Archive for the 'Writing' Category

A winning formula for freelance copywriting success

June 19th, 2018 by Bob Bly

In the last issue of this e-newsletter, I promised to give you
some advice on how to succeed as a freelance writer in today’s
highly competitive, over-crowded market.

So without further preamble, here are some suggestions for
surviving and thriving as a copywriter — and in particular, as a
newbie freelancer — in 2018 and beyond:

#1–Get good.

Your competitors are studying the books, taking the courses,
attending the conferences, watching the videos.

If you are not similarly a student of copywriting, you will soon
be left behind, unable to compete on their level.

#2–Next, get even better.

If you think you’re already a decent writer, don’t stand still.
Move forward.

Keep learning. Improve always. Continue reading the books, taking
the workshops, and studying.

Remember this famous saying: “School is never out for the pro.”


There are only 3 ways to get better as a writer: study (see #1
above) … write (see #4 below) … and read.

Read a lot. Read books about business, marketing, and writing …
and about all sorts of other topics.

The books about business, marketing, and writing improve your
ability to write kick-butt copy.

The books on all other topics give you a storehouse of knowledge
on all sorts of subjects you can draw on to add interest and
verisimilitude to your copy.

They will also teach you how to write better through example.


Isaac Asimov wrote for 10 hours or so a day, 7 days a week.

Stephen King has said he writes every day of the year except
Christmas and his birthday.

Write every day. If you want Sundays off, that’s fine.

#5–Avoid generic assignments.

The worst projects are writing articles and blog posts on general
subjects that anyone can look up on Google.

That’s because writers of these articles and posts essentially
just search Google for other articles on the same topic, pull
something from 4 or 5 of them, and cobble together a new piece.

Since any idiot can do this, it doesn’t — and never will — pay
particularly well. It’s a commodity service. And boring. So why

#6–Choose a niche.

All else being equal, in whatever field you look, specialists get
paid more and have a much easier time getting work than

For instance, neurosurgeons make more money than family doctors —
and patent attorneys out-earn local attorneys with general

As a writer, you can specialize either in a medium (e.g., white
papers, case studies), a product or industry (e.g., chemicals,
investment newsletters), or both (e.g., SEO for chemical companies).

#7–Acquire specialized knowledge.

Once you’re in a niche, become an obsessive student of the topic,
and if you can, acquire some credentials to make it evident to
others that you are a subject matter expert.

For instance, in the 1980s, when I was inundated with assignments
from computer and software firms, I trained to become a certified
IT professional. And as an engineering graduate, I already knew
some programming.


Any writing field where the success of your copy can be measured
and proven — and that is most notably in direct response
marketing — will pay you more than writing disciplines where ROI
cannot be measured.

By “compete,” I mean specialize in areas where results can be

You don’t have to win every time, and you won’t.

But if you get known as a top gun in a writing area with
measurable ROI, you can get paid top dollar.

#9–Know what pays.

Some specialties and writing tasks pay better than others.
Gravitate toward one or more of those areas, and you’ll make more

For instance, writing white papers pays well; writing blog posts
does not.


You will have frequent setbacks, failures, and disappointments
that will knock you to your knees repeatedly.

But as long as you get right back up, you will come out a winner.
As my Facebook friend Mike says, persistence breaks resistance.


Category: Writing | No Comments »

Is this the end of freelance copywriting?

June 15th, 2018 by Bob Bly

Subscriber BD, who happens to be both a songwriter and a
copywriter, writes:

“I fear something similar will happen to copywriting as what
has happened to independent musicians and songwriters over
the years.

“So many out there doing it. Just for exposure. For experience.
For samples. For confidence boost. For networking.

“So many people with solopreneur dreams.

“There’s a lot of similarities between freelance writing and
independent performing songwriters.

“Glamorous, romantic lifestyle compared to the factory and
cubical worker. Free spirit. Independent. Live life on one’s own
terms. The list goes on.”

Is BD right?

