Print | Get My Searchable Collection of 100+ Book Notes

The Adweek Copywriting Handbook Summary

The Five Big Ideas

  1. The purpose of the first sentence in an ad is to get you to read the second sentence.
  2. 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.
  3. Copy should be long enough to cover the essentials but short enough to make it interesting.
  4. Anticipate your prospect’s questions and answer them as if they were asking you face-to-face.
  5. Selling a cure is a lot easier than selling a preventive.

The Adweek Copywriting Handbook by Joseph Sugarman Summary


  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.
  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.
  3. The sole purpose of the first sentence in an advertisement is to get you to read the second sentence.
  4. Your ad layout and the first few paragraphs of your ad must create the buying environment most conducive to the sale of your product or service.
  5. Get the reader to say yes and harmonize with your accurate and truthful statements while reading your copy.
  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.
  7. When trying to solve problems, don’t assume constraints that aren’t really there.
  8. Keep the copy interesting and the reader interested through the power of curiosity.
  9. Never sell a product or service. Always sell a concept.
  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.          
  11. Copy should be long enough to cause the reader to take the action you request.
  12. Every communication should be a personal one, from the writer to the recipient, regardless of the medium used.
  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.          
  14. In the editing process, you refine your copy to express exactly what you want to express with the fewest words.                
  15. 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.

General Knowledge

“The best copywriters in the world are those who are curious about life, read a great deal, have many hobbies, like to travel, have a variety of interests, often master many skills, get bored and then look for other skills to master.”

“The thirst for knowledge, a tremendous curiosity about life, a wealth of experiences and not being afraid to work are the top credentials for being a good copywriter.”

Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid camera, once said “A mistake is a future benefit, the full value of which is yet to be realized.”

“One of the most important keys in copywriting and conceptualizing is the ability to relate totally divergent concepts to create a new concept.

Another factor that makes a great copywriter, says Sugarman, is the experience of running your own company and being responsible for every word you write.

Specific Knowledge

You need to become an expert on a product, service or anything you write about to really be an effective copywriter, says Sugarman. “Becoming an expert means learning enough about a product to obtain enough specific knowledge so you can communicate the real nature of what you are trying to sell.”

You also need to become an expert on who your customer is by gathering specific information on whom you are selling to.                

“Every product has a nature to it that you must understand to be successful when creating a marketing concept behind that product.”

Having specific knowledge on whom you are selling to will make a dramatic difference in your ability to communicate your thoughts in your copy.             

The First Sentence

Your first sentence need to be compelling by virtue of its short length and ease of reading. No long multisyllabic words. Keep it short, sweet and almost incomplete so that the reader has to read the next sentence.

“The purpose of the first sentence is to get you to read the second sentence.”             

Creating the Perfect Buying Environment

“Your copy has to put the prospect into a relaxed buying environment.”

Here’s how Sugarman explains the buying environment,

As a writer of direct marketing, you have control over the environment. The environment you choose is created in both the graphic elements and the copy, but especially the copy—by the way you phrase your words, the choice of words and the level of integrity you convey.             

Resonating with the Reader

“You’ve got to get the prospective reader to start saying yes. You’ve got to make statements that are both honest and believable. Get the customer to nod in the affirmative and agree with you. Get your reader to say ‘Yes.’”                                   

Seeds of Curiosity

One way to increase readership is by applying a theory Sugarman calls seeds of curiosity. It goes like this. At the end of a paragraph, he will often put a very short sentence that offers some reason for the reader to read the next paragraph. He uses 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.

These seeds of curiosity cause you to subconsciously continue reading even though you might be at a point in the copy where the copy slows down. (Note from Sam: these are also known as bucket brigades.)

Copy as Emotion

Emotion principles:

  1. Every word has an emotion associated with it and tells a story.
  2. Every good ad is an emotional outpouring of words, feelings, and impressions.
  3. You sell on emotion, but you justify a purchase with logic.

“Often, a phrase or sentence or even a premise does not have to be correct logically. As long as it conveys the message emotionally, it not only does the job but does it more effectively than the logical message.”

John Caples, the legendary direct marketer, changed the word repair to the word fix and saw a 20 percent increase in response.

Selling the Concept, Not the Product              

“If your advertising just sells the product, be careful. You need a concept. If you’ve come up with a unique concept, fantastic. You’ll do much better.”

“Sometimes simply changing the price of a product can dramatically alter its concept.”

“The first job of an ad agency is to look at your product in every imaginable way: frontwards, backward, sideways, upside down, inside out. Because somewhere, right there in the product itself, lies the drama that will sell it to people who want it.”

The Incubation Process

Sugarman on the incubation process,

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.

“Take a break from your work and do something pleasurable while your brain incubates.”              

How Much Copy Should You Write?

“Copy is never too long if the reader takes the action you request.”

