How Professional Writers Procrastinate

Thursday, 10:54pm
Reno, NV


I was gonna write this post last week, but I put it off and forgot about it.

Okay, that’s a bad joke.

But it could have been the truth. Humans have a lot of belligerent, wicked-clever demons lurking inside… and procrastination is one of the nastiest.

Often, during one of my ridiculously expensive consultations, I’ll hear all kinds of excuses from the client concering why he can’t “get” anywhere in business.

Disorganization and time management get the blame a lot… but really, I know it’s nearly always just a virulent case of procrastination.

Oh, it’s bad stuff. People have all kind of different names for it — writer’s block, stress-induced catatonia, frozen nerves, lack of inspiration…

But it all really just comes down to being a lazy S.O.B.

We choose to procrastinate. Every single time. It doesn’t seem like a choice, cuz it screws up our lives so thoroughly… but it is. You order up a big, steaming mug of it and slurp it down, and then dedicate your energies to avoiding what needs doing.

Man, it sucks big time.

“Writer’s block”, by the way, doesn’t exist. I’m sure I’ve said that before (quite possibly within recent memory) but it bears repeating. Professional writers know it for what it is — a choice to dink around and refuse to settle into the mindset necessary to knock out copy.

Whenever you think you’ve got “writer’s block,” you’re really just suffering from a lack of a process. The perfect cure for that? Get my entire ad writing system here, and kick that silly notion of writer’s block to the curb.

Only rookies believe in waiting for “inspiration.”

(which is like waiting around your apartment until your alcoholic ex-girlfriend with the felony record decides to quit lying and stealing, clean herself up and come back on bended knee begging for forgiveness — not gonna happen).

If you have something to say, you have something to write.

If you don’t have anything to say, go do something else or rile things up until you do.

Writing for a living is the greatest gig in the universe… but you gotta ditch the romantic bullshit. It’s still a job, and it requires focus, elbow grease and (mostly) lots and lots of rewriting and editing. Your Muse is in your fingers, dude — organize your research, and start typing.

However, just because you start earning big bucks as a pro doesn’t mean you’ve “conquered” the human urge to screw off.

Procrastination is in our DNA.

(Heck, it’s probably held us back as a species, by causing other cells to lay around watching TV instead of mutating into something better.)

We just learn how to deal with it.

Every productive professional writer has a tactic to overcome procrastination. And it’s one of their most important tools.

Here’s mine: Soft deadlines.

It’s no secret that nothing would ever get written (or painted, or built, or grown) without some kind of real, drop-dead, “hard” deadline. Seasonal changes forced our ancestors to plant, harvest, and stock up Twinkies for winter. You put it off, you died. Without the lash of brutal seasons, we’d still be in the jungle munching roots and berries and waiting for the bananas to rot so we could get drunk.

For classic ad writers, the print deadline was sacred.

If you missed getting your copy in on time, magazines were published without your ad (and you didn’t get a refund, either). Mail houses charged you for the time they’d set aside to get your piece out. Broadcasts aired minus your paid-for spot. Fortunes were lost, people were fired, and for the procrastinator, the gears of capitalism ground to a halt.

All because you dicked around and didn’t get the copy done on time.

It’s different on the Web, and I think it’s hurt a lot of new entrepreneurs and small biz owners.

Minus the wrath of silent printing presses and missed publication dates, it’s too easy to put off finishing your sales copy.

Heck, that email can go out tomorrow, what’s the rush? Who cares if the site isn’t up yet — mellow out, dude.

If my pal Jeff Walker hadn’t been smart enough to teach people about the “launch process” — using hard deadlines, take-aways and fever-pitch building of tension… all leading to constricted, brief designated periods where you could act or lose out forever — the entire online marketing world would still be shuffling along aimlessly. We’d be permanently stuck in 1998-style marketing models.

We need deadlines to stir up the energy to get shit done.

Veteran writers, who have come out of the offline process where deadlines still mean something, have a slight advantage. We’re used to it. We appreciate it.

In fact, I appreciate deadlines so much, that I set my own… independent of any deadline set by a client. They’re called “soft” deadlines, because if I miss them, the sky doesn’t come crashing down.

Yet, they work like crazy to help me be prolific.

I’m productive BECAUSE of deadlines. I love the little bastards.

Here’s how a soft deadline works: It’s kind of like playing “tag”. You break the gig — whatever it is, writing an ad, posting a blog, getting bulk email out, etc. — down into several incremental parts. These parts can be logical (like “background research”, “interview Joe”, “write up bullets”, “make travel arrangements”, “create PowerPoint”, and so on).

Or they can be idiosyncratic and random separations that make sense to you alone (like “work 2 hours on the copy today”, “call client to see what’s new”, “fiddle with swipe file until something pops out”).

The thing is, most rookies look at a job as one monolithic beast.

They get all hung up on the idea that “I gotta sit down and write this copy”… and of course that’s gonna harsh their Zen. Especially with long copy that must adhere to classic salesmanship — you can’t just slap that puppy together like making lunch. You gotta get your ducks lined up.

This is where playing “tag” can help. You have multiple soft deadlines, which are easy to meet because there’s no pressure. You take your final deadline — whatever it is, including a print date or a date to launch your site so you can start making money — and divide the time you have until then into work days.

If you’re smart, as a freelancer, you try like heck to get extended hard deadlines.

When I’m doing “A List” writing — for, say, Rodale or any of the large corporate mailers — I demand at least four weeks lead time til the final deadline. I’ll take more if I can get it.