Are freelance copywriters becoming as obsolete as, say, this
librarian from the Twilight Zone?:

Today copywriters certainly face new challenges.

But we are far from down and out.

Newbie copywriters often ask me whether it is more difficult to
become a freelance copywriter now than when I started full-time
freelancing in the early 80s.

The answer: some aspects of freelance copywriting in the 21st
century are more difficult, while in other ways it’s easier

Overall, it’s a wash.

For instance, the competition is much fiercer, with so many more
people entering the profession.

The internet in particular contributes to this, as we copywriters
now have to compete not just with local copywriters — but with
freelancers across the country and even around the world.

Many of these freelancers live in regions and nations where the
cost of living is so low, they can afford to charge much less
than you do.

But the internet is also a boon to copywriters. Reason: digital
marketers need more copy than ever — everything from blog posts,
e-newsletters, and auto-responder campaigns, to websites,
long-copy online sales letters, and VSLs.

So yes, there are more copywriters. But there is also a lot more
work — enough to keep you, as David Ogilvy put it, in beer and

Will that continue in the future? I don’t know. I’m not enough of
a futurist to say. But I suspect it will.

Another mixed blessing is computers and software.

On the downside, there is software that can write articles and
other content, and at least one software package that can write
subject lines and other short copy.

On the upside, when personal computers came along, my writing
productivity easily doubled — and the ability to produce twice
the amount of work gave me a big jump in income, as it did many
other writers.

Also, millennials who were raised with computers have never
experienced the dubious pleasure of having to retype entire pages
just to make even relatively small rewrites and edits; I shudder
at the memory.

In my next essay, I’ll share specific tips and strategies for
surviving and thriving as a freelance copywriter in today’s
over-crowded, hyper-competitive market.


Category: Writing | No Comments »

The awful truth about “flimsy” books

May 22nd, 2018 by Bob Bly

Recently, a colleague handed me a book on communications she got
at a seminar on that topic from the speaker.

I flipped through it and immediately thought of a comment I read
in a book review once: “This is a book that should never have
been written.”

And increasingly, in this era of self-promoters and CreateSpace,
the rise of books that should never have been written — or
published — is increasing at a tremendous rate.

I call these works — most not worth the paper they’re printed on
or the price of a Kindle download — “flimsy books.”

And I urge you to neither read, buy, nor heaven forbid, write and
publish such books.

They are 9 times out of 10 a waste of both the writer’s and the
reader’s time, effort, and money.


Because these flimsy books have a number of characteristics in
common, which make them good for lining bird cages or starting
fires in the fireplace — but not so good for actually reading.

>> To begin with, flimsy books are actually flimsy. That doesn’t
make them bad in itself, but is an identifying trait.

When you see a flimsy book, your first impression is that it’s a
pamphlet, not a book. And actually, that is essentially the case.

The communications book I was given has barely 50 pages with text
on them … and the page size is small.

Reason: Authors of flimsy books are more interested in having a
published book for use as a marketing tool or to enhance their
reputation, rather than writing a good book.

So they tend to dash them off quickly, often without much effort,
thought, research, or editing.

>> Second, the vast majority of books I am referring to as
“flimsy” are self-published, more often than not today on

Again, that doesn’t make them bad in itself.

However, anyone who has written a book for a big publishing house
knows that those books almost always get a lot more attention to
detail — especially in the editing, proofreading, and production
process — than self-published books.

My editors at these publishing houses are tough, and don’t let me
get away with being lazy or doing a half-assed job, or being
unclear or incomplete.

Most self-published authors I know don’t hire a copy editor, and
so their books lack this essential quality control.

“Submitting a book for publication is also submitting to the
discipline of the market,” says my Facebook friend WC.

“Indeed, there are worthy self-published books, but I tend to
agree that added prestige is given when books are published by a
major publisher.”

>> Third, you don’t get much for your money with flimsy books.

The flimsy communications book I am using as an example is, as I
said, barely 50 pages and less than 15,000 words total.

