The Secrets of a Top Copywriting Pro

The Secrets of a Top Copywriting Pro

Not long ago, Dean Rieck thought it’d be fun to interview me, and he tossed good questions my way. Then he surprised me by offering to return the favour and answer questions I had about his career. I had a wicked grin on my face when I took him up on the offer – I can ask some pretty tricky and insightful questions that pack a punch to get the best answers.

Well, Dean came through with flying colors and sent me half the interview – by the time I hit the end, I couldn’t wait to read the rest. But he’s a tease. And you’ll learn why right here in this valuable interview with a pro copywriter. Please welcome Dean – and feel free to ask more questions of him in the comment section! Let’s jump right in and get started, shall we?

James: Do you feel there’s an “ethical” type of copy and a “snake oil” type of copy?

Dean: There’s an ethical type of business and an unethical type of business. I think writing copy is a little like being a lawyer. You have to be an advocate for your client. You must show your client’s product in the best light. But you can’t personally be responsible for whether your client is truthful or not. You have to rely on your client to give you the information you need and write on faith.

Now, if you know something is a lie, you have to make a personal decision about whether you want to write the copy. I’ve turned down a few projects because I knew they were scams or they used unethical tactics. But for the most part, I just try to find something true and powerful and run with it. Telling the truth is always easier and more effective than spinning a lie.

James: Do you ever feel guilty writing sales copy?

Dean: No. I think what I do is not only good for my clients, it’s good for everybody. I take great pride in selling things to people to make them happier, richer, and healthier. Too many writers just don’t understand how important marketing is … it’s the engine behind modern economies that makes our lives a thousand times better than they were generations ago.

We don’t need all the stuff we buy, but whoever said life is just about what we “need”? Without all that stuff, without all the buying and selling and the luxuries of modern life, we’d live in caves, hunt our food, and die before 30. Writing sales copy is noble and necessary.

James: Name me three things on your desk right now that we wouldn’t expect you to have.

Dean: A model of the Star Ship Enterprise that lights up and makes photon torpedo sounds. An antique, glass milk bottle from the “Rieck” Dairy in Wheeling, WV, which I’ve filled with every ticket stub from every movie I’ve seen since the 1980s. And a jar of Jif creamy peanut butter into which I have been dipping Ritz crackers because my metabolism is so fast I get hungry every couple of hours and have to snack all day. Well, I don’t have to. But I do.

James: Talk to me a bit about your daily routine.

Dean: I start out with a little housecleaning, meaning I answer emails, approve blog comments, and check my calendar for meetings or tasks for the day. Then I start working through my to-do list. I like to do a lot of little things first and cross off as many items as possible to build momentum, then leave one or two big things to occupy the rest of the day.

As a rule, I can work for about 3 hours on one project before getting a little loopy, so I move on to something else in the afternoon. Every now and then I get up from my desk and walk around or go outside to clear my head.

Of course, there are the phone calls and urgent emails from clients I have to field. Unlike some people who claim to ignore everyone except for one or two brief periods during the day, I always take client calls and and answer emails promptly. I let my assistant take calls from prospects and others, but I like clients to know they can reach me and I’m here for them. It’s good business and common courtesy. Thank god for caller ID.

James: Ever get writer’s block? What do you do about it?

Dean: Very seldom. But when it happens it’s not mental blockage as much as it is temporary burnout. Now and then I just can’t focus and have to do other things. Writer’s block is the result of not having anything to say, and frankly, I always have something to say. I never freakin’ shut up.

James: If you could change careers, right now, what would you be?

Dean: That’s a really hard question. You’d think I could answer that easily since I have so many interests (politics, gardening, cycling, target shooting, movies, etc.), but I just don’t know.

Well, there is one thing … I’d like to be Don LaFontain. You may not recognize the name but you know who this is if you’ve ever gone to the movies. He’s the guy who recorded over 5,000 film trailers that started with the phrase “In a world …” Too bad he died a couple years ago.

People called him “Thunder Throat” and he made millions a year … just reading copy. Before an unfortunate operation on my neck, I used to be like that and did many voice overs but just never progressed to his level of success. What could be more fun than reading copy aloud and get paid for it?

James: Think back to a project when you’d done a really great job – an awesome job. How did you know it was awesome?

Dean: I know it’s awesome when I read the headline and get so happy I have to do my happy dance. I can’t dance very well, so you don’t want to see it. In fact, it frightens small children and pets.

