Do copy writing trade secrets really exist?

Put another way, is writing copy “not generally known or reasonably ascertainable” by a novice?

The answer, like so many other questions in business, is yes… and no.

  • Yes: copy writing is definitely not generally known by those outside of marketing circles. Ask them what copy writing is and you’ll hear back something about the logo on movie theater screens.
  • No: copy writing is more than reasonably ascertainable, which I’ll explain in a minute.

So really, the question about trade secrets depends more on who’s asking rather than a textbook definition.

You see, there are two camps when it comes to copy writing. And while they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum, both stretch the definition of trade secret to fit their purposes.

The first camp:

Freaks, Geeks, & Wonks

First, did you ever think — in a million years — that something as basic as writing copy (i.e., words, text) would become its own cottage industry with its own lingo and celebrities?

But that’s exactly what happened. Why? Money, of course. Good copy can generate cash by the truckload, making both company and copywriter filthy rich.

John E. Kennedy was the first celebrity copywriter. He changed the advertising world by ditching the dry, textbook prose for user-benefit, “reason why” copy. In the process, he exploded the profits of the ad agencies smart enough to hire him.

Claude Hopkins was next. He developed split testing, outlined in Scientific Advertising, a book that’s still relevant today, almost 100 years after its release.

Since then, there’s been a long line of copywriters who’ve added to trade with their insight into human persuasion. Men like Robert Collier, John Caples, David Ogilvy, and Eugene Schwartz are still studied (and ripped off) today.

For those of us who write copy for a living, we can’t get enough of trade secrets. We talk/argue about them with other copywriters… read books, articles, and blog posts on them (yes, that includes leaving comments)… and listen to all the podcasts and seminars. The hope is that one of these secrets, particularly if it’s been buried with a long-dead celebrity, will give our work an edge.

Remember, a craftsman never stops learning.

But these trade secrets are 99% things we already know — fundamentals. They’re packaged as secrets, and nobody minds, because they’re important. Mucho important. We need to be reminded of them — constantly. That’s why the best and smartest copywriters never submit work without first running it through a checklist.

And now the second camp:

Copy Writing Newbies

As I’ve already said, copy writing is not a popular trade. Most people outside of a marketing department don’t know what it is.

Still, sometimes a non-marketing person has to learn — fast. Maybe they run a startup or nonprofit and need to write fundraising copy. Maybe they have to sell a subscription service. Maybe they have to build an audience.

Whatever the case may be, if he or she complains loud enough, someone will point them towards copy writing. At first, examples of winning copy might underwhelm the novice. Why? Because successful copy isn’t necessarily eloquent… or sophisticated… or creative.

Perhaps thinking the whole copy writing thing is bogus, the non-marketer plunges ahead. He or she invests the bare minimum in time and money to get whatever copy they need for the project.

When the project bombs… or at least doesn’t perform to their expectations, they might reconsider copy. He or she picks up the winning copy examples (direct response copy in most cases) and wonders.

“How could something so obvious like speaking in plain English realistically build a business?”

He or she concludes that copy writing is really complex… like gene splicing complex. That’s the only explanation for its power!

It’s easy to see how this can happen. The reason is that it’s not always clear why some copy “kills it,” while similar copy flops. Conversion rates don’t have to make a lick of sense. They work because they work!

Who’s Right?

So then, is copy writing a dark art? Esoteric knowledge? A maze of legally protected trade secrets?

Let me be clear. That is what some information marketing gurus want you to think. But it’s just ain’t so. The truth is that anyone with an internet connection and a few minutes’ time could get started with copy writing.

If you want to write good copy or just recognize good copy when you see it, you gotta practice. Really, copy writing is no different from learning to cook, play the tuba, or dunk a basketball.

Practice is the only way anyone will pick up the nuances and subtleties of copy writing.

The real trade secret is this: most people won’t do it. It doesn’t matter how much information is available to them, or how much (potential) money is dangled in front of them. They will not put in the work to become a decent copy writer.

But you? Grab all the trade secrets you find and run with them.

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