Conversations with Parrots and the
Dangers of a Swipe File

Parrot

Ever try talking with a parrot?

It seems like any time anyone comes across a parrot, they try to strike up a conversation to see if the bird will talk back. And it can be quite amusing when they do.

For a bit.

The problem with conversing with a parrot is that the bird has no idea what its actually saying, or why its saying it. Parrots have no clue about context, and therefore make for bad conversation. The truth is, no one really wants to speak with a parrot.

But you knew that.

What does this have to do with copywriting, you ask?

Many famous copywriting experts recommend you keep a “swipe file.”

A swipe file is simply a folder, real or electronic, containing examples of good copy. You might save a collection of killer headlines, several examples of powerful openings, a funny turn of phrase, a powerful call to action, and so on.

Later when you are stuck, you can turn to your swipe file for inspiration.

Sound good?

Swipe files are good. Excellent, in fact. Learning what works from masters in your field is a wise thing to do. Successful people from Isaac Newton to Tiger Woods would agree.

Why then have I put “dangers” in the headline of this post?

There is a real difference between modeling success and trying to mindlessly copy approaches that have worked before. “Monkey see, monkey do” has only limited value for both parrots and copywriters.

Yes, absolutely take inspiration from your swipe file. You should definitely learn and understand why something worked in the past, all while taking into account the context in which it worked. That context will determine how much of the original copy will be transferable to your situation.

But keep in mind that each and every successful headline, email campaign and sales letter had a huge amount of thought and strategy behind it. The author will have understood the wants and needs of the target audience. They will have written according to how their prospects needed to be approached.

If the motivations of your readers do not match up, even the most brilliant copy and paste job isn’t going to cut it. Do yourself a favor and use a swipe file to better understand the art of copywriting.

But remember… no one really wants to speak with a parrot.

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Comments

  1. Chris,

    I love the parrot analogy, I think it works great for this article.

    Personally, I don’t like to use swipe files all that much. As you mentioned, they can be excellent for inspiration; however, I still think they are way over-relied on.

    These days everyone is bombarded with advertising and copy. It can really help to be a bit different.

    Anyhow, what do you guys think about using a competitor’s copy for inspiration? (provided it’s strictly inspiration and not copyright infringement)

    I think there is a lot to be learned, good and bad, from the competition. And it’s always relevant to your field.

  2. You can and should *learn* from any leader, competitor or not. Copying I would never advise. Alas I can’t take credit for the parrot, that was Brian’s idea :)

  3. The idea of a swipe file is an excellent one that I had not heard of. Thanks so much for that great tip, Chris!

  4. Glad to be of service :)

  5. This was a great post.

    What I liked about it was the structure of it! You sucked me in with a very short intriguing question. Then you wrote VERY short paragraphs so that I wouldn’t be overwhelmed.

    After that, you broke it up with a couple of short sentences. At this point, I was committed to reading the whole post.

    Man, I really need to get better at doing that!

    Thanks!

  6. Great words of warning, and very timely after getting a feed from copywriting.com on why and how to keep a swipe file. Nice to know how to USE the swipe file correctly. Keep it up!

  7. This is an excellent idea, I’m going to create a swipe file.

    Chris – Your blog is quickly becoming my favorite, and I visit many on a daily basis. Thank you for all of your wonderful content and insight.

  8. Chris–thanks for the great article.

    Sometimes I feel repetitive just by the very nature of a blog. I’m a new blog, and I’ve avoided it so far, but how many times can you write about one well-focused topic.

    I haven’t checked, but I imagine that you’ve covered certain topics over and over again–variations on a theme, that is.

    What’s the balance there? We’re writing blogs, so there’s a lot of turnover (need to revisit same subjects again) but you want to be interesting to your regular readers too.

    Does that make sense?

