Hello, Joshua Boswell here. Welcome to the Copywriter Marketer video newsletter series.
In this segment, we’re going to talk about writing skills. We’re going to talk about the first and what I believe is the most fundamental and essential writing skill. It actually has very, very little to do with writing at all. In fact, when you begin to practice this skill and utilize it, you’re not doing almost any kind of writing. We’ll talk about that as we go through.
What is this skill called? When I tell you the name of this skill, you’ve got to promise me not to roll your eyes, because I have found that most writers say, “Oh yeah, I know that.” The thing about it is, is that they know it but they don’t do it to a deep enough level to really make themselves great writers. I find that this particular thing is the thing that separates okay writers, mediocre writers, good writers, and really great writers, and then phenomenal, awesome, incredible writers. The better you get at doing this, then the more incredible and the more amazing and the more spectacular you will be at writing. In fact, your writing ability will, in many ways, just naturally flow from this.
Here’s what this thing is. Here’s what it is. This is research. Research. Why is it that so many people struggle writing? They struggle writing because they, first of all, don’t know what to write about. Second of all, they don’t know how to articulate ideas and pull them into really fascinating, amazing ideas.
I’ll give you an example. One of the first financial newsletters that I had was with a company. They asked me to write this promo on it, and I sat down and the extent of my research was to read, I sat down and I read through the existing promotions. I read through them, they said, “We want something basically like this.” Then I read through a few of the picks that the editor had done, and I read through a few of the commentaries. I basically … you know, there was a few words I didn’t understand, but that’s okay, so I sat down and I wrote a headline and I wrote a lead and I sent it off to the company.
You can guess. They didn’t like it. They didn’t like it at all. The reason they didn’t like it, because it was superficial. It indicated clearly that I was not speaking from a position of knowledge but I was just speaking from a position of I had read a few things, and I was kind of regurgitating them. I wasn’t passionate or involved or ingrained or excited about it. I was just repeating something that other people had said and maybe repackaging a little bit. It comes through crystal clear. How do you solve that? Research.
Here’s one of the mysterious … actually, this is my point number six, so I’m not going to jump ahead on you. We’re going to get to this in just a minute. There is something mysterious and wonderful and amazing that happens. When you get really intensely engaged in research, something changes inside you, and we’ll get to that in just a minute.
I want to walk through seven basic steps or best practices or insider secrets, whatever you want to call it, about doing research that turns you from an okay writer to a good writer to a great writer, and eventually, to a phenomenal writer. Okay?
The very first thing that I want you to to do when you sit down to research is what you would probably expect me to say. This one’s an obvious one. I want you to Google whatever the topic is. Not just do one keyword search, but do lots and lots of keyword searches. In fact, it’s really not a bad idea to get an AdWords account or to get some kind of a service that provides a keyword searching tool. Go in there and type in the main idea that you’re studying about, whether it’s cosmetics or wellness travel or finances, or some kind of a supplement or vitamin, or technology. Whatever it is. Go in there and look at that and pretend like you’re doing AdWords research or SEO research and get a nice list of keywords that are associated with this particular idea or concept.
For example, when I first began working with Corel, many years ago, the first project they had me on was something that I didn’t know anything about, and that was forensic photography. I went and I created a big database, like 50 to 100, I guess that’s not huge, 50 to 100 words that were associated with forensic photography. I started researching those, and reading different articles, and looking at websites, and seeing what people were saying about it and how they approached it, and what the laws where and what the statutes were and how that changed from state to state, and all these kind of things. All of that came because I started at a basic Google search and then I did some research on multiple keywords that I could research inside of Google and find out really what was going on inside this industry. Google is the very first thing that I recommend that you do.
Now, second thing here. Second thing. The second thing is read a bunch of books. Notice that I said “books.” When you do your Google research, you’re going to get a whole bunch of articles and you’re going to get a whole bunch of ideas. You’re going to get commentary and you’re going to get opinions, just blog posts and videos, all those kind of things. That’s great. That’s why we start there. Reading books on the subject takes you into a whole other level.
See, a book is an interesting thing. An article is something, especially in today’s world, an article is something that an expert or someone in the field, they’re going to sit down and they’re going to throw a bunch of ideas on the page. But a book’s not like that. A book is, they’ve got to map out the book. They’ve got to strategize on it. They’ve got to think about how they’re going to market it. They’ve got to think of, “How would I sell this to a publisher, and then how would I sell it to John Q. Public or my target audience?” They’ve got to sort all that stuff in their mind and it’s got to go through all these different vetting and approval processes, and it’s got to get so it’s refined and it’s articulate and then an editor grabs it and tears it apart. It boils these ideas. Of course, not all books are awesome, but it boils all these ideas down from just a few loose ideas on it, and it puts their best stuff.
I did an interview once with Mark Ford, and Mark and I were talking about … it was a private interview, I didn’t record it. I wish I had. It was this conversation that he and I had, and he said, “You know, all of my very best, most refined, most powerful business ideas go into my books, and it’s crazy that you can buy years and years and years of my best thinking for $15 to $25 and have it,” and the thing about it is most people don’t realize that, so not enough people read and study it. Reading books on your particular subject is an absolute, it’s just an eye-opening phenomenal experience that I really think that you should get involved with and do. Read two or three books on the topic that you’re studying, okay?
