Absolutely Perfect

I woke up today thinking about perfectionism.

God knows, I’m the last guy on earth who would ever get tagged as a perfectionist… except when it comes to writing.

I’m sloppy and generally lazy — my desk looks like a bomb went off, and I have dusty stacks of files and books next to my bookcase that have been awaiting attention for six months. I would have made a good ape in the jungle, happily lounging around munching bananas all day and flicking at fleas.

But when it comes to writing, editing and re-writing… I turn into Mr. Type A Obsessive-Compulsive Perfectionist.

I’m still dressed in grungy sweats, barefoot and looking like I just crawled out of bed… but once I bring up a document and start punching keys, I’m focused and merciless about making the words work.

This is one of the big stumbling blocks my copywriting students encounter. I repeatedly talk about the need to rewrite and edit… and even insist that they use complete sentences in all email correspondence with me… and most just think I’m kidding.

I’m not.

As a raw rookie freelancer, I would work on copy until my eyes bled… desperate to make sure there were no typo’s or misspellings or — worst of all — any instances of not being clear and easily understood.

I knew that a great sales pitch depended on clarity. And I learned, as I worked on more and more jobs, that my brain loved to clog up clear thinking with obtuse metaphors and clunky anecdotes. It’s just something our brains enjoy doing.

Rule Number One: There is NEVER room for a tangential story in a good sales pitch. Your copy should be like a greased slide — the reader climbs on through the very first words you hook him with, and is taken on a brisk, thrilling ride through the pitch with no chance to catch his breath.

By the time he arrives at your offer, he should be in a state of near-frenzy, desperate to have your product in his hands and terrified he may miss out if he dallies.

Most rookies interrupt this mad rush to go off on irrelevant tangents. In essence (and I’ve seen these very words in a bad pitch), you’re saying “Hold that thought, for a minute… while I tell you about something else entirely.”

In a sales pitch, you will murder results by doing that. Introducing an irrelevant story, or going off on some tangent that stops the momentum, is like throwing a bucket of ice water on your reader.

You’re after that passionate sweet spot in his soul. Passion is slow to get fired up, and quick to cool.

If it helps to look at your copy in another way, try this: Many of the best copywriters consider their pitch as a quasi-sexual encounter with a prospect, through words. You use teasing foreplay to get the mood right… turn up the heat as you approach the climax of the offer… and make it clear that any relief from the tension and anticipation will not come until the order is complete.

Think about how you’ve felt during a good sales transaction. It’s a visceral experience. Taking cash or a credit card out of your wallet, and giving it to another person, is one of the toughest human interactions to trigger.

It’s not just your head and your wallet involved. It’s your heart, your ape-brain, your cerebral cortex, your blood pressure, your soul.

Weak writing won’t cut it.

That’s why my most common advice to rookies is to rewrite more. Edit more viciously. And don’t let an ad out of your hands until you would bet your life on it working — the old “Gun To The Head” process.

I mentioned that, as a rookie myself, I edited until my eyes bled.

I really thought I was working hard. And then… I started ghost-writing for established professionals.

Boy, was I in for a surprise.

In the upper echelons of the copywriting world, it is not uncommon for top writers to rewrite a piece twenty times. Or to craft a hundred good headlines before choosing the best one. Or to edit obsessively for days, sweating over every word, every subhead, every detail of the sales process.

This confuses many beginning writers. They see perfectionism in writing as being “hard”… and this flies in the face of promises by teachers like me that it’s actually “easy”.

Well, guess what?

It IS easy. When I rewrite a headline for the twentieth time, or change a verb in the opening sentence for the eighth time, or edit out a paragraph (or even several pages) I’ve deemed excessive or unnecessary… I’m not groaning or suffering.

I love to edit, in fact. It’s like polishing a statue I’ve just chiseled. I know that with each pass, I’m making my copy more clear and my sales pitch more effective.

Rewards are in store.

What’s hard is to slam out a few pages of sloppy ad copy, run it through spell-check, refuse to dig in with any editing… and then expect it to rock the world.

