Michelangelo's statue of David

Copywriting tip 15: Chip at the marble

Michelangelo's David - trimmed

Michelangelo was asked how he went about the sculpting process.

His answer?

‘I saw the angel in the marble, and carved until I set him free’.

For me, this sums up a key stage of copywriting: the editing process.

You can’t create a statue out of nothing. Just as you can’t create a piece of copy from a blank page.

You have to start with lots. Of marble.

And words.

In my last tip, I talked about verbal diarrhoea. The need to get all your thoughts and words down on the page.

After doing the homework, pour your heart out. Fill the page, even if it’s rubbish.

Create your block of marble. Rough. Big. Unwieldy.

Then start chipping. Editing.

Out with the chisel.

Start with the very first word. Is it 100% necessary? If not, delete.

Be brutal. I have a saying: ‘When in doubt, chop it out’.

Onto the second word. Same question: keep, or delete?

Word by word, I work my way through. Always questioning, being brutal.

Every word is a chance for the reader to switch off, get bored. I have to make sure every piece of ink (digital, or real) has been considered. Has purpose.

As copywriter Jim Durfee once said:

‘There’s no such thing as long copy. There is only too-long copy.
And that can be two words if they’re not the right two words.’

The more I chip, the more the marble crumbles. In fact, the copy starts to edit itself.

Trust the process. Sometimes (when they’re your own words) that block of marble looks perfect.

Find a crack. Jam the chisel in there. Start chipping.

Copywriting is about saying as much as you can in as short a space as possible.

It’s about brevity.

Don’t think brevity can’t be powerful.

Earnest Hemingway was once challenged by friends to write as short a story as possible. But it had to be emotional.

He wrote six words:

For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

See? You can have short, and powerful.

So, the trick to short, powerful, engaging copy is to start with lots: and chip away, word by word.

You’ll find a longer explanation of this process in my Find the angel in the marble post.

Next: we look at the words that are left.


This tip is based on my 30 Tips in 40 Minutes webinar.

Feel free to download a version of the slides and watch a video of the one-hour webinar.

Image source: 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.