A lot of people ask me how I write copy. I don't mean the actual writing process (such as how I come up with headlines, bullets, offers, etc), but how I tackle the actual task of composing a new sales piece from scratch.
Everyone is different. My writing process is one developed over many years, and many people may adopt or dislike the same techniques. But in the hope that knowing my process may be helpful to some writers, I'd like to share it with you.
Of course, if I were to describe all of the steps, there would be way too much information to squeeze into one article. But for now, I can offer you a basic look at my methodology by giving you a short list of the seven steps I take.
Here they are.
1. Gather Initial Research
For starters, with all projects I ask that my clients take time to answer an initial, 25-point questionnaire. Their answers will provide some background information. I ask several questions from four main categories:
- The customer
- The product
- The business
- The offer
The first one, about the customer, is the most important. It's where I ask questions like demographics and psychographics, and try to build a perfect prospect profile or what's often called a “buyer persona.”
The others include things like features and benefits, stories behind the product, testimonials, actual results, the buying process, etc.
(The questionnaire can be an eye-opener for many clients because it forces them to dig for the answers, and to see what's missing with their current copy and where some of the flaws are. Many have said that the questionnaire alone was worth the price of admission.)
I want to know as much as possible about the product, the business, and the offer. This includes competitors, non-competitors, alternatives, and reasons why people choose to buy from my client — as well as why they chose another instead.
Admittedly, this questionnaire is just a start. But their answers, which give me some direction as to where to conduct further research, give me at least a basic understanding of their business, the purpose of the copy's message, and its goals.
Yes, that's “goals” in the plural.
There is the obvious main goal, which may be to generate leads or make sales. But other, secondary goals may include to dispel rumors, answer questions, build credibility, eliminate misconceptions, differentiate from the competition, defend one's reputation, etc.
2. Conduct Exploratory Research
Then, I read and study the answers carefully, and I conduct some exploratory research. That is, I try to gather as much information as I can — especially about the target audience. When I write copy, the bulk of my time is spent on research.
In fact, if I ever get writer's block and run out of ideas, I go back to conducting more research. Because the more research you do, the greater the number of ideas you will have at your disposal. The chances that something will stick out and prompt your writing will be higher, too.
I surf my clients' websites. I research their competitors. I look at some of the trends in that particular product category, market, or industry. I do comparative analyses, including building a list of strengths and weaknesses (if my client doesn't have this already).
I hang out where their readers hang out. I check out some of the websites they visit. I spend some time in forums in which they're active. I try to get a grasp of their language, their challenges, their industry, their fears, their goals, etc.
When I come across an important piece of information, I copy it into a document (often a Google document I can share), where I can easily append extra pieces of information, include any corresponding URLs, make additional notes, and more.
I create a new project in my favorite project management service, where I give access to all the key players, and start populating it with the information I gather.
(Aside from being a repository, the service has many features that come in quite handy, such as to-do lists, message board, whiteboard, chat room, file uploads, milestone tracker, and more.)
The idea at first is to gather as much information as possible, including facts, features, data, results, etc. I add whatever information I find into the repository.
3. Pick, Prod, And Probe Further
Of course, a lot of it is also irrelevant. So I go through the information and pull out the important stuff. I compile, clarify, and expand. I cherrypick and highlight what's relevant, and file or discard the rest.
I might even repeat some of the earlier steps to make sure I've covered all the bases. After spending some time studying the information, I may ask for more clarification and dig deeper.
Digging deeper is a crucial step!
Sometimes, I do it to get a better understanding of the information. Other times, it's to get additional tidbits where I might uncover hidden gems I can use with the copy. You would be surprised by how much information clients keep from you because they feel it's irrelevant when oftentimes it's not.
But most of the time, it's to be able to later put what my clients tell me into words that specifically meet my client's audience at their level.
I tend to look at my job as “connecting the dots.” If the product is good and the demand is there, then my job is not to sell the product but to connect the desires and fears of the reader with the solution my client offers.
(Most of my clients are too “married” to their own products or businesses that they tend to be removed from their clients. So what they may feel is great about their product may not be a shared opinion among their target market.)
But here's my greatest tip…
Some of the best answers I get are in fact obtained while interviewing people. That's right: actually talking to people, whether it's the business owner or existing clients. In other words, picking up the phone and asking questions.
This allows me to not only catch verbal cues and innuendos, but also to prod and probe further. I repeat what they say and sometimes end in a dangling preposition (grammarians be like “Oh, the horror!”) or conjunction followed by a pause, where the silence compels them to continue.
(For example, once my client answers a question, I'll say, “And?” “Or?” “But?” “So that…” “That's for…” “That means…” “Or else?” “In other words?” After that, I shut up. You'd be amazed by the kinds of answers they would give!)