By comparison, my average 200 to 300-page trade paperback for the
big publishers is 80,000 to 100,000 words — so the buyer gets 5
to 6 times more content than in a typical flimsy book.

>> Fourth, as mentioned in my first point above, the motivation
for publishing a flimsy book is more often than not marketing —
either to sell for maximum profit with minimal effort … or to
serve as a sales or reputation-building tool.

As Dr. Jeffrey Lant notes: “A book is a brochure that will never
be thrown away.”

>> Fifth, most flimsy books I review are — uh, how can I put this
— just not very good.

It is painfully obvious that they have not been fact-checked,
proofed, researched, or written with careful attention.

In so many flimsy books, the writing is disorganized, the text
meanders and is full of pointless digressions, and the coverage
of the topic is woefully incomplete — with much of the key
information missing.

But — why am I complaining? Why bother to protest? Is there
really any harm caused by the growing practice of writing,
publishing, and selling flimsy books?

Answer: Yes — some. And here’s why I think the world would be
better off without so many — or even any — flimsy books….

Reason number one: The existence of flimsy books cheapens the
value of real books.

When I started writing books in 1981, having a book published was
prestigious. But flimsy books make people think less of books and

Reason number two: People write and publish flimsy books to
convince others they are experts.

To write a 300-page book that is vetted by a top publishing house
does require some expertise or at least a lot of research.

Writing a flimsy book, not so much.

Reason number three: Flimsy books are a major source of “content
pollution” — which I loosely define as books, reports, courses,
and other materials that, to put it charitably, should never have
seen the light of day.

You may disagree. But that’s the way I see it.

Before you ask or say anything, yes, I have written a few
books that are small and slim.

But, of my 95 published books, I have written many that are
200, 300, or 400 pages — and in one case 800 pages.

So my average book is indeed a real book, and not a flimsy


Category: Writing | 7 Comments »

Advice for writers with wide-ranging interests

May 15th, 2018 by Bob Bly

Subscriber CG writes:

“What advice would you give a writer who has many interests and
talents and finds it difficult to choose a topic, theme, or genre
to write in?

“If they are new to writing full-time for a living, must they
choose a focus area to be successful?”

This aspect of freelancing — generalist vs. specialist — has
changed somewhat during my 4-plus decades as a freelance writer.

When I first started freelancing, the magazine market was wide
open — and welcome non-specialist writers with welcome arms.

The vast majority of freelance magazine article writers wrote on
almost every subject imaginable — for any magazine they could
sell their idea to.

As for books, in the early part of my author’s career — I wrote
my first book for McGraw-Hill in 1982 — I felt pretty confident
that if I came up with a good book idea, my agent would be able
to find a publisher for it.

And it pretty much worked out that say for a decade or three.

In copywriting, I was niched from day one as an industrial
copywriter, primarily because I had an engineering degree and was
a techie.

But most of the copywriters back then — and there were fairly few
freelancers — came from ad agencies and would work on any type of
product for any type of client. They were generalists.

Today, it’s a bit different….

There are still plenty of magazines buying articles from
freelancers, but magazine publishing is in a downward spiral …
and so writing articles is no longer the plum assignment it was
back in the day.

Books are even more difficult.

Book publishers today only want to buy books from author’s who
have something known as a “platform.”

The two components of a platform are (a) the author has
credentials and experience in the subject matter of the book he
wants to write and (b) also has a built-in audience which
presumably will buy his book.

And of these platform components, (b) — the ability to sell lots
of copies of the book — is much more important than (a), the
author background and qualifications.

The problem is that it is difficult if not impossible to have a
strong platform with both components, (a) and (b), for more than
one or two niches or topics.

Therefore, if you publish through mainstream publishing houses,
as I do, you cannot get publishers to buy books from you in
multiple niches — e.g., gardening, computers, marketing, pets,
and whatever else interests you — because you simply can’t have
strong platforms in more than one or two areas.

The problem still exists if you self-publish.

