13 Commandments for Copywriters
Updated: Apr 18
From Stansberry Research, a privately owned American publishing company founded by Frank Porter Stansberry. The company is headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland, with offices in Florida, Oregon, and California. Thanks to my longtime copywriting mentor, John Forde, for sharing.
#1. Focus on what the reader wants — not what you want to sell.
This is the biggest mistake even experienced copywriters make. As Gary Bencivenga says: “Think like a fish, not like a fisherman.” Don’t think about a clever way to sell your product — instead think about exactly what your reader really wants right now… then work on how your product can deliver a solution.
#2. Intrigue is as powerful as benefit.
And intrigue plus benefit is the most compelling force on earth. All copy needs intrigue, in addition to a benefit. If you spell out everything right away, it will fail. Great copy is like good fiction. It keeps the reader wanting to figure out the “big reveal.” Great copy also slowly unwinds like a ball of string. The lead should pique curiosity. Then the story slowly unravels over the ensuing pages.
#3. "We need audacity, audacity, always audacity!" This is a quote from French Revolutionary, George-Jacques Danton, but it applies to copy too. You must always push for more audacity. What is the most audacious (but 100% honest and truthful) thing you can say to get the reader’s attention? If I could sum up copy in one sentence it would be: A unique, audacious, and useful idea, proven over and over and over again.
#4. Proof is more important than promise. As David Ogilvy said, your reader is not stupid, she is your wife. Remember: every reader has seen this type of marketing a thousand times. Every reader is looking for a good reason to stop reading. They’ll only believe you if you make the proof overwhelming, so there’s no way a rational person could deny it. Look for unique ways to prove your point. A few third party news sources and testimonials are not enough. Gary Bencivenga says he doesn’t look for copy ideas, but rather unique proof elements.
#5. Do more research than anyone else. Our advertising should be valuable in and of itself. Even if the reader doesn’t buy, he should learn from our copy. A good test: if you don’t read at least three books for every promotion you write, your chances of success go way down. In books you will discover angles, stories, and unique proof elements you’ll simply never find online. 90% of copywriters are lazy researchers. The easiest way to be among the top 10% is to do more and better research. If you aren’t a voracious reader, copywriting is not for you.
#6. Don’t do anything that makes the editor or our business look stupid or amateurish. You don’t need gimmicks or tricks to sell. Just a great idea, proven over and over again, beyond any reasonable doubt.
#7. Don’t lie, mislead, or exaggerate. Not in your copy. Not in your ads or lift notes. Like Goldman Sachs has famously said: we are “long-term greedy.” In other words, we never want to trick or mislead for a quick sale. There’s much more money to be made by being honest, creating goodwill, and bringing on long-term customers, who buy from us again and again. A good rule: don’t write anything in someone else’s voice that you won’t sign your name to personally. Another good rule: would you be OK with your promotion being the subject of an article in the Wall Street Journal, with an unfriendly journalist picking it apart, piece by piece?
#8. Don’t steal other people’s work. Not only is it wrong, you can never beat someone by just copying their work. Instead, take one good idea from one promotion and combine it with another good idea to create something new.
#9. Embrace the process. You will have losing promotions, no matter how good you get and no matter how long you’ve been in this business. You will also feel lost and hopeless at some point in nearly every project. Embrace these feelings. Expect them. Just keep moving. If writing copy was easy, everyone would do it, and it wouldn’t be nearly so lucrative! The difficulty and frustrations of the process are what make creating a winning effort so rewarding.
#10. Be a ruthless editor of your own work. Great copywriters are great editors — of their own work and others. Cut all unnecessary words. And be sure to get rid of all language that sounds like sales and marketing. Remember: copywriting is really a “reporting” job. You dig around until you find a great story… a great opportunity… an interesting idea… then you simply explain it clearly, with as many facts and as much proof as possible. That’s it. One of the great secrets of copy is to master “understated hype.” You want your ideas, facts, and proof to be audacious… but the language itself should be calm and understated.
#11. Write for yourself, not your reader. A mistake most writers make is trying to write with an imaginary reader in mind. The best copywriters write for themselves. Do you believe this personally? Are you skeptical of this claim? You’ll never become a great copywriter until you can learn to put yourself in your reader’s shoes and look at copy hypercritically for flaws, faulty arguments, and exaggerations.
#12. Innovate. Big breakthroughs typically come from new formats. Think about the bookalog in the 1990s and high-production videos and book offers today. Keep experimenting, especially when you have winning copy. Think about new ways to present your copy. New formats surprise the reader and can improve mediocre copy by as much as 50%.
#13. Master of the 3 Most Important Skills. To become a great copywriter, you must master three things: 1) How to structure arguments and stories effectively—learning what to cut, what to include, what to reveal when, etc. 2) How to spot good ideas. 3) And how to become efficient in your work. Efficiency is underrated—but it’s probably more important than anything else. It brings you enough “at bats,” increasing your chances for success.