Your Tip For The Week

Monday, 7:51pm
Reno, NV
You know everybody is ignorant… just on different subjects.” Will Rogers

Howdy…

I’ve been meaning to give you some tips you can use, like, immediately to help your business boost its mojo.

So here’s a specific tactic that will absolutely pump your copy full of good energy the first time you even dabble in it.

It’s advanced copywriting voodoo from deep in my bag of tricks… yet very simple to pull off.

My favorite kind of tool.

Before I just dump this tactic into your lap, though…

… I think I’ll explain where it came from.

Might give you some context. And make you feel more confident using it.

Here’s the story: I am not a naturally-gifted writer…

… though I loved the act of writing as soon as I learned the alphabet. It was just so cool to be able to scratch out symbols with my big pencil (tongue firmly stuck out the side of my mouth) and make people laugh when they read it.

Or squirm.

Or respond in any old way at all.

I wish I could say my Inner Salesman was tickled awake by this discovery, but he was still fast asleep… even as I got sucked into the world of great fiction, and created a hobby of trying to mimic what I was reading.

I wrote a terrifically horrible little novella in the sixth grade based on the “Mars Attacks!” bubble gum card series. (You may remember the mid-nineties movie they made about that series, starring Jack Nicholson. Great fun.)

At age 13, I wrote several short stories based on my own fevered post-adolescent twist on James Bond. Just brutally awful stuff.

I mean, what the hell does a 13-year-old know about drinking vodka and slaying women with a wink?

Not a damn thing.

Still, the entire English class once skipped lunch to hear me read one of those absurd tales.

I may have almost flunked, because my knowledge of basic grammar sucked… but I had an inkling on how to tell a story.

And yet, the more I “tried” to write, the worse I got. Right into and past college, the stories became more and more bloated with tangents and flowery language that would have choked a Victorian.

You know what the turning point was, for me, in my quest to become a decent writer?

Advertising.

Saved my ass.

All my heroes — Claude Hopkins, John Caples, David Ogilvy — wrote in a similar manner. Very sparse, very on-target, very no-bullshit-allowed.

And I had my epiphany about five minutes into writing my very first ad.

You see, most rookies try to goose the power of their writing with adjectives. And no matter how deep your adjective vocabulary becomes, your writing will forever be variations of a vapid Valley Girl trying to explain an experience:

“It was so, you know, like, amazing. Really, really amazing and fabulous beyond belief. It just… it just rocked, you know?…”

Adjectives, I quickly learned, are a tool for the communication-challenged.

They actually hurt your writing, more than help it.

No matter how cool you believe your precious adjective is.

Oh, go look it up, if you can’t remember what an adjective is. Good grief, man, it’s a fundamental element of the language you use everyday.

I’ll wait while you do a wiki search…

Okay, back?

Good.

Here’s your tip for the week: Strip ALL adjectives from your next attempt at sales copy.

Every last buggery one.

And write only in simple, unadorned sentences. Make zero effort to “fluff up” your meaning with adjectives.

And… guess what?

You have just automatically made your writing more readable, and probably more powerfully communicative.

Now, yes, all the top writers do occasionally use adjectives. Often in headlines. (Where would I be today without the word “amazing”?)

However… a pro makes sure his sentence can thrive even without any adjectives… before inserting one.

That nasty thing must EARN its way into your pitch.

Your sentence must scream for it. The foundation of your story must teeter and begin to crumble… before you give in and insert a single, tasty, mojo-laced adjective.

Treat them like nitroglycerin. Use sparingly and only when absolutely called for.

However, your time will be BETTER SPENT looking for action verbs instead.

That’s what separates the killer writer from the hack and the wannabe: Verbs.

My rule: No verb is repeated on any manuscript page of copy.

You know what that means? When I’m writing at fever pitch, I’m letting verbs drive the narrative.

And I can only use words like “get” once a page.

That’ll make you reach for the ginko and the Thesaurus. (Just never, ever use a word you know is not commonly understood by your reader. Don’t get too fancy, or you’ll lose him, and lose the sale.)

Quick example: The word “walk”.

As in, “he walked down the street”. How about “he staggered down the street”? Different image.

And what about “he lurched down the street”? Sober, healthy people don’t lurch. Drunk, hurt or zombified people do.

He bolted down the street. He raced down the street in a blind panic…

First time though, you just write. Use boring verbs, and don’t fuss with them.

When you’re done, let the copy get cold (at least 12 hours, if you can).

Then, go back… and edit viciously.

Challenge every verb you’ve used. You’ll be embarrassed by the number of times you’ve used “get” and “got” and other sleep-inducing deadwood verbs. Over and over and over, as if you’d never heard of another verb choice in your life.

Don’t get cute. Don’t get clever.

Just beef up your writing with good word selection. Mostly your verbs.

You’ll know you’ve reached Buddha-hood when you stop using adjectives altogether.

No matter how amazing they may seem at first blush…

Love to hear your experience with writing — especially harrowing tales of struggle and breakthrough and redemption.

Plus any input you have from using this tip.

Interact away, guys.

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

P.S. BTW, I have been successfully brainwashed into finally joining the Twitter cult (by my pal Eric, who remains the ONLY marketer I know who can demonstrate he’s actually earned cash moolah using it).

I’ll be sending out invitations to join me in Twitterland.

It’s actually pretty fucking cool, once you engage.

Assuming, of course, that the people you tweet with are interesting, deranged, or drunk.

More as events unfurl…

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  • Rezbi says:

    This post just rocks… it’s really amazing.

  • Marc says:

    You kicked ass with this one, John! It’s an awesome, amazing, cool, wonderful piece of writing advice.

    I figured I’d use up my over-used adjectives in this comment, and keep them out of my sales pages.

    John Carlton replies:

    You guys are killing me here…

    Funny stuff.

  • Andre Thomas says:

    Wow man. This is something really new to me. I’ve been following various copywriting blogs for years and rarely do I find anything useful but this is one heck of an exception!

  • Harlan says:

    You’re too old to use Twitter.

    Now check out how Jason Mofo and Kern use it.

    Sharp dudes.

    Peace.

  • […] that you should check out here and here . And here’s what John Carlton has to say about using adjectives […]

  • Glen says:

    John I am new at this writing thing and I notice that you use curse words at times. Now I can deal with it but is it cool to write like that?

    I like your writing style and Halberts also but when starting out do I piss the world off or stay under some radar.

    Without a doubt contractors wrote the book on dirty words.

    Great post! Thanks Glen

    John Carlton replies:

    I only use four-letter words in the blog. Well, and in personal communication with colleagues.

    I’ve talked about this several times. The “inside” of the marketing community is like a locker room — we curse, tell horrible jokes, take great pride in insulting each other creatively, and generally misbehave behind the scenes.

    In our writing to clients, though, we’re pure as driven snow.

    This blog was created with the idea of being a window behind the scenes. I write from my heart, and I don’t censor myself. So, yeah, I get a little potty-mouthed at times.

    I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. For those who appreciate this insider blog, though, really appreciate it.

    As for writing to larger audiences… no, don’t risk offending anyone.

    John

  • Greg Jernigan says:

    I’m a newbie. Great tip. I learn something everytime I read your blog. I aspire to reach A level copy someday. To anyone who cares to reply- what is a ginko?

    Thank you,
    Greg Jernigan
    Snellville, Ga.

  • Kevin Rogers says:

    Great post on a painful subject, John.

    Back in journalism school, my moment of arrival came when the professor read my feature to the class. He never told them whose it was, just whispered for my permission, then started reading.

    I was a non-degree seeking visitor in a roomfull of grad students. I had never taken a university course before. The piece was unorthodox, I was sure he’d tear it apart… exemplifying the lesson that a writer should not “re-invent the wheel before discovering fire.”

    I was stunned to look around the room and see actual pleasure on the faces of the students. They laughed in all the right places. And when it was over, they broke into applause.

    I floated out of class that night, my shoes 10 feet the ground.

    Then, a fellow student, whom I knew to be talented writer, sent me crashing to the ground in a phrase I’ll never forget. He said…

    “Nice piece, Mr. Adjective.”

    OUCH.

    I went back and inspected the piece like a detective combing over crime scene carpet with UV goggles. Now I saw the blood with my own eyes. A brutal, ugly, murder I had committed.

    There was a monster inside me… one I’d never known or suspected.

    Since then I’ve struggled to reform myself. To protect innocent readers by keeping the monster at bay. It isn’t easy. If I drop my guard for a second he emerges, and in a flash there’s blood bath
    (I’ve edited at least 7 adjectives from this very post).

    So, thanks for the reminder, John. Hopefully someday I can write freely… knowing the monster is caged. Until then, the shotgun stays loaded.

    P.S. Greg- Ginko is a natural herb that is shown to improve memory and help sharpen your mind.

  • Greg says:

    John-I’m curious. You call yourself the most ripped-off copywriter. How are you ripped off and how do you feel about it? Do you say this tongue-in-cheek or is it more serious? I’m a newbie. I hope to reach A level copy someday (A level money wouldn’t hurt). I read other copywriters and when they write about the good writers, your name is in the mix 99% of the time. That tells me something. For my info, is this the correct forum to write this or should I use the blog ? Thank you for your time.
    Greg Jernigan

    John Carlton replies:

    How’re you enjoying your summer down there in Georgia?

    Lemme answer your questions in order:

    1. People have been using my sales copy as templates for decades. They take, say, a golf ad… and change it around so it works for selling their book on astrology. They “rip” my ads. It got so bad, I held a seminar on HOW to rip my ads called “License To Steal”… because so many people were ripping badly. I’m not ecstatic that stuff I write gets nicked, and all I get for my hard labor is bragging rights… but then, it is the highest form of flattery. I’ve learned to accept it.

    If you’d like to check out my “License To Steal” program, go here: http://www.marketingrebel.com/special-offer.html

    2. You may use the comments in this blog for any purpose you wish. You’ll notice that some old friends post just to say “hi”.

    3. I see that Kevin has answered the ginko question.

    Finally… be sure to visit the archives here, and read the post about the “copywriting crisis”. Having a goal of being an “A” level writer is great… but it’s a long hike, and treacherous. There are other options for any decent writer that entail less risk and discipline and hard, nasty work. Having a goal like that means you need to start engaging the culture deeply — and you should have heard about ginko already.

    Read more, Greg. More magazines, more newspapers (online is fine), more novels. If you’re gonna write copy, you gotta go deep into the culture you’re working in…

    John

  • Great post John. I think my problem that I’ve always had when writing is the “Editor” in me wants to say:

    “Hey…yanno we can find a better word….so until then let’s sit here and think about it”

    Yes, yes, I know I’m guilty. Your posts will get me back on track.

    This will help me with my Adwords Campaigns(Along with my other endeavors) well because…

    I think my copy for my campaigns suck…bigtime.

    It’s a learning process…and I will get the hang of it.

    Thanks again.

    Desmond Owens

  • Greg Jernigan says:

    John-
    Summer in Ga. is high 90’s and drought-not much fun. Went back and reread “copywriting crisis”. I did two things I didn’t do in June: read carefully what you wrote, and read readers’ comments.
    I didn’t really understand what “A” level meant. I do now. I’ve never operated on that level in anything. Hell, I’m 59 yrs. old; I won’t live long enough to get that good. Should have known I was in trouble- I keep seeing the word “decade” (really dislike that word).
    Learned alot today. Thanks for the “wake-up”- and pass the ginko.

  • haha, I like your vapid Valley girl!
    I’m trying my hand at editing out the adjectives in my writing, and it’s quiet a challenge. Comes with a different way of thinking oftentimes (my mind’s gotta make twists it wouldn’t usually do). But when I really take the time to make that effort, my writing gets notably more readable.

  • Yoav says:

    John,

    Wow thanks. That’s one of the best writing advice I ever got (read – laid my eyes on).

    Does the simple writing system contain a lot of these tips?

    Yoav

    John Carlton replies:

    Of course. The Simple Writing System is, essentially, my “legacy” project…

    John

  • Hey John,

    What a super-awesome mega-happy ultra-fabulous astonishing post of wonderful majesty!

    GO ADJECTIVES GO!

    (…ok, I can be a bit of a “dick”)

    But aside from my selfish desire to toss shameless sarcasm in the mix and stir up the pot a bit, my hat’s off to you my friend.

    Adjectives murder direction.

    (And of course, I learned that from you)

    Adjectives, although they flow through my fingers like a gushing river of descriptive joy, are about as useful as tying your ad to a helium balloon and letting it float away.

    They leave far too much open to the imagination, thwarting the reader’s attention and drifting it off to fantasy-land, in a futile attempt to decipher what you are trying to say.

    Verbs, on the other hand, are like a guided harpoon…plunging into the readers heart and yanking them through your pitch before they even knew what hit ‘em.

    (Have you ever played “Mortal Kombat” the video game? There’s a character by the name of Scorpion who’s signature move does exactly that.

    Here’s a little excerpt from Wikipedia:

    • Bloody Spear: Sending out a rope dart, it impales itself into the victim’s chest, allowing Scorpion to pull him or her through the air toward him for a free hit, as well as cause a small bit of damage. This move often follows the words, “Get over here!” or “Come Here!” This is his signature move.

    No offense, John, but he reminds me of you)

    Now, when I write copy… and find myself eyes glazed over, deep in the “zone,” I cannot help but to let fluffy adjectives and feeble verbs spew themselves all over my page.

    But then my OCD editorial monster pummels through it all and tries to spice things up a bit… ripping up the garbage and plugging in the plethora of action verbs hidden in the depths of my toolbox.

    And often times, I drive myself strait into a brick wall…at full speed.

    As I edit and edit away, I find myself re-writing the whole fucking letter. And its almost back to square one. Again.

    Any advice on this? Where and how do I stop my obsessive carpenter from sanding through the wood?

    Any insight on this would be invaluable.

    Cheers,

    Adam Lipinski

    PS. I’ve been religiously reading your blog for months now, and this is my first time posting. Let me know if my diarrhea-mouth vomited too much copy for a response and I’ll sew it up shut (or at least muffle it a bit)

    Thanks!

    John Carlton replies:

    You’re fine — all posts are welcome. I love the interaction.

    And you’ve just got to work through any bad tendencies you have. You’ll get better in small increments, so you’ve got to look hard to see improvement — it won’t happen overnight. But writers are in the gig for life, and two years from now, you’ll be glad you started when you did to refine your work habits.

    Good luck.

    John

  • johnson says:

    Twitter messages have a 140 word limit.

    Remember that, John!

    *GRIN*

  • […] post from copywriting genius John Carlton is titled “Your Tip For The Week” and contains some great pointers to make your copywriting more punchy and […]

  • […] post from copywriting genius John Carlton is titled “Your Tip For The Week” and contains some great pointers to make your copywriting more punchy and […]

  • […] post from copywriting genius John Carlton is titled “Your Tip For The Week” and contains some great pointers to make your copywriting more punchy and […]

  • John,

    You kind of piss me off, you know? Just a week ago I was creating a product about writing copy, and I said, “if you’re using an adjective it usually means your verb is too weak”. (I think I got the idea for that from Elements of Style).

    Then I went on to use the example of a week verb. What example? WALK… the same damn one you just used in your blog post, lol! Now they’ll think I stole it from you 🙂

    All kidding aside, I kind of did get the idea from you. When I was studying your golf ads a few years back, I noticed how you used verbs to tell the story.

    That got me thinking of a quote my Dad always used to say about writing fiction: “PLOT is a verb, not a noun”.

    That’s when I realized how you made your copy so tantalizing… with powerful verbs.

    I’ve actually went through the thesaurus and made a cheat sheet of powerful verbs that I always reference now when writing my copy. If you’d lke, I could share it with you and your readers.

    Anyway, excellent post!

    -Jason Fladlien

  • Ken Calhoun says:

    Great point about adjectives; one thing I need to find is a list of commonly over-used adjectives, and suggested/possible replacement verbs… that would be a great tool. (anyone care to post a list of overused adjectives you see in salesletters?)

    Sometimes I find it hard to scrub my copy word by word looking for overused adjectives to replace/swap out w/better, visceral action verbs. I’m going to re-read ‘Elements of Style’ too. And I like your “don’t repeat any verb twice” guideline, and the rest.

    The “Simple Writing System” is stunning, just watching the first dvd this morning and going through the rest of the materials…as always your stuff is worth a huge multiple of the price o admission, it’ll help me make another six figures…

    …it’s exhilirating, fun stuff to get focused on crafting killer copy. And the best part is, this adds significantly w/interactive activities and more, to add to what we’ve already learned. Pro-grade content, I’ll be studying this one over and over again like the others … thanks! God I love making lots of money.

    to profits,

    ken

  • You used both my favorite and least favorite adjectives of all times in one blog post about limiting adjectives, zombified and the f-word.

    I didn’t know that zombified was my favorite adjective until you used it.

    I’m not offended by 4 letter words, just de-energized by them. They are like the word version of a psychic vampire.

    Love your blog. Just found it today.

    Julia

    John Carlton replies:

    I’ll go easy on the verbal slumming… I just enjoy the fact that we CAN use slang like this online, and not get sent to the principal’s office…

    JC

  • […] packs-a-punch, and delivers powerful imagery straight into the reader’s brain. Because it uses action verbs to describe and removes the […]

  • […] and delivers powerful imagery straight into the reader’s brain. Because it uses action verbs to describe and removes the […]

  • […] and delivers powerful imagery straight into the reader’s brain. Because it uses action verbs to describe and removes the […]

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