For instance, I publish an online marketing newsletter with
65,000 subscribers.

These people trust me for marketing advice and many will buy new
marketing books from me.

But if I tell them about my new book on real estate (and I have
coauthored two), most won’t be interested or buy — because they
come to me for marketing and not real estate advice.

So back to CG’s question: “If they are new to writing full-time
for a living, must they choose a focus area to be successful?”

I’m afraid, CG, the answer is: yes, they must focus on a niche,
topic, or area — at least at the beginning.

There are so many more freelance writers and copywriters today
than when I started, competing with one another, that
specialization is often the key to gaining competitive advantage
and succeeding.

Once you have many long years of experience behind you, then
specialization is not as critical, because people hear about you
through the grapevine, and if your reputation is good, many want
to work with you … although even then, the specialist usually has
the edge over the generalist.

I suspect my answer will distress CG, whom I think is a
renaissance person with wide-ranging interests who wants to write
about many subjects — but will have trouble getting clients and
projects without choosing an area of focus and sticking with it.

I empathize, because I too love to write on a wide range of

But I was lucky in that regards, because I started in a day when
generalists, not specialists, ruled.

As a result, I was able to get contracts from major publishers to
write books on many subjects that interested me — everything from
sex and Star Trek, to careers and computers, to essays and short
stories, science and vocabulary … to name just a few.

I am glad I did that when it was possible, because today, it is
much more difficult to sell a book outside your main subject
matter expertise …

… although I just did, writing my first biography, to be
published in October by Quill Driver — enormous fun for me!:

Times keep changing, and for writers with wide-ranging interests,
not always for the better.


Category: Writing | 13 Comments »

How to rid yourself of Writer’s Block

May 4th, 2018 by Bob Bly

Louis L’Amour, best-selling author of more than 100 books, had a
simple method for overcoming Writer’s Block.

I use it too and find it work well.

He said, “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow
until the faucet is turned on.

“You can sit and look at a page for a long time and nothing will
happen. Start writing and it will.”

If you look around, many of the most successful and productive
authors essentially used the same method to keep the juices and
words flowing.

Georges Simenon, author of over 500 books, said he used a small
vocabulary so he wouldn’t have to get up from his desk to consult
a dictionary. His goal was to keep his butt in the chair in front
of his typewriter and not be distracted by anything.

My personal writing hero, Isaac Asimov, also wrote more than 500
books. His secret? Asimov wrote 7 days a week, usually for 8 to
10 hours a day or more.

I remember Stephen King in an interview once saying he wrote
every day except Christmas and his birthday.

A common excuse for not writing is that the writer says he does
not feel inspired; the muse has not struck. To me this is the
height of absurdity.

In his book “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser said: “The
professional writer who waits for inspiration is fooling himself.
He is also going broke.”

Another writer — I think it was Joe Haldeman — put it this way
(and I am paraphrasing):

“The idea of not writing because you don’t feel like it is
ridiculous. If I work in the chicken plant, and I don’t feel like
going to the chicken plant, do I not go to the chicken plant? Of
course I go.”

You may not have the muse at your side, but write anyway.
Remember this old Caribbean saying: “Every day is not a catching
day, but every day is a fishing day.”

I also use another technique for never having Writer’s Block,
which Isaac Asimov advocated.

He said (and again, I am paraphrasing): “Always have multiple
projects. That way, when you get stuck on Project A, instead of
not being able to write, simply put it aside and move to Project
B, which keeps you fresh and energized.”


Category: Writing | 10 Comments »

Is freelance copywriting becoming a commodity?

April 27th, 2018 by Bob Bly

Subscriber DC, an experienced copywriter, writes:

“The market has changed quite a bit over the past 4-5 years for
freelancers. With the growing popularity of sites like Upwork and, and the flood of freelancers entering the market,
freelancing is in danger of becoming a commodity over the next
5-10 years.”

DC wants to know whether I agree. Answer: Well, yes and no. Let
me explain…..

