Twenty years ago, one of the copywriters I had been coaching sent me a draft of a promotion he had written for a client. It was his first important copywriting assignment and he was trying to make a good impression and wanted my opinion.
Unfortunately, he had made some key errors that could prove to undermine his long-term success.
The biggest was stealing the headline along with a number of key concepts from one of my past promotions. Ouch!
When I asked him about it, he said that he really liked the approach and wanted to use it as his own. Since he wanted to write like me, he thought that would be the best way to get started.
After all, in my books and articles, I often talk about modeling somebody’s work. That’s why he thought it was a good idea.
In fact, that’s how I started out: modeling other people’s work. Modeling, yes.
Imitating, no. As I told him and I will tell you here:
That way the work you submit will always be seen as original and not as a rehash of what someone else has done.
Let me explain…
When you model, you look deep into the structure of what the writer has done and use that to structure your sales piece. Think of the process like the framing of a house. You can wrap whatever you want around the structure to make it unique.
Unfortunately, today many writers are simply creating imitations–knockoffs, if you will.
Just do your own Google search on the first three words of John Caples’ famous “They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano,” and you’ll see what I mean.
Just look at these obvious copywriting imitations:
- They laughed when I sat down to clean up a hairball.
- They laughed when I asked for the Portuguese plate at McDonald’s.
- They laughed when the charge-up man notched their device.
- They laughed when we said we would rekindle the divine spark of life in flesh grown cold and lifeless.
That’s really the beginning of the obvious imitations that you’ll find on the Internet.
One of the most-imitated headlines is “Who Else Wants…,” which was originated again by John Caples as “Who Else Wants a Whiter Wash?”
- Who else wants to save money?
- Who else wants to eliminate the IRS?
- Who else wants cheaper auto insurance?
- Who else wants to make money with AdSense?
Who else wants mind-blowing copy?
The problem with this approach is that it will never take you anywhere near the A-list–let alone to the top.
Clients are looking for innovators–not imitators.
Imitators might win a control one time around, but they will seldom create a winning track record.
The reason is simple.
They never stuck their necks out on their own. They never tried to develop their own styles. They never wrote, rewrote, and sweated themselves through to arrive at the “aha” moment on their own.
The bottom line here is simple:
There’s a reason why Elvis was the king and why most Elvis impersonators are simply bad lounge acts.
How to Innovate the Right Way
If you are going to model someone’s work, it’s not the words you need to model but the thoughts behind them. Here’s how to do it and still be original.
I recently wrote a new test piece for one of my clients. I always liked the way the 10-year control from International Living started by painting the picture of an exotic location.
I also wanted to do the same thing. But I didn’t do this by knocking off International Living. I did it by painting a different picture in the mind’s eye of my reader.
As a result, what I have done can’t be confused with the original because they are in no way similar. They don’t even read the same.
Since my promotion is for a totally different product, these leads cannot be confused.
Let me share with you the beginning of each one. That way you’ll see with your own eyes how to innovate using another writer’s model rather than to imitate.
ORIGINAL: You look out your window, past your gardener who is busily trimming the lemon, cherry, and fig trees…amid the splendor of gardenias, hibiscuses, and hollyhocks.
MINE: It’s 8:30 a.m. and already 75 degrees. From your oceanfront balcony, you can see the early-morning joggers running down the beach.
See the difference?
Both paint pictures, but they are different pictures. The only thing that I have “taken” from that great control is the idea of using a setting as the starting point of a new direct-mail package.
If you can do the same thing, I guarantee that you’ll be thought of as an innovator and not an imitator.
On final note:
After a bit of some hand holding and and revisions, my young writer friend that I talked about ultimately created an original promotion that showcased his skills and special something that he brings to the table.
In the end, isn’t that your goal, too?
All good wishes,
Doug D’Anna, Copywriter and Creator of
The Million-Dollar Copywriting Formula
P.S. If you are looking for swipe file material, there are plenty of place to find them. One of the best places is Who’s Mailing What.
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