The Secret of The Successful Copywriter

image of don at the bar

A copywriter was struggling deeply with his business.

He was getting clients and jobs, but his words weren’t making sales, and his clients rarely called him back.

A friend of his — who had taken up the trade much later than he had — was doing surprisingly well.

The friend was writing for the web, for print, and for radio in several different markets, and was beginning to make a killing.

Clients were raving about his skills, and the results that his words were bringing in.

“I’m in trouble here, I need to know your secret. Can you meet?” the copywriter said.

“Of course,” the friend said.

The next day they were sitting at a downtown bar.

The struggling copywriter laid out his problems, one after the other, stopping only to work on his gin and tonic.

“I’m grinding twelve hours a day, doing an incredible amount of research, writing and rewriting drafts until I can’t see, but it’s just not coming together. They run my stuff and nothing happens.”

“Uh-huh,” the friend said.

“Then they don’t call back, they never call back.”


The copywriter handed his friend a few examples of his recent work, and he looked them over casually, line by line.

“Well, what’s wrong with it?”

“Nothing’s wrong with it, it’s all good copy.”


“It’s good. Far as I can see, you’re doing everything right,” the friend said.

“Well then, what’s the difference between my stuff and yours? Why are you selling?”

The friend paused for a moment.

You’re looking everywhere, but you’re seeing nothing.”

“I don’t get it, what is that, some kind of Zen crap?” The copywriter took another drink.

“Take a look around this bar.”

The struggling copywriter scanned the place, then looked back to his friend, anxious for an answer.

“How many salt shakers did you see?” the friend asked.

“Uh … I don’t know, I … wasn’t really looking for those.”

“Look again.”

The copywriter looked around the bar again, this time seeing salt shakers everywhere.

“Now that I’ve told you what to look for, the place is full of them, right?”

“Sure, sure, but what’s the point?”

“You’ve been looking at everything, but seeing nothing. All your research, rewrites, and interviews are necessary and good, but it all falls flat because you don’t know what you’re really looking for or trying to accomplish,” his friend said.

The struggling copywriter stared into his glass.

“Don’t worry, I’ll pick up the tab. Think this through and you’ll be paying it next time.”

The moral of the story

With apologies to legendary copywriter Gary Bencivenga, who said “…intention facilitates perception.

You’ve been looking at the entire bar. We all have.

When you decide to narrow your focus on the salt shakers alone (in other words — your reader’s needs, the headline, the hook, the call to action), that limited view will open you up to an entire world of “salt shakers,” and cause your writing and content marketing to become powerfully persuasive.

After you’ve gotten everything you need from the salt shakers, move on to the tumblers, and then the silverware, and then …

Focus on one thing at a time.

Then, focus on the next thing.

About the Author: Robert Bruce is Copyblogger Media’s Chief Copywriter and Resident Recluse.

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  1. Focus is all the more important when writing for search – you need to focus on your reader’s needs in the context of a particular keyword or group of keywords. Hopefully your post will rank highly for “salt shakers” :-)

  2. Thank-you for the best advise for the end of year sign-off!

  3. Never has a bar with salt shakers been so interesting :)
    Writing for someone, rather that everyone makes the world of difference.

    • I agree! I’ve been trying to sharpen up my copy writing skills lately because it’s been a very frequent request from our landing page design customers recently and this article really helped me understand the best way to write for a niche audience. Thanks copyblogger!

  4. Great post… I like the way it reads like a short story and uses dialogue to get the message across. Very effective.

  5. Wow, this has to be the best story I ever read on doing one thing at time, and doing it well! Hmm focus on one thing at a time….

  6. Great job of reinforcing how story works to pull in the reader, keeping one fully engaged until the final line!

  7. As always you make it sound so easy and I love the way you set your advice within a story. Of to find my wine glassess now!

