How to write so people buy

A primer on copywriting


I spent the last month going through books that one must read to understand the fundamentals of copywriting. This article is where I bring together the common themes from all those books. Major lessons include:

  • Headlines make or break your ad. Put your biggest benefit in the headline, always speaking to the reader's self-interest. In absence of benefits, try a headline that either tells news or makes the reader curious. 

  • Do in-depth research about the product or service you're about to sell. Learn everything you can and get genuinely interested in your product. If you're not excited about the product, it will show in the ad you write.

  • Keep it simple. Avoid words that are more fit for spell-bee competitions. Have short paragraphs, and limit to only one idea per sentence.

  • Be specific in your copy. Avoid general platitudes. The more facts you tell, the more you sell.

  • Buying is more of an emotional act than a logical one. For all practical purposes, human behavior remains constant over millenniums and writing a good ad is a function of arbitraging that. Appeal to the timeless human emotions of pride, greed, vanity, envy, insecurity, conformity, and many more.

  • Test. Test. Test. Be ready to admit you were wrong about what you thought you "knew". Figure out why a method did not work in a particular scenario and apply your updated knowledge the next time.


Almost exactly a month back I tweeted this out:

I wanted to learn copywriting primarily so I could create ads for an online Data Analytics training programme that I have recently started along with a friend. So soon after tweeting that out, I figured out the books that are fundamental in learning the art of writing words that sell and started reading them.

The books that I referred to are:

  • Scientific Advertising by Claude C. Hopkins

  • Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples

  • Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy

  • Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This by Luke Sullivan

  • Ca$hvertising by Drew Eric Whitman

By the time I was half-way through my third book, the content started becoming repetitive. However, I kept reading a few more until I finished Ca$hvertising.

I’ve now realized that most books give you the same set of principles to work with by and large, just with different ad examples. It's time for me to stop reading any more books on this topic and just start experimenting by creating ads henceforth.

This article is where I consolidate my major learnings from all those books. Whenever I need a refresher, I'm gonna come back to this article and re-read it.

Disclaimer: Since all I have right now is theoretical knowledge, I am probably going to miss out on some important points. Foolishly thinking that they do not carry much weight. As I run my ads and gain more insights with experience, I will come back to this article and refine it. But to start with, this is my primer.

On copywriting

Let's start with the most important part of your advertisement. The part that everyone will look at first and decide whether to continue reading the full ad or not.

The headline

The headline is the most important element in an advertisement. The success of the entire campaign is heavily dependent it. If the headline doesn't stop people, the entire copy might as well be written in Greek. On the other hand, if the headline is good, it is a relatively simple matter to write the copy.

Unfortunately, we beginners spend most of our time working on the copy and very less on the headline. It should be the opposite. Spend hours or even days writing the headline, while the copy can take less time if required. What good is all the painstaking work on the copy if the headline is not good enough to make someone read the copy?

So what makes a 'good' headline? A sound start would be to think what would make YOU buy the product. While you scroll through a wall of ads, would you stop to read the headline you are about to write? Would your headline push you to read the entire copy? And finally, would it make you part away with your hard-earned money to buy the product?

Now when you write a headline yourself, you like to believe that the answer to all those questions is a hard YES – but quite often you’ll be wrong in your assessment. That’s why it doesn't hurt to know a few rules, or guidelines to keep in mind while coming up with your next headline.

Every effective headline can be placed in one of these three categories:

  1. Self-Interest: The best headlines are the ones that appeal to the reader's self-interest. The headline should answer what do they gain from your product or service. Something they want - and can get from you!

  2. News: Ever seen one of those LAUNCHING! ARRIVING! ads? They fall into this category. The news can be an announcement of a new product or any improvement to the old product. 

  3. Curiosity: Headlines that arise some curiosity in the reader's mind. Example: "What's wrong in this picture?". This headline does not tell about a specific benefit to the reader or announces something new, but generates further interest to read the copy and see whether her answer was right. Readers take it for granted that they will find the answer to the question in the text. Use that as your bait.