First, yes to the fact that the market today is different — the
main change being there are so many more freelance copywriters
working today.

Contrast that to when I started freelancing in 1982, when often,
when a prospect called me, I was the only freelance copywriter
they could find.

Their choice was (a) write it themselves, (b) hire a small ad
agency or PR firm, (c) or me.

For a time, I was, as far as I could see, the only freelance
copywriter serving my niche — which back then was industrial
marketing — which gave me a huge advantage, as did my being an

Today there are many copywriters out there with engineering
backgrounds. And just many more altogether.

That being said, copywriting is already a commodity in some
markets — and yet will probably never be a commodity in others.

Copywriting is a commodity in any market where copy is either (a)
not a critical factor determining marketing success or (b) the
copy does not generate measureable response and tangible results.

This would include much of the advertising for local small
businesses as well as bigger companies that focus on either
branding or image advertising.

The reason copywriting is a commodity in these markets is that,
well, everyone today writes or thinks they can.

And when you can’t quantitatively measure the sales produced by
copy, it is difficult to prove that your copy is better than
someone else’s — hence, it is seen as a commodity.

On the other hand, copywriting is unlikely to become a commodity
in areas where it (a) is a major factor in determining marketing
success, (b) generates a tangible response (e.g., inquiries,
orders) that can be precisely measured down to the penny, and (c)
produces a positive ROI, so it is seen as a profit center and not
a cost center.

This would include most of the world of direct marketing: direct
response TV and radio, magazine and newspaper advertising, direct
mail, online sales letters, video sales letters, and
autoresponder email series.

Within direct response, long-form freelance copywriters have
traditionally been paid more and earn more than short-form
copywriters, based on the fact that there are fewer people who
can do long-form well.

And by well, I don’t mean beautiful writing or creative. I mean
beat the client’s existing long-form control.


Category: Writing | 12 Comments »

B2B vs. B2C freelancing: how are they different?

April 24th, 2018 by Bob Bly

Subscriber CO writes:

“Could you talk about the differences between starting a
business-to-business (B2B) copywriting business, versus starting
a copywriting business aimed at direct response
business-to-consumer (B2C) copy?

“Are there differences between getting clients, running the
business etc. Since you write copy for both, I figured you would
have a unique view on this.”

Well, I could write a book about the differences between B2B and
B2C copy — and in fact, I did:

Although it was first published about 20 years ago, I believe you
will find a lot of useful answers to your question in its pages.

But as far as freelance copywriting is concerned, the major
difference between B2B and B2C is the degree of hype, both in
the copy and in the business itself.

Although each industry and in fact each client is different, as a
rule, B2B marketing is more straightforward and has relatively
little hype in it.

By comparison, consumer direct response – depending on the
product, industry, or niche – has a medium to heavy degree of
hype in it.

This hype translates into two major differences in the work for

The first is that in certain product areas – for instance,
selling stock market newsletters to individual investors – the
level of hype for many promoters has skyrocketed into the

For instance, a popular copywriting technique used in financial
promotions, “misdirection,” recommends that you delay mentioning
the product until you are many pages into the sales letter.

By comparison, misdirection is virtually never used in B2B copy,
where success is achieved by clearly and succinctly describing
the precise problem readers have, and then immediately
positioning your product as the best way to solve it.

The second major difference is the mindset of the clients.

In B2B, you are more often than not working with marketing
directors at a corporation – usually straight-up, no-nonsense
executives — selling what they consider a “real” product; e.g.
an industrial pump or water treatment plant.

If you were to show this B2B marketing director your portfolio of
long-copy sales letters written for direct response offers such
as option trading services or dietary supplements, many would
think you are a peddler of B.S. – and they would likely not hire

Conversely, if you show the owner or marketing chief of a
thriving supplement or investment advisory company your
industrial pump brochure, they won’t even recognize it as
“marketing.” They will think you are a technical writer and won’t
hire you.

