A Copywriting Lesson from John le Carré

I am sitting on my couch nursing a cold, sipping on a glass of medicinal Johnny Walker Black, watching the new Errol Morris documentary about the great English spy novelist, John Le Carré. About two-thirds of the way through, there’s a segment about “the innermost room” of the spy world that turns out to be empty:

“At a certain age, you want the answer. You want the rolled up parchment in the inmost room that tells you who runs your lives and why. The trouble is that by then, you’re the very people who know best that the inmost room is bare.”

Le Carre’s Secret Space

The idea of a “secret” space that turns out to be cold and empty is an interesting one. It’s a good metaphor for tactic-hunting guru hoppers looking for the client-getting system. But the copywriting game is so much bigger than just getting clients.

Case in point: there’s a guru out there who is big on how to get freelancing clients. That’s his thing. He does very well selling this. But I also watch this guy making flash moves with a sad smile on my face because I know that not so long ago I was offered the very freelance work he was doing. Because his client was unhappy. Because he wasn’t doing a very good job.

Becoming really good at getting clients is downstream of not being very good at retaining them.

Anyone claiming to have a client-getting solution is trying to sell you something. I have written, openly, for free, about how to get copywriting clients. In this article, I tell you a couple of things I did and still do that could also work for you.

The thing to understand is this: The challenge doesn’t end when you get your first client, it starts. You go from being in limbo to having to sit up straight and do good work. That is a far, far more complex challenge than convincing someone to give you a shot in the first place.

Key Takeaway

Don’t fall for the idea there’s an inmost online parlor where all the knowledge is hoarded and the deals are shuffled and dished out. It’s all played completely ad hoc. Slap and dash. Whim and chaos. There is no great secret, no final scroll. You can break through the wall at any time. They don’t want you to know this, but the ultimate mastermind is empty.

There are a lot of good Dune quotes, but this one sums up the moment best:

“I have said: ‘Blow out the lamp! Day is here!’ And you keep saying: ‘Give me a lamp so I can find the day.'”