the way.

    I’ve always found that there’s an unspoken rule among the best creatives out there: what makes them so good isn’t hording everything they know, it’s putting it all on display for anyone to see.

    It’s always amazed me how easily reached most people are at an ad agency. Especially writers – All I had to do was write headlines and copy. The art directors are the ones constantly fiddling with layouts. We writers have A LOT of time on our hands. And we’re willing to share what we know.

    I had so many people help me out along the way that the only way I can repay them is to do the exact same thing for others that they did for me. I always respond to every email or phone call asking for advice, feedback, whatever.

    So these tips are definitely right on, but I would also tell anyone out there to take a shot at contacting the writers you admire. The really good ones will welcome the chance to share.

  3. nice, I am going to try this.
    actually, I love pens and paper, eventhough I use them very less these days … but I still keep paper and pen next to me when I work. .. and they stay there since there is nothing I can do with them ..

    now, I have something new to try !! thank you !!

  4. Great post. Something similiar I’m doing because I started a blog and never had one before. I’m translating stuff to learn to write and better learn the stuff I find useful for me.

  5. What a great reminder! I find that when I truly need to remember something – typing along just won’t cut it. Like Dave, I have a notebook and pen handy for those “A-HA” moments and great copy that I happen to hear or read.

    If you practice his method often, you’ll be surprised how unusually good writing (that you might ordinarily not have even considered) will come to you as a result of jotting down those great headlines or copy pieces. It really does work!

  6. Brilliant post Dave! As anyone who’s ever been a teacher would know (notably my husband and daughter) the more sense you utilise, the more knowledge you imbibe. So reading aloud adds double value to reading silently (speaking and hearing what you’re seeing); copying it as well adds value again. But there is another dimension. Years ago I read Dorothea Brande’s Write Right – all about learning and reproducing creatively by osmosis – i.e. Right Brain.

    Thanks for this. I may well quote you (and link) in my next blog on Creative Writing.
    Mel Menzies, author of A Painful Post Mortem: a contemporary story of love and loss

  7. Dave,
    Before I noticed that this was your guest post, I thought “Hmm, I read this advice on Dave’s blog when he was talking about buying information products…” — and then I saw your bio at the end :).

    Really excellent, simple advice. I started using it after your first mention, and now I’m motivated to use it more regularly. Thanks for sharing here!

  8. Great thoughts, Dave.

    The act of actually moving your hand to the rhythm of someone else’s words really does do something profound to the brain.

    I like it, lots of possibilities here. Thanks.

  9. The more senses we engage when learning anything, the better. However, your advice is so direct one can touch it. I like that! Though I do not write for a living, I am very grateful to you for this advice.

  10. Great article, Dave. I started writing the whole thing out from the beginning. My experience includes getting a sense of writing flow that is different than I would write; looking at size of words and sentences within paragraphs. You’ve written more than I thought I would write. I’ve programmed my muscle memory to be as clear and concise as possible but I see how that doesn’t necessarily mean writing less, if that makes sense. There is a richness to the writing in this article that I hope to take to my next piece of writing. I’m pretty sure I would not have gleaned all of this from simply reading/scanning the article.
    Thanks.

  11. Dave,

    This is one of the smartest articles I’ve ever read. I love how it applies not just to copywriting, but any writing whatsoever. As a fiction writer I read other authors who write outside my genre to get my brain working in “different directions”, but I’ve never thought of actually writing down some of the paragraphs, phrases, or sentences they write to gain the same benefit.

    I also love that you emphasize copying the material by hand. This is so important! While I do the bulk of my writing on my laptop, I use a pen (to diminish the urge to edit) and paper when doing writing exercises.

    Thank you for the highly insightful and applicable advice.

  12. I’ve often heard this advice before but never properly explained why it works. Now, where’s my swipe file?

  13. @Ramkarthik –
    Looks like you’re one step ahead of me!

    @Dave Perks –
    Excellent point – I found out one of my copywriting heroes lives 30 minutes from me. Much more easily reachable than I’d imagined.

    @dinu –
    Glad to help. Come back and comment again with your results :-)

    @OptimalizaciaSEO –
    Repetition creates skill. Keep working it!

