‘When we tell stories about creativity…we neglect to mention those days when we wanted to quit, when we believed that our problem was impossible. Instead, we skip straight to the breakthrough. We tell the happy ending first.

‘The danger of this scenario is that the act of feeling frustrated is an essential part of the creative process. Before we can find the answer — before we can even know the question — we must be immersed in disappointment, convinced that a solution is beyond our reach.’

– Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works

"...never far away from the precipice of complete and utter despair..." (Original design by @rhinett)

“…never far away from the precipice of complete and utter despair…” (Original design by @rhinett)

Glenn: So…what you working on next?

Me: A new promo for our penny shares investment newsletter.

Glenn: Oh yeah. What’s the angle?

Me: Buy shares…they’re gonna BOOM!

The mouthful of Amstel that had just passed through Glenn’s lips came spewing back out in a plume of froth and bubbles all over the Stamford Arms bar.

Creased with laughter, we couldn’t even talk for the next two minutes.

And it WAS funny…

For the last two and half months I’d sweated blood over a big promo for MoneyWeek magazine — the biggest selling financial consumer mag in the UK.

The whole idea in that sales letter was that stocks, property, bonds and the euro were about to have an almighty crash.

Taking the project from a blinking cursor on a blank screen to 28 pages of provocative and compelling copy had sent me on an emotional rollercoaster.

And Glenn, being my copy compadre, experienced the full brunt of it.

Now I was about to do it all over again, but this time I had to show the reader they were on the verge of the greatest market boom of all time.

It wasn’t just funny…it was bloody hilarious!

‘How you feeling about it?’ asked Glenn, once we’d settled down again.

‘Oh, pretty excited at the minute…’

‘Stage One begins,’ he said.

The seven stages of desperation

Jonah Lehrer, author of the fascinating book Imagine: How Creativity Works, argues that frustration is not only a natural part of the creative process…but a vital one.

He reckons that in order to achieve that clichéd ‘moment of insight’ you have to go through a stage of agonising over a creative problem.

Only then will that breakthrough idea come.

‘The first stage is the impasse,’ writes Lehrer. ‘Before there can be a breakthrough there has to be a block.’

I completely agree.

Except that when I write copy I go through seven of the buggers!

Each stage just as acute as the last…each gaining in emotional intensity as I move up through the gears of turmoil.

Dramatic, right?

It is.

In fact, I used to think there was something clinically wrong with me (actually the jury’s still out on that one) but I’ve come to learn it’s just the process I have to go through to hit upon that home-run promo.

Creativity: it goes something like this…

I get the brief.

After an initial moment of dread-filled, stomach-flipping anxiety at the mere thought of the journey ahead…excitement grips me by the neck.

James Woodburn

A desperate man:
Professional Copywriter James ‘Woody’ Woodburn

YES — this is what being a copywriter is all about!

You have the product…you have the prospect.

All we have to do is connect the two.

The possibilities are endless!

I begin reading…

I start with the product itself.

If it’s a newsletter or magazine, I read every back issue.

Then I dive into every past promotion used to sell the product.

I collate news articles, web pages and blogs related to the subject.

I read a novel completely unrelated to the topic.

Ideas begin whirling around my brain…

This is good. I got a good feeling about this one!

Just as Lehrer says, I remember the last breakthrough promo. I skip to the happy ending. I remember nailing that brief to a tee.

I recall the flood of orders in the 24 hours after launch day. The pats on the back from the marketers…the confused looks from the editors…praise from the publisher.

An acute stage of euphoria begins to set in.

This time I could blow those results out of the water.

This time the USP is stronger…I have more experience…I’ve done more reading…have more ideas.

This could be it. The big one! The blockbuster!

From this vantage point — usually in the pub with a few beers swilling around my gut — my confidence is high.

Yeah there’s a lot of work to do, but I know that.

I can do it. I’m at the top of my game!

And so the downward slide begins…

Over the next few weeks as I take those rough ideas to paper and begin honing the headline, crafting the lead and the rest of the sales argument…my slide into an abyss of hopelessness picks up pace.

At first my relentless questioning of the big idea from every angle manifests itself in just plain old frustration

It soon turns into uncertainty that I’m not making the strongest case to the reader…that my idea isn’t original enough…that I haven’t quite hit the deeper benefit of the product in the headline.

Self-doubt creeps in. This is punctuated by brief moments of clarity…where the golden thread of my promotion shows itself with simplicity and precision.

But it’s not ready to come out…yet.

I battle on, never far away from the precipice of complete and utter despair, which I inevitably fall into.

At this point there’s no coming back.

I can’t concentrate or think straight.

I forget everything. My whole body goes numb.

I’m hungry but can’t eat…tired but can’t sleep.

I’m rude to my partner (bless her). Short with my friends. It’s appalling.

I’ve hit the wall. I do not know what to do to next.

And then, just when I’m literally about to go insane…


The breakthrough happens.

It doesn’t come in dribs and drabs.

Rather, it shocks me with its completeness.

All of a sudden the promo that seemed so daunting is done…and the whole thing is incredibly obvious.

I curse myself for not cracking it sooner.

But there we go.

The whole process is heart wrenching. Nauseating. And downright ridiculous!

Believe me I’ve tried different approaches…

I’ve tried Eugene Schwartz’s 33 minute secret…I’ve tried note cards…I’ve tried smashing out a sales letter in a stream of consciousness…I’ve tried adhering to a strict outline.

None of these processes work for me.

No matter what I do, my own mind hijacks me.

I have to go through my seven stages of desperation.

But after nearly eight years of writing copy (and millions of pounds and dollars in sales) I’ve come to learn something…

Tolerate the torture and the breakthrough will come

A few years ago I saw a great lecture by John Cleese on creativity.

In it he recounts a story from his Monty Python days.

He explained how one of his colleagues, who seemed to be more talented than he, never produced scripts as original.


His answer was remarkably simple: time and toleration.

John was prepared to work through and tolerate the discomfort of pondering, indecision and anxiety that we all feel when we haven’t solved a problem.

And he was prepared to tolerate it for much longer than his colleague.

You can watch John Cleese’s talk yourself here. I strongly recommend you do, it’s well worth it.

The point I took from it is that we all have a creative process.

I’m sure yours is different to mine — at least, I hope it is!

I’m also sure that we all experience a period of difficulty and frustration when we’re trying to create great copy.

And if you’re prepared to see through those times and keep at it…you’ll come up with something good.

Copywriting is an emotional business.

We all know people buy things for emotional reasons…not logical ones.

It stands to reason, then, that writing copy is an emotional experience for the writer too. (Ahem, for some more than others perhaps.)

But it’s also part of what makes copywriting such a fascinating job.

We get to delve into and explore the minds of the prospects we’re writing to…

We get to pique their wants and secret desires…

And in a single headline we can realise their wildest dreams…or allay their deepest fears. This is what true breakthrough copy does with pinpoint precision.

For the writer of that headline, space ad, website, lift-note or 7,000-word letter…there’s no better feeling when it works.

How can you create the best environment in which to come up with breakthrough ideas, whatever your process is?

I’ve developed a great method over the years. If it works with my seven stages…I can guarantee it’ll work for you.

But I’ll save that for another article, if Glenn allows me the honour of writing another!

All the best,

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