The three categories above are in the order of their effectiveness. Self-interest headlines are the best while curiosity the third-best because, as you can guess, if it is only curiosity then you will read the copy only when you have time. But if it is something that you want, you will come back to it later even if you don't have time right then. That's why it is better to avoid headlines that merely provoke curiosity.

Another great move is to combine two or all of those components in one headline. Just don’t overdo it for the sake of it. Here are two examples to demonstrate this:

  • "A new course for men and women who want to be independent in the next five years." – That's a news headline with a flavor of self-interest in it. 

  • "How a fool stunt made me a star salesman" – This not only arouses curiosity about the fool stunt but also touches on self-interest, offering to tell them how to become a star salesman. The headline also gives the vibe that there is probably a quick-and-easy way to become a star salesman.

Now let's talk about what not to do when writing a headline:

  • Avoid the "too smart" or poetic headlines. Double meanings, puns, or analogies. People don’t like applying cognitive effort on a piece of advertisement. Readers will glance at your headline only for an involuntary instant, and if you fail to capture their attention then, they will move on. 

  • Headlines that merely state a fact are not effective enough to get people to read the copy. They neither tell the reader what’s in it for her, neither raises any significant amount of curiosity to continue reading.

Always bear these guidelines in mind. People are in a hurry and there are way too many ads pestering them at all times. Whether they are on the street, watching TV with their family, reading the news, or just scrolling on social media - they are being constantly being bombarded with. Chances are that they have become immune to these ads to a large extent. So make it worth their while to stop and take notice of what you have to say.

The copy

If you've understood what makes a good headline, there's not much left in figuring out what makes a good ad overall. Most of the guidelines for 'headlines' can be carried over to the entire copy as it is and they will hold true.

Creating a good ad is less about ‘writing’ and more about understanding the human psyche – and that doesn't change much based on whether she's reading the headline or the text beneath. The laws of persuasion remain intact.

The process of creating an ad should not begin with putting the pen on the paper, but with doing in-depth research about the product. Successful advertisers spend weeks consuming volumes of research about the service they needs to promote, and might actually end up with very few facts to use. But one of those facts just might be the keystone to the success of the entire campaign.

Unless you know your product really well, your copy will not flow naturally. You cannot write a good ad if the product does not interest you. And the product cannot interest you if you do not know much about it.

Once you have the raw material ready, start coming up with ideas. Now that's much easier said than done. But you've got to start somewhere right? You start by coming up with terrible ideas. No one's expecting you to come up with the next Apple's 1984 ad in the first go. First, just say it straight. Make it memorable and creative later.

Jump to the task of writing an ad only after you’ve done your thorough research and are ready with the raw-material.

When it comes to the actual writing process, probably the single most repeated advice is to keep it simple. Intellectual arguments might sound good in conference rooms but some simple, basic, plain everyday idea will sell more goods. Have no more than one idea per sentence, use simple words, and keep your paragraphs short.

"The more intellectual you grow, the more you lose the great intuitive skills that really touch and move people" — Bill Bernbach

David Ogilvy once wrote an ad for Dove saying that it made soap "obsolete". He later discovered that majority of the housewives did not know what the word meant. He had to change it to "old-fashioned".

Ogilvy’s advice to copywriters who wanted to put some fancy word in their ads was, “Get on a bus. Go to Iowa. Stay on a farm for a week and talk to the farmer. Come back to New York by train and talk to your fellow passengers in the day-coach. If you still want to use the word, go ahead.”

Now do not confuse simple writing with a boring essay. No one is going to read something that does not grab their attention. Hypnotize yourself into thinking that the service you're about to sell is indeed the best in the world. Get excited and worked up about it and then put that excitement down on paper. Just do it with everyday language instead of fancy mumbo-jumbo words.

It’s also a good idea to avoid general platitudes like "When it comes to quality, we're the best!". Be definite. A copy with specifics about its claims is much more trustworthy than one with generic statements. A dealer may say, "Our prices have been reduced" without creating any marked impression. But a statement like "Our prices have been reduced 25%" is much more believable.

Do not worry about brevity. Brevity should not come at the cost of not being able to express your idea effectively. The statement with specifics may take more room than other, but it's much more believable too! Some advertisers, for sake of brevity, present one claim at a time. Or they write a serial ad, continued in another issue. Do not make this mistake.