    @Sherice Jacob –
    Thanks for backing me up. :-)

    @Mel Menzies –
    I’ll have to check that book out, & thanks for the (upcoming) mention!

    @Zoe!
    Good to see you – and I’m glad to hear the tips are working for you (and apparently made an impression).

    @David Cain –
    Glad to help.

    @Chaska Peacock –
    Thanks for the kind words. :-)

  14. Another great post! Thanks, Dave!

  15. Fascinating post.

    I know a well-known copywriting course encourages—maybe requires—copywriting students to hand copy “world’s best” long-copy sales letter as part of the training.

    The course developers don’t explain why handwritten copying is recommended. Your muscle memory concept makes a lot sense.

    On a related side note, Waldorf and other early childhood educators feel there’s a connection between dexterity/hand strength and reading readiness/higher cognition.

    In Waldorf schools, children knit, model with clay and do other “handwork” before they learn to read—and reading is introduced later. More info: http://bit.ly/T6Gft

  16. Dave,
    Thanks for a great post on something that writers and teachers often overlook — the importance of the body in how we learn. I’ve recommended the “copy by hand” method for people who want to learn from their favorite literary writers. It also works when you’re stuck — copy a paragraph or two and it can switch on your word flow. Thanks for the inspiration!

  17. How refreshing to read something totally new to me and, something that makes total sense. Thank you so much for the information.

    Bill

  18. Great idea I’ll give it a try.

    I like writing things down. I use my sticky notes for some things but when I am writing my blog I like to make notes on paper. It helps me sort things out.

    I am pen pals with my grand daughter. We email sometimes but we write letters to each other. It is a fun way to collect data and watch her writing improve.

    Sheila

  19. This is some of the best advice I’ve ever read, and although I’ve read it before by others, I really like the way you explain it, Dave. Good stuff!

  20. Dave,
    Very informative post. I’ve been using this method for quite a while. I write by hand frequently; it helps to clarify. But never tried to analyze the process or explain what effect it had on my writing ability. You’ve managed to state it so well. The part about experiencing another writer’s way with words and creative processes is especially intriguing.

  21. One of the reasons I love this idea so much AND do it is that it indulges my love for fountain pens, feels great to watch the words or the images from as the ink flows out onto paper…if I haven’t written it myself or drawn it, I am not sure the knowledge is indeed mine.
    Excellent Dave.

  22. ( oops. Words or the images FORM ;-) )

  23. This is a very practical and useful article for one who is a complete newbie at copywring. Excellent suggestions Dave.

  24. Great article, Dave! I’ve found that writing things out by hand also helps me to remember better. If I’m giving a speech, for example, I’ll write my notes (vs typing them), and then rewrite them two or three times. Works wonders! :-)

  25. This is very cool! I’ve heard the advice to copy out “classic” sales copy before, but I like your take on it. Going through my emails archives now and bookmarking a few things to copy. :)

  26. Dave-

    I’ve often turned off my computer and started writing by hand when staring at the computer screen feels like it’s turning my brain to sludge. Something about physically picking up a pen and paper flicks a switch and makes it easier for me to think creatively again. (Of course, once it starts flowing too fast, I have to go back to the computer because my handwriting can’t keep up with my brain.)

    However, I hadn’t considered actually copying somebody else’s words. Thanks for the great advice! I’m definitely going to try it today.

    -Michelle

  27. This is very intriguing to say the least.

    I will definitely give it a try. I’ll do it over a period of time and see if I notice any benefit in my writing.

  28. Insightful post. Thanks for the tips. In the near future I will try my hand at copywriting.

  29. @MJ –
    I actually developed this technique hand-copyng fiction as a teenager to learn how to write more effectively. Nothing like writing out the first few pages of a great story to make you really understand how good fiction is written.

    @Matt Ambrose –
    Go to my website, there’s plenty of good swipe there!

    @Lorraine –
    I think the Waldorf folks are dead-on right about that. :-)

    @Darlene –
    Glad to inspire, and thanks for the kind words.

    @Bill Beavers –
    same as above. Thanks. :-)

    @Sheila –
    Come back and let us know how it worked for you!

    @Michael Martine –
    Glad you liked, and thanks for dropping by! Means a lot.

