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Great Copywriting Starts Before a Words is Written

Jul 25, 2008
There's a wonderful saying in theater: "If it's not on the page, it's not on the stage."

It means that no matter how great the acting and direction, it's the idea at the core of the play that matters. In fact, all the crying and costumes and smoke and mirrors are just an embodiment of an idea that begins in the mind of the creator. If there is no idea, it's just a lot of smoke and mirrors. (Remind you of some action movies you've seen lately?)

Uh, thanks for telling me all this, Paul, but I sell wholesale meat. I create software. I manage a financial management company. So you might want to chat with my cousin Harvey about all artsy theater stuff, but I'm a little busy.

Hang on. I'm talking about selling soap, here. I'm talking about building brands here. I'm talking about ruthless and hard-headed marketing.

There are many rules to powerful, effective copywriting. (They're described in fascinating detail in my book Maximum Strength Copywriting.) But the first secret to effective copywriting is to put your pencil down. Now, I hardly think you write with a pencil and paper, so what I really mean is, take those fingers off that keyboard and do a lot less typing and lot more thinking.

If it's not on the page, it's not on the stage. Meaning, if your selling proposition is not clear in your mind, and burning in your cells before you even begin to write, don't bother writing. In advertising, it's called a strategy. It is a clear positioning for the product, a clear personality for the brand, and a clear proposition for the particular ad. Once that's clear, an effective ad, website, or brochure can be written.

Conversely, if you really don't know what you want to say. Or you want to say 16 things. Or you want to say three things but you're not sure which is the most important. Or you're certain your widget is ground-breaking but you're not exactly sure why. Or you know every molecular molecule about your product and by George, you're going to put your head down and pour them all onto paper....

If any of these scenarios are the case: STOP!

I've often said an ad is the answer to a question. If the question is clearly stated, the answer will be clear. If the question is muddy and unclear, so will the answer. You know those brochures and ads that make you go: Huh? They are examples of the question not being clear so the answer is a pile of unintelligible nonsense.

What do you want to say? What is the Unique Selling Proposition (a grand old term in advertising) of your good or service?

What is the argument. The first, the best, the most. It must be clear and it must be distinguishing. Put that pencil down until you're clear.

And then make sure the intention to persuade burns in every cell, and informs every word you write.

Because if it's not on the page, it's not on the stage

Or, if it's not in the strategy, it's a tragedy.
About the Author
Paul Wolfe, who has written famous campaigns for dozens of world-class clients like Levi's, Volvo and BMW and was named Writer of the Year twice by Adweek magazine, has just penned the ultimate  copywriting book. Click here MaximumStrengthCopywriting.com and  transform your success and copywriting power instantly.
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