The #1 Secret to Writing Great Copy Is . . .

Copywriting 101

Using words that work with the people you’re trying to persuade.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Study and draw inspiration from great copy that works.

I’m not talking about copy that you personally think is great. It’s a mistake to judge advertising like regular people do – as entertainment. Madison Avenue has a great gig producing short entertainment pieces called commercials that often don’t sell much of anything.

I’m talking about drawing inspiration from advertising copy that has demonstrated its effectiveness by actually working as intended. Like a direct mail piece that has raked in millions and millions of dollars in sales.

Why Professional Copywriters Use Swipe Files

A copywriting “swipe file” is a collection of winning ads. Sales letters, space ads, headline collections, plus bits and pieces of copy that have been marketplace proven to make big money. A carefully collected swipe file is the essential starting point for most new copywriting campaigns.

It’s a bit like why lawyers begin with a basic form when drafting a new legal document, or why web designers start with a basic code structure. Start with something solid, and customize from there.

The problem with the swipe file approach is context. Many new and inexperienced writers (and often many pros) will miss the mark when trying to adapt past copy to a new situation.

Yep . . . the winning formula becomes a bust when inappropriately applied.

The Art of Listening

Luckily, we’ve got an impressive set of new tools that will let us uncover the context, right down to the very language our prospects are using.

Most marketers make the mistake of thinking social media is a tool for talking. For distributing a message far and wide, and measuring the response that comes back.

And it’s true that the internet is a direct response playground. Marketers haven’t had this clear a picture of their buyers since the days of the bazaar.

But the social web is also the most powerful market research tool you’ll ever use.

Sites like Twitter and FaceBook can tell you the exact words your prospects are using to describe their wishes, hopes, fears, worries, and dissatisfactions. And the words people use when searching for information makes keyword research a goldmine that goes way beyond SEO.

Email marketing and blogs allow your prospects to engage you in a conversation, to tell you what they want and how they want it, and just as important, to demonstrate what they respond to.

The Right Words, in the Right Context

The swipe file still has a place, and smart copywriters still maintain them. (Though they may have more headlines from Google Adwords than from direct mail these days.)

But the most effective copywriters also remember that classic piece of wisdom from Grandma:

You have two ears and one mouth. Listen twice as much as you talk.

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger and CEO of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Brian on Twitter and Google+.

Print Friendly

What do you want to learn?

Click to get a free course and resources about:

Reader Comments (36)

  1. Sam says

    Interesting, I never thought about reading stuff you see all the time. I read sales stuff that’s new or interesting to me, but I guess I don’t know if it’s really good or not, based on the “working” criteria.

  2. says

    Great post. I wish everyone could read this before they stray into any new copyrighting venture.

    Your point about Ad Agencies are well taken. Some – are more interested in winning “Cleo’s” and not concerned about selling product.

    The perfect example of that is the Taco Bell commercial of old. Cute – somewhat funny – but not much – in terms of sales for the franchise..

    A quote from The Fast Company Weblog:

    “Sometimes a bad idea is only a bad idea because it was in the wrong universe.

    Who didn’t love the Taco Bell dog, and who hasn’t at one point or another uttered the phrase “Yo quiero Taco Bell”?

    “Seemed like a great idea for generating brand awareness. The problem? It didn’t sell very many tacos. Few things are less appetizing than a dog selling food. After all, dogs will eat anything.

    Maybe that would have been a good idea in the world of dog food. You quiero Milk Bones. Well, maybe not, but you get the idea.”

    And I have to say – that since Taco Bell has introduced their new “Fourth Meal” and “fullness from a value meal”
    campaign – I have scoffed down more than my share of their product.

    Up until that time – I was not a big fan. When they started introducing me to their new products I was sold. Their emphasis on value was also a hook..

    Another good example of a product sold via the broadcast media that created a popular buzz is Mentos – “The Fresh Maker.” No recognizable personalities, actors – or pop singers from a Pro-Active commercial (LOL!).

    Just the message that if you run into one of life’s conundrums – pop some Mentos – and you automatically find a solution to your current problem. The theme song was cheesy – and commercial – even more so.

    But – it worked. That roll of candy mints was always front and center. I could not identify an actor from any of the those commercials if you asked me to pick them out of line up.

    The campaign ran for a long time – testament to it’s ability to increase sales. I want that ad agency working for me – whoever they are!

    I guess my point here is (albeit a lengthy one) is that while most of us can’t afford million dollar TV Ad campaigns – there are some lessons that can be translated to writing good advertising copy for your direct mail campaign, website, or blog.

