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On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

4 Copywriting Techniques Every Good Storyteller Already Knows

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Will Hoekenga. Will is a content and copywriting specialist for LeadPages. Check out the LeadPages blog for more of his work on copywriting and conversion techniques.

Quick: What do F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salman Rushdie, and Joseph Heller have in common? Yes, they’re all renowned novelists. But would you have guessed that, before they were novelists, they were all copywriters?

4 Copywriting Techniques Every Good Storyteller Already Knows

While they may not credit their time spent in advertising as the foundation of their literary skill set, it’s undeniable that it had some influence on their writing styles.

As a writer, copywriting forces you to do three things:

  • Understand the importance of every single word.
  • Master the art of working within deadlines.
  • Get inside your readers’ heads.

Beyond making you a better writer, learning copywriting also comes in handy when it’s time to implement some of the strategies Jeff recommends the most on this site, such as building your tribe, creating an email list, and learning how to effectively market to that email list.

In this post, we’re going to explore four copywriting techniques/tips that can also make a world of difference in your creative writing. Let’s get started.

1. Creativity is overrated

When discussing creativity, legendary ad man David Ogilvy once wrote,

I have to invent a Big Idea for a new advertising campaign, and I have to invent it before Tuesday. ‘Creativity’ strikes me as a high-falutin word for the work I have to do between now and Tuesday.

The biggest problems I’ve seen over and over for creative writers — whether you’re writing a short story, a novel, a memoir, or anything else—are terms like “inspiration,” “writer’s block,” and “creativity.”

If you have not signed a publishing contract saying you will have a certain number of words complete by a certain date, the only deadline you might have is one you’ve given yourself — a deadline the aforementioned three words have a bad habit of pushing back.

Could just one more week of revisions improve your project? Perhaps. But you know what the best kind of story is? The kind that actually gets read, because the writer finished it.

2. While curiosity kills cats, it rewards writers

Let’s bring this full circle, all the way back to another one of my favorite pieces of advice from Mr. Joseph Sugarman:

The best copywriters in the world are those who are curious about life, read a great deal, have many hobbies, like to travel, have a variety of skills, get bored and then look for other skills to master.

Guess what? Those are the exact same habits you’ll find in the vast majority of great writers. The best part? You don’t have to born with a single one of those habits to possess any of them.

Need to get more curious about life? Ask questions. Listen closely. Dig deep beneath the surface of everyday life.

Need to read more? Try one of these five strategies.

Need a new hobby? There are about 18 million how-to videos on YouTube on any subject you can imagine. Pick something and give it a shot. Learn to fly fish. Cook a bowl of beef pho. Start a vegetable garden.

Wish you could travel more? Don’t let time or money slow you down. I once drove 70 miles down I-24 east because there was a tiny town called Bucksnort and I wanted to find out why it was called that. I ended up eating lunch at an antique pinball museum.

I wrote a story about it that I later used as a writing sample to get my first job as a professional writer. All that trip cost me was a couple hours and a quarter tank of gas.

3. Tiny details breathe life into your story

The tiny details are the ones that bring the story to life. They are what allow you to show instead of tell. To illustrate this technique, let’s pay another visit to our friend, Mr. David Ogilvy.

While writing an ad for Rolls-Royce, Ogilvy spent three weeks doing nothing more than reading about the car. That research process, although tedious, allowed him to find the one magic detail he needed to craft a headline that has lived on in advertising lore ever since:

At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.

As Ogilvy said, “[The ad] ran in two newspapers and two magazines, at a cost of $25,000. The following year, Ford based their multimillion dollar campaign on the claim that their car was even quieter than a Rolls.”

Tell me, do any of the following statements communicate as effectively as the original headline?

  • The Rolls-Royce is the quietest car I’ve ever driven.
  • The decibel level of the Rolls-Royce at 60 miles an hour is lower than any other car at 60 miles an hour.
  • The Rolls-Royce allows you to go fast and still hear yourself think.

