Confessions of a Brush Jockey

This past weekend, I painted our bathroom.

And it reminded me of the good old days.

See, way back when, yours truly used to be a painter.

No, not the Monet kind. I mean I was the guy who climbed the ladders, scraped the soffit, and dripped primer on your rosebushes.

I did this every summer while I was in college. It was hot and dirty work, replete with hornet nests, picky clients, and dogs that didn’t like me. And I loved it.

Maybe more important to you, I’ve realized since that painting houses and success in copywriting actually have a lot in common.

How so?

How I Paint Is How I Write Copy

First, let me give you a little more background…

In the beginning, I painted for somebody else. He taught me plenty, including lots of smart shortcuts.

And then my brother and I struck out on our own, for three summers in a row.

Always, it began the same way.

We would get a call from our ad, clean ourselves up, and head over with a clipboard. We had a form that we filled out as the client walked us around the house.

“Hmm,” I’d say. “That fascia board looks about 20 feet long, wouldn’t you say, George?”

“Yep,” my brother would say. “And mildew-stained there at the end, too. But don’t worry, we can fix that. So you’ve already got colors in mind?”

It was a brainstorming session. It was also a sales process. We had to convince the prospect that, young as we were, we knew what we were talking about.

So we dropped terms where they applied. We did our estimate — or at least started it — live and with the client listening, so he felt like part of the process. And we got him thinking about how the house would look when we were through.

I say “him” but I should say “her,” because more often than not it was the woman of the house we would speak to. This after figuring out that she was usually the one to make the call on which painters to hire.

You Can Already See the Parallels

From the clipboard to the terminology, targeting the audience, making the benefit real, engaging the prospect in the decision, even how we dressed for the estimate… it all mattered.

Other painters would write up their estimates and mail them in. We would take 15 minutes at the end and write up our estimates right there, to seal the deal while interest was high.

And then, a week or so later, we’d show up for the start of the job. We’d stake out a place for our equipment, usually in or behind the garage. Then we’d make the rounds, removing hardware and laying out canvas dropcloths.

We would start scraping and spackling at the top of the house and work downward. To save time, we went up with cans of primer and brushes in hand, too. Plus a caulk gun hanging off our belts. It got so I could make it to the top of a fully extended 32-foot ladder with both hands full.

The prep work always took about twice as long as the actual painting And at every stage, you had to make more than a few passes to make sure you didn’t miss anything… and to fix your inevitable mistakes.

Working on copy projects today, at least for me, follows almost exactly the same pattern.

For instance, right now I’m putting the wraps on a launch package for a technology investment research letter.

It started with a brainstorming “Skype” call with the client. Both so I could get an idea of what I could do for him and also to sell him on the process to come.

When it came time to start, I opened a blank file in Microsoft Word and wrote a descriptive note for myself and for anybody who would review the file, describing the project up front.

Then I sectioned off outline breaks for the parts of the promo I knew would need to be developed. I go back in and add or take away these sections later, but this gives me a workspace I can build upon.

Next, I opened and named folders where I knew the research would go. And I sorted through my early notes, listened to the recording of our brainstorming meeting again, and mapped out a game plan.

Then came the gritty part.

Just like painting a house, I had a long, messy, period of prep work in front of me. Only instead of scraping away at cracked paint, I was scraping away at what would become a huge pile of research, tucking away only what was good and usable as I moved along.

That is always the part that feels endless.

You never know what you’ll find as you research. One tiny detail can lead you to a whole new set of ideas you can’t help but explore. It’s like jamming a putty knife into a crack, only to discover sheets of old paint you have to remove.

In this case, I had a lot to learn before getting started. And it’s a launch project, so I had more preparation than usual because I’m helping to define the product.

In all, I’ve socked away nearly three weeks of taking notes, reading articles, and rewriting and organizing passages and clips.

During my house painting career, at the end of prep work I would clean up and put away all the tools I no longer needed before starting to paint.

When I write, I do the same. I close all the browser windows, file away the clips, close the folder windows, and put books back on the shelf. And then I write. It’s just me and the document.

The first full draft is like the first coat of paint. When that’s “dry,” I go back and give it another pass. Then I go over it a third time for cleanup.

The “Perfect Payoff” Is Similar Too

One of the other things I liked about painting houses was the money. I could make more in two weeks than most of my friends made slinging burgers or working retail all summer.

Of course, the money’s pretty appealing in copywriting too. In my experience, as good as if I’d gone to medical or law school. Maybe better.

In both cases, I think these kinds of jobs pay well for one reason: You’re doing something people desperately need done but that they’re afraid, unable, or unwilling to do themselves.

It’s a combination that makes the money flow. In both careers, I’ve also had the pleasure of working for myself. Not to mention the ego boost of being treated like an expert by my clients.

Even with all that, there’s one giant shared payoff I enjoy most.

With the painting business, it was the satisfaction of standing back and seeing a room or a whole house transformed. Even years later, whenever I happen by one of “my” houses while driving through a neighborhood, I can’t help but glance to see how it looks.

With copywriting, it’s almost the same when I get to watch those first orders role in… and then the second batch and the third. There’s nothing better. Except, maybe, watching the royalty checks follow.

Maybe that’s where this comparison falls apart. I’ve got nothing but memories of the houses I’ve painted. Meanwhile, copy I wrote years ago still pads my bank account. Just in case that changes, though, maybe I should keep my putty knife sharp.

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John Forde's 15-year career as a top copywriter started as an understudy of Bill Bonner and Michael Masterson. Since then, John has written countless winning controls, has generated well over $30 million in sales, and has successfully launched dozens of products. He's also worked three years as a financial journalist and has written books on wealth building and health, as well as more than 250 articles on copywriting for his popular ezine, The Copywriter's Roundtable. John has taught copywriting in private seminars and conferences in Paris, London, Bonn, Chicago, Buenos Aires, Baltimore, and Warsaw. He currently lives and works from Paris, France.