How to Unlock Productivity

Last year I wrote a thread on X about the writing rhythms of three of the greats: Tarantino, Hemingway, and Bukowski. These three writers were interesting to me. They didn’t have rigid timetables. But they did have backdoor ways of generating productive work sessions. Instead of following a strict schedule, they dipped in and out of a state that people call “flow.”

They’d write, then recharge.

They’d reap, then they’d sow.

As mercurial as this sounds, as obsessive and committed and focused as great writers appear from afar, the good news is anyone can do this.

Give or take.

I think the one caveat is that to be a great writer you have to love reading and writing and you have to do both every day.

The bad?

The 21st Century does not naturally support flow states. So the tragedy is that you can spend your entire career operating on the cusp of creativity. We are tied, like Pavlovian dogs, to devices. Dopaminergic dingles are strong.

If you’re a copywriter, does the following sound familiar?

Your most productive states come only when the stakes are highest, when the deadline is closing in, and when necessity has replaced ingenuity.

But you should know your brain is resourceful and coachable and an absolute BEAST just waiting to be unleashed under the right conditions.

If you prefer not to be smothered by the slavering maw of AI in the next ten years? The thing that’s going to save you is getting good at learning, creativity, and productivity. I’m going to describe the best way to do that for most people. It’s simple and elegant and insanely powerful.

I think you’ll be glad you opened this newsletter.

How to Get Into Flow

You know that saying, “Nothing tastes as good as being in shape feels?”

I agree with this (with the occasional exception like a nice bowl of custard.)

But the exciting thing if you’ve never had a “flow habit” is that once you start cranking out copy at an accelerated rate, you will never want to go back to the struggle.

Writing copy at speed, on-demand, every day of the week feels better than a diet of distraction and lukewarm writing sessions.

I’m going to describe what to do now.

You are going to be disappointed and unimpressed.

Then I am going to add the nuance everyone else forgets that makes it actually work.

You can decide for yourself if it’s something you are going to experiment with.

Here’s what to do:

Wake up and get to work.

How to Prepare for Flow

Yes, I’ve just dropped a class-A productivity cliché.

But before you dismiss it outright ask yourself two questions:

  1. Can you currently access flow every day of the week?
  2. Have you actually tried this the way I lay out below?

So as Jennifer Anniston used to say with a flick of her hair in 90s television ads for L’Oreal . . .

“Here comes the science bit!”

Plan the night before. It’s important you give your brain the opportunity to work on the task while you’re asleep. This means that any research you need to do should already be done when you sit down to write. So, outline your task, do the research, prep the page and have a clear goal. For example, “write 16 headlines and the lead.”

Get straight to it. The shorter the period between you waking up and starting to type, the better. No snoozing, no brewing coffee, no meditating, none of that. The aim of the game is to carry your brain from the pillow to your computer with minimal inputs and start typing as soon as possible.

At first, your brain will resist. You have to overcome the initial pushback and get used to the situation without succumbing to distraction. You have to fight for control over your psychic energy. In The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield calls this “The Resistance.” It is real and a true goblin. I write in Apple Notes or Ulysses instead of a Google Doc to avoid the temptation to quickly look something up. If you do that, you lose.

A final warning before you start experimenting:

This is not simply a cognitive “hack.” It is not enough to know conceptually that this works. There is a cost attached and that cost is commitment of emotion and will.

You must practice and apply consistency to the discipline.

But when you do, it comes with economies of scale. You are writing copy according to molecular doctrine and the laws of the universe.

This post?

I got up at 05:30 on Monday morning.

I splashed my face with water.

Then I walked over to my laptop on the kitchen table, opened it with the Apple Notes app already on the screen, blinked twice and started typing.

It took 22 minutes.

P.S.P. French

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Copywriting in the Creator Marketplace

In the creator marketplace, everyone’s a copywriter. Covid mauling the job market and keeping everyone cooped up at home for two years sped this up. People with no history of reading in real life started writing and selling stuff online. Gumroad boomed. Cohorts sprouted. Communities formed. The algorithmic battle for attention blossomed. 