    -Chuck
    http://www.ihateyourjob.com

  9. I’ve actually done this for awhile now, but I didn’t know it was called a swipe file.

    Einstein once said, “The secret of creativity is knowing how to hide your sources” … and I just pulled that from my ‘swipe’ file :)

  10. Great interest grabber. Simple structure. Outstanding pacing and leading. That folks is how it’s done.

    Tear this article apart by purpose of each paragraph, especially before the “meat”, and you can see how easy it is to write articles that engages the reader.

    An example is to break it down by how the author paces and leads the reader:

    “Ever try talking with a parrot?”

    Questions “force” the reader to “participate” through mental discovery about the question asked. They are a way that an author can LEAD the reader into thought patterns, images, experiences, etc. he wants you to have or remember.

    Rather than just telling readers the upsides and downsides of swipe files…he does it by associating the images, thoughts, memories he “asked” the reader to create to the point being made. In this case the thoughts are of talking to a parrot.

    So After the initial question he paces then leads with another question to direct thought towards the subject matter. Then keeps pacing and leading to where he is associating the talking parrot with swipe files (the danges of). Doing this creates a strong impact with the reader as well as creates a stronger understanding of what is being said. Much better than just saying don’t use a swipe file to be a copycat.

    It is simple yet brilliant.

    I am now adding this article structure to my article swipe file ;)

  11. Excellent work! Thanks for the tips on Technorati, and the great, tactical ideas for better writing on my blog.

  12. What fun! I turned to the swipefile classics, so that I could sound exactly like the dreaded parrot! For grins:

    “They laughed when I talked to the parrot…but when they heard him squawk!”

    “Who else wants to talk to the parrot?”

    “Are you ashamed of the relationship you have with your parrot?”

    “Wanna buy a parrot?”

    Oh, well — it’s Friday… thanks for the smiles!

  13. I must admit that I am very new to the world of copywriting. And so, I often find myself visiting this blog for tips and advice. So far, it has been fantastic.

    Now, on to my question.

    While I see the clear benefits of collecting examples of copy that have done well, I wonder, how does one go about sorting the wheat from the chaffee? Put simply, without having participated in these campaigns, how are we to judge whether they have been truly successful rather than simply looking good or being clever?

  14. Chris:

    Great stuff about the swipe file and agree completely. Too many cw’s use them as a crutch instead of as a kick in the butt. Been using them for years, but only when I needed a good butt kicking.

    BTW, I disagree with you about parrots not knowing the context of what they say. I had an African Gray parrot named Caesar for many years. This bird would be on top of his cage several rooms away from my kitchen, but whenever he would smell the coffee I had just poured he would fly into the kitchen sit on his perch and say “Drinkin’ coffee?” And that’s the truth.

  15. Hi Chris.

    You are right about keeping a swipe file. I don’t keep a file per-se, but I do save the good links whenever I stumble upon them. Sometimes I don’t agree with them and sometimes I end up agreeing with them professionally even though personally I don’t agree with them. They teach a lot, and they are great triggers of ideas.

  16. Barry, that’s an interesting story about your parrot. I guess the longer you live with them the more they pick up.

    Of course I have a similar Pavlovian response to the smell of coffee in the morning, and I can assure you I’m brain dead before I actually get any. :)

  17. I’ve often found it helpful to try an exercise of mimicking writers I admire. Start with something you have written and rewrite it in the style of two or three of your favorite writers. It not only helps create a better sense of “voice” recognition, but it helps you learn how not to write like the parrot.

    Great post.

  18. Is there any chance of you letting your readers have a copy of your swipe file. I could sure use some inspiration for creating some better headlines.

  19. It’s not my place, but I just can’t keep my mouth shut.

    Good swipe files can take years to acquire. They can fill filing cabinets and are sorted by topic, effectiveness, ad ‘agency, etc.

    Why in the world would you ask someone for what’s probably taken them years to put together? To just “let your readers have a copy of your swipe file.”

    So that you don’t have to put the work in. . .

    ‘A copy of your swipe file.’ Sheesh.

