The Writer's Life

There is a myth in the marketing world that anyone can write good copy. When this myth is spoken, it’s usually followed by the advice that all one needs is a good swipe file (successful ads of the past that one can “borrow” from).

This myth has always struck me as false — or at least only partially true.

I believe that when it comes right down to it, you must have some writing talent. If you don’t, your copy will not be brilliant. It may not even be good. In most cases, it will just be bad.

I see plenty of evidence that the last is the most common result.

There is another myth that if one studies enough of the right manuals, or attends enough of the right seminars, one can learn to write well. Frankly, if you don’t have some native talent — a “knack”, if you will — I don’t think all the classes, courses, or seminars in the world can help you much.

Stephen King would agree with me, I suspect. In a recent article he penned for the Washington Post, King wrote: “The only things that can teach writing are reading, writing and the semi-domestication of one’s muse.”

So there it is, then.
My opinion is that not everyone can learn to be a great (or even good) writer. Everyone is born with a certain aptitude (or lack of it), and they’re pretty much stuck with that aptitude. They can take classes or be taught to make the most of it, but they are always limited to a certain range in the development of their craft.
What do you think?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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14 thoughts on “The Writer's Life

  1. Hey Ray,

    I’d have to agree with you. I think anyone can learn to write better, but not everyone can learn to write truly well. For instance, I stumble across plenty of AWAI trained copywriters who are technically proficient (they know the structure. They know how to use a swipe), but they’re copy utterly lacks any real flow or energy. It’s stilted, jittery, awkward and hard to read.

  2. Ray,

    This reminds me a bit of the debates we used to have in the Air Force “born leaders” and “made leaders”.

    I agree with your premise to an extent… To become world class in anything (sports, leadership or copywriting) you need a fair degree of God given, natural talent.

    However, I do believe that anyone of normal intelligence, with a decent command of the English language and a strong enough desire can become a skilled writer.

    Perhaps they will never achieve “world class” status. But, with dedication, practice and proper mentoring, most can learn the skill.

    Where many fall short is in the actual PRACTICE portion. I totally agree that maximizing the natural skill you are given does not come from simply reading books, building swipe files and attending workshops.

    To become a great writer you must… WRITE!

    In the beginning, rewriting great sales letters (and even great works of fiction) by hand is a wonderful way to begin. However, eventually you have to actually begin writing on your own.

    The number of “wannabe” copywriters who have “read all the books”, but have yet to write ANYTHING, never ceases to amaze me.

    Gary Halbert himself would have never uncovered the talents he was born with, had he never first put pen to paper…

    Eric

  3. For one thing, if copywriting is something anyone can learn, it would not be the high paying profession it is. Especially in this age of the Internet, there would be too many people aiming to work from home as copywriters.
    Besides, I’ve seen lots of web sites that have, at best, rather ineffective presentations. It takes a certain “sense of appeal” when writing about something you want to get your readers to buy.

  4. And don’t get me wrong, there are some great teaching programs available — I own most of them — but if you don’t have some kind of native facility, you can only get so far (in my opinion).

  5. Ray!

    I believe this is an interesting topic, and I might just
    be mirroring what some other people have posted.

    I relate it to martial arts…

    I’m was always naturally adept at Martial Arts, maybe
    just a natural athlete… so I was good, PLUS I practiced
    all the time – so I was real good and won a lot of
    competitions.

    Now my passion is marketing/copywriting so I’m not as
    interested in Taekwondo anymore… I’ll go and help teach
    and workout twice a week, but just enough to maintain
    my skills basically.

    It’s funny there’s a blue belt there (I’ve been a black belt
    for 6 years now just for reference) and he’s getting better
    and better. I can still school him when we sparr, but when
    we grapple he’s more dominate – grappling is something
    I’ve neglected for 3 + years… while he’s been doing it
    3-4 days a week, for a couple years.

    And this guy isn’t really a natural athlete either (in fact,
    he lost 30 pounds since he began training), but he
    has the passion I once had… reads a ton about training …
    goes to class 5 days a week and grapples with another
    school’s class on sundays. Puts WORK and
    DETERMINATION into it.

    Now, will he ever be better at sparring (taekwondo sparring)
    than me?

    Maybe, if he puts a lot of work into it, and I totally neglect
    my training…

    If I was still training like him though, I’d be FAR ahead no
    doubt.. but I’m just saying there’s a lot to be said for
    hard work and determination!

    So I think you can become really good no matter who you
    are if you have a BURNING DESIRE and determination
    to get where you want to be… but… those people are far and
    few, as humans we tend to like what we’re good at.

    And not all of us have that knack.

    So yes and no 🙂

    Caleb Osborne

  6. Great topic to discuss, Ray.

    For at least 6 months, and more like a year, I’ve been trying to figure out how I do what I do. Some things I can explain; other things I can’t.

    Perhaps those things I can’t explain cannot be given.

    Yesterday, I spent an entire day with a friend/client up north. He took me through an abbreviated version of Dan Sullivan’s Strategic Coach process, during which you discover your UA–Unique Ability.

    He says your UA is something your born with. That it shows up even as an infant… and that it stays with you all your life.

    Perhaps all people of reasonable education can learn to write and become freelance copywriters. But perhaps there is this innate ability that separates those that are great from those that are merely good.

