AdWeek Copywriting Handbook: 48 Ways to Make Your Copy Shine (Book Review)

Early on in my career, I was surprised to find that most copywriting books are very practical. There was no talk about inspiration and talent. A copywriter uses a set of tactics – like tools in a utility belt – to get their ideas to sparkle. And this is why great copywriting books are collections of different lenses you can use to evaluate your copy.

This is especially true for “The AdWeek Copywriting Handbook” by Joe Sugarman. Like “Breakthrough Advertising”, it provides only actionable tactics.

Whenever I feel stuck or if I just want to polish what I already have, I often consult Sugarman’s handbook. And the two lists I’ll share with you here – Sugarman’s 17 axioms and the list of 31 psychological triggers – are the most helpful parts of the book.

The 17 axioms of copywriting

The one great thing about this book is how well it’s structured. Sugarman poses 17 axioms of copywriting and goes to explore each one.

Axiom 1: Copywriting is a mental process the successful execution of which reflects the sum total of all your experiences, your specific knowledge and your ability to mentally process that information and transfer it onto a sheet of paper for the purpose of selling a product or service.

We start with the definition of copywriting. Note that according to Sugarman, a copywriter needs to have two sets of knowledge. The first is general knowledge about the world around them. Then comes the specific knowledge about the product and market category. Copywriters will never be experts in the product category – and they don’t need to be. We must aim to obtain enough specific knowledge to be effective sellers, but spending more time on knowledge gathering is a waste of time.

Axiom 2: All the elements in an advertisement are primarily designed to do one thing and one thing only: get you to read the first sentence of the copy.

The design of your ad needs to suck people in. It prepares them to receive your message. While Sugarman talks primarily about print ads (and so we talk about getting people to read), I believe we can extend the same thought to other formats like video. Make sure your content draws attention – but when you deliver the message, make sure nothing distracts the audience from it.

Axiom 3: The sole purpose of the first sentence in an advertisement is to get you to read the second sentence.

That’s your end goal. Grab people’s attention. Make them want to learn more. You have only one shot to do that – which is why the parts that get rewritten most often are the headlines and the intro sections of your copy.

Axiom 4: Your ad layout and the first few paragraphs of your ad must create the buying environment most conductive to the sale of your product or service.

What Sugarman calls “the buying environment” is essentially the whole experience of your audience. It’s the copy, the layout, your design and visuals, everything in your ad. The right buying environment will help your audience develop confidence in the seller (your brand). Once trust and liking are established, it’s that much easier to create a bridge between the product we’re offering and the customer’s needs.

Axiom 5: Get the reader to say yes and harmonize with your accurate and truthful statements while reading your copy.

“The buyer and the seller must vibrate together,” says Sugarman. This happens when you get the prospective reader to start saying yes – showing you understand who they are and what their needs are. When reading your copy, the audience should feel seen. And this is why every good copywriter spends time learning about the customer first.

Axiom 6: Your readers should be so compelled to read your copy that they cannot stop reading until they read all of it as if sliding down a slippery slide.

Great copy sucks you in – you can’t stop reading. You need to know what’s next. You can construct such a “slippery slide” by opening with personal stories, linking the copy to current trends and news, or creating open loops that spark curiosity – like posing a question and not giving the answer straight away.

Axiom 7: When trying to solve problems, don’t assume constraints that aren’t really there.

No matter how much experience you have – even if it’s with the same product or audience – you can never tell in advance what will work. You need to test new approaches and see what works. Copywriting is experimentation. So we need to be bold when trying out new ideas.

Axiom 8: Keep the copy interesting and the reader interested through the power of curiosity.

Getting people to read is easy once you spark curiosity. Sugarman uses “seeds of curiosity” to do that: “At the end of a paragraph, I will often put a very short sentence that offers some reason for the reader to read the next paragraph. I use sentences such as:

  • But there’s more.
  • So read on.
  • But I didn’t stop there.
  • Let me explain.
  • Now here comes the good part.

Axiom 9: Never sell a product or service. Always sell a concept.

You’re not selling the physical qualities of your product. Your features are only important if you link them to benefits the customer will experience. Creating this “concept” – your value proposition and positioning strategy – needs to combine logical and emotional appeals. “You sell on emotion, but you justify a purchase with logic.”

And the “concept” is a mix of all product attributes, not just your messaging – for example, changing your pricing will also alter it.

Axiom 10: The incubation process is the power of your subconscious mind to use all your knowledge and experiences to solve a specific problem, and its efficiency is dictated by time, creative orientation, environment and ego.

Copywriting can’t be done in one sitting. Once you get your research done, you need time to “incubate”. Taking a break allows your mind to do some free associative play and you’ll see the results when you sit down in front of the blank page.

