Don’t start your writing by writing, Jon Maxim, copywriter

Don’t start your writing by writing: the homework

Pencil snapped in half

Here’s a strange piece of advice. Don’t start your writing by writing.

In other words, when you have to start writing, the last thing you need to do is write.

By which I mean the last part of the writing process is putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

No. There’s homework to do. Some thinking, some ideas, before you start writing.

Paul Jones from Magneto has a wonderful writing process he calls ‘POW’. And he’s got a great 1960s Batman-style BAM! BAP! CRASH! SOCK! graphic to go with it.

But what does POW mean?

‘I’ve got the POW(er)’

Tesla charging stations

POW stands for Prepare Organise Write.

Prepare: think about and research your audience. How can I tailor the message to them?

Organise: am I selling, or telling? What information do I need to put first? How do I structure the copy?

Write: the actual writing process.


But what really interests me is the percentage of time you should spend on each.

According to Paul, most people spend 10% of their time on the preparing, 10% on the organising, and 80% of their time on the writing.

Sound about right?

What’s wrong with that?

Well. If you haven’t done your homework, or thought about the order of information, you’ll do it as you write.

Which means you’re just getting into the writing when you realise you need to make a phone call to find out more.

Or you’re not confident of the audience.

Or – horror of horrors – you’re just typing like crazy: a stream of consciousness. So you ‘select all’ and delete.

Disaster, as the minutes slip away.

Paul says the right percentages are: 30% on the prep. 20% on the organising (i.e., the homework). And 50% on the writing.

Wait a minute. Does that mean that of my allocated hour (say) for writing, I’ll only actually be writing for 30 minutes?



Don’t panic

Fingers showing fear

As a freelance copywriter, I often get calls with last-minute requests.

‘The newsletter’s going out in 10 minutes. Can you come up with an alternate subject line?’

My reaction: panic? Start typing?

Nope. I spend five of those precious ten minutes thinking. Preparing. Organising. Doing the homework.

Then – and only then – do I start writing.

I love POW. But I have my own version of the preparation process.

It’s the 4 Ws. Who. What. Why. Where.

And they go like this. In this order.

Who: knowing your audience

Know your audience - the copywriting homework

What do I know about my audience?

Yes: data, demographics, psychographics. Wonderful.

But we copywriters have to go beyond that.

Can I picture who they are? Walk in their shoes? What are their pain points? What keeps them awake at night?

Barbara Nokes, a famous UK copywriter, once said: ‘I think myself under the skin and into the head 
of the person I’m addressing.’

This is where I role-play to try and understand their lives.

I’ll use Hootsuite to listen in on what my audience are talking about. Create a stream around a key phrase or word. You’ll see every post that mentions it. Instantly.

I’ll join LinkedIn Groups (if writing to a business audience). Facebook Groups, if consumers. Read what their concerns are.

Ask around. Talk to people. Listen to them in cafés. Be a sponge.

Audiences are full of ideas. If we just listen.

I always start my homework with the ‘Who’. Because it will naturally lead to segmentation.

One of my clients regularly describes their audience as ‘anyone aged 6 to 90’. Blimey! It’s like Alan Morris’ famous description of the audience for Coke: ‘Any #@!? with a mouth!’.

We break ‘6 to 90’ down: children, young adults, young couples, families, etc. That impacts on everything else, so audience is your first step.

When I’m sure I’ve got a good understanding of the audience and their lives, I move on to the second W.

What: am I writing about?

Know your product - the copywriting homework

Next, what do I know about the topic, product or service I’m writing about?

A wonderful quote from Alastair Crompton: ‘Working without facts means the work can only be fiction.’.

Should we just make things up?

No. That way, we get into trouble.

As David Ogilvy said: ‘I prefer the discipline of knowledge to the chaos of ignorance.’.

Me too, David.

And I like this quote from Bill Bernbach: ‘The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.’

You need to find that truth: in the product (or service, or topic).

So, where possible, I’ll experience what I’m writing about. Buy it. Try it. Test drive it.