Now. Number three. By the way, as we go through this and you start seeing some of the research that I suggest, you’ll notice why it’s so important to focus on a given industry, because when you start reading these books in a given industry, you can apply it to multiple projects. Every time you switch niches and switch industries and switch your game up, you’ve got to start all over with a lot of this stuff, and you don’t want to do that all the time. It’s fascinatng, it’s cool, and I’ve done it through the years, but I try to put a couple years in between each one of these.
Okay. Now. Number three, what do you do? Number three is, I want you to interview people. I want you to interview people. I want you to sit down and have conversations with them. I want you to ask questions.
Again, let’s go back to my Corel example. When I was dealing with the forensic photography thing, one of the things that I did is I picked up the phone and I called police departments all over the United States and Canada, and I’d ask them, “Hey, can I talk to your forensic officer?” Some of them had it, some of them didn’t, some of them said, “No way, what do you want to talk to Captain [inaudible 00:08:53] for?” Most of them were like, “Sure.” I get on the phone with them, and it’s like, “Well, what did you say to these guys?” I told them what I was doing, like, “Hey, I’m doing a research paper on photography and the way that digital photography is changing up the courtroom scene. What goes on inside the courtroom, and what do you have to deal with with the forensic photography, and what are you trying to get after, and what are you trying to see, and its that valid in court or not in court?” All these different things. I was just super curious about it.
I started to get excited about it after I read some books and looked this up, and I wanted to know from the officers’ perspective what was going on there. I talked to a couple judges and attorneys and said, “Hey, tell me about, when you’re submitting evidence, how do you know that the photograph has not been tampered with?” I found out all this kind of stuff.
Parenthetically, I found out something really interesting, and it’s a phrase that came up over and over and over again called “chain of custody.” Who’s got custody of it and ownership of it, what’d they do with it, and can you validate that it went from one hand to another to another to another, and was it tampered with so it’s real, valid, submissible evidence? The cool thing is, is I would not have ever have known that if I hadn’t have interviewed some people.
There are a couple of premises for interviewing people. One is, you can just sit down and say, “I want to learn about something in this industry, so I’m going to do a report.” When you call or contact people, you can say, “Hey, I’m doing a report on XYZ. I’m doing a report on best marketing practices in the legal field or in the financial world, or I’m doing a report on the consumer mindset inside of the health industry.” You just come up with a report that you want, and when you call them up, you say, “I’m doing a report on this, I’m interviewing a handful of experts. I’d love to get your insights and your opinion. What I’m going to do is I’m going to aggregate all the data. I won’t share industry secrets from one person to another, but I will aggregate the data and create a report, and then I’ll share that report with you.” You’d be amazed how many people are just more than happy to interview you and talk with you. Interview is the next major thing that I think that you ought to talk about.
Now, here’s number four. Here’s number four on our list of research things that you should do, and this is what I call … I don’t call it that. Consume and experience. Consume and experience. In other words, I want you to taste it, feel it, touch it, go there, walk there, experience it.
When I was, again, I keep using the Corel example because I started there. I remember going … I had never even been to court. Gratefully, I’ve never been to court. When I got the assignment, I’m like, “I don’t know what goes on inside these courtrooms,” so I went and I found the docket, and I walked into court and sat down in the gallery there, and I’m like, “Yeah, I’m going to sit and watch how some of these trials go.” One thing, that has made me decide to never be in court. That just did not look very fun, but I saw how evidence was submitted and I saw the process and different things, and that was a really cool experience. It was like, “Oh!” The kinds of cases that I could get into and talk to and visit with people, I went and experienced it for myself.
The other thing that I did is I was promoting a software package for Corel. They sent me a copy of it, and I just tore into it. I got so excited about it, and I put in a bunch of photos and I manipulated them, I edited them, I expanded them and I contracted them, I changed the colors on them. I took people’s noses off and I put, like … I experienced what it was like to do the stuff that people were going to do with this particular piece of software, and so I experienced it and I consumed it. You can do the same thing. You should be a consumer. You’ve got to know what’s going on inside their minds and inside their hearts, and so you’ve got to do it and experience it and have it and completely consume it. Super important.
I’m going to step over here, and we’re going to look at the next thing. Number five, number five. Number five, I told you it was number six, but it’s actually number five. Number five is one of the most important things that you can do in this whole research process. Number five is allow yourself, allow yourself just to get excited and passionate about what it is. You don’t have to be all bubbly and wired up passionate excited about things like I am, but you do, in your own way, whatever that way is, you’ve got to just feel in your belly, just right down in your gut. You’ve got to feel that what you’re writing about is awesome, and you just love it, and it’s great, and it’s changed your life.
I’ll tell you the inverse of this experience. I once was writing for a company in the financial newsletter space, and when I read their promos, I was like, “This is cool stuff!” I talked to their editor, and I was like, “This is cool!” I liked the editor, and he and I got along really well. I talked to customer service people, and they were cool.