    Some of these might be obvious – and have been mentioned here already – but, they are work repeating. Most of them took me a long time to learn – and I am still learning!

    1) When writing about your product or service – emphasis the benefits. A lot of people try to explain how great their product is – without telling about what it can do for their customers. Make the product front and center.

    Think about incorporating some questions from the old Journalism mantra when you are writing ad copy:


    Who is my target market?
    What are my competitors strengths?
    When do they change their ad copy?
    Where are they advertising?
    How is my product better?
    Why do they want my product?

    2) Collect a number of websites – or advertisements that are related to your product niche. Create a file and save them for future reference and ideas.

    If they are websites – boomark them. Also, ask yourself what it is that makes you buy a product?

    What are the “emotional” triggers that made you get out your credit card – or write a check.

    3) Create romance or an exclusive auora around your product, i.e., the reference to Native Texas Pecan Cakes in this post.

    The king of this type of advertising is
    J. Peterman – quote:

    “People want things that are hard to find. Things that have romance, but a factual romance, about them.”


    J. Peterman..

    SIDENOTE..Putting a video or audio clip on your website can help with sales. If you can craft a good sales message – or produce a good video that clearly explains your product or service – it does add credibility. However – you do have to split test to know whether or not it is actually increasing your sales.

    There are many other things that I could suggest – but I think I am starting to ramble. Just thought I would add my 1 1/2 cents!


  3. says

    This is a great question. No one copywriting technique is going to conclusively work for every single market you write for. What it essentially comes down to is knowing your market and tailoring a persuasive, believable message for that market with an offer that outclasses your competition. After that, that’s when all the little copywriting tricks of the trade come into play.

  4. says

    thanks for the article. I’m writing an ebook, and have found the information you present really useful for selling information. thanks again, adam

  5. says

    That is so funny, I didn’t realize they had a term for that: “swipe file”. I use copyblogger as my swipe file. I’ve never seen so many click happy headlines on one blog in all my life.

  6. says

    Excellant Article

    Good copy is all about creating active, vivid prose that flows with natural rhythm.

    Top Tip…Don’t write anything…
    … unless you know the following:
    Exactly why you’re writing it.
    What you want to get across.
    Who is going to read it.

    The Killer headline follows the copy in my book

  7. Jared says

    Thanks for the fantastic article series. I thought you might be interested in knowing the origins of the “classic piece of wisdom from Grandma” though. It’s actually a paraphrased fragment from The Golden Sayings of Epictetus:

    Nature hath given men one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.

  8. says

    Thank you for this article. It made sense really. Most people think that twitter is all about telling the world what they are doing. But very few listens. And those who listen will surely have something to contribute to the conversation.

  9. Rags says

    This also reminds me of being mentioned as a good place for mining the wants and needs of people. Looking at the most popular goals listed there one can get a fair idea of what people desire the most. Products that help meet these goals should succeed in the market. For example, losing weight is perhaps the most popular goals listed there and we all know the potential for a killer product in this area.

  10. says

    Thanks for this series Brian!

    I subscribed to Copyblogger 2 hours ago. Just realized that I’ve already ready all 10 posts. Your writing style makes it easy to read.

    How do you start and maintain a Swipe File? Is there a blog post about it?

  11. says

    I just read your entire copy writing 101 course and wanted to say that I was very impressed with it. Even if it is a few years olds at this point it’s provided me with a great foundation of information. I will be subscribing to your updated.

  12. Joseph Dabon says

    Great, this swipe file thing. But where do we get them? How can we distinguish a winning ad from the run-of-the-mill types?

  13. says

    Yes you can learn a whole lot from listening to the target market you are writing for. In my personal experience – if you manage to get the wording close to perfect it can dramatically improve the response rates to advertising copy.

  14. says

    Hi Brian, is there a chance you can include some of your winning ads on the blog further? I have a lot of trouble finding these type of ads. (The resource included 2 ads before helps, though.) By the way, your newsletter is great, I just got the first lesson which helped me really understand many concepts I’d already read about. —Ivan

  15. says

    This is a perfect one-stop-shop area for all-comers who want to write the right thing and avoid the pitfalls of copywriting. This stuff can be learned – once you are a reasonably good writer, learning what is involved in making good copy comes with practice! Thanks for sharing a great resource with us! Cheers! – Cassy.

Comments are open for seven days. This article's comments are now closed.