The Origin of Copywriting Swipe Files and How To Use Them the Right Way

Swipe files.
Some copywriters love them.
Some hate them with passion.

A swipe file is a collection of copywriting samples (headlines, sales letters, ads, ideas, offers, and other promotional material) you compile for further study or inspiration. 

Gary Halbert was, according to his son Bon, the one popularizing the term "swipe file." There's a chance he coined the term. I found no evidence to the contrary and, having read his letters, it seems quite plausible.

In his letters, Gary recommends creating a “swipe file” of good headlines, ads, sales letters, TV commercials, offers, and so on. It’s something he emphasizes several times as part of your prep work.  

It's important to understand the original intended use of a swipe file because a lot of people get this wrong.

Before the internet era, finding ads meant diving into physical direct mail, magazines, and newspapers. They were the go-to places for knowing what was trending and how products were marketed.

Gary used to go through publications like National Enquirer, Star, Globe, Weekly World News, and Reader’s Digest. If a campaign kept popping up, it meant it was workingSo he'd pull out that ad from the magazine and put it in a box with other successful promotions. That’s what the "swipe" was. You grabbed the ad page and stowed it away in a box to revisit it later for inspiration.

But let's be clear: swiping was never about stealing other people’s copy or copying word by word a successful ad. It wasn’t about plagiarizing. It was about learning from what worked and applying it to your own copy.

Gary's famous '3x5' index cards were part of his swipe file. He had hundreds of index cards with headlines in them.

Even after years and years of writing copy, Gary still did this every time he sat down to write a sales letter. He'd grab his headline cards, his one hundred pages of bullet points, and hundreds of masterpiece letters, and immersed himself in all this material.

How to use a swipe file today

If you want to take Gary’s approach, start by doing your research and writing your first draft. Then, take your swipe file and identify elements you forgot to add. Or things you should cut from your copy.

A-list copywriters don’t start their promotions by modeling someone else’s work. Their aim is to create something unique. If you want your copy to be unique, don’t start by diving into your swipe files. 

Some copywriters and marketers try to imitate what works. If they need to write promotional material for, let's say, a dental practice, they'll take existing promotions and create something similar. The reasoning being, “if it works for them, it'd work for me.“ But, in doing so, they forget to add their personal touch.

Others use swipe files at the beginning of the project for inspiration, or when they are stuck and need fresh ideas. 

As long as you don’t steal other people's work, take whatever approach works best for you. 

Creating your own swipe file

Evernote, Notion, Pinterest, and Trello, are some of the tools people use to create their swipe files. 

Personally, I save them on One Drive inside a folder called My Swipe File and organize them in subfolders (headlines, offers, guarantees, and so on.)

I take screenshots of selected areas or save the whole page. Sometimes I do both.

When it comes to emails, I've created an email account for that purpose where I send the emails I want to keep.

What should you keep? Ideally, successful copywriting pieces. Those proven to work. They are usually the "controls" (the ones that got the best conversion.) But the reality is you don't always have this information.

In general, keep anything that catches your attention for one reason or another, and promotions you see appearing several times with no change or minimal ones.

Try to subscribe to lists from different industries (financial, beauty, fitness, SaaS, supplements) so you get a diversity of copywriting styles. 

And don't forget to check swipe files out there. See my list of Best Copywriting Swipe Files.