I can just sense when I’ve hit the right tone and put the right words in the right order. Like when I wrote a direct mail package for a Rodale frugal gardening book and came up with the headline: “Grow Twice the Garden for Half the Cost.” Nothing fancy. But those 8 words said EXACTLY what I wanted. I couldn’t say it any more clearly. To me great copy is about clarity. It delivers a crystal clear message without calling attention to itself.

James: A lot of writers would love to have your life. Is it really that spectacular to be an in-demand writer earning big money?

Dean: Of course it is. I’m the big cheese. The head honcho. Numero uno. I live in a mansion and bath in a swimming pool filled with champagne. Actually, I sit on my ass all day staring at a computer screen, thinking I can’t wait to finish and get outside to ride my bike or work in the garden. I do live in a nice house, but my life is probably pretty boring compared to a rock star or test pilot.

James: Wine or beer?

Dean: Beer. I’m not “sophisticated” when it comes to things like that. I like wine. I have to. I married into an Italian family. But beer is more my speed.

James: What’s the one crucial tool or resource you can’t live without?

Dean: I know it sounds obvious, but it’s my computer. I remember doing everything with a typewriter long ago. Sending copy by fax or FedEx. Getting corrections by mail. Spending half the day on the phone. I don’t know how anyone got anything done without a computer and email. And I’m fanatic about backing up everything. I backup offsite and online. I store a hard disk in a steel bank box. My whole life is on my computer.

For a direct mail kind of guy, I’m a hard core online kind of guy. Digital all the way.

James: You have some pretty important clients in your roster of contacts. How did you get those clients?

Dean: When the phone rings … I answer it. That’s it. Nearly every great client I’ve ever had just called me because they heard I was good or read an article I wrote or got my contact information somehow. I do some marketing, but I think most of my business comes from being known as the go-to guy for direct marketing copy.

I think this is the thing writers don’t get when they’re thinking about freelancing. They start believing all that crap out there about how to get rich writing copy even if you can’t write, and that’s just bull. A lot of the guys selling get-rich-quick copywriting ebooks don’t make a living as a freelance copywriter, just like a lot of the guys selling information about real estate investing don’t make a living as a real estate investor.
The REAL copywriters are good writers. They can sell stuff. Clients call them because they’re skilled and experienced. If you want good clients, you have to write good copy.

James: We all have some crazy job in our past that’s completely unrelated to what we do today – what’s yours, and how did that job make you a better copywriter?

Dean: Working in radio and TV was pretty crazy. I didn’t have all the technology that’s available today, so when I wanted special sound or visual effects, I had to figure out a low-tech way of doing it. Once I needed a sound effect for a news promo about the steel industry. So I recorded sounds around the TV station. I discovered that if I mixed the sound of a hammer hitting a brick and my fist hitting a garage door, it gave me a perfect “steel” sound.

That sort of thing made me creative in a practical way that benefits me every day. By the way, I later found out that that’s exactly how many sound effects are made in the movies. Maybe I missed my calling!

James: Name me three big wastes of time to creating a successful career.

Dean: Reading about writing. Talking about writing. Socializing with writers who are always talking about what they’re reading about writing. All these things can be a little helpful, I suppose, but ultimately you learn to write by writing. A lot. Every day. For years.

James: Now name me three must-haves to reach that successful career.

Dean: Curiosity. Skill. Persistence. You have to be curious about everything and know a little about everything. You need writing skills and savvy about how people respond to words in the real world. And you have to keep at it. Most freelancers just give up too soon. They read about how some guy left his job and made $500K his first year and think that’s how it happens. And when it doesn’t happen to them, they freak out. For all of us mere mortals, it takes time to figure out how to make a living at copywriting, maybe 3 years just to understand what the heck you’re doing.

James: If someone handed you one extra hour a day, what would you do in that hour?

Dean: I’d spend the time finding out who that someone was and how he controlled time. Then I’d start manufacturing hours and selling them … for a reasonable price and with satisfaction guaranteed! I’d make a fortune and live forever.

James: Is there a book or resource you’d recommend to writers who want to write better copy? What’s your personal bible for great copy?

Dean: This is going to sound so predictable and boring, but it’s The Elements of Style. It’s one of those books you don’t appreciate until you have some experience. It’s brilliant because it’s so simple.