I also try to speak with actual success stories. I interview satisfied clients, not just for the sake of gathering testimonials, and not just to ask a lot of open-ended questions to probe deeper as well, but also, and if I can, to actually get them to sell me on the product themselves.
These recorded interviews are worth a mint!
If I managed to get my interviewee excited and passionate about the product, in many cases they practically write the copy for me.
4. Create The Structure
Next, I try to find a storyline, a unique benefit, a certain angle, or a key piece of information. Some call it a “plot.” Others call it a “hook” or “the big idea.” It's essentially the one element on which the entire copy hinges.
This is the concept I often talk about called “storyselling.”
It may be a certain fear, a piece of news, a hot-button issue, a success story, a fascinating factoid, a sensational claim, a major benefit (even an unsought one), a sense of urgency, a “lie dispelled,” a secret, a myth, a hot trend, a controversial topic, an unexpected result, etc. You get the picture.
Once I've found it, I then create an outline. Often, I apply my QUEST formula, which is to “qualify” the reader, “understand” their problem, “educate” them on the solution, “stimulate” them on the value, and “transition” them into a buyer.
I don't write the copy just yet. I simply use the formula to create an outline that will guide me as to where specific pieces of information will be added.
The copy doesn't necessarily have to follow the exact formula, either. But it does give me some guidance as to what exactly I must cover, and where I must cover it.
Sometimes, I'll use it to create headers throughout the copy as the outline. These headers are not written in stone. They only give me some initial direction as to what, specifically, I need to cover at certain points in the copy.
Look at these headers as “guideposts,” if you will.
I also try to look at the copy from the perspective of a reader. For example, I'll ask myself, “What do I want and need to know at this point in the copy?” “What can potentially confuse me?” “What questions or objections might likely come up at that moment?” “What's going through my mind when I read this?” And so on.
At this time in the process, I write some notes on the copy, to myself, on what needs to be covered, what key pieces of information I must include, what ideas I want to expand on, etc. And often, I write these notes in point form.
5. Write The Copy
Next comes the creative part.
From the storyline and the guideposts I've set out above, I start writing the copy. I often begin with the headline or the bullet points, whichever is easiest. (It really depends on what comes to mind the fastest.)
Sometimes, a headline idea jumps out at me, particularly after doing the research and coming up with the “hook.” If so, I will start with the headline first.
The headline is not final, either. I sometimes come back and rewrite the headline once I finish the copy, even several times, because new and better ideas emerge later on as I write the body copy.
Both the headline and the storyline will give me a good indication of what I can write about, how to say it, as well as what options I have when I write it.
Sometimes, I just start writing and let it flow, and my writing takes a life of its own. When this happens, I allow myself the flexibility to just let go, but I will go back to it afterwards when I'm editing and rearranging the flow.
Remember, they are guides, not goals.
In terms of actual copy, I start writing and expanding.
- I structure a skeletal offer (with premiums);
- I create the opening or introductory paragraph;
- I tell the story (based on the chosen storyline);
- I list the features, advantages and benefits;
- I expand on key items for the main body;
- I incorporate or expand on story blocks;
- I add Johnson boxes, remarks or sidenotes;
- I reinforce key benefits and “reasons why;”
- I build up the value and expand on the offer;
- I form a logical and believable sense of urgency;
- I inject credibility by adding proof elements;
- I infuse testimonials in appropriate locations;
- I write the guarantee (or guarantees);
- I close with a call-to-action statement;
- And I plug some “PS's” at the end.
Do I follow these steps every single time? No. Some people say copywriting is formulaic, and I agree to a large extent. But don't become so rigid that you write with blinders on and fail to allow yourself the opportunity to be different, to be interesting, and to connect better with your audience.
Look at a lot of salesletters these days. They often don't look like your typical “salesletter”. Salesletters have evolved to include multimedia, parallax (fly-in, dynamic copy), action-triggered content, mobile-friendly layouts, etc.
6. Rearrange The Flow
Then, I rearrange the content for flow. I don't edit the copy. I simply scan the copy to make sure it all flows nicely, and that the organization of ideas makes the reading pleasant, compelling, and easily understandable.
More important, I make sure the flow makes sense to the sale. Every new idea introduced must flow into one another and advance the sale.
I make sure to integrate headers at every two or three paragraphs to help break the monotony and compel scanners to start reading. If needed, I also copy, paste, and move blocks of text in locations I feel they are more appropriate.
(For example, sometimes it's better to credentialize the copy early on. Or some testimonials are best used as a way to handle objections and located where specific objections may come up. In fact, I use them where the reader might have a specific question that the testimonial answers.)