There’s an exquisite sense of accomplishment in crafting a single killer sentence. To be clearly understood is a key to moving ahead in business, and in life.

If you want to be a writer, you must write. Writing is not just typing words out in succession.

No. It’s communicating. Clearly.

If your copy isn’t clear right now, you need to spend more time editing and rewriting. If you want to be a professional writer — either freelancing or writing real ads for your own business — then you need to toss all your reluctance to polish what you write.

Even your emails. I am in touch with dozens and dozens of professionals… and NONE of the best write sloppy emails, no matter how casual the missive is. They never rely on sickly-cute “emoticons”, either, to get their point across — those 🙁 and 😉 smiley-face thingies.

If they want to be funny, they write funny stuff. If they are disappointed, they make it clear with their choice of words. And they don’t use “texting” spelling shortcuts to do it.

Why not? Because great writing isn’t about small talk or “too hip, gotta run” attitudes.

You don’t sell tons of product by casually hooking-up with prospects.

You do it by communicating, clearly and effectively. It’s not “hard”, either, once you get over your bad habits and install the good habits of great writers.

Sweat over your words a little bit. Each one matters.

Stay frosty.

John Carlton

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  • michael says:

    All great points … and purposely misspelling “message” with “missive” just added to the impact of this post … ” no matter how casual the missive is.” [Note from John: Nope, missive is the right word. Look it up. It should be in your vocabulary…]

  • Mark says:

    Thanks for sharing those thoughts, John. I’m a writer from a different arena just starting to approach copywriting, and that clarifies the relationship between copywriter and audience more clearly than anything else I’ve read so far–at least in a way that caught my attention. I think I’ll try listening to Side A of Led Zeppelin IV when I’m writing my first real-world piece too, just to keep the mood on.

  • Lisa Manyon says:

    While not a “rookie”, I realize that I’ve been guilty of the “irrelevant tangent”. It brings me back to frames of reference and the understanding that not everyone ticks the way I do. Thanks for the reminder to get outside of my own head and move prospect through the sale as opposed to entertaining myself because I think others might enjoy the aside.

    I look forward to gleaning more wisdom in Redondo Beach.

  • John

    WOW! What can I say…

    Your wisdom goes well beyond the words you have typed here. The wisdom on this page extends to life in general, here is how…

    I think we go through life as human beings and look for the “short cut” or “easy way” to do things. You cannot get 100% of the results without 100% of the effort required to produce those results.

    Rewriting and editing, then rewriting and editing (I am not a copy god, yet, like you John) is the ONLY way to produce the earth – shattering copy to WOW our clients!

    Thanks for the blog John, it is class acts like you that give us “rookies” something to look forward to.

    Back to my rewriting and editing…gotta satisfy another client =)

    How’s that desk look John?

    Joe Ratliff

  • Lea Pierce says:

    Nicely said. It can never be pointed out too often that great copy is not written as much as it is rewritten. Constant, relentless rewrite separates the working professionals from the whining wannabes. (Thank God, however, for deadlines, or I’d still be polishing my first letter, 25 years later!)

    Carry on.


  • Seth Chong says:


    I feel MUCH better now.


    I got a punch in the heart with a million dollar advice whatever people call it and it sparked my head up lighter than the sun — on how to write Godlike copies.

    Thanks man, Nice Punch that was.


  • Bryant Sandburg says:

    Great advice, John.

    And comforting. Sometimes I think I spend way too much time editing and rewriting, wondering if I’m ever going to get it right.

    And to my shock and horror, I too find those creepy apostrophes inserting themselves in words I merely wish to pluralize. It must be some kind of virus. Think?

    Your point on emoticoms is well taken. I might have been tempted to drop one in here.


  • Zeek Young says:

    I though missive worked especially well there. Epistle is another favorite synonym for letter.

  • Manoj.R says:

    Hi John I wish I were you! keep up the goodwork. One another guy I admire is Sir Gary of Halbert

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