If you’ve ever tried to write anything you know what it is to face the dreaded blank page or empty computer screen. Often the hardest part of any writing job is just getting started.
Legendary copywriter Eugene Schwartz claimed never to have been plagued by writer’s block, and it was for a simple reason: he had developed a sure-fire method for writing that enabled him to get right to work, without wandering in that limbo of writer’s helplessness.
We’ll look at this method in detail first, and then we’ll look at what Schwartz had to say about creativity.
A Very Simple Way to Make Sure You Get Down to Work
Schwartz claimed that his method was based in Zen principles. Before he started working on the copy for an ad, he laid the groundwork with serious but easy preparation.
As an example, suppose he was working on an ad for one of Rodale’s health books. He would start by reading the book, maybe four times. And each time he would highlight lines that he thought were important. By the time he was finished, a lot of the book would be highlighted.
He’d give the book to his secretary who would type up all those powerful lines and come back with 40 to 50 pages of copy. Thanks to reading the book so many times, he now knew the material better than any of the book editors.
With all the most powerful lines distilled down into one document, he was ready to go on to the next step.
He always followed the same procedure. He started by bringing up the typed pages on his computer. This would form the vocabulary of the final piece.
Then he would pour a cup of coffee, mix it with cream and sugar – the same way every day – place his pad and pencil in the same place each time, and set his timer for 33:33 – 33 minutes and 33 seconds – the amount of time a person could best focus attention. And he’d hit the start button.
For the next 33 minutes and 33 seconds he would sit there, and could do anything he wanted, as long as it related to the copy. He could ignore it, or work on it, but he could not do anything else, or get up from his chair.
Schwartz did not try to write a great ad, or think about the money he’d make. He had no goal at all or any responsibility to himself or the client, other than to just sit there and relate to the copy.
Eventually he’d get bored, so he’d start looking at the copy. And some sentences would get his attention. He’d feel no writer’s block because he wasn’t really doing anything but reading the copy.
As he was reading, some sentences would look like they belonged together, so he’d move them around, putting them into different categories of copy that would become the different sections of the final piece.
Some combination of powerful or intriguing words would jump out as possibly a great headline, so he’d move that to the top. Subheads would jump out as lead-ins to the different categories he was forming. Some copy would look like it would make a good sidebar. He’d fix some awkward wording or polish the copy a little bit.
After 33:33 minutes, the timer would go off. He’d stop right where he was, even if it was mid-sentence, and take a five-minute break.
During the break he would stand up from his desk for five minutes of “compulsory leisure.” He could get another cup of coffee, play with the dog, anything but work on the sales piece.
Then he’d go back and do the same thing all over for another 33:33 – and he’d do this for four or five hours a day.
Can you see how easy this is, and why there would never be any writer’s block? He was never actually writing the way we think of someone sitting down and creating brilliant copy out of his own mind. All he was doing was just sifting through the material he’d already gleaned from the book, and then rearranging it and highlighting the best points.
In a way, the piece was writing itself. He was just facilitating the process. Isn’t this a completely new view of creating ad copy? Doesn’t it sound easier than facing a blank, intimidating page with hopes of writing a successful advertisement? This is something you can do.
Granted, it was Schwartz’s genius eye that enabled him to pick out the best copy, recognize the brilliant headline, and put it all together to create an irresistible sales message. But you can see how the method would eliminate the fearsome writer’s block.
And it seems that anyone who really loved and knew his or her product or service could use this method to create an amazing sales piece.
Okay, up until now, he was working on the piece. But once he finished this phase, he was ready to go on to the next phase. He was about to “create.”
How Does One Create?
Schwartz believed that creativity was a habit that could be cultivated so that it became automatic.
First, one had to understand the nature of the human mind. We are able to focus our attention on our conscious mind, but that mind is only capable of holding about seven memory bytes. That’s a very narrow range of possibility. It works very well at working on logical syllogisms, and figuring out the consequences of our actions, but that is not creation.
The act of true creation is to create something out of nothing. As Schwartz said, “Only God can do that, and we’re only human.”
So instead of talking about human creation, he talked about human connectivity. The genius of the human mind was to make connections between things in new ways. We can take two separate thoughts and bring them together so that one thought is formed.
We don’t have to create something that never existed (an impossibility). We just have to connect things in a way they’ve never been connected before. This is what it means to have something that’s new. “New – in every discipline – means never joined before.”
Now, Schwartz didn’t believe we could do this with our conscious minds. The connections were made outside of our consciousness. So what we had to do was trick the conscious mind by focusing it on something simple – like making a cup of coffee. (Schwartz claimed that he made the best connections, and got his best ideas, while shaving. He would just write down the ideas as they came to him.)
While the conscious mind was occupied on this simple task, the unconscious mind would start making connections. Those connections would work their way to the front of his mind.
Then all he had to do was integrate these new connections into the copy he had been working on. Maybe something would now jump out at him as the best headline. Or maybe he would now see how to organize the copy for the best flow.
The sales piece would begin to form, practically writing itself.
The Two Main Points
If we were to summarize Schwartz’s two main points for a stress-free, blockage-free approach to writing winning copy they would be these:
First, work harder than anyone else. That doesn’t mean straining your brain trying to be creative. It means going over your material again and again to see what pops out. He said that on the sixth reading you’ll finally see the best material that’s already in there, just waiting for you to tease it out.
Second, you must be able to get down to work. And as described here, you can use simple techniques to get working and trick yourself into being “creative.”
The system obviously worked for him. His success proved it. And I have no doubt that it can work for you too.
Do you have a similar system to the one Eugene Schwartz used? Or do you have one you’ve created that puts an end to writer’s block? Please share your thoughts hear because I’d love to hear from you. Thanks a million.
About guest blogger Craig Simpson: Craig is the nation’s leading direct mail consultant and coach. He sends out more than 300 mailings per year for his private clients. You may contact him via email at email@example.com or click on the following links to order his books, The Direct Mail Solution and The Advertising Solution.