James: Everyone likes to know the secrets of great copy – is there one?

Dean: Yes. It took me years to discover it. But once I did, everything changed. Maybe 7 people in the world know this secret. It’s mind-blowing. Earth-shattering. And so incredibly simple you’ll kick yourself for not realizing it before now. The secret to great copy is … sorry. The phone is ringing. A client is calling about a big writing project. Can I get back to you?

To read part 1 of this interview, go to Pro Copy Tips where I ask Dean about how he got started, the best job he ever had, and the single biggest mistake copywriters make today.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. Cool interview. I love the idea of curiosity, skill and persistence.

    Question for Dean: It sounds like you don’t have to do much active sales/marketing stuff – that you’re not pursuing clients aggressively. Sounds like they’re coming to you, yes?

    Was it always this way or did you have a different strategy when you were starting out? Do you have any tips for people who are beginning, that might land them (years later) where you are now?

  2. I relate to returning e-mail promptly.

    I know the normal advice is to do your e-mail in groups at certain times, but I can’t do it, nor do I really want to.

    In direct marketing, speed is important. So if a client writes (or calls), I work better dealing with it asap.

    And if it’s a colleague or someone needing my help, I prefer to simply take it as it comes assuming I’m not pressed against a deadline.

  3. What a great interview.

    Really down to earth person.

    I am impressed by his personal standards:

    “I’ve turned down a few projects because I knew they were scams or they used unethical tactics.”

    Great job and wish you all the success!


  4. Solomon says:

    Great Interview, and very informative. I jumped at the screen when I saw interview of Dean and James!

    Question for Dean: How to reach out to many prospective clients, and how to make us (copywriters) ‘experts’ in the field??

    Thank you James and Dean!
    .-= Solomon´s last blog ..The 5-easy steps to coin a ‘Name’ for your company? =-.

  5. Great interview, James Dean. What a fun combo 🙂

    I love the extra-hour factory. If it kicks off, be sure to offer international shipping. I need one or two over here.
    .-= Þórey Ómars´s last blog ..Top 5 Things for (extremely) Shy Writers to Think About When Introducing Themselves and Their Work to Strangers. =-.

  6. Peter: I’m marketing a little more now than a few years ago because of the economy, but I don’t do too much. Early in my career, I spend whole days standing at the kitchen counter with my 3-ring “prospect” book making cold calls and drumming up business. It’s always more work in the beginning.

    Solomon: The famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks. He replied, “That’s where the money is.” So as a freelancer, you have to know where your clients are and be there. For example, I’ve written columns for top direct marketing publications for many years. I also publish an email newsletter to stay in touch with several thousand people. Today, a lot of people use LinkedIn.
    .-= Dean Rieck´s last blog ..Direct mail copywriting: an interview with Dean Rieck =-.

  7. James, I think your article was …Sorry. The phone is ringing.Can I get back to you?

  8. Dean is the man. I am a frequent visitor to his site and I really appreciate his humble approach to the work he does.

    There is waaaaay to much tomfoolery out there with the late-night “make a million bucks in your undies as a copywriter” stuff. Dean brings it all back home.

    He really needs to stop giving away so much good information on his site though… it’s making the rest of us look bad.

    Great interview. I’m now on my way to the first half.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire
    .-= Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire´s last blog ..Do Not Repeat My Dentist’s Money-Losing Marketing Mistake =-.

  9. @Joshua – I’ve long admired Dean and his writing. Long time. Looong time. Longer than Brian Clark? Hmmm… debatable. 😉

    @Shane – *grin* Don’t think I didn’t want to defend my personal no-phone rule when I read Dean’s answer!

    @Dean – This was a lot of fun, the answers were spectacular, and I think we should plan world domination together. Once you get off the phone, that is.

    @Thorey – I laughed when I read that. Ahh, a true entrepreneur, eh?

    @Solomon – I back up Dean’s advice. Be where your customers are – and be ready to jump on opportunities.

    @Nabeel – Yeah, it’s very cool to know writers with integrity, and I enjoyed having Dean share his secrets!

    @Mike – Yessir, boy, speed is of the essence. Where Dean answers his phone, I answer my email, and the strategy of simply BEING AVAILABLE goes a long, long way with customers.

    @Peter – Dean gave one great answer – I’ll give some general advice: most freelancers don’t appear credible or successful, because they’re bootstrapping so hard or don’t see the value in investing to make money. You have to walk the talk before people take you seriously.

