I made you a promise. I promised that book reviews were going to become a regular thing around here — you know, in my Born to Run review and summary, where I said: “I plan for this to be the first in a very long tradition of reviewing books, so stay tuned for more.”
Or, at least, that’s what I’m going to call it.
To which I’d like to give the award longest title ever. Except it’s not. There’s a book by Nigel Tomm that has a 670 word title. 644 words longer than the title of this book.
So Nigel Tomm has Joe Sugarman beat. Handily.
But back to the review. What’d I think? — wait, wait, more on that later. First I have to tell you what the book is about.
Summary of Advertising Secrets of the Written Word
In what is, I’m sure, an unrelated, complete coincidence, this is also how the endorsements printed on Joe Sugarman’s books describe Joe Sugarman.
Which is to imply that, if you write a book and describe yourself as a world-renowned Gorilla wrestler on the jacket, well, blogs everywhere will report that you’re a world-renowned Gorilla wrestler.
At which point, you sorta will be a world-renowned Gorilla wrestler, and you didn’t even have to wrestle any Gorillas.
And, if you think that’s bad, just remember: Wikipedia is a collection of facts, some cited, some not, and the good ones, the cited ones, are referring to the equivalent of you calling yourself a Gorilla wrestler on the book jacket.
So there’s that.
But I’m off topic. Joe Sugarman is a legend because he’s convinced people to buy a lot of junk that they don’t need.
I mean, that’s not what people say. They say he’s a “legendary copywriter who started a mail-order business, JS&A Group, through the power of his pen.”
Which translates to him selling people junk. Via magazines, newspapers, mail, you know, via writing. Junk like sunglasses that block the color blue.
The book, then, is about teaching you to write in such a way that you, too, can sell people junk. Or, at least, further your agenda with text, whatever that agenda may be — which is the reason that I picked up the book. I’d like to be able to convince people to do stuff, to take action with the power of ephemeral words.
And, I figure, if you can convince someone to read about sunglasses, you can get them to read about anything.
So how do you write great copy?
The Structure of Compelling Copy
The book itself is organized into three sections — the creative process, understanding what works, and ad examples. These sections are then structured around axioms — the author’s main ideas about what sells. Each axiom has about a chapter of text written around it, which is more than enough.
You can probably get most of the value of the book just by reading the axioms.
Joe Sugarman’s Axioms
Joe has 17 axioms, but I’ve deleted the boring ones, and renumbered them. So now it’s extra confusing.
- Axiom 1: All the elements in an advertisement are primarily designed to do one thing and one thing only: get you to read the first sentence of the copy.
- Axiom 2: The sole purpose of the first sentence in an advertisement is to get you to read the second sentence.
- Axiom 3: Your ad layout and the first few paragraphs of your ad must create the buying environment most conducive to the sale of your product or service.
- Axiom 4: Get the reader to say yes and harmonize with your accurate and truthful statements while reading your copy.
- Axiom 5: Your readers should be so compelled to read your copy that they cannot stop reading until they read all of it as if sliding down a slippery slide.
- Axiom 6: Never sell a product or service. Always sell a concept.
- Axiom 7: Copy should be long enough to cause the reader to take the action you request.
- Axiom 8: Every communication should be a personal one, from the writer to
the recipient, regardless of the medium used.
- Axiom 9: The ideas presented in your copy should flow in a logical fashion, anticipating your prospect’s questions and answering them as if the questions were asked face-to-face.
- Axiom 10: In the editing process, you refine your copy to express exactly what you want to express with the fewest words.
- Axiom 11: The more the mind must work to reach a conclusion successfully, the more positive, enjoyable or stimulating the experience.
- Axiom 12: Selling a cure is a lot easier than selling a preventative, unless the preventative is perceived as a cure or the curative aspects of the preventative are emphasized.
If any of these don’t make sense, they’re expanded on in the book, but they’re really the meat of the content — the rest of the exposition is overkill.
There’s also a bit on the psychology of why people buy, but I think this is much better covered by Cialdini’s Influence: The Power of Persuasion, which I recommend so highly that I bought my mother a copy for Christmas, but that’s a separate blog post.
Review of Advertising Secrets of the Written Word
I thought the text was decent. Not five stars, but not three, either. A solid four star work.
My main complaint is that the prose is sometimes too straightforward. Like when I read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography a year or so ago, I was… disturbed.
There was no introspection, no reflection, nothing. Like it was written by someone who doesn’t share the painful self-awareness and neuroticism that are endemic in author-and-author-leaning-populations.
Like the non-conscious-yet-intelligent aliens in Peter Watt’s Blindsight except here, now, real, and writing books.
Prime example: Joe is, throughout the text, speaking about selling people stuff, and it’s not great stuff. It’s not stuff anyone needs. It’s junk, really.
Hell, he even speaks about selling a product that promised to reverse aging. A product that he himself used…
— and at no point does he say, “Well, heh, heh, maybe I shouldn’t have sold that one to people, huh? Can’t win ’em all, can I?” There was nothing like that — which was troubling. Like there wasn’t a real person behind the curtain.
But the book isn’t really about that.
But it was still creepy.
So four stars.
Changes to my own writing
What did I actually take away from the book? That’s the question, right? The point of all information is to change one’s actions so, if I read a book on writing, it should change my writing.
Post-reading, there have been two big shifts in my thinking about writing.
The first main take-away: I’ve revised my thinking about on-page elements. Why do we have bold text? To emphasize stuff, right? To tell the reader that this is important. The HTML tags are “em” tags, after all.
It has to be true.
Except, no. The only point of headlines, text, sub-headings, bold, etc. is to make the copy look like an attractive read. Lists? For listing stuff?
- The point of a list is to make this look like something you should read.
- Don’t these look readable, these pointless bullet points?
And if I put this in bold, doesn’t it look like something you could scan? That was something I didn’t expect. Even the company logo on a page, Joe says, has one purpose: to convince someone to read the first line.
And it makes sense. I buy it. But I didn’t see it coming.
The second main take-away: writing is too damn effective. Think about it: right now, you’re allowing me to take over the voice inside of your head.
Which is a very intimate sort of thing we have going on.
Even with Warren-Buffet-level-resources, I couldn’t invent of a better way to jam a message into your sense of self than this one: your mental monologue mouthing the message.
And, of course, here, on this website, I’m using this power for good, but in an ad? It’s broken: if someone has a concern about your product, just answer it in your ad. They read along, think of the problem, then read the solution in the ad — repeating the words in their private headspace — and then trust that you have it covered.
But what did you give them, really? Words on paper. But since you anticipated that problem, they’re like n times more likely to do whatever it is that you want.
I don’t know. It’s weird. Do you really just want anyone in your head? Some anonymous internet commenter’s dashed-off thoughts?
Maybe the reason for so many an author’s mental illness is that he-or-she let too many conflicting voices in. They read too much, and with too little discretion.
The final thing I took away from it, which isn’t as compelling as the last two, but maybe more important because it’s the easiest to implement: I’ve been making the first sentence short.
Because the first sentence of your copy needs to grab. You need to convince someone to put their mind in gear and read. You need to get the attention train moving.
And the easiest way to write a compelling sentence? According to Advertising Secrets, make it short — like five words. Short like opening a book review with, “I made you a promise.”