Date: May 11, 1994
Location: Rodale Press office
Speaker: Eugene Schwartz
Audience: Rodale Press staff
Topic: Eugene's writing process
The workshop I wish I could have attended.
Why is the Rodale Press workshop important?
Rodale Press, founded in 1930, sold millions of health and wellness books every year with direct mail advertising.
Eugen Schwartz wrote about 30 sales letters for Rodale Press that sold more than 8 million books and generated over $200 million. It seems that no copywriter was ever able to outperform his copy.
In this workshop, Eugene explains his writing process giving us a glimpse inside the mind of a genius.
Let’s see what can we learn.
How to beat your competitors
Rodale Press's creative model was a highly competitive one. They chose two top copywriters to write an ad for the same book. The ad with the better conversion rate won and became the “control.”
In this "there can be only one" scenario, how do you beat your competitor?
You outwork them. But working harder doesn’t mean working more hours.
"I worked three hours a day every single day for five days a week. That’s all I worked." - Eugene Schwartz
It’s not the number of hours you work. It’s the work you do on those hours. And what work is that? Thorough research. You must be more accurate and knowledgeable than anyone you come against.
Let’s take a look at the process he followed to write a promotion and beat his competition.
Eugene’s writing process
Project: A health-related 1,100 pages manuscript.
Deadline: 5 weeks
Here are a couple of things you need to know to understand his writing process better:
- A standard direct mail promotion contained the following elements:
- An envelope
- A series of letters, fliers, sub-fliers, and inserts
- An order blank
- Copy is not written. Copy is assembled.
- Don’t expect a linear process. It isn’t.
With five weeks to write the promotion for a 1,100 pages manuscript, how did he distribute his time?
Well, the first two weeks went to research. He would take the manuscript and read it page by page underlining the claims.
He started without knowing anything about the manuscript. He was looking for the surprise effect without the influence of the author or the editor. He read and took notes of everything that caught his attention.
When an idea popped up, he made a note on a piece of paper.
The next step was to send the underlined manuscript to his secretary to type everything he had underlined. From 1,100 pages, he will end up with fifty or sixty pages to work with. Those pages contained the strongest points made in the book.
The research part was finished.
Organization and analysis of the fifty or sixty pages came next. One week of work. He started once again at the beginning organizing, selecting, and connecting one claim with the other. By the end of that week, he had a rough ad.
Three weeks had passed, two more weeks to go.
Time to start writing.
The following quote is crucial to understand how Eugene viewed copywriting:
“Copy is not written. If anyone tells you ‘you write copy’, sneer at them. Copy is not written. Copy is assembled. You do not write copy, you assemble it. You are working with a series of building blocks, you are putting the building blocks together, and then you are putting them in certain structures, you are building a little city of desire for your person to come and live in.”
He started with the claims, choosing first the most unusual and powerful ones. From there, he alternated between writing the envelope, the letter, the flyer, and so on.
One more week goes by. One to go.
At this point, his promotion is not finished yet but has the final structure in place.
He takes the manuscript and his notes again. Goes over them one more time, making sure he didn't miss any important points and making the necessary adjustments.
When the fifth week arrives, the copy is done and sent.
By this point, Eugene claimed to know the book better than the editor.
This is what makes success. That’s how you beat your competitors.
Say goodbye to writer’s block
Eugene wrote hundreds of ads, ten books, and multiple articles. He worked under a lot of pressure on projects where there was a lot of money involved. He never had writer's block. He never stared at the page for more than a few minutes.
Every morning, he went to the same desk where he had written for the past 28 or so years. With a coffee, a pitcher of cream, three pens, and his secret weapon… a timer.
He would sit and set the timer for 33.33 minutes. He didn’t move from his chair. In a couple of minutes, boredom made him look at the copy. Soon something would catch his attention.
For 33.33 minutes, his focus was only on the copy.
When the timer rang. He stopped working and took a five minutes break.
He repeated the same process again until he completed his three daily hours of work.
Working Vs. Creating… There’s a difference and you should know it.
Your focused mind works.
Your unfocused mind creates.
You should know when you are working and when you are creating.