Where I can’t, I’ll listen to those who have.

Products (or services) are full of ideas. By experiencing them, we’ll uncover them.

Once I’m clear on the audience, and feel secure on the subject matter, I move to the third homework W: ‘Why’.

Why: a compelling proposition

What problem do you solve - the copywriting homework

Having done my audience and product (subject matter) research, I can then think about the ‘Why?’.

A powerful way to think about this is to ask yourself: ‘what problem do I solve for the audience?‘.

Not ‘what problem will this copy solve for me?’.

When you sit down to write, you’re full of your problems. ‘I hope the boss likes it’. ‘I’m hungry’. ‘I hope this works’. ‘I want to get paid’. ‘I’m short on time’.

Nope. Think about your reader’s problems (which you can only do if you’ve done the first W – Who – properly).

Once you’ve nailed the problem for the audience, and how the copy will solve that for them, try asking ‘which means that …‘.

For example. It’s 11am on a Monday: you pop out to get a coffee.

Your problem: feeling a little jaded and tired. (Hey: it’s a Monday).

How does the product fix that? Caffeine. 

Problem solved: which means that …?

Which means that you’re more awake.

Which means that you’re more focussed.

Which means that you’ll do a better job.

Which means that you’ll get better results.

Which means that you might get noticed.

Which means that you might get a promotion.

Which means that you’ll have more money.

Which means that you might buy that dream home/car/holiday.

Which means that …

You get the idea.

We’ve turned a cup of coffee into a career move.

Neat, huh?

This approach takes your messaging somewhere really interesting.

A cup of coffee becomes a career move.

A piece of software saves you time. Which means that you get home earlier, in time to read the kids a bedtime story.

This article gives you practical writing tips. Which means you’ll do it better, and quicker. Which means that you’ll have more time to concentrate on other areas of work. Which means that …

And so it goes.

Oh: it’s worth noting that we are legally allowed to do this. ‘Advertising puffery‘, as it’s known, is a legal term. Not false advertising: it’s puffery to catch the attention.

And finally …

Where: the choice of mediums

Where the choice of mediums - the copywriting homework

I’ve been around for some time now. And I’ve seen plenty of new media options pop up.

Every time there’s a new medium (email in the mid 90s, web in the late 90s, social in the naughties, mobile) I see ‘shiny new thing syndrome‘.

Yep. Everyone drops the medium they were using, to jump onto the latest one.

‘Let’s not do direct mail anymore: let’s do a tweet‘.

It’s great to have a choice. But we need to be cautious. Because every medium has a personality.

A medium says something to you, before you even read what’s inside.

Think about a plain, white, window-faced envelope in your post. You look at it: instantly, you think ‘a bill’ or ‘parking fine’.

You’re working away at your desk, and a bold, unread email appears. You think: ‘Oh, no: more work!’.

Your mobile beeps with a text. You think: ‘Something nice from someone I know! Oh: it’s just a reminder from my phone company …’.

Don’t be bullied. Which medium is going to enhance your message? Not ‘what’s the latest shiny new thing’.

The copywriter needs to be the conscience in the process. Worrying about the reader. No-one else will (well: as much as you).

It’s all in the prep

Chef chopping ingredients

In my workshops, I often use cooking as an analogy.

A meal doesn’t just appear: you’ve got to prepare the ingredients. Taste as you go. Add flavour. Peel away the bits you don’t want. Present it beautifully. Think about your guests, and any dietary needs.

Just like the prep, the homework, for copywriting.

The 4 Ws will help you do that. And avoid the temptation to just write.

Because writing is the last thing you need to do. Literally.


Image sources: Pixabay


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Jon Maxim

Jon is a multi-award winning copywriter. For over 30 years, he’s helped clients – large and small – develop engaging concepts, content and copy. For 25 of those years, he’s been teaching people how to do it themselves. His courses on copywriting, ideation and presentation skills are highly sought-after and highly effective. Jon lives in Sydney, Australia: but is often found on a plane, heading to where he’s most needed.