Once you get a person’s attention, then is the time to accomplish all you can ever hope with him. Bring all your good arguments to bear. Cover every phase of your subject. One fact appeals to some, one to another. Omit any one and a certain percentage will lose the fact which might convince.

And finally, speak to the individual. When someone is reading your ad, they are probably alone. Treat your copy as a personal letter to the reader. You get a blurred view when you think of people in mass. Instead, think of a typical individual who is likely to want what you have to sell. Do not address your readers as if they were gathered together in a stadium. Keep hammering them with "You".

Technical mistakes to avoid

  • Never, ever, run an ad without a headline. Period. 

  • Speaking of periods, do not put one at the end of headlines. They are called 'full-stops' because the stop the reader dead in his tracks and hinder the flow of moving on to the next section.

  • Readers look first at the illustration, then at the headline, then at the copy. So put these elements in that order – illustration at the top, headline under the illustration, copy under the headline. This follows the normal order of scanning, which is from top to bottom. If you put the headline above the illustration, you are asking people to scan in an order which does not fit their habit.

  • Do not use outlandish font styles. The drama should belong in what you say, not in the typeface.

    People are accustomed to reading books, magazines and articles on the internet in lower case. The ascenders and descenders help you recognize words, and we have now been habituated to read that way.

  • And finally, one of the most common mistakes in copywriting - white font colour on black background. Only have this reverse type setting if you want to make the reading experience extremely difficult to the audience.

The psychology behind writing ads

One good thing about understanding how advertising works is that the principles are timeless. Because in essence, it is all about understanding human behavior and human nature is perpetual. You will never need to unlearn what you learn about them.

To start with, understand the foundational human desires that you need to appeal to when selling:

  • Survival, enjoyment of life, life extension

  • Enjoyment of food and beverage

  • Freedom from fear, pain and danger

  • Sexual companionship

  • Comfortable living conditions

  • To be superior, winning, keeping up with the Joneses

  • Care and protection of loved ones

  • Social approval

Two types of raw-material go into writing an ad. The "dynamics" that change with the situation – your product, the brand and its benefits, the competition's products and its weakness. And then you have the "statics" – the ones that don't change. Pride, greed, vanity, envy, insecurity, and a hundred other human emotions, wants, and needs, one of which your product satisfies.

People want to look better, to make more money; they want to feel better, to be healthy. They want security, attention, and achievement. These things about people aren’t likely to change. So focus your efforts on speaking to these basic needs, rather than tinkering with the visual look of the ad.

People also don't like being told that their beliefs are wrong. And if your plan is to show them facts about how they are wrong, that is only going to act against your case. Instead of investing your time in convincing someone who is not willing to listen at all, it is advisable to find people who are already half-sold, then do your level best.

If you’re rolling out an offer, it has been found that an offer limited to a certain class of people is far more effective than a general offer. For instance, an offer limited to veterans of the war. Or to members of a sect. Or to executives. Those who are entitled to any seeming advantage will go a long way not to lose that advantage.

Regardless of what technique you use, your prospects must remain unaware that you’re attempting to influence them. You want them to think they’ve made their own decision. This way there are no bruised egos; they claim the decision as their own, and it’s far more likely to become cemented in future new behavior.

Now the role of psychology in persuasion and advertising is such a vast and fascinating topic that entire books have been written on them. For anyone interested in deep-diving into these topics, I would recommend reading Cialdini's Influence and Alchemy by Rory Sutherland.

Good to know, but not enough

I'd be dead wrong if I claim that I have covered everything of importance from all those books listed at the beginning of this article. But even if I could, it wouldn't be enough.

The books and this article cover the time-tested principles of what works. But this is real life, and many times things that are not supposed to work do work as well.

There is some individuality and ingenuity that is essential to every ad. And that cannot be taught. Only the basics can. Understand them and then go forward from there.

Treat every ad as an ongoing test of what has been learned before. When something new works better – or something old stops working – be ready to admit you were wrong about what you thought you "knew". But don't just accept it. Find out why and apply it the next time.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this article. Follow me on Twitter @yawyr_vk and let me know!