My “Interview” with a Novice Copywriter

Recently, our friends at AWAI (American Writers & Artists Institute) received a request from Nancy Johnson, one of the novice copywriters in their Masters Copywriting program.

“I’m working on the Monthly Copywriting Genius spec assignment,” she said, “and writing it from Michael Masterson’s point of view. To make it sound right, I need to know some things about Mr. Masterson. Can you send him the questions I’ve written below? If not, can someone who knows Mr. Masterson really well answer the questions for him? Thank you.”

AWAI sent Nancy’s questions to me – and here’s how I answered them.

NJ:  Do you believe studying the winning works of successful copywriters can be one of the factors that can help an aspiring copywriter achieve success (i.e. write a control)?

 MM: Of course I do. Most of the great copywriters were, at one time, proteges of other great copywriters. So, yes, study the good copywriters. Study them by reading – as I suggest in the AWAI copywriting program – one new promotion every day. And study one or several of them intensely so you can really master the specific secrets that make these successful master copywriters so good.

 NJ: Would you say that studying the works of other successful copywriters helped you achieve success as a copywriter?

MM: Yes. But when I was studying copywriting, everyone in the business had the insane idea that copywriting was some mysterious talent that could not be learned. It was supposedly a natural form of genius. Either you had it or you didn’t. I always wanted to be a writer, and when I saw some of the writing that was out in the marketplace passing itself off as “good copy,” I thought, “Gee, I can do better than that.”

But when I actually tried to write copy, I discovered that it was harder than I thought. Luckily, I had a mentor to guide me. JSN (I’ve talked about him before) wasn’t a copywriter, but he was a marketing genius. He instantly recognized what was weak in my copy. By following JSN’s suggestions, I gradually perfected my first promotion (after about 20 revisions). That copy, the first invitation letter to the Oxford Club, went on to mail tens of millions of pieces and make JSN and I lots of moolah.

NJ: Are any of your controls in the AWAI “Hall of Fame” book?

MM: The Oxford Club letter is in there – and I suppose I’ll always remember it because it was my first. And during the 10 years when I was actively writing copy (as opposed to mentoring and directing other copywriters), I probably had at least 50 controls that brought in sales of at least three or four hundred million dollars.

NJ: Who are some of the copywriters that you studied?

MM: I studied Gene Schwartz, Jay Abraham, Pat Garrard, Gary Bencivenga, Ted Nichols, Gary Halbert, Dick Sanders, Bob Bly. Most of the copywriters I studied were my contemporaries … we were writing at the same time.

NJ: Can you remember one particular lesson that you learned by studying another successful copywriter’s work – one that has stuck in your mind?

MM: I learned how to lay out magalog copy from Peter Beutel. I saw what he did … first writing the headlines on a big sheet of paper … figuring out how much copy he needed to devote to each headline by laying out the copy graphically. I thought that was brilliant, because it gave immediate structure to the magalog. Magalogs are special. They are not like ordinary letters that go on in a linear fashion. They are read like magazines. The reader scans them up and down, down and up, back and forth. By boxing off the benefits and attaching strong headlines to them, Beutel was able to figure out how to emphasize what he thought was important.

I’ll give you another example. From Gene Schwartz, I learned how to write what he called a “fascination.” While reading the promos he wrote for Boardroom Reports, I realized that bullets don’t have to be dull. Gene found a way to make them interesting by making them very specific. I analyzed what he did and also what some other good bullet writers (like Bob Bly and Gary Bencivenga) did. I incorporated what I learned into “the 4 U’s” – a copywriting technique that is now a staple of the AWAI program (and is, in fact, used by copywriting teachers all over the country).

NJ: When your Oxford Club promotion became the control, how did it affect your life? Financially? In terms of your reputation?

MM: When I wrote that first promotion, I had a yearly income of $70,000. The next year, I think my income was something like $350,000. And the year after that, I think I earned my first million. (I should go back and look at my tax returns – to make sure – but that is what I remember.) I also remember that about two weeks after that package was put in the mail, I was watching the results come in – and they were pouring in. I realized that my commissions for that one single day were going to be $7,000. I remember how ecstatic I was … realizing that this extra $7,000 was on top of the salary I was already earning … and that it was just for one day … and that the following day I’d earn thousands more too!

As far as reputation goes, well … that promotion made me. It was such a huge success that I became thought of as a sort of copywriting wunderkind. (See Word to the Wise, below.)
 NJ: After that huge success, did you continue to study other copywriters?

MM: I have always tried to read a package a day. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. So, that’s … what? 9,000 packages? I was never satisfied knowing just a couple of tricks. Most copywriters are, because most are lazy. Every time I saw a piece of great copy, I’d study it. When I noticed two great packages from one copywriter, I’d study him. I had developed a few secrets of my own, but I wanted to master everyone’s secrets.

And I think this process worked. Not that I wrote more controls than the other copywriters I admired … but I had very few bombs. It was unlikely that my copy would bomb, because there was so much in it that had worked for others in the past – so many “borrowed” secrets, as it were.

Moreover, my knowledge of so many different techniques and approaches made me a much better marketer and made it easier for me to help and direct other copywriters. Once I had established this skill, I wrote less copy myself, because I could make better money letting others do most of the actual writing. That’s what I’ve been doing now for 20 years.



NJ: Did you encourage the copywriters you helped to study other successful copywriters? And for those who took your advice … do you think that contributed to their success?

MM: Yes, absolutely … 100%.

NJ: Can you name some of your successful proteges?

MM: I count the following successful copywriters among my proteges – either because I worked with them intensely, one-on-one, or periodically through the copywriting program I designed for AWAI. Don Mahoney, Paul Hollingshead, and John Forde have letters in AWAI’s “Hall of Fame.” There are others whohave all seen their first controls since we last updated the”Hall of Fame” book. In the next printing, we willinclude a section that highlights controls from these newcomers to the business.

Inthe meantime, as far as I’m concerned, the very best sourcefor studying current, groundbreaking controls is AWAI’s Monthly Copywriting Genius (MCG).

Nancy,you’re already familiar with MCG, but for those who don’t knowabout it, here’s how it works. Every month, via the MCG website,you receive a copy of a blockbuster sales letter. These arewhat is known in the industry as “grand-slam homeruns.”

You also get an in-depth analysis of precisely what it is that madethe letter great. The MCG team breaks down the letter section by section. You get their critique of the format, headlines, subheads, product positioning, bullets, offer, false close, actual close, order device – every element that goes into a winning package.

Plus, you get an in-depth interview with the letter’s author and learn precisely the tricks and strategies he or she used to create it. It’s like “getting inside the head” of some of the greatest copywriters of our day.

By the time you’re done with each promotion, you’ll have a full and clear understanding of what made the entire package work so well. And you’ll have dozens of ideas on how you can apply that understanding to your own sales letters or marketing efforts.

I can’t think of a better way to turn yourself into a top copywriter.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]