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April 28, 2006


Judy Kettenhofen


You kinda skip over the first part of what Ken said -- but maybe that's what you meant to do -- to get some comments :).

From your quote, Ken said "after you learn the formulas"...

I don't think there's really any contradiction here.

Let's think about human beings for a second. They are all built upon the same "formula" (or ... template?) -- 46 chromosomes which encode for a variety of traits for some given things like eyes, ears. nose, hair, height, etc. But the basic plan is there -- 2 legs, 2 arms, the same visceral organs, a brain, etc. But look at the wide variety of human beings we have!

Or, look at it another way -- what about the syntactical rules of grammar. They are a formula, of a type. But that doesn't stop people from re-using this formula over and over and over again. Yet who would claim that these formulas are in any way stultifying...

You've given me some fodder for some interesting thoughts about this subject--mostly which come down to this: There are always "formulas" -- they form the foundation of anything and everything we do. We spend lots of cheek-to-chair time learning them (isn't that what a lot of education is?). Even being creative has a "formula".

But it's only infusing that formula with your own unique "voice" (often talked about, rarely defined, but most people "know it when they read it") in their copy (or anything else) that it becomes that which moves people and gives them the opportunity to have a new perspective...but not too new, because folks are willing to move only so far outside of their comfort zone.

Ryan Healy

Excellent comments, Judy. Yes, it seems there's always a formula. The trick is to not be completely constrained by them.

There also seems to be a progression, as Ken has noted. Learn the formulas first, then be creative. One precedes the other.

Lisa J. Lehr

Good post, Ryan. I'd been wondering how to find that "perfect balance."

John Gilvary

Hi Ryan,

You'll find the same Caples quote on page 64 of the 4th edition. (Although he adds something about civil engineers.)

So the answer, swipe, formula or creative is yes. :)


Ray Edwards, Copywriter

Gene Schwartz says the same thing in Breakthrough Advertising.

Formulas are fine for a starting point, or for structural purposes. But they're no substitute for good writing.

Good post/point Ryan. Insightful as always. Dude, you got some poetry in ya...

Shaune Clarke

Another great post Ryan.

You might be brilliant! : )

Here's what I think is "the bridge."

We work to become familiar with structure but...

We work to understand it without becoming dependent on it.

This process takes time.

We should have this awareness... Working past using structure so we can "get into the flow."

It's this process of using structure, practicing copy, plus the awareness that we want to break from structure that is a bridge to creativity in our copy.

When it happens...

YOU just show up. Your creativity just starts to pour into the copy because your mind isn't so consumed with technique formula or structure.

It really is fun to experience and see happen in others. Your writing has life and unique energy as soon as it happens!

It makes being a copywriter so much more rewarding.

Rob Siders

The nature of writing itself is driven by formula.

Looking at the world of fiction, there are roughly 20 distinct plots -- give or take. Each one of them is a formula. And within each plot other formulas emerge, such as the three act structure.

Nearly all novelists who have enjoyed even modest success have followed formulas. Does this mean they're not creative? No. Is every novel that uses a formula -- which means "nearly every novel ever written" -- the fiction equivalent of a boob job? Hardly.

I tend to believe that using a swipe file is something altogether different than following a formula. Related? Yes ... first cousins, perhaps.

But they're not necessarily the same thing.

I also think copywriters, like novelists and tech writers and newpaper columnists and screenwriters, follow formulas, not because they're lazy or lacking creativity. They do it because formulas work ... for both the writer and the reader.

John A. Manley

Sometimes what's fun (and effective) is taking some pre-existing structures and doing several takes.

I did this with a recent client. Two basic swipes and then one new idea for a headline.

Then I combined the best from all three and came up with something original.

I mean, Frankenstein's monster could have looked really nice if good doctor wasn't in such a rush, and did a better job with those stitches.

(By the way, if you haven't seen Kenneth Brannaugh's "Mary Shelly's Frankenstein" it is an excellent high-quality production that captures the original novels "beautifully").


Andrew Cavanagh

Someone who's a professional writer to the core would never waste a second on this crap!

You learn the formulas, the templates, the style of your genre.

The GREAT writers in every field, including copywriting, are masters of the forumula for that field.

In copywriting, great copywriters KNOW what has to be in a sales letter.

They've studied the best.

They've written and internalized the formula.

Mastery is NOT about casting aside proven forumulas or templates.

It's about such total command of those guidelines that you can be so profoundly creative while still embracing the formula that it seems like you're not.

ALL great writers do this and it is the very thing that separates the truly great from the wannabes.

Kindest regards,
Andrew Cavanagh

P.S. The only way you'll ever get there is if you write, and write and write and write and write and write...

Ryan Healy

Andrew - Thank you for your input. I think we're more alike in our beliefs than you might think.

As far as wasting time on "this crap"... I don't see it that way.

It's important to discover the truth. And considering that my primary audience is up-and-coming copywriters, I think the discussion is very revelant to where they are at.

That said, keep your comments coming, dude. You've got style and I like that. ;-)


this...was...a goldmine for anybody who had questions about swipes. I agree with andrew, that the only possible way - is to just write, write, and write some more.

There are not shortcuts to any of this.

I find myself using bits and pieces of formulas here and there to help me write my own copy, I couldn't imagine using an entire swipe for a letter though.

I suppose those that do, are starting out that way...If you write enough letters out by hand, I swear to goodness phrases and words seem to pop out of no where and onto paper and you won't be reliant on them to succeed in this.

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