To help me, I work with multiple, tiled windows (i.e., side by side), all opened at once and each showing a different part of a same document. This is particularly helpful when I'm working with longer copy.
That way, I can easily scroll through each window to rearrange the content from one window to another (i.e., from one section of the copy to another).
From this cursory look at the copy, I can immediately sense if I need to also add certain elements, whether cosmetic (such as adding a grabber, a picture, or a graphic) or tactical (such as adding a sidenote, a proof element, or a Johnson box).
I also make sure that the copy follows the AIDA formula (i.e., attention, interest, desire and action). While it may seem redundant because of my earlier formula, I never forget the basics.
7. Edit And Expand
Once re-arranged, I then edit the copy. I read it to myself, slowly and sometimes out loud, to make sure it's easy to read and flows properly. If I stumble at any point or verbally struggle, I know that I need to rewrite that section.
(Whenever I can, I even record myself. It's amazing how many errors I've discovered from listening to myself reading the copy than from simply reading it.)
I then expand, cut out, tighten up, and add more. I emphasize where needed, rewrite certain sections, and cut out as much of the extra fat as possible.
In fact, the latter is the most crucial step.
Why? Because when I write, I usually write with abandon. I let it all flow. I write like I speak. I repeat myself often, especially when I try to make a point or drive home a critical point. I try not to stop myself, or else it will impede my train of thought.
(When I stop writing, it start thinking critically. I begin to edit myself too early, which blocks the creative flow. I eventually lose focus because I spend too much energy on making sure I've said things right rather than saying the right things.)
That's why I wait until after I'm done, and only when I'm done, to go back and excise all the extraneous filler. I try to cut out as much of the unneeded copy as I can. Or, if what I say is indeed important, I try to find ways to say the same thing but in less words.
(Editing is probably one the most important strategies in writing copy, but it's also the most overlooked because it's the hardest thing to do for most copywriters. That's why it's best to wait until the end.)
Remember this: write first, edit later.
Finally, I focus on the cosmetics, since certain visual “triggers” help to increase both readership and response. So I touch up the formatting, typestyles, tables, colors, graphics, pictures, layouts, fonts, and so on.
After that, I'm essentially done.
Bonus Step: Revise!
Before I deliver the copy to my client, I still get my staff to proofread it for me. But I don't limit them to the grammar or style. I also ask them to signal any part of the copy where they feel confused, lost, or disinterested in the story.
(I also ask them questions about the copy to see if they truly grasped some of its key elements. If their answers are not good enough, I know I need to edit it more.)
This is important, since I often make the same mistakes I made while writing it when reading it back to myself. Also, knowing what the copy is all about can cause me to take what I say (or fail to say) for granted, and accidentally skip over what may be confusing to others.
(Don't discount having a fresh pair of eyes look at your copy for you. Before handing off the copy to the client, try to get someone else to read it for you.)
After it's all done, I then upload it to my client's project interface for my client to read and offer feedback. I revise the copy according to my client's feedback. (In fact, I allow my clients a free revision.)
There is no way to predict how well my copy will do. For most clients, my work increases their response rates — often, like gangbusters, too. But for some, my copy turns out to be a downright dud.
Maybe it's because the storyline is wrong. Perhaps the headline is the bottleneck. Maybe the offer is poor. I don't know. If it's anything specific with the copy, the only way to know is to test.
But in my experience, when my copy failed, it was largely because the audience wasn't targeted or the offer wasn't appropriate for them. And in either case, the copy would have never sold well, no matter how good the copy was.
Failure does happen. It happens to the best of us. But failure is also an awesome opportunity — an opportunity to learn, improve, and grow. That's why I appreciate it when my clients keep me posted on their results.
If you were to hire a copywriter, remember that I would trust a copywriter who failed and succeeded more than I do one who claimed to have never failed at all.
Some clients who are fanatical testers prefer to keep me on a retainer after the initial project so they can have me rewrite parts of the copy, or offer any suggestions on how to improve it without contaminating the initial control.
Nevertheless, these are the steps I follow.
I don't necessarily follow them to the letter all of the time. But hopefully, they have given you some fodder on your quest for better response.
Michel Fortin is a senior marketing specialist, renowned copywriter, and digital marketing expert. For the better part of 30 years, he's produced countless successful marketing communications and profitable campaigns that generated in excess of $300 million in sales. He's broken many industry sales records, including being instrumental behind the first ever “million-dollar day” online marketing campaign in 2004. He's worked with thousands of businesses and entrepreneurs around the world in a wide variety of industries on building their businesses, improving their marketing, and increasing their profits. He's a published author and often speaks at industry events. To connect with him, visit his LinkedIn profile where he is most active.