Nothing compares. And so it goes with storytelling. The underwater mass of Hemingway’s iceberg only becomes clear when the tiny details provide shreds of evidence that it might exist.

4. Keep a swipe file

What’s a swipe file? Nothing more than a collection of thoughts, ideas, useful information, and things you like. Basically, it’s what you open when you need an idea.

Now, let’s stop for a second because I know what you’re thinking: This guy wants me to steal other people’s ideas and pass them off as my own? Not at all. Let me explain.

The idea of a swipe file is very similar to an idea Roy Peter Clark introduces in Writing Tools, one of the most useful books on writing ever written. What we copywriters call a swipe file, Clark calls “saving string.”

I’ll let him explain:

I will be struck by a theme or issue in politics or culture… I lack the time and knowledge to write about this topic now, but maybe I will someday. My chances will improve if I begin to save string.

What Clark means by “saving string” is that he will collect every little piece of useful knowledge about a particular topic he stumbles upon and set it aside in a file box.

Yann Martel used a similar method when he wrote Life of Pi. He would collect all sorts of information on various topics useful to his story, such as surviving at sea, the Bengal tiger, Christianity, Hinduism, the nature of zoos, and put that information into a corresponding envelope.

When he reached the point in the story where he needed to write about one of those topics, he opened the envelope and was rewarded with all the “string” he had saved.

Never underestimate the power of a well-researched story. While the tiny details may bring it to life, the research ensures all those details make sense.

Start a swipe file. Save some string. In the long run, it always pays off.

These four copywriting tips are just the beginning. Truth is, there’s so much more to be learned about storytelling and the writing process from writing words designed to sell or inspire action.

And although copywriting is not immune from hucksters who — like Sith lords using the dark side of the force — harness its power for evil, its purest purpose is to connect people to resources that will add value to their lives.

There’s a lot to be learned from copywriting. Now’s the time to dive in headfirst.

Where are you going to start? Share in the comments.

About Will Hoekenga

Will Hoekenga is a content and copywriting specialist for LeadPages.

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  • Jeff – wow this is a powerful post! While I don’t think of myself as a “copywriter” the points laid out here are vitally important for any of us who write anything.

    • Agreed, Dan. Will did a great job!

      • Thanks again for having me, Jeff. 🙂 Man, I absolutely love reading stuff on your blog–one of the cleanest layouts I’ve ever seen.

        • Thanks, dude. It helps when the copy is strong, as is the case with your piece. 🙂

    • Thanks, Dan! Appreciate that.

  • wow. This article was worth reading just for the swipe file idea (the whole thing was great of course). I have an open word file I use for basic admin type stuff like author bios,bits of html code and summaries I use over and over again. But I never thought of keeping an ongoing “swipe file” on any and all subjects. If feel like this is going to make me much more effective. Keeping an ongoing record of experience and information and research as it presents itself.

    Cool, cool, cool.

    Sam

    • Sam, as an extremely unorganized person, the swipe file is the one organizational tool I’ve been able to consistently use. It’s that valuable. Thanks for reading!

  • Jeff / Will – that post has made me stop and think. I have heard this stuff over the years from various sources, but presented together in this way has made an impact. Thank you.

  • Encouraging takeaways, Mr. Will. Fun story: “I once drove 70 miles down I-24 east because there was a tiny town called Bucksnort and I wanted to find out why it was called that. I ended up eating lunch at an antique pinball museum. I wrote a story about it that I later used as a writing sample to get my first job as a professional writer.” That sounds like an interesting life that feeds and creates fodder for compelling writing.

    Thanks, Mr. Jeff for introducing us to Mr. Will’s wild and wonderful writing world. Swipe file concept is just plain the right thing to do. Roger on that one.

    • Thanks, Arlen! Next time someone asks me what I do, I’m just going to borrow your phrase and tell them I live in a “wild and wonderful writing world.” 🙂

  • lisasarnold1

    Enjoyed this read. I have hundreds of “swipe” files that I’ve started and forgot about. I think I will review and organize them and start building them to a point where I can write those great detailed articles or stories.