  10. I love this interview, especially this part “..The REAL copywriters are good writers. They can sell stuff. Clients call them because they’re skilled and experienced. If you want good clients, you have to write good copy. ” Only the master scribes out there can turn words into dollars ( and thousands of it ). I hope many newbies will read this post so they will have an idea why it’s not really cool to just copy and paste someone else’s work. Writing is an art and let’s keep it as such. Thanks for the post!
    .-= Issa´s last blog ..Should You Spy on Your Freelance Workers? =-.

  11. Mark W. says:

    Dean did come through with flying colors and came across to me to be a very authentic person.

    I say this for many reasons but what really cinched it for me was when he said he prefers beer over wine. I think being one of those people in the photo in this post could really help anyone that may have writer’s block.

  12. So glad to see Dean and James connect in such a fun, informative way. Dean and I both come from a pre-internet, direct mail background. That already makes him hugely special in my book. 🙂

  13. @Roberta – And I’m just special. *beams* (Hm, wait a minute. That didn’t come out sounding as flattering as it was supposed to…)

    @Mark – We call it ‘uncorking the flow of words’… 🙂

  14. Actually I think Dean gave the answer in his interview – always get back to clients promptly! Actually breaking off the interview to demonstrate the point – what genius!
    .-= Sarah Charmley´s last blog ..Helpful Blogs =-.

  15. @James – you’re as special as you want to be, defined by you and only you.

  16. I just had to pop back over to Copyblogger to see who the guest post was by to realise that the interview is with the same person!

    James, you’re right these are some tricky and insightful comments, thanks for sharing!
    .-= Matthew Needham´s last blog ..How to create your dream chart =-.

  17. @James, I think this one bit was juicy, authentic proof of that 🙂
    .-= Þórey Ómars´s last blog ..Top 5 Things for (extremely) Shy Writers to Think About When Introducing Themselves and Their Work to Strangers. =-.

  18. I love the picture…that’s where I want to be.
    .-= Nathan Hangen´s last blog ..The Bloggers Guide to Getting Attention =-.

  19. I admire the incisive directness of this post, like the naming of the three must-haves: Curiosity. Skill. Persistence. Dean, thanks—you’re able to distill your ideas with the kind of conciseness and force that makes for the stellar kind of writing under discussion. Tasty stuff!

  20. “To me great copy is about clarity. It delivers a crystal clear message without calling attention to itself.”

    I love this. It’s so the opposite of how i’ve been thinking I should write – but exactly how i’ve wanted to write (and tend to end up writing).

    .-= Shawn Christenson´s last blog ..Believe in your Customer More Than They Believe in Themselves =-.

  21. It’s good to see some consistency among the successful. It’s how you winnow the wheat from the chaff. Funny how successful writers always seem to say the same thing, it’s hard work, and those offering to show you the secrets to being a successful writer want you to buy their program. The latter aren’t writers, or even versed in the field. They’re just marketers.

    He’s basically told us what every single successful writer in every field has been saying to students, freelancers and aspiring novelists for decades. It’s hard, you have to want it, and above all, there are no secrets except to just write and write a lot.

    Good interview.
    .-= Paul Novak´s last blog ..ComLuv Blog Contest and Me Losing =-.

  22. It’s interesting and I like the analogy of a lawyer.

    I think the best insight I got was from Guy Kawasaki who didn’t turn things into gold, instead he found gold, then amplified it.
    .-= J.D. Meier´s last blog ..Lessons Learned from Dad =-.

  23. L.A. Wellington says:

    Since us copy jockies have men with pens, how about a place for the ladies? I think there should be a site entitled, “Chicks With BICs”. A name like that has such a ring to it… hint, hint.

  24. Secrets to a Great Copy: It took me years to discover it. But once I did, everything changed. Maybe 7 people in the world know this secret. It’s mind-blowing. Earth-shattering. And so incredibly simple you’ll kick yourself for not realizing it before now. The secret to great copy is … sorry. The phone is ringing. A client is calling about a big writing project. Can I get back to you?

    Isn’t it interesting? He did answered the question: create in the prospect a sense of urgency through describing the scarcity of time and availability, promising a benefit so big/mind-blowing/earth-shattering, and then you’ll realize the sale is already done.

    That’s how you sell it. Illuminating.


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