I interviewed a few people that had used and were reading and actually trying some of the things that the editor was promoting, and I started getting not so cool vibes. I was like, “Oh, wait a minute here. What? The editor and the promo are telling me all these great results,” and I’m like, “Oh man, I’ve interviewed like five people, I can’t even find anybody that’s made anything. No net gains, they’re barely…” Then I went and I looked at the portfolio and the track record, and I was like, “Oh! These guys over a year are not even beating the S&P 500! In other words, I would be way better off just taking my money and sticking it in a S&P 500 index fund that just tracks the S&P, and not touching it, leaving it alone! I would be way better off than trying to follow the advice of this editor.”
Now, I realize that’s sort of a negative story, but see what happened? As I did my research and I talked to people, I was allowing myself to get really, really excited, but within reason. In other words, the number one, and I’ve said this lots of times, and one day we’ll do a whole newsletter series on this or a whole blog post. We’ll really dig into this. Here’s the thing. The number one skill that all great copywriters have is not writing. It’s picking the right product. The old saying that you can sell ice to Eskimos is so totally stupid. That is not cool! Eskimos have plenty of ice, they don’t need your ice! People in Arizona that are dehydrated and hot all the time, they need ice. You’ve got to have a core product that brings value, that enriches people’s lives, that makes sense and is really what it promises to be.
By the way, I turned down that project. After I got into it and realized that, “Hey, this wasn’t exactly … great promotion, not great delivery, and so…” Now, by contrast, by contrast, right? I’m just going to put “Get excited.” Allow yourself to get excited.
Now, by contrast, I could name a whole bunch of other products like, for example, for example, I worked really, really closely with a technology company, and they had the most incredible — it wasn’t Corel with this, it was Toshiba — they had some really cool hardware and software stuff that they were working with universities on. The more I used it, the more excited I got. I ended up, this is before I became a Mac guy, I ended up buying a Toshiba laptop, and it was a really cool experience.
Okay. Number six. Let’s talk about number six, and we’re getting close to wrapping up here. Number six, now, this is the little bit different thing. This isn’t actually gathering data. This is the research portion of processing that data. This is what I call the “ponder phase.” What does the “ponder phase” mean? The ponder phase is basically that phase where you take all the information that you’ve gathered and you sit down and you just focus for a few minutes on what it is that you know. The way that I do this, the most effective way that I do this, is I think about it, I let it simmer for a little while, and then I sit down at my computer and I just start typing. I just start cranking out information. I ask myself, “What do I know about this product? What do I know about the person who uses this product? What did I read about in this book?” This is what I call “active pondering.” I’m just submerging myself in my brain in what I know about that thing, and then I’m allowing myself to just dump it.
What happens in that process is that my brain starts making connections, like, “Oh, I gathered this bit of data here and that bit of data there,” and I’m connecting it, and then I’m formulating it in new and different ways. The more I write, the more I jot this down, the more things start to connect and resonate, and I get super … I’m allowing myself to be excited, and I’ve experienced it, and it’s like, “Oh my gosh, this is all starting to come together.” Pretty soon, before I know it, I’m actually writing the promo or I’m writing the piece or I’m writing the talk or the sales script or whatever it is.
Let me get to the last thing, here. The last thing. Number seven. The last thing is, is I want you, in part of the research … you’ve pondered it, you’ve thought about it, you’ve put it down on paper, and now I want you to start articulating it. This is what I call the “talk and teach” part. The “talk and teach” part. This is where I want you to go and start talking to your friends and family. Tell them all about it. I want you to find other people in the industry and maybe give a little speech on it. Teach them about it.
Again, back to the Corel thing. The first project that I did with them was awesome, I learned so much about it. Then, they asked me to teach their writing department, their marketing guys, about this program. What I did is, I did. I taught them. As I taught them, I learned more and more and more about it, I understood more about it, and I got more and more excited about it.
These are the seven major parts of research, and if you do this, this allows you to go from a mediocre, okay writer to an awesome, incredible writer, to just a phenomenal, mindblowing writer. You’re not even improving your writing skills. You’re just crawling inside the mind of your consumer and understanding the product in ways that you never, ever could without doing this.
Googling it, reading actual books, doing interviews, being a consumer experiencing it, allowing yourself to get excited about it — don’t just be casual about this, get excited about it — pondering on it, considering what it is, making connections, forming new ideas, coming up with big ideas and doing things in a way that people haven’t done before, and then talk and teach. Share it with others. As you do that, you’re going to be ready to sit down and start cranking out whatever the assignment is: The blog post, the article, the sales script, the newsletter. Whatever it is, you will be ready to write like you’ve never written before.
Does this take time and effort? Yes. Is this hard work? Yeah, sometimes it’s hard work! It’s like, “Ugh, I’ve got to wrap my head around this!” But is it worth it? Will it totally up your gain in major significant ways? The answer is absolutely yes. Yes, it will. This is a major part of becoming an awesome writer.
I hope you’ll take advantage of these seven ideas, put them into practice, and really up your game as a writer. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you soon.