If you’re writing copy by hand, put that sales letter down right now and hear me out.
Many novice copywriters practice writing sales copy using this approach. But I’m going to show you why this approach doesn’t make sense. After that, if you’re a big believer in the 80/20 principle, I’m going to show you an even better way of how to practice writing copy. A way that’ll help you improve your copywriting skills dramatically… without having to copy a single ad. Ever.
Why the hand-copying method does not work
I get it. If you’re new to copywriting, this method might sound appealing. “Sit and copy the words all day and you’ll become a master copywriter in no time!”
The problem with this approach? No analogous creative vocation lets you become a great X simply by copying someone else.
Take fiction writing, for instance. Do you see a single writing teacher educating future writers how to write by telling them, “Just copy Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’, and you’ll be writing like him in no time!”?
That’s because it doesn’t work.
It hasn’t worked elsewhere, and this blind and lazy approach has produced “copywriters” who don’t understand basic sales psychology. (The “copy” in “copywriting” isn’t meant to be literal!)
Yes, it helps to study great ads. Even the classic ones. (A few copywriters snub their nose at studying old ads. But for creative ideation? Few approaches are better at jogging your creative engine than reviewing old ads.)
But shutting your brain off and copying great ads by hand will only make you a great copier. To become a master copywriter, it makes sense to first understand what makes great copy.
Let’s take a cursory look, and then I’ll introduce you to the method I use to study copywriting.
A few components that make for great copy
Frameworks are great for writing copy. Some copywriters call these formulas, but that’s incorrect. Frameworks encompass the entire message. Not just the headline, and not just the call-to-action (CTA). (You can’t write a landing page or a sales letter without one.)
Frameworks make sure everything flows, and in the correct sequence. Compare that to formulas, which you can use to further several goals, the main one of which is to gain attention. You can also use them to sustain attention and enhance the emotional appeal.
Example Frameworks that work:
- AIDA. (Attention-Interest-Desire-Action.) Grab your target audience’s Attention, continue to build Interest, and then Desire, before prompting Action.
Variations of this framework are famous, but this is the standard framework. It was immortalized as the classic framework in David Mamet’s must-watch flick “Glengarry Glen Ross”, about an agency of real estate agents.
- PAS. (Problem-Agitate-Solution.) Identify the Problem (pain point) your target audience is experiencing, Agitate by digging deeper, then tie the offer as the natural and most obvious Solution.
You could argue that these two frameworks are one and the same. But that’s what “frameworks” are. They’re guidelines that help you “frame” something, not hard rules. In that sense, AIDA and PAS serve different purposes. It’s not necessary for AIDA to grab attention with a problem, but it can do so with an emotional appeal.
Example Formulas that work:
Formulas are best reserved for headlines (to gain your target audience’s attention).
- Personal Challenge. The most famous example off the top of my head: “Do you make these mistakes in English?” This one challenges the target audience’s ego.
- Test-Drive Question. “How would making $200,000 dollars in 2 weeks change your life?” or “What would your friends say if you lost 10 pounds in 8 weeks?” Invite your target to imagine a scene (also known as future-scaping.)
- Social Proof. Testimonials and associated logos are a staple of any self-respecting sales page.
- Curiosity. This one’s my favorite. In fact, the Curiosity appeal is a bit like a wildcard. You can apply it in combination with pretty much any other appeal to make it even more powerful.
I can’t blame you if you missed it. The Personal Challenge example from earlier? (“Do you make these mistakes in English?”) It includes the Curiosity appeal, which makes it a stronger headline. No one would remember this headline if it read, “Do you make mistakes in English?”
We’ll review tactics and tools—like pattern interruptors and headline analyzers—in another article. I mention them here to show that you should be adding them to your arsenal. An organized arsenal is what makes a great copywriter. Whenever they begin writing copy, they can use whatever they need with ease.
(I’ve gotten lost plenty of times with copy. I’ve even forgotten to include the most basic elements, like testimonials, in landing pages. Haha! Silly. I know. Just goes to show how important getting organized is. You can read the importance of testimonials 1,000 times. If you don’t remember it when it counts, you might as well have never read it.)
The APF system: A scientifically proven approach to practice writing copy
The APF system is the approach I use. It comes in three parts, each of them a process on its own. Here I provide a brief overview to give you an idea of how and why this works.
The first part is Analysis.
Don’t analyze only the “best” ads by reading and copying them. That’s not how analysis works. A better way is to read, for exampthe headline, and then ask yourself, “Does this work? If it does, why? If it doesn’t, why not? And how can I make it better?”
You can practice by trying to beat it. Of course, you should also try to identify the underlying psychological triggers.
Don’t just analyze the best ads.
So many copywriters focus on only the classics. This is a wasted opportunity. In high school, I learned how to write well by focusing on good and bad writing. You learn from what not to do as much as from what you should do.
To neglect bad ads that can be educational is to do yourself a major disservice. So study ads, but in all forms. The good and the bad, as long as they’ve got something to teach you.
And make sure to create a swipe file. Your swipes shouldn’t just include sales letters and social media ads, but also a list of power words you want to test out.
The second part: Practice.
I take Ann Handley’s advice on practicing. Instead of setting a time goal of, say, 1 to 2 hours a day, set a word-count goal, or number-of-ads goal. I aim for between 500 and 1,000 words per day. I’m currently trying to ramp this up to a full 1,000 words per day, so I can publish more consistently.
The third part is the most important: Feedback.
Not all feedback has equal value. There’s bad feedback, and there’s good feedback. The best way to learn anything is through immediate and constructive feedback. It’s when people have invested time and energy into sharing thoughts that are considerate, helpful, and actionable.
It means you learn something from it, and that’s how you improve.
Feedback online doesn’t usually look like this. Unconstructive feedback can look like, “Haha! That’s terrible. Why don’t you hire an editor? I’m available for X.”
Steer clear of such toxic people. They are a cancer to your productivity. Once you can develop a process for exchanging feedback, you’ll be able to improve and gain confidence real quick.
By the way, I say “exchange” feedback because you learn a lot not only from receiving feedback, but from giving it as well.
Are you convinced by the APF system?
The APF system is based on…
– Sound approaches to teaching that have been used to train analysts and critical theorists for decades
– Combined with my own learning experience from my undergrad studies and Master’s program in Writing.
This means it has a sound scientific basis that leans on proven approaches to learning. By no means am I saying that this is the most efficient way to learn how to write copy. It is, though, a copywriting approach that makes sense and works not only for copy, but for all forms of writing.