One Thing & Another

Word for the Wise

Claque (KLAK) – a group hired to applaud; a group of sycophants. Example as used by Charles P. Pierce in an Esquire article titled “Nobody Knows How to Play This Game Anymore”: “The bill passed the House because the Freedom Caucus, that claque of unreconstructed extremists who hold the balance of power there, gave in a little.”

 Did You Know…?

Cats spend 66% of their lives sleeping.


From My “Work-in-Progress” Basket

Principles of Wealth: #10 of 61

Wealth is neither absolute nor objective. This is so because those things that we value are by nature relative and subjective.

Your Richard Mille watch cost you $35,000 when you bought it 10 years ago, when the company first came into the public view. It worked no better than a $35 Casio. In fact, it worked considerably worse. You had to have it repaired twice and were charged several thousand dollars to do so. If the value you attached to your watch was pragmatic – keeping time and cost of use over 10 years – you’d feel the money you spent was a hugely foolish mistake.

But the company poured millions into advertising and became a status symbol, particularly among wealthy athletes and rap stars. It also raised its prices considerably. The current range is $250,000 and upwards.

Now you are told you can sell your “vintage, first edition” Richard Mille on the secondary market and walk away with $85,000 in cold cash.

Will you do it? That depends on how much you value its objective qualities of reliability and cost of use versus the subjective qualities of beauty, complexity, and prestige.


 He Did What?

Although I haven’t written much advertising these past 20 years, I did more than a bit of it for a 10-year stretch during the 1980s. After that, I coached and mentored copywriters, and between 2000 and 2010 wrote a few books on the subject.

Writing persuasive copy was probably the single strongest money-making skill I had back then. And it accounted for the lion’s share of my earnings. But I was always a little embarrassed to admit that it was my primary job. Today, copywriters are looked upon much like actors were during Elizabethan times: otherwise reproachable lowlifes in possession of commercially valuable talents and abilities.

I do remember when, besieged by such opinion, I look refuge in remembering that one of my favorite writers, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) spent many early years writing copy to make ends meet. And he wasn’t the only one.

Here are some other respectable (and in some cases venerated) folks that worked as copywriters before achieving fame in a non-advertising career:

* Sherwood Anderson, author

* Helen Gurley Brown, former publisher and editor (Cosmopolitan)

* Gary Comer, founder of Lands’ End

* Don DeLillo, author

* F. Scott Fitzgerald, author

* Terry Gilliam, director and animator

* Alec Guinness, actor

* Dashiell Hammett, author

* Hugh Hefner, publisher (Playboy)

* Joseph Heller, author

* Tim Kazurinsky, comedian

* Rick Moranis, actor

* Ogden Nash, poet

* Bob Newhart, comedian and actor

* Salmon Rushdie, author

* Dorothy L. Sayers, author

* Fay Weldon, author

Look at This…


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How to Beat the Best

It’s always good to get a compliment.

When I rewrote the lead for a promotion that “GX”, a successful copywriter, had been paid to write for one of my clients a few years ago, I felt good about my revision. The sales copy GX had sent in was standard, run-of-the-mill professional palaver. My take on it felt fresh and strong. It was better.

But when I sent it back to my client, I was worried that GX might not like the fact that I had changed it so much. Perhaps he would feel slighted and reject it. We couldn’t force him to accept my changes. If he insisted on going with his original submission, my client would be in an awkward position: She could risk offending a potentially good source of future copy… or she could mail what we both believed was weaker copy and suffer the economic consequences.

Luckily, she didn’t have to make that choice. After reading my new lead (along with my suggestions on how to finish out the rest of the package), GX wrote:

I thought: “Why couldn’t I write it like that?”… but then I realized that’s why Mark is so successful. I’m honored that he took the time to do it… I appreciate the effort… my challenge now is to make the rest as strong as Mark’s contribution… make us all proud.

This story has two morals.

The first is about ego and its opposite – i.e., humility. The greatest challenges we face in life are obstacles that reside inside of us. When it comes to learning a complicated skill like writing (copywriting, editorial writing, writing for blogs, e-zines, books, etc.), the one thing that will keep you from learning it quickly is hubris.

Hubris is Aristotle’s term for excessive, blinding pride. It is the fatal flaw that foiled many tragic heroes in literature, from Oedipus to King Lear to Captain Ahab. When writers believe – or desperately want to believe (which is sometimes worse) – that their writing is above reproach, they cannot possibly get better.

And what is true for writers is equally true for musicians, tennis players, salsa dancers, sumo wrestlers, and skateboarders. Those who are willing to say “I can do better” do better. Those who say “I am the greatest” soon take a tumble.

What you want in your career is the confidence that follows accomplishment, not the pride that precedes a fall.

When I saw the note that GX wrote, I was mildly flattered by the compliment. But what really made me happy was his willingness to agree that my copy was better… and challenge himself to write better copy himself.

So that’s the first lesson: No matter how good you are at what you do, there’s someone out there who can teach you something.
Think about your strongest skill – the talent or capability that is most important to the achievement of your main goal. Now ask: “Am I willing to acknowledge that there are people in my universe who are better at this?”

If you can confidently accept the limitations of your strongest skill, there is no limit to how far you can develop it.

And now we come to the second moral of this story: The only good way to improve a skill is to practice it. Reading about it is certainly helpful. Talking about it with people who are experts may work too. But no amount of reading and talking will do nearly as much as regular, focused practice.

And that’s what GX should know about his future as a copywriter. If he continues to practice his craft – while taking advantage of everything he can learn from more experienced and skillful copywriters – the likelihood that he will be great one day is better than 99 percent.

I am certain of that. Why? Because I have seen it happen. I have worked with more than a dozen copywriters over the years who have moved from bad to pretty good (and GX is pretty good)… and then from pretty good to very good… and then from very good to better than the best. All it takes is practice.

With practice and a willingness to keep learning, GX will almost certainly surpass some of the best copywriters in the business.

It is just a matter of time.

Here’s something else to consider:

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I had the feeling that Steve didn’t believe me. But I had no idea he would go behind my back to try to prove me wrong.

It was the spring of 1999. Steve had recently been hired by my client to write an investment newsletter. He had the qualifications: an MBA and Ph.D. from good schools, experience both in the front and back rooms of brokerages. But he didn’t want to sell stocks. He wanted to write about them.

When I saw his first effort I was impressed. The analysis was sound. The research was deep. There was only one problem. His writing was terrible.

It wasn’t sloppy or illogical or even ungrammatical. But it was incomprehensible. It read like a treatise. It was the kind of writing that you might get away with in academia but could never pull off in the real world.

I called him into my office and told him about my secret antidote for writing like his: the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test. The FK is a computerized tool that looks at the length of your sentences, how many syllables there are in each word, and other data. It then rates the entire piece in terms of reading ease. A rating of 5.0 or below is very easy to read. A rating of 10.0 or above is very difficult to read. A score between 5.0 and 10.0 is what you’ll find in most newspapers and magazines.

I explained to Steve that my goal is to keep my writing – no matter how complicated the ideas I’m trying to express – at 7.5 or below.

Then we analyzed Steve’s writing. It had an FK of 12.0. Almost off the chart.

“You won’t get a big audience with such a high FK score,” I said. “You have to work on simplifying your writing. Get your FK down to 7.5. You’ll be a better writer, have more readers, and make more money.”

He thanked me for the advice. But, as I said, I could tell he didn’t believe me. What I didn’t find out until years later was that he spent almost two months trying to disprove what I’d told him.

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How to Enjoy the Writer’s Life — Even If You Can’t Write Like a Professional

The most productive and, next to JK Rowling, richest writer in the world is James Patterson.

If you don’t recognize the name, he is the author of Don’t Blink and The Postcard Killers, as well as 48 other books that have been bestsellers in the past 10 years.

By almost any measure, Patterson is a hugely successful writer. But he doesn’t have the attributes that one would typically expect: a brilliant mind, a passion for his work, etc.

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How to Fix Your Business in Seven Days

Your business is struggling. You are not sure what the problem is. Everything you look at is okay, but not great.

You have made suggestions in the past, some of which have been followed, others ignored. There has been some improvement here and there but nothing substantial. You know what it feels like when your business is in a groove. Your business is not in a groove.

What do you do?

Here’s an idea I got from John Forde, the copywriter, with some post-conversation embellishments of my own.

John’s idea is to makeover you business in seven days. John points out that there is genius in limiting the change to 7 days because it forces you to pay close attention to the most important things.

The model for the 7 day business, John suggested, are the reality shows where some expert comes into some situation – a house in need of repair, a love affair gone wrong, a hair saloon in decline – and fixes it.

I thought it would be fun to explain this idea using one such show I’ve seen and enjoy: Hell’s Kitchen – in which Gordon Ramsay, the celebrity chef, spends a week in a troubled restaurant and completely revamps the place in that short amount time. Then do the same thing with your business.

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How to Write A Good Headline

This is about headlines, particularly headlines for materials that sell health supplements, but there are lessons here for every headline writer. The headlines I’m going to quote come from Mike Pavlish, a successful copywriter who claims that they made him “$4 million in royalties.”

Mike correctly says that headlines are critical. He alludes to John Caples, a famous dead copywriter, who claimed that headlines “can pull 19 times more response than another headline with no other change in the copywriting or offer.”

“Without a great headline,” Mike says, “you are like the person who brings a knife to a gunfight – defeated before you even start.”

That said, let’s take a look at 10 of Mike’s headlines that performed very well…

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