June 18, 2024

How to be a first-rank wordsmith in the next 10 minutes


Should you write “can you …” or “will you …”?

“Brave” or “courageous”?

“30 minutes” or “half an hour”?

Is it a weakening redundancy to write “100% guaranteed”?

I learned early on these are not trivial matters to a professional copywriter.

Whether you are a DIY copywriter or you hire someone to write your content, you need to know how to determine whether your Web copy delivers results or languish on the internet.

When I started as a copywriter in 1989 I was lucky to find Herschell Gordon Lewis’ book On the Art of Writing Copy.

It gave me a fast education on the critical importance of every single word and phrase to persuade and move readers to respond. Reading it saved me years of hard-knocks learning to distinguish between weak copy and persuasive copy.

Marketing has changed a lot since those days.  Digital media has mostly replaced print for business communications. But the essence of sound copywriting remains the same. That’s why I consider it required reading for every copywriter and marketer today.

Over the past two decades, Lewis has written more than 20 books on direct response copywriting. I’ve read most of them.

They are informative and entertaining. He uses examples of good and bad executions to teach you the nuances of persuasive copy. The critiques can be scathing and hilarious. His crisp writing style exemplifies what he teaches. It is a pleasure to read and a style I aspire to every time I take to the keyboard.

On the Art of Writing Copy has been my constant companion. There is so much wisdom and practical guidance in it, I reference it regularly and reread it entirely every few years. If you’re not so inclined, here is a summary of Herschell Gordon Lewis nuggets I keep handy when writing for the Web.

Principles for writing persuasive Web copy

Clarity: When choosing words and phrases clarity is paramount. Let no other component of the message mix interfere with it.

  • The writer who puts form ahead of substance admits a creative deficiency.
  • The reader invariably will apply a negative interpretation to statements that violate the clarity principle.

Word choice: With all the specific descriptive words available, the writer who regards neutral, non-specific words such as needs (as a noun), quality, features and value as creative should agree to work for no pay.

How much should you say? Tell the reader as much as you can about what your product or service may do for him or her. If you have space left over, don’t move down to the next level of information (facts unrelated to benefit). Instead, restate or illustrate some of the benefits.

E2 = 0: When you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing.

John G Olson & Herschell Gordon Lewis

Me with Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1997

Be specific. Specific words generate a far greater emotional reaction than generalized words. The more specific the words, the more the writer controls emotions. Being specific is the first cousin of giving the reader an understandable benefit.

Involve the reader. Unless you want to avoid reader involvement in your message, always write in the active voice.

  • Opening with a benefit is an insurance policy. No matter how unprofessional the writing, you’ll be floating in the warm sea of the reader’s self-interest.
  • Whenever you can add the word “you” to a benefit, you clarify it as a benefit.
  • Including the reader in a statistical recitation enhances the probability of response. For example:


Only 1500 individuals in all the world …
… can own this splendid symbol of gallantry.


You …
and only 1499 individuals in all the world …
can own this splendid symbol of gallantry.
  • Write within the experiential background of the reader, not yourself.

On brevity: Keep copy tight enough so it fits the reader’s skimming without forcing a comprehension stop.

Getting a response. When emotion and intellect come into conflict, emotion always wins. Replace intellectual words with emotional words and you’ll sell more because you trigger an emotional response.

  • Cleverness for the sake of cleverness can be a liability rather than an asset. Attention is one component of persuasion, not its entirety. Don’t leave the reader thinking, “What a clever copywriter. What was the product?”
  • The illustration or image should agree with what you are selling, not with the headline copy.

Meet the copywriting master

I had the opportunity to meet Herschell Gordon Lewis and take a copywriting workshop taught by him. It was one of the thrills of my professional life. This short video captures the fun and teachable spirit of his workshops as he talks about writing comprehension.


Can you become a copywriting master in 10 minutes?

No. That takes time and practice.

But you can begin to understand the rules of solid copywriting so you will know it when you see it.

Some writers bristle at the idea of establishing rules for copywriting as an infringement on creativity. That’s the wrong attitude. Writing is for the reader, not the writer. Its purpose must be to deliver a clear message of value to the reader.

“If you think that reducing the creative process to a series of rules is a serious offense – breaking and entering the writer’s hallowed seat-of-the-pants domain – then you’ll find the whole process repulsive,” says Lewis in his introduction.

But writing deliberately and confidently is better than writing haphazardly and fearfully. These are the principles that make you a first-rank wordsmith.

Need help with a content marketing strategy that grows customers and sales? I can help! Message me to set up a time to talk on the phone.

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