Copywriting GPS: Finding your way to the first sentence

August 2, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

copywriting gpsYou’ve accepted a new copywriting project.

You’ve cashed your big fat retainer check, filed the contract, set the deadline, assured your client that you’ll write a winner, and you’re sitting at your desk staring at a pile of background materials thinking, “Now what?”

You have no idea what you’re going to write.

What you want is to know where you’re headed. You need to write that first sentence. But you can’t. Not yet.

You feel like you’ve started a journey and don’t know what path to take or where on Earth you’ll end up.

I experienced this lost feeling recently when I accepted a project to write copy to sell an investment product. It wasn’t a product I was familiar with and there were 10 separate pieces to the assignment.

Could I do it? Of course. I’m an old hand at this. And in my particular business, I’m working with new industries and products all the time. But even though I have faith that my experience will carry me through, I still don’t like those moments when I’m unclear about my direction.

So I did what I always do. I turned on my own personal Copywriting GPS, which is really nothing more than 3 simple steps that never fail to guide me through the chaos and lead me to that first amazing sentence.

1. I relax. Hey, this is part of the creative process. Sculptors go through it when they’re staring at a rough hunk of stone. Painters feel it when that empty white canvas sits in front of them. Composers experience it when they walk up to the piano and realize the near infinite permutations of those 88 keys.

And it happens to copywriters too. That first sentence or headline will be the hardest thing you ever write, and getting to that point can be a struggle. It’s natural. You can’t know what you’re going to write until you write it.

So while this is the part I like least about copywriting, I just accept it.

2. I do my homework. This is where every project starts. Information is to the mind as food is to the body. I read everything I can. I talk to the client. I look at research, brochures, videos, websites, current news, everything I can get my hands on. And I take notes. Lots and lots of notes.

In fact, it’s while I’m taking notes that I’m really learning. It would be faster to just print out all the source material, but I force myself to write out notes by hand on every detail. This makes me slow down and focus. It allows me time to absorb the facts and immerse myself in the subject matter.

And this is when I start getting ideas. A word here, a phrase there. At some point, as I’m getting smarter about the topic, headlines begin to take shape. I write down every idea that pops into my head no matter how silly it sounds.

Because eventually and inevitably the right words come to me. And that’s when …

3. I write the first sentence with confidence. And I breath a sigh of relief. I knew I’d get here, but it still feels wonderful to see that first complete thought. Often I’ll use it as a headline. Sometimes it’s the opening of a letter or a teaser.

It may be rough. I’ll certainly revise and polish. But it’s written. And I know it’s right because it rings with clarity. And it’s the moment when the fog clears and I can see where I’m headed.

From that point forward, the work gets easier and easier. All downhill and gaining speed.

It always happens this way. It happened this way for that financial project. I relaxed, took copious notes, and found myself writing the headline of an online sales page that was so simple and direct I had to smile.

The rest of the page flowed out of me quickly because I knew where I was going and, after all my research, understood the subject. My first draft was so solid, I didn’t edit more than a few lines before sending it to the client for input. And the other 9 elements seemed to write themselves: squeeze page, video script, FAQ page, and all the rest.

That “where am I going” feeling is not always fun, but it’s part of writing. And it’s in those early moments that magic happens. If you have your copywriting GPS turned on and let it navigate you, you’ll end up someplace wonderful.

Does this happen to you? Do you have a different Copywriting GPS to guide you to your first sentence?

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Smart Comments

6 Comments on Copywriting GPS: Finding your way to the first sentence

  1. Lucy Thorpe on Aug 2nd, 2010 11:11 am
  2. Yes, that’s me too!
    I write down a list of words as I work that describe the person or business I am writing for. This gives me a handy checklist to keep me on track. It might be “simple, clear, transparent” or “smart, trendy, cutting-edge.” This way the work will be consistent all the way through.

  3. Andy Bartling on Aug 2nd, 2010 5:15 pm
  4. I always develop a messaging strategy first, before I write the first word of actual copy. This gives me the proverbial ‘freedom of a narrow focus.’

    I don’t always use them all, but there are 21 steps I follow as my own ‘personal GPS.’ Here they are, if you’d like to take a look:

  5. Dean Rieck on Aug 2nd, 2010 5:21 pm
  6. Andy,
    Do you develop the message strategy before or after you go through the background information? If a client provides a strategy, then I have to curve the information to fit the strategy. But if the strategy is up to me, I always go through the information first and find that the best strategy develops naturally as I do my homework.

  7. Andy Bartling on Aug 2nd, 2010 6:58 pm
  8. Hi, Dean,

    First, I ask if there’s a messaging strategy already in place. If so, I audit the strategy to see if it’s as relevant and differentiated as it can be. If not, then I work with the client to refine the strategy. As part of the refinement process, additional background materials can come into play. But, only in a supporting role. I’m very careful not to let them push me in the wrong (i.e., irrelevant and/or undifferentiated) direction. What I’ve found is that, typically, background materials are built from a feature/benefit point-of-view. Good as strategic support; not so good as a strategic driver.


  9. Hugh Chewning on Aug 2nd, 2010 8:25 pm
  10. I like what you say about writing the letter’s lead sentence. Typically, I’ll also get the idea for the lead sentence from doing the research. Yet two other things might be worth mentioning.

    First, remember that once you have written your lead sentence, you can always change it. Once you start editing, you may even find it buried in the second or third paragraph.

    Second, consider what needs to be included in the lead sentence. For me, I like to include the word “you” whenever possible and I want to state the reader’s problem and how my offer will solve it. Plus, if I’m using an involvement technique, I want to get that in the first few lines of copy.

    Maybe I can’t fit all of this into the lead sentence but I’m going to work hard to get it into the lead paragraph. And that’s never more than 3 lines long.

  11. Sally Bagshaw on Aug 3rd, 2010 8:14 pm
  12. I’m a brainstormer. I create a file, start gathering information and don’t attempt to write until I am comfortable with the topic. My litmus test is whether or not I could explain to a stranger what my client does.