Snooze Tip

Quick piece of advice for struggling writers — never try to write while you’re tired.

Very simple tip, very much ignored.

It’s because the physical and mental mechanics of writing are not clearly understood by most people. Early in my career, I met up with bosses and veeps of marketing who demanded that writers working for them produce copy under ridiculous conditions that ruined any chance of real success.

Often, the guys in charge had never written a piece of copy in their lives, and never intended to. They regarded the ability to craft a sales pitch as something mysterious and magical… but not particularly special. It was just something the geeks with the typewriters did, and was not a talent worth any respect.

This kind of idiocy is rampant in business.

The worst example was a veep at a major agency I was doing freelance work for. He had two staff writers under his cruel command, and he insisted they work in a small, windowless room with their desks facing each other. No talking. Only one piece of paper allowed on the desk at any time. No photos on the wall were allowed, and when one of the writers brought in her own lamp to work under, he flew into a rage.

And he made it clear he wanted copy being written every time he stuck his head in the door. God forbid either of them got caught sitting back and thinking.

It was like a cell in a Stalin gulag.

No wonder they had to hire expensive freelancers like me. Those two staff writers couldn’t form a decent thought in that environment, let alone write brilliant copy.

Worse, though, was the way they were forced to show up each day at 8 a.m., with tie cinched (or, in the woman’s case, stuffed into panythose under a crisp dress)… and then slog away at writing until the scheduled breaks at 10, noon, 3 and then 5 were announced.

The writers were constantly complaining of feeling exhausted, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. How hard can it be to string a few sentences together, they were asked. Stop complaining. Write sales copy.

As a freelancer, I was under no restrictions to the way I wrote. All I had to do was meet the deadline… and, in those early years, I often wrote all night, and slept until early afternoon. I was experimenting with finding my groove, and I refused to force any writing at all.

David Ogilvy, the advertising legend who brought genuine excitement and classic salesmanship to Madison Avenue, wrote about the value of naps for a writer. He wasn’t referring to not being tired, but rather to using the power of your unconscious — his trick was to load up on information about a project… and then go catch forty winks, telling his mind to have something for him when he awoke.

It made sense to me. Your brain isn’t a muscle — it’s a complex beast different than any other organ on the planet. It can store, process, and create massive quantities of original material… whole worlds of possibility, vast universes of thoughts and ideas.

Western businessmen are loathe to try anything that smacks of mysticism, especially when the bottom line is at stake. They distrust anything they can’t physically control… so the concept of “allowing” the unconscious mind free rein with the sales pitch scares the hell out most of them.

And yet… it works. I’ve done it a thousand times (maybe more, over the course of twenty years as a writer). Stuff my head with info… and then go nap for however long my system requires it. Twenty minutes or two hours, it doesn’t matter.

And when I wake up, I make sure I’ve put a pen and paper nearby… because the headlines and copy will come gushing out. I seldom capture it all, but I’ve learned to get most of it.

While you’re awake — and especially while you’re struggling with ideas — you’re your own worst enemy. Our conscious minds can be stubborn things, mired in beliefs and protocols that handcuff real creativity.

Asleep, however, our deeper selves take over.

It’s the real “hidden genius” inside all of us — our unconscious mind.

You can do the stuffing of info while you’re tired. That’s more or less grunt work — read the reports, log the statistics, interview people on the phone.

But you should NEVER attemtp to do actual writing while stifling a yawn. For an experienced writer, being tired is a signal it’s time to take a long break, including a nap. Let things simmer, settle, and process themselves in your head.

For the inexperienced writer, however, panic often settles in. They just wanna get the thing written, and THEN they’ll take a break.


Tired, you will struggle with copy for three hours… and it won’t be anywhere near as good as the fifteen minutes of writing you do after an hour’s nap.

Even with morning deadlines looming, I never hesitate to crawl into the sack and fall into a dream. I still set the alarm for a few hours later, but I almost always jolt awake before it goes off — my brain is aware of what’s up. And it’s busy the entire time I’m snoozing, sorting through concepts and ideas and copy angles and especially headlines.

Doubt this advice if you must. Most of the struggling writers I meet are skeptical, and afraid to try it out. The Puritan “work ethic” has settled deep in our souls, and naps are considered a waste of time at best… and an evil cop-out at worst. I’ve had writers laugh at the suggestion. (Never the top ones, though.)