Sugarman explains that there are two factors that increase the need for a lot of copy:

  1. Price Point: The higher the price point, the more copy required to justify the price or create the need. This is a general rule unless the price point is perceived to be a tremendous value or the lower price point appears to lack credibility.         
  2. Unusual Item: The more unusual the product, the more you need to relate that product to the user and the more you’ve got to focus on creating the buying environment and explaining the product’s new features.

Use long copy to create an environment that will place your prospect in the proper buying mood or to give you the time necessary to tell the full story of your product.      

The Art of Personal Communication

“Every advertisement should be a personal message from the advertiser to the prospect.”

The Copy Sequence

The flowchart for copy sequence goes in one direction—down.

“The point of each of these blocks of copy is that they are logically placed as if to anticipate the next question a prospect is going to ask—all in an environment that you have created and all flowing logically to the last part of the ad when you ask for the order.”

The Editing Process

Principles of editing:

  1. Look for any “that” words.
  2. Edit for rhythm.
  3. Consider combining sentences.
  4. Eliminate unnecessary words.
  5. Rearrange thoughts so they flow better.

Powerful Copy Elements Explained

  • Typeface            
  • First Sentence
  • Second Sentence
  • Paragraph Headings
  • Product Explanation
  • New Features
  • Technical Explanation
  • Anticipate Objections
  • Resolve Objections
  • Gender
  • Clarity                
  • Clichés      
  • Rhythm
  • Service
  • Physical Facts
  • Trial Period
  • Price Comparison
  • Testimonials              
  • Price
  • Offer Summary
  • Avoid Saying Too Much
  • Ease of Ordering
  • Ask for the Order

“You should sell a simple product that is clearly understood by the consumer in a more complicated way and a more complicated product in a very simple way.”

Always check your copy to make sure you have explained all of the features. Ask yourself, “Did I explain the product sufficiently to my prospect?”    

“Providing a technical explanation that the reader may not understand shows that we really did our research and if we say it’s good, it must be good. It builds confidence in the buyer that he or she is indeed dealing with an expert.”     

“If you feel that your prospect might raise some objection when you are describing a product, then raise the objection yourself.”

Editor’s Note

Dan Kennedy discusses damaging admission copy, as he calls it, in his book, The Ultimate Sales Letter.

“Just as you have to recognize objections, it is your opportunity and duty to resolve the objections, too. You must be honest and provide alternative solutions or dispel the objections completely.”             

“Make sure there are no sexual or sexist comments that would offend any group, and know your target audience so that you can communicate in their terms.”

It is important that you recognize the differences between men and women in terms of what is important to them.    

Avoid obvious clichés like: “Here’s the product the world has been waiting for,” or “It’s too good to be true.”

“How do you know if you are writing a cliché? If it sounds like you’re writing typical advertising copy some agency may have written 20 years ago, that’s one clue.”          

One rhythm technique is the use of what Sugarman calls a triad. Very often when he lists examples or attributes of something, he uses just three of them. For example, “I went shopping for a hammer, a screwdriver and a pair of pliers.”                

“If you are selling an expensive product or one that is not easily returned for service, you must address the question of service and convey the ease of that service to the consumer.”                

Mention all the physical facts about a product or you risk reducing your response (e.g. weight, dimensions, size, limits, speed, and the like).

Give readers any excuse not to buy and they won’t buy.            

Whenever possible, offering a price comparison to another product establishes value in the mind of the purchaser.

Editor’s Note

Dan Ariely discusses price anchoring in his book, Predictably Irrational.

If your product is the most expensive product being offered, suggest that it has more or better features. If your product is less expensive, focus on better value and use a price comparison.     

If the product is expensive and it’s not the price that will sell it, don’t hide it; just underplay it.

“You must, as an effective copywriter, answer the question when it is being raised by the reader.”               

Summarize what you are offering the consumer somewhere near the end of your ad.                

“Always ask for the order near the end of your ad.”

The Psychological Triggers

  1. Feeling of Involvement or Ownership
  2. Honesty
  3. Integrity
  4. Credibility
  5. Value and Proof of Value
  6. Justify the Purchase
  7. Greed
  8. Establish Authority
  9. Satisfaction Conviction
  10. Nature of Product
  11. Prospect Nature
  12. Current Fads
  13. Timing                
  14. Linking
  15. Consistency
  16. Harmonize
  17. Desire to Belong          
  18. Desire to Collect
  19. Curiosity
  20. Sense of Urgency                
  21. Fear                
  22. Instant Gratification                
  23. Exclusivity, Rarity or Uniqueness             
  24. Simplicity   
  25. Human Relationships
  26. Storytelling
  27. Mental Engagement
  28. Guilt                
  29. Specificity        
  30. Familiarity                
  31. Hope

Editor’s Note

Joseph Sugarman wrote an entire book on psychological triggers, appropriately called Triggers.