Everyone became a copywriter. 

And while many make the case that soft, fuzzy, organic traffic is not the same as juicing dollars out of stone-cold strangers, the counter-argument is a lot of the same persuasion principles are in action and at an admirable skill level. It’s just the playing field that’s changed. 

A couple of specific things I’ve noticed: 

“Build-in-public-rapid-feedback-loops-learn-as-you-build-be-the-guide-not-the-guru!”

This positioning that dominates the space and has 17-year-olds striving to build 6-figure education businesses while still in high school is something new. It looks less faddy than coaches for coaches and self-styled solopreneurs teaching semi-solopreneurs how to teach solopreneurism.

My friend Jim Clair has pointed out this positioning is safer because “It allows mistakes as a ‘learning lesson.’ It keeps them safe from others hiring them to coach them, and if it flops, getting roasted.” I don’t think “building in public” is a bad thing. It just means you need to be selective about your sensei. 

Lots more traditional DR guys are popping up on Twitter.

This means they want to build organic audiences and sell. A personal brand is a sensible hedge, but in a world where you can quit your job as a fund manager and have a multi-million dollar online writing business humming within two years, there’s plenty to play for.

Twitter’s become a place where you can build a company out of a person, or a group of people. You don’t have to arrive – immaculate – as the finished article. You can test not just your copy, but your design, your visuals; your vibe. You can ask hard questions and get quick replies from smart people. It’s a satisfying and rewarding creative journey.

So, yes.

There was a “plagiarism” spat on Twitter this week.

Big ship vs. little fish.

The vibe of the gripe:

Nitpicking at best, hypocritical at worst.

Maybe it’s just a function of the people I follow, maybe it’s because the person pointing the finger didn’t have a clever or even clear case, but in following the fallout, it’s evident where sympathy resides. The town hall has tossed this one out. 

I took one of the very first Twitter writing cohorts. I enjoyed it. I learned things. I shipped. And I still use some of their software when I want to write a mini-essay in a graphic. But I’ve since heard some sad anecdotes. The course has become AI and template-heavy. Output at all costs. This is a red flag. The things we do and the words we type are a battle for emotion and expression. Safe, shticky, scalable formulas and carpet-bombing the internet with AI-assisted essays about your sleep routine are poor substitutes for an actual personality. People know this even if they don’t shout it. They want blood and mud. Tears and beer. Love and loss. Connection. 

But as I said, it was a good cohort.

I sent the founders a thank you note after it finished. 

Never heard back.

P.S.P. French

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Where Big Money Marketing Hooks Come From

Copywriters can suffer from overwhelm. Finding the perfect hook or transmuting a Big Idea from that pink mush between your ears to a pristine Google Doc can feel like Sisyphos’ eternal struggle to push his boulder up that hill. 

But let me offer young hopefuls a cool and liberating perspective. 

There’s an interesting paragraph inside Joseph Sugarman’s Adweek Copywriting Handbook:

“There are many words that mean the same thing. One day, for example, the hot buzzword in advertising might be positioning. A product is positioned or placed in such a way as to appeal to the consumer. Other terms commonly used are Big Idea, or USP (unique selling proposition), maybe even gimmick. Whatever it’s called, it means basically the same thing.”

When I worked on magazines, we were all about “hooks.”

What were we going to write at the top of the page to get people to read more? Which fifteen words we slap on the front cover will force people who walk into a newsagent thirsty for a can of Coke to walk out with a copy of our magazine?

Hooks, big ideas, positioning, USPs . . .

Are they all “basically the same thing?”

This was one of the inspirations for 80/20 Market Research.

My experience working with personal brands on Twitter had been that your positioning can be so strong that it becomes your Big Idea.

On Twitter, your positioning needs to be articulated in your bio and the way you talk about what you do. What you stand for and against. Your values and beliefs. 

So for me, positioning is a more fluid game than the Big Idea. 

Big Ideas stand alone like lighthouses, while positioning is about finding your own place in the market relative to others. 

Why do Big Ideas stand alone?