  • Lisa R

    Thank you, Will and Jeff, for the tips and the reminder to just sit down and write instead of waiting for inspiration. I have my own “swipe file,” but I love the idea of calling it “saving string.” It reminds me of the family junk drawer we would head for when we were looking for a little-used treasure, including saved string and shoelaces,

    • I really liked RPC’s twist on the swipe file concept as well, Lisa. I’ve saved way more bits of useful info ever since I read it. Thanks for reading!

  • Luana Hugel

    Thank you, Will, for this insightful post, and thank you, Jeff, for asking him to host. I loved the story about traveling to Bucksnort and the importance of exploration. It jibes well with Julia Cameron ‘ s recommendation in “The Artist’s Way” to take a weekly artist’s date all by yourself for a few hours. It’s a great way to add to the string collection. You’ve inspired me to be more purposeful. Blessings.

    • Thanks, Luana! That’s a good reminder that I need to schedule little trips like that more often.

    • Totally my pleasure. thanks for reading, Luana. Will knows his stuff!

  • Great advice! When I first decided to write a book, I spent almost two years reading books about writing before I really started typing! I was so scared to fail that I never started! We all need to know when it’s time to get our bottoms in the chair and write the book!

    Thanks for all the useful posts Jeff. You’re helping all of us.

  • Kelly

    This is genius. Never heard the Rolls Royce story, but you are showing me how to write a better story. May your tribe increase!

    • The Rolls Royce story is one of many greats from David Ogilvy. Highly recommend you check him out!

  • Great advice here. Thanks Will (and Jeff).

  • I’ll start by saving every piece of actual string I can find (rope, twine, etc.). Perhaps one day I’ll write a piece on all the different ways one can tie people up.

  • Thank you for sharing this, Will. I make my living with copywriting and content writing. People who think there isn’t any creative writing or passion for the subject matter in this work are dead wrong. Creativity and tapping into the passion of my clients are the two things that make me good at what I do.

    • Totally agree. Keep fighting the good fight! 🙂

  • Eduardo Carvalho
  • Very useful advice, in the past I’ve just tried to remember things but the swipe file idea is superb. I will start one and add to it.

    • Awesome, Phil. You’re going to love having one.

      • Yes you are right, I started it this morning.

  • Suzanne

    Evernote would be a superb warehouse for saving all that string.

  • Great post Will and some killer takeaways. Writing copy is a great skill to add to your arsenal as a writer. I like what you said about every word being important. Is there a resource you recommend to learn good copy writing?

    • Kimanzi, you can’t go wrong with copyblogger.com. Doing a search for “copywriting” brings up some great stuff on Jeff’s site. Also, keep an eye on the LeadPages blog, where I (and a few other awesome writers) will be writing more articles like the one you just read: http://blog.leadpages.net/

  • Love the swipe file concept. Been doing this as a speaker for years and it’s paid off for writing too.

  • aSmilingWorld

    I agree with all the previous comments. I love the whole thing and the Rolls Royce ad is inspired! I keep a file of ideas for articles and books in Evernote and I also have a voice recorder app on my phone to record ideas I have when I don’t have a pen and paper to capture them. I’ve been focused on ideas only so far and love the idea of adding snippets of info & research to support the ideas. Thanks Will and Jeff! <3

  • Leanne Regalla

    I love the Ogilvy quote!

    I never imagined that as a blogger I’d be using and studying so much copywriting. But it sure is fun – and it works! 🙂

    I just wish I’d started sooner – seems it’s something that takes a lifetime to master.

  • RxPlastic

    The only sound you will hear reading this article is the soft explosion coming from the inside of your head.

  • Lizzie Branch

    one of the best blog posts I ever read. Excellent. Thank you for posting.

    • Sarah M

      I agree, Lizzie!

  • Thanks Will (& Jeff)! As a bookstore manager, I observe everyday how details make a difference in which book gets purchased & which travels home with a satisfied customer.

    • Aaron, I bet your observations of that would make quite an interesting blog post.