    @Nancy Hinchliff –
    Glad to help put some explanation behind it for you – any time I can intrigue, thats a good thing.

    @Janice –
    You need to get with Sonia Simone and talk fountain pens. She’sgot it baaaaad for the good stuff. :-)

    @Zee Visram –
    glad you enjoyed – and don’t stay newbie for long, get that pen an paper out and use it!

    @Bonnie –
    There’s a definite, “feelable” difference between writing and typing that just can’t be denied.

    @Sonia Simone –
    You know, I wrote this just so you and Bonnie could break out the fountain pens.

    @Michelle –
    That’s the big advantage of keyboards – helps you capture things as fast as you can think them – but there will always be a place for writing by hand.

    @Bamboo Forest – PunIntended –
    Check back in and let us know how it goes. :-)

    @Michelle Kafka –
    Same as above!

  30. Dave,

    I didn’t realize how important this was until I ran out of paper the other day. Whenever I have an idea or see something that catches my eye (like a good headline), I grab my notepad and write it down. I developed the habit as a police officer taking notes. Now it’s transformed into an important part of my blogging.

    I ran out of paper the other day and used my iPhone to jot my notes. I do that on occassion anyway, but this time it felt different. Using my phone to take a note seemed unnatural and almost inhuman. I longed for a good pen.

    Anyhow. I think anytime you break free from a mold that you’ve created (that muscle memory), and do things from a different experience, you’re bound to learn something new.

    Great idea!

  31. This is the first time I’ve ever commented on a CopyBlogger piece (despite reading them off and on for over a year) and I just wanted to say thanks very much for it – a great idea and one I’ll certainly try.

    I’m afraid I only made it half way through paragraph two before my hand started to ache (shows how often I write – I always touch type, I’m afraid). Even in that time, I found it interesting to see where I had to slow down, or where I made a mistake, because they weren’t words I would use or you used them in a slightly unexpected way.

    As a part-time marketeer, rather than a copywriter, I don’t spend all day writing and I definitely don’t have lots of spare time – but this is definitely an idea that I’ll try to use again.

    Thanks again.

  32. When I first started out in copywriting over 5 years ago, I came across 2 suggestions that have since helped me build my copywriting skills and churn out successful copy: 1) copy in long hand any marketing piece that hits you and 2) keep a swipe file of any marketing piece that hits you. Since then, I have made myself a better writer by keeping a swipe file and copying down in longhand any headline, body, caption anything that strikes me as superior copywriting. I still have those files and I keep referring to them occasionally.

    This is one swell idea copywriters can benefit from!

  33. I was actually practicing the same, but wondering if this really works, but after reading this post I am satisfied I was doing the right thing and will continue the practice….

  34. @Eric Lowery –
    Thanks for the kind words (and keep more paper on hand – agree with the iphone, I can’t use it for notes!)

    @asne –
    Glad to pull you out of “lurking” mode. Even doing a paragraph at a time every once in a while will give that creative side a jump-start.

    @Vishal Nayak –
    Thanks for backing me up :-)

    @Khurram Z –
    Keep it going – it just plain works.

  35. this is site is another heaven all together thank you for given we newbie hope to write better.

  36. this site is heaven on earth especially we newbies on the internet world. thank you for everthing.

  37. Very nice, Thankyou! Now I am going to try this!

  38. Hi Dave,

    This is something I used to do all the time when I was first learning how to write for a living (as opposed to school or for fun). Thanks for reminding me.

  39. Great Post Dave. Thank You.

  40. Dave – Thanks for reminding me, it seems one can never stop learning: after reading your post and commenting on it yesterday I went ahead and indulged in some long-hand copying of some good pieces of copywriting. Haven’t done it in a while so the experience was double joy.

  41. Hi Dave,

    I’m not a writer, but I am very much inspired on this 1st article I read from your blog. I think the old ways still really works and it will always be a great foundation. Your advice does much improvement in designing a logo or a brand. Pen/pencil and paper is a way of setting your mind free and do things instinctively. Computers are just another tool to make everything fast and smooth.

    Thank you for sharing this advice and I’m so glad that I have given myself a chance to read your post from the my very first visit. I’ll definitely read more and add you on my links/network.