When working, you work with material someone else has prepared and put together. It can be a manuscript, a course, or product documentation. That’s the 1,100 pages manuscript we talked about. This material by itself is not enough to sell the product. You need more.
That’s when creating comes in.
Eugene despised the word creativity because for him the word had no image inside of it. He preferred the use of operational words. So, for him, creativity is connectivity.
Connectivity is the ability to take two ideas that already exist and put them together. You connect two separate ideas that logically would not go together until that moment.
To navigate from the focused to the unfocused state, he worked on three projects simultaneously. He worked on one book, one ad, and one article. One hour on each.
Getting the reader from opening the envelope to the order blank
Even if you don’t write direct mail promos, this section contains important lessons. If you want people to read your emails, your articles, watch your videos, or listen to your podcasts, don’t skip this.
A typical direct mail promotion contains the following:
- An envelope
- A series of letters, fliers, sub-fliers, and inserts
- An order blank
The copywriter must get people from the envelope to the order blank. All the things in between are there to help him do that.
If you are writing an article or an email, you need to move your reader from the headline or subject line to your call to action.
The envelope is the equivalent of your headline or subject line.
The order blank is your call to action (subscribe, start the trial, buy, read more).
All the material in between is the body copy of your landing page, sales page, email, or article.
There are three essentials questions you need to ask yourself:
- What does the headline do?
- How long should your copy be?
- Who are you writing to? What is your audience for this?
What does the headline do?
Eugene believed the headline's job was to get the reader to read the sentence underneath the headline. The job of the underneath sentence was to make you read the next sentence. That next sentence's job is to make you read the next one, and so on.
You get the reader into the habit of reading one line after the other.
In direct mail, the envelope contains one or more messages whose purpose is to make the reader open the envelope.
When they open the envelope, they find a series of fliers, inserts, and letters, depending on the mailing piece sent. These materials have to do two things:
- Pile belief upon belief upon belief, desire upon desire, upon desire.
- Give your prospect an escape route. Some people will read all your copy. Others just some of it. And that will be enough, especially if you have a guarantee in place.
How long should your copy be?
As long as you need to contain the claims. Just remember that your reader can stop reading at any time, so provide enough information on the envelope, on the first page of the letter, and a flier for them to want to try the product. In a mail-order you never sell, you ask the person to try the product.
Who are you writing to? What is your audience for this?
You’re writing to an individual, a single person who shares a problem or desire with a huge mass of other people.
Linking the problem with the person reading your copy leads you to the most powerful word in the English language, YOU.
Edit your copy so all "Thes" are "Yous.” It's not the face or the hands. It's your face or your hands.
Know that person so well that you sound like her.
Knowing your audience means reading what they read, watching the tv shows and movies they watch, listen to the music they listen to.
When you write your copy, think in dramatic terms. Your reader is in the center and you are presenting him with the opportunity to go to Heaven and escape Hell.
For example, the absolute agony of arthritis versus a pain-free healthy life for the next fifty years.
Heaven and Hell. You talk in dramatic terms.
- Eugene highlights the importance of research. You know the saying “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”? Well, research is you sharpening your axe. It’s 80-90% of your copywriting work.
- Copy is not written. Copy is assembled. You take the building blocks and structure them in a way that drives your reader from your headline to your call to action.
- You don’t have to follow a linear process. Give yourself the flexibility and freedom to follow a non-linear process when writing.
- The power of the ad is in the product itself. Not the copywriter. The copywriter simply finds it and expresses it. Research helps you do that.
- Your headline's job is to get the reader to read the sentence underneath the headline. Get the reader into the habit of reading one line after the other.
- Your copy should be as long as needed to present all your claims. Just remember that your reader can stop reading at any time, so provide enough information at the beginning.
- Listen to the person that has the problem you want to solve. Know that person so well that you sound like her. Customer research (message mining, surveys, and interviews) can help you understand your prospect’s pains, desires, needs, and wants.
- "You" is the most powerful word in the English language. Edit your copy so “thes” are “yous”
If you want to watch the Rodale Press workshop, go here: Rodale Press