Let’s take David Ogilvy’s 1950s television advert for Pepperidge Farm bread as a visual example. Ogilvy didn’t sit there at his desk writing marketing hooks until the words “white horse and wagon” appeared in front of him. 

Instead, he dreamt about an old baker driving his horse and wagon along a country lane on his way to deliver bread. The white horse and wagon transcended marketing mediums and seasonal campaigns and appeared in television adverts for DECADES. 

Ogilvy said Big Ideas come from the unconscious.

“This is true in art, in science and in advertising.” 

On the one hand, Ogilvy’s statement takes the pressure off. 

Big ideas come THROUGH you but they are not OF you. 

You have to summon them by filling up with information, then walking away from your desk and waiting for the lightning bolt. Ogilvy’s the top dawg, who’s going to argue?

You might as well go for an ice cream. 

On the other hand, this is unhelpful advice if you’re writing a new sales page with a looming deadline. You need to be more proactive. 

Enter Eugene:

“You don’t get an idea… you dig it out of the market research and wring it out of the product. You read, you listen, you experiment. The creativity is not in you, it is in your market and your product. All you are doing is joining the two together.”

Gene Schwarz

That’s more like it.

On the mag, we’d go to the pub and chat shit. If someone said something that made the whole table laugh, we made a note. I recall big-hitting direct response copywriter Jim Clair saying he’d “riff” on offers and hooks with his business partner.

The point? Remove yourself from the equation. You are the conduit, not the vessel. The more you agonize over “creating” the perfect hook, the more obstacles you are putting in your own way. 

So chill. Research, yes. But also relax. Reflect.

Let it come.

P.S.P. French

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How to Write Better Copy

I have written for magazines, tech startups, and 19 private clients, but never once have I meditated on how I write. But people kept asking me, so I bookmarked a doc and said to myself I’ll add to it over time if . . .

1/ I have something original to say or
2/ I learn something that proves to be valuable.

This week, I opened the doc and decided to punch it up.

Here’s the result.

One piece of context: respect and success as a copywriter (which is the quickest way to get paid as a writer) come not from the technical quality of your writing but from how you position yourself and the results you get for other people.

That said…

1. Benefit + Curiosity is the only copywriting formula worth remembering.

2. People are more interested in why something is wrong than why it is right.

3. Chicago Style Manual > Cashvertising

4. Rough day? Read Bukowski.

5. It’s OK to start a sentence with ‘but.’

6. The most powerful form of persuasion is genuine compassion.

7. Re-read sales pages for products you’ve bought. Unpack your own belief systems and pain points. Geeky, but obvious benefits.

8. If you’ve wedged yourself in with a deadline (it happens), the quick way out to a “good” headline is to ask:

a) What problem do they have?
b) What one thing matters most to them?
c) What desire are they trying to satisfy?

9. When you’ve got time to write 10+ headlines, make the first one Ben Settle’s go-to:

What it is . . .
What it does . . .
What it does for you . . .

Then try and beat that.

10. Vibe check: don’t write the way you talk, write the way your prospect talks. If they’re loose with screamers (!) and thumbs up emojis, that’s a cross you’ll have to bare.

11. When interviewing a customer, you need to ask “Why?” three times before you get the answer worth using in your copy.

12. Lots of business owners already have great ideas but don’t know how to communicate them.

13. One way to deal with objections is FAQ style. The superior skill is turning them into benefit-driven subheads.

14. Get methodical when you read your copy out loud. Ask yourself if anything sounds too “C-U-B-A”

– Confusing
– Unbelievable
– Boring
– Awkward

15. Powerful verbs trump powerful words.

16. Be wary of ‘of’: often an opportunity to tighten phrasing.

17. Engage the five senses.

18. Use flashbacks.

19. Random analogies are great.

20. The word ‘very’ is as useful as a sled in a sauna.

21. The unique mechanism for brilliance is hard work.

22. Write for clarity. You can write to a 5th-grade level on Hemingway App and still confuse people.

23. A forgotten tactic is “just write.” No ideating. No prepping the page. No diddling with your avatar notes. Take the stabilizers off and freestyle. If editing is about killing your darlings, writing is about summoning them.