  8. Seems like a hard job best suited for a jurnalist …

  9. With all the distractions of modern life, it has become increasingly difficult to focus. I love what Steve Jobs said about success. It was the thousand things they didn’t do that made them successful. So true!

  10. sounds like some Bruce Lee mantra – good advice none the less

  11. In today’s hectic world it is hard to stop, take a step back and get the FULL perspective. But like you said, it is vitally important. Thanks for the reminder

  12. This post was as smooth as a good gin. Nice.

  13. A nice way to convey your point.

  14. Just on time. Just perfect. Thanks for the wonderful write-up. Most of the time I end up in similar situation. Researching a lot and writing less, trying to do so many things and end up in doing nothing.

  15. Great story. When it comes to marketing there is no way to be everything to everyone. It’s important to segment your target audience and create content that is catered specifically to their needs. Trying to please everyone will never work.

  16. Love the example of the salt shakers , I guess it applies most form of marketing. You need to take a step back and just look that little bit closer. You will notice all of them, or acquire all of them, but once you have them in your site, you know exactly how to approach them.

  17. Its interesting that alot of articles have been coming up recently on repostioning and be focused,There are a few keys that are important to successs as being focused is,Just keep at what you want to do and you will hit the landmark,Look for a particular need of your readers to meet,Keep at it.Simple but important post.

  18. Good advice, but I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t quite get how to implement it. If you were looking at a “flat” piece of copy (like the kind from the first copywriter in your story), how would you actually use this advice to revise and improve the text? (Thinking out loud here – if anyone has any tips on how to apply this advice to bad copy, I’d love to hear them!)

    • Good question Sarah.

      One example would be building headlines.

      You start with the proven structures that work, then you brutally focus and break it down further based on:

      1. Who you’re talking to
      2. What you’re selling (idea or product)
      3. The context in which the headline appears

      I’ll write between 5 and 7 headlines for any given piece. I know some who go to 15, 20, or more before settling on the “right” one.

      In one sense, you never know how successful a headline will be until you publish and test it.

      So, in this example, really work on the headline, really think it through to the very end of what you’re trying to say, then move on to the next bit.

      Works for copywriting, works for just about anything in life.

      • Interesting idea to use a headline structure to find the right angle for your copy… Or did I misunderstand?

        I’ve used this method (read the last sentence to get the full idea…):

        Find out what’s the most important problem (for your audience) that you can solve. AND find out what’s the most important problem for your audience in their entire life (even if you can’t solve it). You do this with – the always very sexy – research 😉

        Then you look for specifics about the product you’re selling, that are unique to you (or that no one else is advertising).

        And finally you look for ways to tie the problem you can solve, to the most important problem (of your audience’s life), with that unique thing.

        Note: You might not be able to use the first idea. Or the seventh idea. Or even the first problems/unique aspects that you come up with. But this “method” always gives you some insight into what could be the winning angle for your copy. And then it’s about – also very media sexy – testing, to see what works best 😉

  19. Excellent post — I felt my heart pounding — I needed to know! Always keep your eye on the consumer and the salt shaker. Love it.

  20. What an excellent illustration Robert. While reading this I could easily visualize the interaction between the characters as well as the environment in which they were interacting. When the struggling copywriter saw the salt shakers, for me it was as if I was seeing them myself and your point hit home at that very moment. Thanks for this great article. I’m heading to your blog to check out some more of your work.

  21. The challenge is that if your focus is too narrow, people may still not find you. Getting in front of the right audience or getting to the right recommended area is a real challenge. And when you are not being read you doubt and doubt makes your writing slip in some cases.
    The story of the salt shakers brings this point home so well. Thanks for the share.

    • If people aren’t reading your words, you need to focus on one thing that will make you more visible (commenting on other folks’ blogs, using hashtags on Twitter and conversing there, etc.)

  22. Thanks for a great post; just what I needed this week!
    That being said, a great follow up would be HOW to conceive this focus…
    When the boss/client vaguely instructs you to write copy about the bar, how do you know to write about the salt shakers?