The thing both B2B and B2C freelance copywriting have in common
is the client’s desire to hire a copywriter having a portfolio
and experience in their product niche.

For instance, a potential client selling an option trading course
wants to see you have written promotions for other option-related
information products (software, newsletters, books, workshops) or
related areas (real estate, precious metals, stocks, bonds). Not
widgets, chemicals, or soap.

Now, you might well ask, “How can I get my first client in any
area – whether B2B manufacturing or alternatives health – when I
have no experience writing copy for that field?”

The short answer is: Don’t worry. You can.

The long answer I wrote out for you and published as a chapter in
my book on freelancing, “Secrets of a Freelance Writer,” which I
highly recommend to you if you are facing this particular
challenge of breaking into a new copywriting niche or market:


Bob Bly

P.S. In case you are wondering, no, I don’t feel scummy or like a
con artist telling you to “buy my book” instead of just giving
you the advice right here … for 3 reasons:

>> First, you can buy a used copy of “Secrets of a Freelance
Writer” on Amazon for just a few bucks. I get no money when
people buy it used. So my recommendation has no profit motive for

>> Second, the reason I write books is to convey information and
provide answers too complex and lengthy to communicate in a short
email. If I could tell you how to break into a field in which you
have no experience in one of these short emails for free, I would
do so. But I can’t.

>> Third, the advice in “Secrets of a Freelance Writer” is based
on nearly 4 decades of copywriting experience and has helped
earn me millions of dollars at my trade. Also the book took me
many months to write. Now Amazon sells it to you for less than
you’d pay for a burger, fries, and Coke at your local
luncheonette. Quite a bargain, no?

I do not believe that sending people to one of my books for
advice is unfair, greedy, or causes them undue hardship. In a
pinch, you can borrow my books from many libraries for free.

This is in sharp contrast to today’s marketing teachers who
charge you $1,000 to attend a seminar where the focus is
upselling you to their $5,000 coaching program or $10,000
mastermind group, right?


Category: Writing | 7 Comments »

How to stand out as a B2C copywriter

April 20th, 2018 by Bob Bly

Subscriber CO writes:

“Could you talk about how to stand out as a direct response
copywriter for business-to-consumer (B2C), when so many new
copywriters are now entering this space? Especially in industries
that are saturated, such as health and financial.”

Well, it’s a multipart answer — and CO may not like some of the

I would ask CO and others to seriously rethink targeting the
health and financial segments of consumer direct response.

There are two reasons. First, every copywriter and his brother
wants to write for these clients. And so the clients have a
cornucopia of writers at their beck and call.

Second, virtually all the top direct response copywriters serve
these niches. And your chances of writing a promo that beats
Clayton Makepeace or David Deutsch are slim to none.

If I were a newbie copywriter today, I would pick a niche other
than financial or health — ideally, one where (a) copy is
important and (b) I had some advantage over other writers.

For instance, if you have worked as a flight attendant, travel
would be a logical niche, because you know the industry and have
traveled many thousands or millions of miles more than other

Remember, two things clients look for in direct response
copywriters are (a) a track record of winning promotions and (b)
specific experience in an industry or product category. As a
newbie, you are more likely to have the second than the first.

If you still insist on financial and health, target areas of
these two niches other than the most competitive.

In health, a few sub-niches that are not overcrowded — but still
lucrative and fun — are medical devices and equipment, hospitals,
and software … rather than the prize every other copywriter is
chasing: writing copy for dietary supplements.

In financial, while everyone wants to write for Agora, Weiss, and
other stock newsletter publishers, consider gold and silver
(bullion and coins) sellers, option trading systems and software,
insurance, and banking, to name several.

Assuming I can’t dissuade you, and you’re jonesing to write for
nutritional supplements or investment letters, at least come at
it from the side.

Meaning instead of writing major long-form promotions, such as
online sales letters and VSLs, write related material for
campaigns; e.g., special reports, email autoresponder series, and
name squeeze pages.

And there, CO, is my answer.


Category: Writing | 12 Comments »