But this tactic can work even if you’re slammed up against the wall, with just a few days to complete a project. (If it’s an overnight gig, you’re screwed, of course. But then, why did you let yourself get into that position, huh? This soft deadline tactic is meant to avoid putting you in that position.)

For me, in a perfect scenario, I have soft deadlines for reading all the support material, for contacting people I need to interview, for researching the competition, all that good stuff that gets you prepared for the “real” work of writing copy.

Then, I break up the process of writing into sections.

  • I usually like to write up my bullets first… because to write a good bullet, you need to understand the audience you’re writing to, so if you’re writing out feature/benefits, you must have already absorbed the demographics of your reader.
  • Then you’re close to writing up your USP — after you’ve written up a few dozen pages of raw, unedited bullets (I always pen two or three times as many as will be used in the final piece)… you’re so deep into understanding the product that writing up the USP will be easy.
  • Then, with your USP firmly rooted, the headline is easy.
  • Then, the opening paragraphs are a breeze.
  • Then, the close just sorta burbles up on its own — the guarantee, the details of the deal, all the good stuff that finishes up the piece.
  • Then, I will go back and dink around with the supporting paragraphs — the story, the proof, the testimonials, etc.

Here’s where soft deadlines come in: If I’ve segmented my time correctly, I can wake up and have just ONE of these things to worry about each day. I will spend a single work day — and I usually only write for 2 to 4 hours — on a single element, like bullets, or USP, or headlines. I may schedule several days for each element.

But I don’t crowd my day with multiple tasks.

So I’m not worried about headlines when I’m writing bullets. I know I’ll be getting to the head soon… but for now, I can concentrate without stress on bullets, and only bullets.

You can’t do this, leisurely and without panic, if you continue to regard each job as a massive single monster. Divide and conquer, instead.

This way, all you need to deal with is a minor effort to meet a no-stress soft deadline each day… and, like playing “tag”, you’re moving the project along steadily. Progress may seem slow to outsiders, but you’re actually ripping along the road to quality copywriting like a Corvette in a rally.

Of course, one of the most criticalsoft deadlines I have is the one I call “Thinking The Big Thoughts”. During the time I’ve set aside for this stage, it may LOOK like I’m sunning myself in the back yard, or playing with the dog, or fussing with the guitar, or napping… but in fact, I’m letting my brain sift through all the research and data I’ve stuffed into it.

Top writers like David Ogilvy made excellent use of “down time” to allow big thoughts to percolate and bubble to the surface. Once I found that out, I stopped feeling guilty about knocking off after a few hours of writing, and going out for a long, aimless walk. I’d always done that, but since I couldn’t adequately explain what I was doing to outsiders (and I got fired for this attitude back when I worked for The Man), I thought I was alone in my ways.

Now, I know that many, many, many of the best writers out there set aside vast amounts of time to let their unconscious wrestle with themes, ideas, wild-hair schemes and copy angles. And, in fact, they owe their success to giving themselves plenty of no-stress inaction.. and not trying to rush or push the creative process. (And they don’t even attempt to explain themselves to outsiders.)

But you can only do this if you plan out the countdown to your deadline, and set mini-deadlines along the way.

Mr. Procrastination wants your ass in a sling. Don’t let him get away with it.

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

P.S. What you have just read is a small part of my process for writing winning copy. Want to get the whole thing, with each step broken down into bite sized pieces with TONS of examples to learn from? 

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"11 Really Stupid Blunders You're Making With Your Biz & Career Right Now."

  • says:

    How Professional Writers Procrastinate…

    I was gonna write this post last week, but I put it off and forgot about it.
    Okay, that’s a bad joke.
    But it could have been the truth. Humans have a lot of belligerent, wicked-clever demons lurking inside… and procrastination is one of the nasti…

  • Anonymous says:

    How Professional Writers Procrastinate…

    I was gonna write this post last week, but I put it off and forgot about it.
    Okay, thats a bad joke.
    But it could have been the truth. Humans have a lot of belligerent, wicked-clever demons lurking inside and procrastination is one of the nastiest….

  • Javier says:


    You remind me of childhood…

    Thank you for this post.

    Take care,

  • Bernie says:

    Nice post John. I am in the process of working my way back through your Marketing Rebel Course. I find it helps to read a section a day. I used to try to read all iat once. Now I believe the subconscious needs time to work through it all.

    It’s like when google uses the spare processing time on your computer to solve complex math.

    Keep ’em coming!


  • Emette E. Massey says:

    Hi John,

    What a great post! I’m bad to sit down at the keyboard and stress myself to a frenzy–thinking the project at hand must be done all at once.

    It’s amazing how crippling that can be. But now thanks to you, I’ve been given a brand-spanking new tool to go in my tool box.

    Thanks for sharing your copy widsom.



  • Robert Lloyd says:

    I dont have any time to procrastinate, I just push on through and hope that It’s ok. SometiemsI realise that my writing is not up to standard, but as long as I carry on writing it always improves. I then go back and review that section.

    I think James Brausch said that the best way to overcome writers block is to write anything until you are actually starting to make sense!

  • Jim Lee says:

    There’s an interesting article related to this topic here…

    The important thing is to get beyond all the excuses… and take consistent, focused action.


  • Alexis Kauffmann says:

    “I am reading this after more than one month away from your blog due to reader’s blog…”

    Jesus, that was a bad joke! Just demanded my wife to knock me off bed every morning to get my daily dose of John Carlton… And she will do it, for every time I came here I write some more than decent piece of copy that help me buy her a new dress or a brand new toy for our kid… Thank God you are there!

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