  23. Interesting post. I think it hit the proverbial nail on the head. Many can and do write good copy, but with a lack of focus it all falls flat.

  24. Fantastic post – parables are such a great way to get a complex point across, because although they can seem disarmingly simple, they don’t actually simplify things, they just communicate the point at a deeper level – and the story helps the message to sink in and stick. I’ll carry this one with me and chew on it for a long time to come – thank you!

  25. This is so true. When you’re trying to improve at anything, you need to focus on one thing at a time.

  26. Thank you for giving me something to think about.

    After reading this, I feel like I need to focus more of my energy towards figuring out who I am writing for and what kind of headlines they would like to see.

  27. Without reading any of the comments, I’d expect we’re all looking for and appreciating salt shakers a lot more now. Thanks, Robert, for a great post on focus :)

  28. Haha, well done.

    Story telling + being insightful = winning.

    Someone clarify this but . . . I learned in science class that multi-tasking is actually not possible or a real thing that goes on in the brain.

    This even applies to my writing. I would focus on too many little things. Instead . . . just write. Start somewhere even if it feels wrong or weak — just do it.

    Love this post, and also love it because you used a Mad Men picture. A++ for that.

  29. I really enjoyed your post. It does make sense. Kinda like thinking about buying a certain make of vehicle, all of the sudden, you see them everywhere! Many good tips and things to consider for future writing! Thanks so much!

  30. Brilliant.

    And I love salt. With everything.

  31. Nice story, Robert. Well said.

    I still think about and refer to John Carlton’s story about his first day at work for Gary. The one where everything started to go wrong at the beginning of the day and John was about to leave Gary to all the mess, but Gary wasn’t having it. He escorted the secretaries out the door, shut and locked it to do what they were supposed to do, write the copy. Then later after they were finished, everything was just fine.

    I’ll have to refer to this story you wrote when I see someone who is having trouble focusing on their client’s needs. Thanks!

  32. Robert I love that you’re a hammer in the tool kit – you always get it on the head in one hit.
    i’d love to hear your take on benefits. + digging deep to the emotional roots of consumer need –
    Love that your words are always helpful.

  33. How many times have we heard this but we never take the advice? We all want to jump in and be everything to everybody and expect huge results. We overlook what is sitting right in front of us, salt shakers.

    I think I see them now.


  34. It’s more about focusing on the market, rather than focusing inside. Just go ahead and think it through!

  35. The hook catches everything. Brevity is beautiful. That’s it. Simple.

  36. I love the series. What I don’t like though, is the ever-present cheating husband scene.

  37. I am always learning about the best ways to write material for my websites and this adds to my copywriting toolbox.

  38. Happy to know about successful copy writing, I will implement those on my website copy writing. Thanks for you support.

  39. This is a very valid point and it actually makes the difference between winning and losing. Most people seem to lose their focus which should actually be the customer and not the product. This is the actual difference. If a copywriter loses sight of his audience and concentrate on the products people will also lose overlook him.

  40. It’s all about seeing (or not seeing) the wood for the trees. An old metaphor but still soooo relevant and beautifully illustrated by our Robert, here.

    In fact there’s another metaphor that I recall from my early days as a copywriter which is, “there’s no point just selling the sausage – you need to sell the SIZZLE in the sausage.”

    Still true, too!

  41. I really dig your story. Usually I bookmark my favorite stuff here and come back to it for a refresher, but this one is so simple and concise that it will stick with me =)

  42. Not gonna lie: Copyblogger got me so intrigued in Mad Men that I went out and bought the first season because of this blog. I wasn’t disappointed.

  43. Excellent post. It’s just reminded to remain focused to my audience and be more creative at the same time.

  44. The “don’t call us, we’ll call you” or no response to email inquiries can be discouraging but keep trying with focus to create compelling material to offer to the audience.