    Okay, now that I’ve vented a bit (and had my third cup of coffee), I apologize for the rant. I suppose we all want the easy way out if we can find it.

    So this may help…I just started a ‘swipe file’ of sorts on my blog. It may not be exactly what you’re looking for, but it’s informative, it’s free, and you don’t have to ask me for it…it’s just there.

    I know, I know. . .you don’t have to thank me now. But I sure would like it if you’d post some comments there.

    -Barry
    theadwriter.wordpress.com

  20. Brian…

    Getting back to my parrot for a moment…

    He gave me a headling once. He really did!

    Whenever he’d see me start to prepare my coffee in the morning, or any time of day, he’d say, and this is the truth, he’d say “Makin’ coffee?”

    Okay, I added the question mark, but he’d say it with a questioning inflection in his voice.

    Anyway, I once used “Makin’ Coffee?” as the headline for the grand opening of a coffee boutique in a local shopping mall a few years back.

    It was a very successful grand opening.

    Sure wish I still had that bird…

  21. Oops sorry Chris…didn’t mean to call you Brian.

  22. Just don’t let your swipe file get out of control. You may end up needing to buy a second home!

  23. Really getting to know your prospect is the greatest key to writing copy that sells.

    And to really use a swipe file effectively you should do your research and find out who the prospect were who read the original ad…what were their hopes and dreams?

    What was their background?

    What was going on at the time in the market, the world and the economy that would effect their buying decisions.

    Kindest regards,
    Andrew Cavanagh

  24. Should I be worried. My parrot has been talking back to me.
    m

  25. Yes, you should be worried…VERY worried.

    Actually, it all depends on whether his beak is contorted into a kind of smile when it says it. But watch it’s eyes. If they become tiny little pinpoints, get out of there fast…and don’t look back.

    Getting back to swipe files, Chris hit the nail right on the flat part of the head…

    I probably have close to a thousand ads in my swipe files and they’re all filed by category. If I’m working on an automotive ad, I immediately get the automotive swipes out and look through them.

    But it’s not so much to get specific ideas from these ads, but to get the creative juices flowing again in the right direction. Especially if I just finished a lingerie promo and am now doing one for a car dealer…I need to change gears…and fast.

    -Barry
    http://www.adwriter.org.wordpress
    (please note the change of URL)

  26. Way to encourage originality! I try to use my “swipe file” (google notes + a temp folder on my bookmarks toolbar) more for inspiration and learning from others than as a direct source of ideas for content.

    I also put my own ideas down as I think of them–they may be headlines I dreamed up without an accompanying article, stories that need fleshing out, or the first two items of a list that may be worth completing for an article.

  27. Err.., You need a parrot update. Over the past 2 decades there had been a suspicion that parrots do understand stuff. Over the last 2 years, it has been proven beyond doubt that they can not only express themselves but also create words that need some brainwork by us – top hominids, to put meaning to. To parrots, of course, the new words and its syntax is but obvious.
    Alex is the name of the top research parrot and he’s looking for us hominids to give him banerries.

  28. Funny to see Barry Gluck talking about swiping… and how others use it as a crutch. Funny because I just caught him using my copy, word for word on his own copywriting services site.

    Literally took entire hunks of my own words… concepts of copywriting I created and named… and even stole quotes from Joe Sugarman and Michel Fortin, I (an ethical copywriter) got permission to use.

    When I contacted Barry, he was taken aback. He couldn’t understand my problem with his thievery.

    Funny how people sometimes talk like they know something… when in fact they’re just posers.

    I mean, a copywriter using another copywriter’s words to sell himself as the guy who should write YOUR copy? How many layers of irony are in that?

    Barry Gluck is a hack who can’t even write his own words.

    He’s finally taken my words off his site, but still… the scummiest copywriter I’ve ever heard of.

  29. Using a swipe file this is an interesting concept that can be very useful.