It’s not magic, kids. And it’s not being lazy (though I do consider myself mostly lazy… which is why I never hesitate to employ shortcuts like this).

It’s just using the tools you have.

Your brain is not a muscle. It’s more like a fantastic little city of libraries, warehouses, and think tanks. And every elf slaving away there is both smarter than you are, and yet dedicated to you completely.

Most of the writing you struggle to create while tired will have to be thrown away. It’ll be garbage.

Most of the writing I’ve captured after a “working nap” has stayed (with some editing) in my final piece.

Think about that.

Now, I’m gonna go curl up with the terrier and let the elves figure out another project for me.

Stay frosty.

Oh wait… almost forgot.

I’ve gotten a ton of comments about the seminar I’m starting to plan for this coming March. It won’t be just on copywriting. Right now, I’m considering the logistics of doing total marketing makeovers for all attendees — just roll up my sleeves and dig into each business as if they were actual clients. That means we’d cover the details of your Web presence (including your copy for Adwords and other traffic generation)… your entire marketing overview (which lists to hit, how to position yourself within your niche, how to mix in email with direct mail and other media, etc)… and, of course, your USP and specific benefits, promises and copy angles to take in headlines and body copy.

All specific and targeted to you, the attendee.

It’s a lot to cover, so if I do this, I’ll have to severely limit attendance. That also means the price might be a slight shock… but of course no matter what the entrance fee ends up being, it’s just a short-term investment in your future success.

If you’ve had a chance to read any of the testimonials from the folks who’ve attended my other two seminars (I so rarely give them), you know they go home on fire with ideas and specific plans. Not vague theories or stacks of notes that need “digesting”. Real, useable tactics and details that can be put in place Monday morning.

Plus, of course, watching me go deep with each project is a priceless education in “figuring marketing stuff out” — it’s how I got good at it in the first place. You can read every book on the subject, and even do it for your own biz… but the huge leaps in expertise only happen when you see the tactics applied to a whole bunch of different markets.

That’s why, in my first years as a freelancer, I immediately agreed to swap free copywriting for Jay Abraham in exchange for free run of his office. For several years, I never earned a dime from my work with him… but by sitting in on meetings and watching him consult and go through the process of taking raw material and turning it into actual marketing plans, I knew I was putting a fortune in the bank.

When I later signed on with Gary Halbert, I accepted the generous money he paid me (including the royalties)… but I would have done the work for free, just for the opportunity to see how he operated. It was utterly different than Jay’s method… and that’s why I bring something unique to the table. I had the benefit of being mentored by two of the most wildly opposite geniuses in the biz.

Most of the “guru’s” out there will try to tell you there’s just one way to do anything. It’s nonsense — once you have experience in the real world of business, you are free to operate without restrictions (or a net). Because, as the wise old pro’s know, there is ALWAYS a way to make a project work… even if the accepted methods fail.

The winners in any market are the guys with the deepest bag of tricks. The ideologues go the way of the dinosaurs.

Anyway, I’m not yet accepting reservations for the seminar. Don’t even have the exact date down — sometime in March, here in Reno.

More on this as I figure it out.

John Carlton

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  • Ryan Healy says:

    I’ve recently begun experimenting with subconscious copy. I love it. Just like you said, fill your brain up with info… let your subconscious go to work… and out comes some of the best copy you’ve ever seen.

    My last two projects have gone wonderfully because of this.

    And speaking of writing while tired… I have some copywriting friends pulling all-nighters, writing for 24 hours straight.

    How the hell do they do that?

    As soon as I’m tired, I’m done. If I try to write, it’s like I’ve forgotten how to write.

    “Try” is the key word. When I’m writing my best, I don’t have to try. It just happens. Anytime I’m trying, the copy just ain’t that great.

  • […] As John Carlton pointed out, you need to be fully rested in order to operate at peak effectiveness and efficiency. And the more you push yourself, the more tired you get, the worse you will perform. We assume that if we work an extra hour, we can just get that last chapter done, or get that last feature implemented. And everything in our industries push us to that conclusion. But it’s wrong, dead wrong. […]

  • dmh says:


    I really should have read this before I nailed myself to the desk all day – despite being washed-out and tired.

    Often you know something, but until someone else says it, you just don’t take your own advice.

    I’m off to bed. thanks.

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