Editor’s Note: In honor of our 50th-anniversary issue, we’re sharing these timeless insights on inspiration from some of the most respected and talented copywriters we’ve had the privilege of working with.
John Forde … on Where to Find Inspiration
To make a vase, you need a lump of clay. Something to work with. So when I’m stuck, I seek out more material to work with — what I call my “Three R’s and an S”:
I READ. This used to mean spending a full day at the library in front of the microfiche machine. But now, with the Internet, you can quickly and easily access articles galore on virtually anything you’ll ever have to write about.
I RAP … with gurus, with customers, with anybody you’d expect to call if you were putting together a 60 Minutes interview and not just a promo package. Talk to everyone, follow leads, ask questions. Eventually, you crack open a new idea.
I WRITE. The best cure for writer’s block — just do it! Put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and start with this: “I can’t think of what to write. I’m trying to solve this problem where … ” Before you know it, you’ll stop complaining and start creating.
When all of the above fail, I take a SHOWER. No kidding. Lots of writers credit walks, country drives, fishing, baths, and other means of relaxation with opening the doors of the subconscious. For me, it’s always been the shower.
Only drawback — my laptop isn’t waterproof.
Bob Bly … on Multitasking to Beat Burnout
I always work on multiple projects in different areas — a book for one of my publishers, a brochure for a high-tech client, a package for a newsletter publisher, a website for a consulting firm.
Whenever I feel bored or burned out on a job like a major magalog, I switch to something else that appeals to me at the moment. Then I come back to the magalog later, refreshed and ready to work on it again.
Don Mahoney … on Just the Right Amount of Pressure
In the beginning, I didn’t need any motivators … I was self-started and self-motivated. All I needed was experience.
Nobody had to tell me to work. I worked. If you want to go from $12,000 a year to between $100K and $200K, you’ve got to WANT IT, BABY. If you don’t burn with desire, you’re probably wasting your time.
Now that I’ve got some success under my belt, it’s a little harder. I tend to let myself get distracted by life’s little “happenings.” So I find that what I need is just the right amount of pressure.
You see, I built a large part of my early reputation on punctuality — notoriously rare in copywriters. (If you can’t give ‘em A-team copy yet, at least let them know they can count on it when they need it.) No joke, that helps.
So, I’ve trained myself to meet deadlines. Now, I try to set deadlines that don’t leave me too much wiggle room. I want it done — and done right — so there comes a point where I HAVE to get going if I don’t want to be up for three days straight before my deadline.
And, yes, I can still manage to get the old fire of desire burning. It’s just on a higher level than it used to be. I have to get in touch with the things I still haven’t accomplished … meditate on them until they bubble up to the top of my consciousness … and then psych myself up to go after them just like I did when I wanted to BECOME a successful freelance copywriter.
Then, of course, there are bags full of little tricks you can use …
… like doing lots of research on a subject. I do it until it’s coming out of my ears … and then when I think about the assignment, the information starts falling into place, ready to be used …
… or knowing what time of day your brain works best. For me, it’s first thing in the morning. So when I have my work laid out and it’s fresh in my mind, if I go straight to the keyboard when I wake up, I’m often brimming with ideas. Sometimes I even wake up with creative solutions working themselves out in my head … ready to jump into the day and the task.
Jen Stevens … on Productive Panic
I am, unfortunately, most productive when I’m in a panic — real or manufactured.
That means I don’t exactly leave things to the last minute … but to the untrained eye, it might appear that I do. I say to anyone who will listen, “I have no idea how I’m going to finish this thing by Thursday. I need a new idea. How on earth am I going to finish this? I’m going to be up all night … ” Thus, I create a sense of panic.
I start researching well in advance. I gather material. I talk to everyone I need to talk to. I read a lot. I mull over what I’m going to say. I think about it while I’m changing diapers and grinding up squash. I find myself reading The NY Times and not really reading because I’m trying, in the back of my head, to figure out what I should lead with.
Then, I’ll finally sit down to write. And I just type. I start with what I know. For instance, if I’m writing a promotion for a conference where a panel of speakers will give presentations, I’ll begin by typing in the speakers’ names and titles and coming up with the titles to their speeches and then bullets for those speeches. So I end up with a fair chunk of the thing done, even if I still don’t have a headline or a lead.
If I know I want to have a handful of sidebars, I’ll write those next. They are short and each one is focused on one idea, usually, so they tend to be easy to write. And then I’ve got another chunk of the thing done. And by doing that much writing, I’ve usually got some momentum going and can write the rest.
Essentially, what I do is divide a project up into manageable parts and just focus on getting each part done, one at a time. Pretty soon, I’ve got more copy than I know what to do with.
Also, I am, somewhat inexplicably, productive at about 5:00 in the morning. It makes me feel very productive to get a couple of hours of writing in before the rest of the house — and the neighborhood — is up.
It means I can get into the shower at 7:00 or 8:00, having made a dent in whatever I’m working on. I know that when I go back to my computer after breakfast, there will be something already on the screen, which always, for me, makes writing easier. Also, when I start at 5:00, I know that the house will be getting up in a couple of hours, and that deadline provides just enough of that needed panic.
And, Finally, Paul Hollingshead … with a Solution that Works for Him
(though we wouldn’t recommend it for everyone!)
Sadly, my technique is to maintain a lifestyle I can’t afford.