Practice Writing Great Copy

by Kai Davis | Last Updated: August 5, 2020
Practice Writing Great Copy

In my 10+ years of doing this (waves hands and gestures wildly at indie consulting, the internet, and digital marketing), the best way I’ve ever found to learn how to write better is an old tip from expert copywriter Gary Halbert:

In his book, The Boron Letters, Gary Halbert taught his son, Bond, how to become a skilled copywriter fast.

Gary didn’t tell Bond to buy a book, take a writing course, or attend a seminar. Instead, he said this:

“The best way to become a good writer is by…writing good writing!”

Gary Halbert told his son to copy proven ads by hand. Every single day. 

Hand-copying proven copy (e.g., ads, email, sales pages, articles, emails) works very well. If you want to get better at writing copy, the process you should follow is pretty simple:

  1. Schedule a time (30-60 minutes 3-7 times/week) to practice writing copy by hand
  2. Sign up for email lists/newsletters to see the text your colleagues and competitors are sending out
  3. Copy well-performing ads/copy/whatever (from your competitors or a swipe file) by hand during your scheduled time

Here’s a starter swipe file of 7 pieces of copy you can start copying by hand (pay what you want).

From my experience (and from reading more about the value of hand-copying), I believe that a combination of:

All together, help your brain and mind better understand how copy fits together and flows and what well-performing copy looks and sounds like.

Just like practicing songs on a piano helps you build a musical ear, hand-copying excellent copy helps you develop your ability to write great copy.

Why does this help? How does this work?

The magic is in copying the ads by hand. As Loren Sarner says in this Inverse article:

This is, in a sense, the cheapest and most readily available writing instruction available in the world, second, perhaps, only to reading itself.

The idea of hand-copying something to better internalize it and build your skills isn’t unique to copywriting.

Joan Didion retyped Hemingway’s stories, and that taught her how sentences worked:

That Hemingway influenced Didion’s writing is a well-established fact. Didion has claimed that she taught herself to write in part by retyping the stories of Hemingway. In a 1978 interview with The Paris Review, Didion explained Hemingway’s role in her life and work:

“He taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time. A few years ago when I was teaching a course at Berkeley I reread A Farewell to Arms and fell right back into those sentences. I mean they’re perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.”

Hunter S. Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby & A Farewell to Arms word for word

“You know Hunter typed The Great Gatsby,” an awestruck Johnny Depp told The Guardian in 2011, after he’d played Thompson himself in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and a fictionalized version of him in an adaptation of Thompson’s lost novel The Rum Diaries. “He’d look at each page Fitzgerald wrote, and he copied it. The entire book. And more than once. Because he wanted to know what it felt like to write a masterpiece.”

And as an unexpected example that came up in my research, in Deuteronomy 17:18-20, God required the king to hand copy the scripture, the first five books of the Bible and there’s a long history of this practice in Christian and Jewish history (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sefer_Torah).

Could it be that reading text and copying it by hand somehow works to our advantage because of neuroscience?

It might be.

In 2012, James and Engelhardt published a paper on “The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children”

[A] study of 15 children in Indiana (James & Engelhardt, 2012) who were asked to write, trace, or type letters while having their brains scanned found that writing letters activated more regions of the brain than typing letters–in particular, visual processing centers at the heart of perceiving letters (link)

In 2014, Mueller and Oppenheimer published an article on the advantages of writing notes longhand compared to using a laptop.

In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

Putting this practice into practice

If you want to get started writing better copy, you’ll want to:

  1. Schedule a time (30-60 minutes 3-7 times/week) to practice writing copy by hand
  2. Sign up for email lists/newsletters to see the text your colleagues and competitors are sending out
  3. Copy well-performing ads/copy/whatever (from your competitors or a swipe file) by hand during your scheduled time

Here’s a starter swipe file of 7 pieces of copy you can start copying by hand (pay what you want).

Excelsior!

Kai

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