Axiom 11: Copy should be long enough to cause the reader to take the action you request.

This is one of my favorite points in copywriting books. Because it flies directly against the common “people don’t read long copy” conjecture. Like many of the master copywriters, Sugarman agrees copy needs to be as long as it needs to be. And people do read – they just don’t read boring stuff.

“You can’t tell the prospect enough about a subject he or she is truly interested in. And so it is with copywriting. People will read with a high degree of intensity if you are talking about something they are genuinely or passionately interested in.”

So how do we define the ideal length of our copy? There are two main factors at play. The first one is price. If the price doesn’t follow the customer’s expectations, you need to take time and explain why that is. We’re used to thinking only about situations where the price is higher than expected. But the same is true when the price is lower than expected – otherwise, your audience will just believe you’re offering something of low quality. 

The second factor that warrants long copy is the product’s complexity. And that’s why, in my line of work with SaaS products, landing pages are often quite long.

One thing Sugarman doesn’t mention here is the audience’s awareness level – something Eugene M. Shwartz talks about in “Breakthrough Advertising”. I suggest you keep that in mind, as well.

Axiom 12: Every communication should be a personal one, from the writer to the recipient, regardless of the medium used.

You need to write personal and personable copy. The most efficient way of doing that is to know your audience well and “harmonize” with it (Axiom 5).

Axiom 13: The ideas presented in your copy should flow in a logical fashion, anticipating your prospect’s questions and answering them as if the questions were asked face-to-face.

We often want to say a lot. And that’s why we sometimes jump from idea to idea which will surely confuse your readers. So lay down your arguments first before you start writing. “Create a block diagram of a logical way the copy should flow and the questions that might logically be asked.”

Axiom 14: In the editing process, you refine your copy to express exactly what you want to express with the fewest words.

We said copy can be long – but it shouldn’t be longer than it has to be. 

“With less copy, your ad will look less imposing to the prospect and he or she will be more likely to read it,” Sugarman explains. Shorter copy also makes your message more impactful by getting to the point quicker.

You can use the following principles to condense your copy:

  1. Look for any “that” words. The words up to and including “that” can very often be eliminated.
  2. Edit for rhythm. Make sure that you vary the length of sentences so they don’t sound monotonous.
  3. Consider combining sentences. 
  4. Eliminate unnecessary words.
  5. Rearrange thoughts so they flow better.

Axiom 15: The more the mind must work to reach the conclusion successfully, the more positive, enjoyable or stimulating the experience.

Making your copy engaging means you’ll keep the reader’s attention longer and they’ll also remember more. So add some intrigue to your copy and make it flow like a good story.

Axiom 16: Selling a cure is a lot easier than selling a preventive, unless the preventive is perceived as a cure or the curative aspects of the preventive are emphasized.

We’ve evolved to seek immediate results. That’s why prevention and long-term benefits aren’t immediately interesting to us. You need to include at least some direct “curative” benefits of your product. Show people that, although the long-term effect is bigger, they’ll get immediate results. 

Axiom 17: Telling a story can effectively sell your product, create the environment or get the reader well into your copy as you create an emotional bonding with your prospect.

We’ve talked about the benefits of storytelling a ton (and you can find some great books on the topic). Sugarman agrees that stories are useful in copywriting.

The 31 psychological triggers that get readers to buy

The second part of the book is dedicated to psychological triggers that get people to buy. They are a great checklist you can return to when polishing your copy.

If you prefer video, here’s a great recap of most triggers Sugarman talks about:

And here’s the list of all 31 triggers:

  1. Feeling of involvement or ownership – make the prospects imagine they are holding or using my product. The clearer that image, the easier it’ll be to convince the person to make it a reality.
  2. Honesty – when you’re being honest with your audience, you’re building trust. Confess the flaws of your product and your audience will be that much more receptive when you talk about the benefits. A more objective language in your copy can make your ads less sales-y and more credible.
  3. Integrity – make your ads less pushy and eliminate exaggerations. Integrity also shows in your design clean or the spokesperson you’re using.
  4. Credibility – credibility also means truthfulness. Rash statements, cliches, and some exaggerations will remove any credibility your offer may have had. You need to raise all objections and resolve them. The sense of credibility also extends to the channels you’re present in.
  5. Value and proof of value – people aren’t ready to part with their cash. They need to know what they’re exchanging it for. Educating the reader about the intrinsic value of your product is equivalent to lowering the price. This can be done through persuasive copy but also with tools like testimonials and social proof.
  6. Justify the purchase – your buyers may be emotionally drawn to the product but they will also need a logical reason to give in to the temptation. It can be as simple as saying “You deserve it.” Or you can justify the purchase with more logical elements like savings, health reasons, recognition, or dozens of other reasons. 
  7. Greed – savings are a tried and true way of attracting attention. In digital products, free trials serve the same purpose. Still, when it comes to discounts, too much is too much – if you lower the price too much you’ll start losing credibility.
  8. Establish authority – showcase your expertise through different authority-building facts and figures like the years in business, the number of units sold, accolades from other experts or the media.
  9. Satisfaction conviction – there’s a simple thing behind that complex name. Guarantees. Be it a money-back offer or a trial period, guarantees prove that you’re sure of your product’s quality.
  10. Nature of product – every product has a unique personality and your messaging should reflect that. Toys benefit from more light fun copy, which won’t be suitable for medical devices.
  11. Prospect nature – your copy needs to be aligned with the needs, wants, and desires of your audience.
  12. Current fads – linking your product to the hottest trends helps you generate publicity. But beware – fads die off quickly. If you employ this tactic, you’ll need to jump to a new trend the moment this one becomes stale.
  13. Timing – timing your offer means being aware of the market’s current trends. Keep stock of your current competitors and what’s the overall market trend.
  14. Linking – this is the technique of relating what the consumer already knows and understands with what you are selling to make the new product easy to understand and relate to.
  15. Consistency – if your communication is a one-off thing, then you’ll get nowhere. Make sure you’re present in your customer’s world regularly. And you can also trigger consistency in your prospect’s behavior – get them to make a simple, small commitment and they will commit to purchase more easily. 
  16. Harmonize – when Sugarman talks about “harmonizing” he basically means finding product-market fit. Your product needs to satisfy a true need for your prospects – and you need to be able to communicate that. 
  17. Desire to belong – if you can make your product become a status symbol, it’ll be easier to sell. Show your audience that by using it they’ll get closer to a reference group that’s important to them.
  18. Desire to collect – we love to collect things. So making your products rare or collectible will increase the audience’s interest.
  19. Curiosity – people hate open loops. By posing a question at the start of your copy and promising you’ll give the answer later you’ll draw your reader’s attention and get them to read the whole copy.
  20. Sense of urgency – copywriters think that the opposite of deciding to buy something is deciding not to buy it. In reality, the opposite is postponing the decision. Prospects say “I’ll think about it”, never to return again. So by creating a sense of urgency (a deadline, limited quantity, etc.) you’ll push them to decide straight away.
  21. Fear – negative emotions are powerful but they need to be used sparingly. If the fear is too great, people will shut down and skip your message altogether. A more balanced way of using fear is to show what can happen to others when they don’t use the right product.
  22. Instant gratification – we’re not big on delayed rewards. Show people how your product will change their life immediately, even in small ways.
  23. Exclusivity, rarity, or uniqueness – when applied to your product, this technique is directly related to urgency and the desire to collect. When used as a communication approach it’s about getting your customer to feel special, personally targeted.
  24. Simplicity – the simpler you go, the easier others will understand what you mean. And this will help you get your message across. Use simple words, keep your layouts clean, limit the number of choices the consumer must make during the buying process.
  25. Human relationships – humanize your brand by showing the product in action helping real people or being held in a human hand. You can also extend this feeling by using photos of your team and writing in first person.
  26. Storytelling – starting with a story holds the attention and engages the prospect. It’s a great way to relay the benefits and help people imagine using the product more easily.
  27. Mental engagement – the more the mind must work to reach a conclusion that it eventually successfully reaches, the more positive, enjoyable, or stimulating the experience. So don’t be too obvious with your copy but get people to the conclusion safely.
  28. Guilt – when Sugarman talks about this, it’s actually pretty close to what Cialdini calls “reciprocity”. If you give your prospect some value upfront, they feel an obligation to take some action in return. 
  29. Specificity – don’t get too vague when talking about your product. Showcase the specifics around using it. This will paint a more vivid picture in your prospect’s mind and it’ll also prove you know your stuff like a true expert should.
  30. Familiarity – the more familiar people are with your product the more they can trust it. So you need to show up in front of your audience consistently.
  31. Hope – the main reason we decide to use products is that we hope they’ll help us achieve more. But although hope is a great motivator we need to be careful with it. You don’t want to give false hope to readers and then not deliver on your promise. So use hope when you’re sure of your product’s capabilities.

Copywriting is a process

It’s no wonder the best copywriting books are essentially practical handbooks. Joe Sugarman does a great job at providing practical advice you’ll return to again and again. And his book is a marvelous example that copywriting has little to do with inspiration or writing talent and much more to do with skill and practice.

So whenever you feel your copy might need some more oomph, come back to Sugarman’s axioms and psychological triggers and try to incorporate them in your writing.

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