24. The best way to talk about new things is with new language.

25. You can name and claim old or common ideas with uncommon phrasing. When I ghostwrite, I read everything the client has written. I pull out the words, phrases, metaphors, and analogies that make them unique. Lots of ghostwriters do this. It’s an obvious starting point. But I’m the first to call it a Lexicon Extraction.

And finally . . .

I encourage you to question all of these. Some are tips, others are tenets, but you must decide which are which. Create your own techniques, draw your own outlines. Mix mine with yours, but build your own toolbox.

One of my all-time favorite philosophies, from Marcelo Garcia, 5x Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Champion:

“If you’re studying my game, you’re entering my game. And I’ll be better at it than you.”

P.S.P. French

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The Economics of Escape Velocity

Have you ever tried reading a personal finance blog? They’re a dry lunch, so let me save you the trouble. Here’s all those hundreds of thousands of pinched nickels and earnest paragraphs in just seven words:

Earn more, spend less, invest the difference.

That’s money as simple PHYSICS. Interest rates and digits on spreadsheets. But if the rules are so simple… why does money elude most people? Remember, the premise and promise of these memos is:

Reality-based knowledge delivered as practical, tactical advice.

So instead of meandering off on an esoteric rant…

I’ll show you.

The Dollar’s Two Faces

Let’s see if you can hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time.

1. Money is fickle
2. Money demands respect

That is money as PSYCHOLOGY.

Appreciate the difference? Now let me be honest: I’m not where I want to be. I only traded in my 9-5 three years ago. But I am getting closer every day and that has something to do with what I am about to teach you.

I’m only going to write about this topic ONCE.

Ready?

Money is fickle.
Like a spoilt cat. It goes where the value is.

Money demands respect.
Again, a spoilt cat. If you disrespect it, it WILL LEAVE you.

If you want money to come to you, provide value to other people.

If you want money to stay with you, be a good steward.

Take notes, Mr. Montana.

Money as Happiness

The most common denominator of happiness is a feeling of CONTROL. This trumps your money, trophies, toys and prestige. And something the bloggers do get right:

Control – or good stewardship – of money comes from living within your means. I don’t give two hoots what you spend your money on and I’m not saying you need to survive on tomato soup and Malboros.

But if you want to tell a good story with your money, if you want to use it for good and convince other people’s money to come and hang out next to yours…

Then you need to know your numbers.

The Economics of Escape Velocity

The place you want to get to with your money, the place where you have “lift off…” is where for every month or year you work, you can “buy” yourself that time again in exchange. After working for one month, you have enough cash to not work for a month. Not that you’ll want to stop necessarily – but again – this is about control.

Here’s the launchpad equation.

(Post-Tax Income – Living Expenses – Debt Payments) / Living Expenses

For example, in my first year as a freelance copywriter, I made $107k. Not bad? But after 30% tax, that’s $74,900. And my living expenses added up to $45,400 (no debt though.) So $74,900 minus $45,400 is $29,500. That gives us the top number of the equation.

$29,500 divided by living expenses of $45,400 equals a total of 0.64.

$74,900 – $45,400 – 0
—————————–
$45,400

That means that even though I was pleased to earn 6 figures in my first year freelancing…

I did not have escape velocity of 1.0.

To hit it, I would have needed to either:

Drop my living expenses from $45,400 to $29,500 ($2,458 a month) while income stayed the same.

Raise my post-tax income from $74,900 to $90,800 ($7,566 a month) while expenses stayed the same.

The third option is a bit of both.

There is only so much you can reduce your expenses before life becomes miserable. But there is no ceiling to how much you can earn, so that’s a better game to concentrate on.

You’re Probably Undercharging

Making more money requires a certain level of aggression combined with the right actions in the marketplace.

Don’t worry, I’ll get into all that during our time together.

In fact, there’s a whole group of people (millions of them) for whom the price of what you’re selling is irrelevant.

What they want is energy.

See you next week.

P.S.P. French

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