In all his ads, Sugarman tries to make the prospects imagine they are holding or using my product. This is known as an involvement device.

Sugarman explains,

In your copywriting, let your readers take a stroll down a path with you or let them smell the fragrance through your nose or let them experience some of the emotions you are feeling by forming a mental picture from your description.                

Credibility is affected by the environment in which you place your advertisement.

“By positioning your product and comparing it with others or by proving the value of something even though the value may not be apparent, you are providing the logic with which the prospect can justify the purchase.”

Educating the reader to the intrinsic value of your product is equivalent to lowering its price.

“Somewhere in your ad, you should resolve any objection by providing some justification to the purchaser. Sometimes it’s just saying, “You deserve it.” And other times you might have to justify it in terms of savings (the price is a one-time-only value), health reasons (protects your eyes), recognition (the men in your life will love the way you look in it) or dozens of other reasons based on the wants and needs of your prospect.”

“The higher the price point, the more need there is to justify the purchase. The lower the price point or the more value the price represents, the less you have to justify the purchase.”

“Greed in the form of attraction to bargains is a very strong motivating factor.”

“Too low a price may diminish your credibility unless you justify the low price.”             

“Establishing your authority is something that should be done in each ad regardless of how big or how little you are.”

The ideal satisfaction conviction should raise an objection and resolve it, but in resolving it, go beyond what people expect.      

Every product has its own unique personality, its own unique nature, and it’s up to you to figure it out. For example, the nature of a toy is that it’s a fun game.

Common sense is all you need to understand and appreciate the nature of a product.                                

“The prospect has basic emotional needs that your product or service will solve, regardless of how sophisticated or simple your product offering is. Examine those emotional needs. It is from the perspective of emotion that you will reach the core essence of your prospect’s motivation. And it is from this essence that you will get all the clues you need to uncover the way to that prospect’s heart and soul and eventually to his or her pocketbook.”

“Be aware of the current fads so you can determine the hottest product categories and also the new language of our time. You want to recognize them and harmonize with them.”      

Linking 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.

Whenever Sugarman sells a new product or a unique feature of a new concept, he uses linking. He takes what is familiar to the prospect, relate it to the object he us selling, and creates a bridge in the mind of jis prospect. Because of this linking, the prospect needs to think a lot less to understand the new product. The product is easier to relate to the needs of the prospect.

“Usually products are simply improved versions of previously sold products. You need to relate the older product to the new version to explain the differences.”

“The most important thing you can do to turn a prospect into a customer is to make it incredibly easy for that prospect to commit to a purchase, regardless of how small that purchase may be. It is therefore imperative that the commitment be simple, small, and in line with the prospect’s needs.”

“It is important that your product harmonize with or fill the needs of your prospect. If it doesn’t, it is up to you to figure out how to change it so it does.”               

When selling, whether in print or on TV or the Internet, recognize that there is a very large segment of the population who, for whatever reason, has an emotional need to collect a series of similar products. These products bring great joy and satisfaction and in some cases utility.”                

If Sugarman had to pick the one major psychological reason that makes direct marketing so successful today, it would be curiosity.

The concept of exclusivity, rarity or uniqueness is to let prospects feel that they are special if they buy a particular product—that they will belong to the very small group that can be envied for owning this very limited item.

“One of the appeals of an exclusive item is the possibility of extra future value implied by limiting the circulation of that product.”   

“When writing copy for your product, think about using a few stories that might be of interest to your prospect and assist in the sale of your product.”

“The more the mind must work to reach a conclusion that it eventually successfully reaches, the more positive, enjoyable, or stimulating the experience.”

“Anything that causes the mind to work hard to reach a conclusion creates a positive, enjoyable or stimulating effect on the brain.”             

“When using the psychological trigger of hope, you must avoid the trap of making a specific claim that can be measured or guaranteed. You want to allude to what the product is used for without making any promises of an exact outcome.”

Selling a Cure, Not Prevention

“The key to successfully marketing certain products lies in the nature of that product and the way that product is viewed in the marketplace. The guiding principle can be summed up very clearly: Always sell the cure and avoid selling prevention.”

Rating Your Writing Level

Clarity is one of the most important factors in writing copy. Vary the length of sentences and use three-syllable words when you need them and realize that every audience is different.

Seven Steps to Writing Great Copy

  1. Become an expert on the product or service you are planning to sell            
  2. Know your prospect        
  3. Write your headline and subheadline               
  4. Write the copy               
  5. Edit your copy                
  6. Incubate                
  7. Take a final look at your copy


Recommended Reading

If you like The Adweek Copywriting Handbook, you might also like:

Buy The Book: The Adweek Copywriting Handbook


Related Lists

Or, browse more book summaries.

0 0 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments