The 5 Most Common Blunders New —and Even Seasoned — Copywriters Make and How to Avoid Each One

9 minute read

Editor’s Note:  This week’s featured article was written by legendary copywriter, the late Clayton Makepeace. Though Clayton isn’t with us anymore, his lessons for copywriters are timeless.

One gorgeous Saturday, I made the excuse to take my new Porsche 911 Turbo out to slay The Dragon.

It’s a humble, shoulderless, two-lane blacktop – officially designated US 129 – that snakes up through the North Carolina Smokies from Robbinsville… around the west end of The Great Smoky Mountain National Park… past picturesque lakes and cliffs with 100-mile views… to a mountain pass they call Deal’s Gap.

On this route, you’ll also see The Tree of Shame – decorated with parts from the motorcycles and cars that “almost” made it through the next 11 miles unscathed…

Because this is where Highway 129 sheds all pretense of being merely a “challenging” road and becomes The Dragon.

Entire sections of The Dragon are so treacherous, they’ve earned names like “The Switchbacks”… “Rebel’s Revenge”… “Gravity Cavity”… “The Chicanes”… and “Killboy’s Corner.”

Some of the folks you’ll meet on The Dragon just shouldn’t be there. We call them “The Squibs” – with their brand-new bikes, brand-new leathers and maybe 100 miles of total riding experience under their butts.

Then, there are the really, really dumb ones:  The Squibs who cross the double-yellow to pass on blind curves.

And so, day before yesterday, with the Porsche’s twin turbos screaming, I careened around one of The Dragon’s most infamous curves and pulled up behind a kid on a sport bike tailgating a Winnebago. The biker was understandably impatient – desperate to get around the creeping camper and get on with his curve-carving.

“Don’t do it… don’t do it…” I said to myself. And then, sure ‘nuff, he did it; he dropped two gears, nailed the accelerator, and shot around the camper right on a blind curve.

I cringed, expecting to hear the sound of impact and shattering glass as the 450-pound bike met the 12,000-pound truck I was sure was on the other side of that curve.

Fortunately, it never came.

And so, on the 50-minute drive home, I got to thinking about Squib Moves in general… Squib Moves I’ve made in my own life… and ultimately, the Squib Moves nearly all copywriters I’ve worked with are guilty of (yes, at times, even me!)…

5 Squib Moves Copywriters Make and How to Avoid Each One

The names have been changed to protect the guilty…

Squib Move #1 – Procrastinating

a woman sitting at a desk with a laptop computer
Photo by Alexandr Podvalny

Fred has a reputation of being one of the slowest writers around. Ask him to give you a 24-page magalog, and you know it could be three months or more before you even see the first draft.

And so, although Fred writes killer sales copy, he doesn’t get nearly as many assignments as he should.

But the thing is, Fred isn’t slow at all. Once he gets going, he can crank out copy like there’s no tomorrow.

Fred’s problem is getting going.

See, Fred is one of those guys who’s easily overwhelmed. And so, when the client’s research package lands on his desk – and when he contemplates the enormity of the task before him – he pulls a Scarlett O’Hara:  He decides to think about it “tomorrow.”

It’s a Squib Move, and Fred knows it. Because soon, the days turn into weeks… then months… it’s only a matter of time before the client calls and yells, “Where the @#!@ is my @#%$!ing copy?!”

At that point, to get the client off his back, Fred rushes through the project without giving himself time to fully immerse himself in it – and winds up delivering something that’s far weaker than it could have been.

So, what’s the best solution for Fred – and for you, if you can relate?

Here’s my advice…

1. Drop Everything 

The minute a new job hits your desk, drop everything. Read everything the client has sent you. Take a full day, if you like, to Google everything and plump up your research package.

Then, go back to whatever you were doing.

That can give your subconscious a couple of weeks to chew on this new project while you’re finishing the one at hand.

You’ll be amazed at how many insights, headlines, and other great ideas your brain serves up to you – and when you’re ready to begin writing, it’ll all be right there, waiting for you to use it to make your copy sing.

2. Compartmentalize

Procrastination is often born of intimidation – and intimidation comes from becoming obsessed with how massive the task before you truly is.

The best way I know to erase that intimidation is to constantly remind myself that I don’t have to write a promotion today. All I have to do is read the research… or create a starter outline… or throw a few thoughts down on paper.

Or maybe I’ve already done that stuff – and all I have to do today is sharpen those thoughts… or flesh them out a bit… or add transitions… or hone my word choices… etc.

Before I know it, I’m done, and I never once risked the intimidation that would have come from telling myself I had to write a complete promotion.

3. Bribe Yourself

I like quitting work early. I deserve it; most days, I begin working at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. By noon, I’ve put in more than a full day.

So, if my pressing deadlines have been met, why shouldn’t I take the 911 out for a spin or hop on the Harley for a ride?

And so, I set manageable goals for myself each day. “Once I get XYZ done,” I promise myself, “I’m giving myself the rest of the day off.”

Ahhh… my favorite boss:  ME!

Give it a try, if you like. You’ll be surprised how rewarding yourself for accomplishing interim goals in your copywriting projects helps you keep stuff moving and get each project done faster.

Squib Move #2 – Overthinking

stack of assorted-title books
Photo by Annie Spratt

Wilma is a new copywriter who lives in Europe. By the time I met her at an AWAI event in Florida, she had studied literally thousands of pages of courses, books, and articles about copywriting. She had all the fundamentals, philosophies, and formulas down cold. She could recite Hopkins, Caples, Masterson, and yours truly verbatim.

And when I gave her a paid assignment – her very first one – she froze like a deer in the high beams of an oncoming Peterbilt.

Wilma’s problem wasn’t that she knew too much. Wilma’s problem was that she was thinking about the stuff she’d learned – and all the stuff she thought she had to do in each promotion – instead of thinking about her prospect.

My advice to Wilma was simple:  Forget everything you’ve learned about selling and especially about writing copy. Don’t worry – it’s still stored away in your brain, and your brain will feed you what you need when you need it.

Instead of thinking about strategy and tactics, try focusing on your prospect – their fears, frustrations, and desires. Think about how your product connects with their most compelling resident emotions – their dominant emotions.

Then lean back in your chair, close your eyes, and imagine you’re in a room with them and just let your fingers do the talking.

If you had to make the sale, what would you say? How would you begin the conversation? What would you say next? What would you have to prove to them? How would you prove it? What would they say? What would they ask? How would they challenge your claims? How would you defuse their objections? How would you make not ordering feel like a major blunder?

Why not give it a shot? You’ll be amazed at how your brain feeds up dos and don’ts from your training to guide you as you work through the process.

Squib Move #3 – “Me-Too” Headlines

person raising hand
Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph

Whenever I saw a new project from Barney, I knew there was a better-than-even chance his headline would be little more than a recycled version of a headline I’d seen a bazillion times before.

If he were selling a remedy for high blood pressure, I could expect his headline would read, “Got High Blood Pressure?”

Or… “Do you make these blood pressure blunders?”

Or… “The doctor laughed when I said I’d lower my own blood pressure…”

As Barney’s copy chief, these regurgitated, warmed-over headlines drove me nuts. And what really chapped me was, most of his promotions worked pretty darned well!

But when we worked together on new headline test panels, we almost always beat the living daylights out of the originals.

Barney’s Squib Move was that he simply didn’t respect the power of headlines enough to spend quality time with them.

My advice to Barney? “Write your promotion as you normally would with whatever placeholder headline you like at the top. Then, when you think you’re ready to show me the copy – don’t!

Instead, take a day off. Then, since you’ve already spent up to four weeks on the copy, why not spend a minimum of four more days focused entirely on your headline, deck, and lead copy?

First, ask yourself, “How can I better meet my prospect at the point of his need? What are the most compelling ways to begin this conversation? What can I say right up front that will make it impossible for him to look away?”

Try a story lead… an intrigue lead… a skeptical lead… a topical lead… a pure benefit or USP lead – and whatever other types of leads you feel might work.

Then, pick your two or three strongest approaches and write two or three different headlines, decks, and leads for each.

Today, Barney is one of the two or three best headline writers I know.

Squib Move #4 – Buried Leads

Betty had a way of letting her eyes roll up in her head and just blathering on for pages before getting to the point.

Thinking she was activating her prospects’ dominant emotions, she’d presumptuously prattle on about how her prospects felt – or how they should feel – about the subject at hand.

She’d lecture them about practical benefits they needed before ever mentioning the product.

She’d circle around and back over the same ground over and over again, leaving the reader disoriented, confused, frustrated, and convinced that this was going nowhere.

She’d give me page after page of this froth and fluff…

Then, in what I can only assume was an obvious attempt to convince me she’d given me more than my money’s worth, she’d deliver 70 pages of single-spaced text – more than DOUBLE what I could fit in the mailing piece.

Needless to say, more than half her copy wound up on the cutting room floor – and much of it got sliced out of her first eight to 10 pages.

Because that’s where I typically found her real lead – back on page 11 or so.

Burying the lead is probably the most common Squib Move new writers make. Fortunately, it’s also the easiest one to avoid.

Just read through each draft with your feelers out. Mark the point at which you feel your attention, curiosity and excitement jumping off the scale.

Congratulations – you’ve just found your lead!

Take a big, fat, red grease pencil and draw a line across the page just above it. Then, surgically remove all the hot air that came before it and paste it into a separate document entitled YADDA-YADDA.doc.

Who knows? Some of that stuff might come in handy for sidebars or for later in the text.

Squib Move #5 – Leaving Prospects OUT of the Conversation

a man sitting next to a purple suitcase
Photo by Sander Sammy

Dino’s a great technical writer. He’s got a mind like a steel trap when it comes to the technology that drives the gizmos and gadgets companies sell to each other.

But bless his heart, when it comes to relating to people, he’s got one of the tinniest tin ears I’ve ever seen.

In a recent draft, he spent nearly 30 of the 60-some-odd pages he sent me <sigh> for a health product citing cold, clinical, impersonal statistics.

By the time I was finished reading, I knew precisely how many Americans suffered from the malady and how many new cases would be diagnosed this year.

Plus, I knew how many folks suffered side effects from the drugs most commonly prescribed for the malady and what each of those side effects is. And I knew how the proposed natural alternative worked in the human body.

Worst of all, Dino went on for pages documenting for his readers (most of whom have the condition) how it adversely effects their quality of life – facts every blessed one of them is painfully aware of.

It wasn’t a promotion – it was a doctoral thesis:  Clinical, passionless, impersonal. Instead of talking with, empathizing with, and advocating for the reader, Dino got up on his soapbox and talked AT them – about all those “other” people out there.

Frankly, I’m still working out the best way to help Dino with this. I’m leaning toward recommending the use of a mental image to bring warmth and humanity to his copy.

Next time, I’m going to ask, “Does anyone in your family have this condition? Yes? Your mom? OK, here’s what you do…

“Start your copy with ‘Dear Mom’ and then write as if you were trying to help her personally.

“Don’t talk about ‘other people.’ If you cite statistics, personalize them:  ‘You know, Mom, as an over-50 American with this malady, you have a one-in-two chance of…’

“If you refer to side effects of drugs that treat the condition, empathize with her. Tell her you don’t want that for her. Tell her there’s a better way. Then take her by the hand and lead her there.”

So, want to do yourself and your copy chief a big favor?

Take a lesson from Fred, Wilma, Barney, Betty, and Dino… and turn in tighter, punchier, warmer copy right from the get-go.

You’ll save yourself a LOT of time!