I’ve been directly or indirectly responsible for more than a billion dollars’ worth of direct-mail copy over a span of more than 20 years. During that time, I’ve never stopped trying to find new and better ways to make the copy stronger. What follows is a simple but (for me, so far) extremely effective and reliable process for making ordinary copy extraordinary. Some of the best copywriters and marketers I know have adopted individual parts of it for their own use. You may want to do the same.

Phase 1: Power-charge the headline and lead. Eighty percent of the impact (and the success) of a direct-mail promotion is derived from less than 20% of the copy. That 20% is the lead. If you think about how people read mail-order advertising and how much attention they give individual pieces, that makes sense.

Phase 1 for me is all about focusing a good deal of time and talent on this portion of the promotion. Here’s what you do: Give your copywriter (or yourself, if you’re the one doing the writing) two deadlines. The first deadline is for the headline and lead of the sales letter; the second deadline is for the rest of the promotion. Tell him to submit only one version — his best.

When you have the headline and lead, call together the copywriter (if he can take criticism) and three or four critics. I like to include people who have a variety of skills and backgrounds: a marketing executive, a product specialist, a creative person, and sometimes a typical buyer. As a group, you are going to assign numerical grades — from 1.0 to 4.0 — to the copy.

Start by rating the headline on the two jobs it absolutely must accomplish:

1. How well does it get itself noticed? (i.e., How catchy is it?)

2. Does it make you want to read further? (i.e., How sticky is it?) If it fails to score an average of at least a 3.0, ask your panel for ideas on how to improve it. Do not entertain negative statements. Restrict their contributions to positive suggestions and then rate those as either “helpful” or “not helpful.” Once you’ve got your headline up to snuff, have your panel read the lead. Ask them if it succeeds in selling them to the point where they have a “Yes, this is just what I need” kind of feeling.

If the lead fails to merit a 3.0 or better, ask your panel to rate it according to:

1. Enthusiasm. (Does the language convey excitement?)

2. Benefit. (Again, is the benefit big and sticky enough?)

3. Credibility. (Do you believe it’s for real?) In four cases out of five, a single half-hour of this kind of work will produce a lead that is strong to very strong. Rate your revised lead to be sure it passes muster.

Phase 2: Sit down with your copywriter and review the main copy. When the rest of the promotion is submitted, go through it carefully — highlighting every claim and promise made. Then sit down with the copywriter and determine if each is adequately supported. If it’s not, work with him to figure out how it could be done better. At the same time, read the package to see if it is balanced.

A well-balanced package provides four things:

1. A benefit. It makes a desirable promise.

2. An idea. It suggests something that distinguishes the product from its competitors.

3. Credibility. It establishes that the writer of the sales letter, the product, and the manufacturer of the product are reliable and trustworthy.

4. A track record. It proves that all the claims are true. After this, your copywriter should be able to come back with a very strong draft.

Phase 3: Subject the package to a “live test.” Get four previous product buyers to agree to read the promotion and mark next to each head/subhead and paragraph whether they find it to be good, bad, or indifferent. When their comments are returned, sit down with the copywriter again and go through the package mark by mark. Where you have universal or nearly universal “goods,” leave the copy as is. Where you have four “bads,” change the copy.

When you have mixed reviews, use your best judgment. Not counting set-up time, these sessions should take about 30 minutes to an hour each. If the lead needs work, you may have to rework it two or three times. (If it’s not up to your satisfaction after the third go, pay the copywriter a “kill” fee and find someone else to do it.) Add up the total amount of time spent doing this, and you are talking about an investment of between 90 minutes and six hours. What you can get from that investment is almost amazing.

I’ve seen packages that were originally capable of pulling, say, one-half of 1 percent brought up to where they pulled 2 percent. If you figure that out in terms of dollar impact, it could easily be in the hundreds of thousands — and quite possibly in the millions. Even more importantly, your track record will improve dramatically with this system. If you were making, say, one package out of three work (i.e., beat the control) beforehand, you could very well raise your batting average to one out of two. What can that mean to your overall career? Simply the difference between being a dime-a-dozen DM hack and becoming a legend.