  • I definitely think it helps to keep a swipe file or note pad nearby at all times. I have recently been using a scratch paper in the car to capture ideas as I drive to and from jobsites, kids’ activities, work, or other locations. This has been so useful!

  • Thanks for the article. Details are so important and having that swipe file can provide those. I often take pictures of places, plants, anything I think will be helpful in my stories and then can refer back to them to make sure my descriptions are accurate.

  • Great article. Copywriting is some thing that gets a bad rap due to marketing but when you take the time to read some of the better advertisements out there, they can be really good reads!

  • I really appreciate the tips you shared for becoming a successful copywriter. Its was a fun and easy read, but still you put in useful information and helped me to have the right perspective to instantly make improvements. Never heard of a swipe file or the book Writing Tools. I plan on my way to Amazon now.

  • Tawanna Currence

    Great read! Like Tammy, I have never heard of a swipe file or the book of writing tools before, but as a new grad and writer I plan to put these tools to use. Thanks so much and please check out my blog at truecurrency.org. I’m just starting so any tips would be helpful! Thanks!

  • Kathy Rupcic

    I was bouncing in my seat reading this because it confirms two of many things I believe are inherent to writing our stories. Capture everything that tweaks. I’ve been motivated (and saved) by my “swipe file” numerous times. Thank you for the big nod towards curiosity too. I’m just developing a blog which pays much homage to this powerful and often undervalued trait. This post really makes me smile.

  • Susan

    Thanks for an inspiring read. The irony for me is that, a copywriter by trade, I have plenty of inspiration and even more good intentions for personal writing I’d also like to do. But my copywriting job (the one that pays the bills) seems to suck all of my words, not to mention my creativity, dry daily. Creativity may be overrated, but a writer needs at least a spark of it to light a fire large enough to keep readers warm. I want to believe my copywriting and personal writing can co-exist, and even improve each other. Any ideas for balancing my day job with other writing projects would be appreciated.

    • KT

      I used to be a copywriter 9-5:30. I would stay in the office an hour after work and open up my story and write for an hour. For some reason, being in the office and still in ‘work mode’ really helped.

      • Susan

        Thanks for that suggestion, KT. I imagine that could also work if I got into the office an hour earlier in the morning! Either way, it’s a good idea.

      • Wow, KT, I’m truly impressed you pulled that off! I am so burned out after a day I can’t imagine sticking around for another hour — and I work part time from home. 🙂 Were coworkers distracting? Did you have your own office? How were you able to put away your work and focus your mind (rather than checking emails, finishing up “one last thing,” etc.? I’d love more details as this seems like a dream scenario, but one where lots could go wrong for me.

  • amanda

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  • Phumuzile M.

    Thank you Jeff for the tips which are always a great encouragement’

  • Merwyn Mathias

    Thanks for the article Will. I liked the idea of keeping a swipe file.

  • Brent Flory

    Great article Will! The tiny details tip was particularly helpful.

  • GoJints

    Love the idea. I use a similar idea by putting information into a notebook in OneNote software. I have tabs for different ideas, and a general tab for things I’m not sure of yet. But I’ve used that notebook several times for articles I’ve written. This way I always know where to look for that bit of information I know I saved somewhere.

    • OneNote is awesome. I use it at work all the time. It wasn’t on Mac for awhile so i use Evernote at home, but ON is legit.

  • Such great insight. Thank you, Jeff for hosting Will. With so many irons in the fire I’m still working on the daily habit of writing, but tips around “creativity” are very helpful.

    Evernote is my never ending “swipe file” got over 350+ blog post ideas and countless articles filed away on various topics.

    It was very encouraging to read Will’s perspective on curiosity. I’m constantly engaged by learning new things and finding out how X works or what someone knows. Guess I’m doing something right.

  • Superb article Will! Having a swipe file will surely save you when you need to make new story in quick way.

  • Karen

    Nice article. I think I’ll add it to my swipe file

  • Awesome. Having many interests isn’t such a bad thing after all! Karen is right. Everyone should add this post to their swipe file.

  • HiCina HiCina

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