    By the way, I hope my post is not interpreted as boastful or condescending. All my life, I’ve wanted to be a great guitarist or pianist. Yet I recognized early on that music just wasn’t “my thing.”

    The musician friends of mine who were great clearly had something I did not.

  7. Ray,
    I’ll take it a little further…

    Although I believe many can write a good salesletter once… maybe twice,
    but without a “firey”, buring passion, it won’t last and there’s a good chance the copy will not have what it takes to be a winner.

    To me it’s all about “PASSION” and “DESIRE”.

    …Sure, it’s true that many can write, but only a few who write well.

    Stay Blessed Ray!

  8. Ray,
    I agree with your opinion that it takes some “natural talent” to write brilliantly, whether the writing takes the form of a killer sales letter or a literary masterpiece. That does not mean that someone with a God-given ability WILL write brilliantly. It takes training, hard work and lots of practice to become a master at any craft. And certainly an educated, intelligent person could learn to write very well.

    It would be an interesting study to compare the copy of a skilled, highly trained and motivated writer with that of a naturally gifted writer who has done nothing to develop that gift, wouldn’t it? I suspect the outcome of such a contest would be entirely different if the gifted writer had spent the same amount of time and energy developing that gift.

    I’m sure we can all agree on one thing – there is some pretty awful copy out there written by folks who believed the “anybody can do it if they’ll just buy my ebook/software” sales pitch.

  9. Heck, most copywriters can’t write good copy.

    I think you gotta have it in your blood, or be willing
    to work your tail off very hard.

    I got lucky cuz I starting selling stuff at about
    9 years of age.

  10. One must have a “love for the word”, to be able to write convincingly. In the internet marketing world, “word” means “dollar”, and just like in acupuncture where the point of the needle reaches a triggerpoint, the internet marketing “word” must trigger a response. I have been reading a great many sales letters this past year and have come to the conclusion that the good copywriters are few and far between. Most people use words that are fed to them either by tutors or by using and reusing words that supposedly trigger the “want-to-have’ instinct. I get so tired of reading – “even while you sleep”, “awsome”, “blow their socks away”, “mega” “guru”,”bash” – the list is endless.

    Also, the letters all look the same. I agree, the same layout etc. of a salesletter makes it easier to navigate – you skip the bla, bla, bla and go straight to the bonuses – as these are seemigly a must have nowadays in order to be able to sell the original product.

    The most annoying thing, however, is the length of the sales letter. It goes on and on and on… written presumably with the underlying intention of hypnotising the reader into buying the product.

    So – does one need talent to write a good sales letter? Definitely.

    Ingrid

  11. Hi Ray,

    What a great topic this is… I have often thought about this when I see offers for copywriting-in-a-box type of products.

    I truly believe writing is an art form, like painting or scultping. I remember growing up in school and being completely baffled by the fact that the kid next to me could simply put his pencil to paper and draw the most stunning likenesses of our classmates..

    How? He took art as long as I did…why couldn’t I “learn” how to do it too?

    Same pencil, same paper…completely different results.

    The flow of words on a page, combinations of phrases and sentence structures combine to create the same unique result as any other work of art.

    Just my two cents…

    Thanks,
    -Ben

  12. Hi Ray,

    Man I’ve seen this bandied about many times and I personally feel copywriting, like any other talent, has to have some natural abilites to build from or one may become good, but not a master. I believe mastering any art comes from welding the desire inside to the training to nuture a talent you already have. Yes people can graduate from any school they want, be “trained” to be good, use all the “persuasion” words but never breathe one bit of life into a piece of copy.

    I think great writers have an innate talent for relating to their audience that can’t be trained. No matter how much you try, you can put together the benefits, the bullets, use your bucket brigade and power words that will end up having not the least bit of magic. These things are great for helping to wed talent with practical ways to say what they feel in a more compelling way and make sure it gets understood. Mentoring can help to a point, but if the talent isn’t there to start, no amount of training will help.

    I have been on other forums where folks try and blame the training, the courses, the seminars, and on and on. If you don’t have a spark inside that drives you forward with a passion, there’s no foundation to build from. I think you can train people to not make obvious mistakes, but their copy will never be what a master’s is. If training was all it took, there would not be a shortage of good copywriters, there would be a ton of books vying for #1 on the bestseller lists and artists would have galleries full of people lining up to buy their every piece.

    No matter what the hype says, reality says different. If dollars are the measure, training is a part of the answer, not the whole answer. I think the lure of making easy money, either by being a top copywriter or selling the training, has vastly overshadowed recognizing we all have natural abilities and some people just aren’t copywriters no matter how much they try.

    Like Ben said, if equal training provided equal results, this would be a no brainer. It in fact doesn’t. Any architect can design a building, a very few are Frank Lloyd Wright. Any one can write copy, a very few are masters.

    Thanks,

    David

  13. All that REALLY matters about copywriting is… the numbers.

    ALL marketing is about the numbers; otherwise, why would anyone bother?

  14. Nature vs nurture, a classic struggle. I view these things as a continuum. Some people will achieve greatness more readily by their inherent abilities. However, other less gifted people can improve their positioning along this continuum and leap frog ahead of others through instruction and practice.