Interviewing a Master: Michael Masterson
"Don't write like copywriters write!"
What are the best ways you can truly become a Master copywriter and what do those have in common with Latin dancing and the Karate Kid?
More than you think.
And no matter what type of writing you do, or if you a business who is in search of a good copy, then this interview will be will shed some secrets on the craft of creating copy.
It Starts with a Blank Screen:
Nettie: Can you talk about the art of copywriting? The top three things that are most important in copywriting?
Michael: It’s different for each level. There are different levels of competencies if you’re involved in a skill. At first when you start to learn something you’re incompetent. Everyone is incompetent and if you work hard and you get through that level, then you’re on to the next level.
Nettie: And at each level you are gaining competence?
Michael: Yes, for instance I’m taking Latin Dancing lessons, so I’m at the starting level. The turning is easy, the tough part is moving your hips the way Latin people move their hips. Gringos move their hips exactly the opposite way, so I’ve been trying to learn this and it’s awkward and I’m really at an awkward stage of incompetence but I know if I get through this I’ll get to the competent level. This is same with copywriting or anything you’re really trying to master.
The most common mistake that early copywriters make is they try to write like copywriters write. They imitate it. To them it sounds like good copywriting, because they’re imitating ad speak and it doesn’t work at all.
Nettie: But as you keep working at it, you will find your own voice?
Michael: The most important things to learn in anything you do in life are invisible for you when you’re a beginner. The most important advice I would give is not to worry about not being good. It takes about a thousand hours of practice to be competent in any skill. So just keep writing and put the time in. Keep writing.
To write a lot and to read a lot are the two things you can do to get to the highest level. When you read copy a lot you will internalize good things and when you spend a thousand hours copywriting you will get better. In the beginning you will imitate but as you do it over and over again, your writing will continue to get better and better. After several years your copy will be much better than sometimes even a very gifted person’s might be because you’ve put that hard work in.
"Rub on, Rub Off", as Pat Morita said in The Karate Kid. Just practice the movements. If I kept worrying about my hips going in the wrong way it will lead to a lot of frustration, if I just keep doing it, eventually it will become second nature to move them in the right way.
Good Copy and Speed:
Nettie: What about writers who are inpatient with the time it takes to write and really master the craft?
Michael: It’s better to write slowly and do it more or less right than to do it quickly. When you’re writing copy in the beginning it’s much better to take jobs that are small and short so you can devote extra time to them and get them right. My rule is read one promotion a day, and if you can write for an hour a day then you will become in three years the level of competency to compete with at least 80% of the copywriters out there. To get to the next level of mastery it would take about 5000 hours.
Nettie: What are some mistakes beginning copywriters make?
Michael: They usually begin at what they think is the beginning, they start at the logical beginning of the argument but what they have to remember is that a sales pitch is not a logical sequence or logical experience, it’s an emotional experience. What I would say to beginning copywriters is "Write the beginning" but also realize you’re not writing your copy yet. Get that stuff done so you can get it out of the way. Always start in the middle of the sales pitch. All good entertainment starts in the middle, you plunk them right down in an emotional situation. So if you’re trying to sell people pens that have ink that lasts longer, then start your copy with a pen running out of ink.
The other mistake that beginners make is they try to write too much like other copywriters. They try to use too many copywriting terms, they use a lot of adjectives: sensational, amazing, outstanding…those are almost always mistakes. It’s much better to get rid of almost all your adjectives when you’re writing good copy.
Nettie: Why? Because they're superfluous?
Michael: If you’re writing strong copy and you’re putting someone in a scene, you don’t need those extra adjectives junking things up. The reader automatically notices an adjective where you’re telling him how to feel about something. If you’re writing financial copy and you’re talking about a spectacular profit, you don’t have to say it’s spectacular. If you could tell the story about how the guy invested 10 thousand dollars and three days later it turned into 245,000 dollars, you don’t have to call it spectacular.
The other is the mistake of telling the reader what to do, what to think, what to feel instead of showing. We all know the rule “Show…Don’t Tell” this applies to all writing, fiction, non-fiction, copy, white papers. Instead of making a statement, you show them the benefit.
Nettie: So is copywriting really to always tell the story?