    Regards,
    Ron

  42. Fantastic post Dave. Time to get my notebook out I feel

  43. There is no doubt that your all posts are really informative and giving us a new way to think and progress.

  44. Thanks Dave !

    I followed what you suggested – copied some parts of what you have written by hand. While I have been in the habit of scribbling things down, I always was in two minds as to whether that was a right way even though it did give me a high. Now I shall follow it religiously.

  45. Woah – I’ve done this with presentations, but never with writing before. It feels like learning!

    Other things worth trying in the same vein are finding a sentence you like, and writing a different sentence with the same number of words/syllables – good for stretching your range with rhythm.

    Thanks for the exercise – for once I did it…

    (Hmmm, something in there about making the benefits obvious and making it easy to implement…)

    Good work!

  46. Every writer at any skill level should carry a notebook and pencil everywhere. Walk with that book, drive with that book, sleep with that book so that ideas may be captured immediately.

    Saying the words aloud as you write them imprints the ideas deeper into your mind.

    This routine is easily forgotten, yet easily applied.

  47. Hi,

    I was listening to a podcast of a talk by Joseph O’Connor this morning – he discusses a similar technique. Joseph O’Connor is the author of some books I really like including Star of the Sea, Cowboys and Indians and Redemption Falls.

    He tells how he started writing, as a teenager, by copying out a short story by John McGahern. The next day he copied out the same story but changed some of the names. He carries on doing this, making incremental changes ‘every kind of week or so over a couple years’.

    The story becomes more O’Connor’s than McGahern’s and eventually gets published, although McGahern tells O’Connor that he owes him ‘a few pints’.

    The transcript of the talk is at Joseph O’Connor and Colum McCann Transcript – search for McGahern for this segment. Mr O’Connor tells it much better than I can!

    The podcast is at Joseph O’Connor and Colum McCann podcast – you need to fast forward through the first couple of minutes, because the intro hasn’t been picked up on the microphones. It’s an interesting discussion.

  48. Dave,

    Great. There’s a huge precedent for this in fiction as well, as there are many stories of great writers “copying” or retyping the works of those they most respected (Hemingway especially — no mistake that he was someone who used his words meaningfully like a good copywriter).

  49. I read a story somewhere (it might have been in Alberto Manguel’s “A History of Reading”) about a fella who sat down in the library and started copying Don Quixote word by word in his own handwriting.

    After days of this, the librarian asked why the guy was doing this.

    He said something to the effect of, “I have always wanted to write Don Quixote”.

    Nifty post.

  50. JMarkson’s comment made me remember that my friend hand-copied some of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. At the time my friend was a staff writer on Comedy Central–he wanted to better understand Toole’s brilliant comedic structure.

  51. Thanks for this great idea.

    When I feel my writing getting a bit stale or I can’t find the right words, I will read a book written in a very different style then my own. Ususally Dickens or a business book. That seems to exercise an unused mental muscle for me.

    But I will try hand writing as you suggested. I have a notebook that I use to jot down ideas for future posts. I look forward to the results.

  52. If you can get an e-version, cut and paste into word processor, double space the lines, copy five tuimes in a row, and you have an excellent training sheet to write on.

    ;)

  53. Great post. Something similiar I’m doing because I started a blog and never had one before. I’m translating stuff to learn to write and better learn the stuff I find useful for me.

  54. I’ve just recently started bumping into this as I try to hone my copywriting (and writing) skills, and it feels so old school, but if it works, it works. Even Gary Halbert, the great copywriter himself, said that if you could only do one thing to improve your copywriting chops, it would be to write out the best ads long-hand.

    Cheers Dave!

  55. Deremiah *CPE :

    Well put Dave!

    I discovered this technique when I read about a 12 year old who revealed this same powerful lesson in his own life. The problem is that most people sometimes fail to engage at a higher level of understanding…lacking the skills to ask observational questions as they examine their world with absolutely more CONCENTRATION. What you’re really asking us all to do is PAY CLOSER ATTENTION…LOLLL…as we do that we will SEE more than we have ever seen before. I’ll stop here…but THANKS for enlightening your audience. I just stumbled across this page in my research and took out time to read what you had to say because I wanted to make sure it was relevant…and it was! KEEP SMILING…I love you.

    Lovingly loving you Deremiah *CPE