Michael: Absolutely and start in the middle for the reader. Show the story and give details. Make them see the story. Imagine that you’re writing a movie rather than a letter. Let them see the details and don’t junk it up with intrusive adjectives. Intrusive adjectives have the same kind of effect that telling does. What you want is the reader to feel like he is making his own decisions and that he is coming to his own conclusions.
Experts Making Shortcuts:
Nettie: What mistakes do expert writers start making?
Michael: When you become a master writer at whatever area you’re writing in, then one of the bigger mistakes that can happen is assuming that your reader is at the same level as you are.
A lot of writers won’t want to hear me say this. But it’s true. The writers sometimes tend to shortcut the explanations of things, use the inside jargon too much and you begin to write to the advanced readers. It’s difficult to balance.
What you have to remember is that all the great successes in publishing really come from writing to the beginners. Shakespeare always wrote to the beginners. The bigger mistake the advanced writers tend to make is they forget to go back and talk to the beginner in their writing. You want to make sure you encompass your whole audience. Remember, the most profound truths in any area are the simplest.
The challenge for a master copywriter is to make sure that you get in plenty of deep and exciting stuff for your advanced readers, while not alienating your beginning readers.
Nettie: So the goal no matter what level of writer you are is to write for the beginner and then make certain that you bring in those other people that may have seen the product twenty times too?
Michael: Exactly. The secret to really good writing is that you have to love your audience and one of the most common mistakes that master marketers make is that they despise their audience.
Nettie: Why do they despise their audience?
Michael: Sometimes writers get cynical about what they’re doing. They think what they’re doing is not right, that they’re selling people things and they somehow feel that’s not right and so they get mad at their audience in a way for buying the promotions they’re writing and they start to dislike them for that.
I’ve come into plenty of businesses where all the marketers talk about their people as though they’re morons. They talk about them despairingly and that’s the first thing I always put a stop to. You can never be great at writing if you don’t love your audience.
Nettie: Can you talk more about how that works?
Michael: There’s a thing called negative capability by T.S. Eliot and I think he was writing it about Shakespeare and he said one of Shakespeare’s greatest strengths is that he had the capacity for negative capability. What he meant by that was Shakespeare had the capacity to create characters he himself did not like morally but he allowed them to come to their full expression of their own personalities in the most positive way they could. In other words, he had villains that were full villains.
That’s what a great writer does and what I’m saying is you have to love your audience too and the people in the pit.
You have to care about them and in copywriting I’ve overseen more than a billion dollars worth of successful copywriting and I can tell you that copywriters are a little bit like rock stars and the greatest copywriters tend to be the youngest ones.
Michael: Because they still love their audience, they love the ignorance of their audience because they are still ignorant themselves. They’re discovering the secrets themselves and they’re enthused about them and they’re explaining them simply because they’re just starting to learn them too. But if you don’t keep yourself open and work hard to love your audience and your products, then what happens is your copy by incremental degradation gets a little bit more and more removed.
Most of the highest paid copywriters are not good, it’s the young guys just on the curve that are hungry and moving and working very hard. It’s hard not to get dried up.
Nettie: How do you keep yourself inspired after doing this so long?
Michael: I actually will myself into loving the audience and loving the product. I just won’t start talking about copy with somebody unless I can get in that mood. I try to imagine where they are and what they are caring about and I start getting humble and I start saying, “Why am I such a big shot? When did I really need this information?” Some people are just open loving and humble their whole lives and other people just have to remember it.
Nettie: So even expert copywriters can be humble and still good?
Michael: Absolutely. Somehow the Rolling Stones can go back and do performances that are still really great. There are some expensive copywriters that know how to do that and they’re great too.
About Michael Masterson: Michael Masterson is a prolific writer, Michael Masterson has developed a loyal following through his writings in Early to Rise (www.earlytorise.com), an e-newsletter published by Agora that mentors more than 400,000 success-oriented individuals to help them achieve their financial goals.
Michael Masterson has been making money for himself or others for almost four decades. In that time, he’s only taken two breaks—each time for two years. The first was after a stint with the Peace Corps in which he came to appreciate relative values and the joy of teaching. The second came at age 39, when Masterson retired from the $100 million-plus business that he and his partner built.
In his latest book, Seven Years to Seven Figures: The Fast-Track Plan to Becoming a Millionaire, Michael Masterson provides readers with a detailed program to turn their average -- or below average -- income into a seven figure fortune in seven years or less.
Michael is a consultant for AWAI and a contributor to the highly esteemed Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting.