Years, nay decades ago, some friends and I rented a house in North Carolina. 

It was a good-sized place, gigantic even. 

Which was a relief, given our collectively tiny just-out-of-college budget. 

At the time, I was just one day back from driving cross country with a friend. 

We’d been gone for two months and were TV and radio silent — at least on big news headlines — the entire time. This was pre-internet too, so it was easier than you remember to be oblivious.

 

So I’d had no idea why our rent in Nagshead had been so cheap. That is, until we got to the beach house and flipped on the TV. 

“The winds from Hurricane Emily,” blared the newscast, “are expected to gust as high as 130 mph, and to make landfall in Outer Banks within the next 24 hours.”

“What the — there’s a hurricane coming?!” 

“Oh yeah,” said Phil, our driver for the trip, “I forgot to mention that. That’s why we got a deal on the house. It’s hurricane season. We’ll be fine.”

And he proceeded to rationalize why we planned to wait it out, despite the police cars that were soon inching down the beachfront rode, blaring a recorded “must evacuate” order. 

We filled the tub with water. We shuttered the windows that had shutters. We picked up batteries, food, and — of course — beer and ice for the cooler. 

“Are you sure this is a good idea to stay? I mean, we’re in a house on stilts… a block from the ocean…” 

“Too late,” said Phil. 

Sure enough, the police cars were back, confirming that it was now too late to leave. The bridges were closed and we would have to wait it out.

Phil was ecstatic. 

See, Phil had a plan. A stupid one, but a plan just the same. 

And that, Cupcake, is what today’s issue is about. Today, we’re going to talk about pre-emptive strategies to help stave off potential copy-career catastrophes.

Better plans, I hope, than Phil’s…

“I don’t get what you’re so happy about,” said our friend Betty. “We’re trapped here now!”

“I know,” said Phil, “Isn’t it great? See, I’ve got too many payments left on my car. But now, if the storm carries it off, I can pay off the rest with the insurance.” 

Uh, yeah, he really said that. As the winds started to howl and our beach house — yes, on stilts — began to sway in the wind.

Had I known… well, never mind. 

But these plans you’ll find below are better than that. Hopefully, good enough to help you prep for career blips, blunders, and storms of all kinds. 

Starting with… 

Catastrophic Copywriting Crisis #1:

Your first draft landed like a lead balloon.

Let’s face it, you won’t always knock the ball out of the park. Sometimes what you’ve written will strike nobody’s fancy. Whether that’s because they’re heathens or you’ve just blown it, what you do next could be key to your career survival.

Here’s what you need to know in advance:

First off, never… ever… take a defensive or injured position with a client. Petulance is career-poison for a writer. As well it should be.

Instead, invite commentary and criticism. And hear it. Crave it. Thrive on it. In fact, do that even if they love what you’ve turned in.

Not because your client is always right because he might not be. But because writing gets better when it’s challenged.

Maybe it’s a simple fix. Or maybe you’ll need to go back to the drawing board. Either way, at least you’ll have forced the client to give you a better, more narrow idea of how to get closer to what they’re looking for.

If you have a case to make for why they might not get what you’re doing, do it only — and briefly — after you’ve coaxed out a full critique. 

And no matter what, close the review by summing up the key points to fix, propose a course of action, then quickly set up a new deadline for the changes.

Avoidable Copywriting Crisis #2:

Nobody’s noticed or acknowledge receiving your first draft.

Isn’t it the worst when you stay up late to beat a deadline, hitting send as the birds greet the sun, only to hear back nothing but crickets in your inbox? Yes. Yes, it is.

It can be hard to believe that, given how much you’ve slaved over a thing, there wasn’t a trumpet sounding somewhere on the other end. 

And yet, over-stretched marketing managers, over-filled email inboxes, finicky spam-filters… there could be all kinds of reasons why your submission went unnoticed. 

Here’s how to avoid that situation: 

If you can set up “read” receipts in your email program, do it. It’s both a comfort and a paper trail when you’re submitting a file.

To skirt spam filter mishaps, also try to send an email that gives a heads-up about when the file is coming… then another email with the file attached. Just in case the attachment itself triggers a misfire.

Or better yet, master Google Drive, iCloud, Google Docs and other file sharing and collaborative options. That way, it’s harder to say, “I never got the file.”

And finally, make sure your message with the file includes a specific time request on feedback. 

For instance, “Here you go — the first draft. Perhaps you could look this over and we could talk on Tuesday at 10:30? If not, then please let me know a better time.” 

Staggering Copywriting Crisis #3:

The project changed mid-draft or — worse — got canceled.

Ouch.

You’ve slaved over the sales letter. It’s a gem for the ages. And then, suddenly, you discover that all the original project plans have gone to h*ll through no fault of your own.

I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me. Once, it was a contract dispute that blew our train off the tracks. 

Other many times, the publisher decided to revamp the entire product, after I’d already written all the copy, offer pages, and space ads. 

Still another time, the star of the product I was writing for had the nerve to slip on the ice and go into a coma, from which he never recovered. 

(This was Dr. Atkins, by the way, and we were about to sell his newsletter — I’d even gone on his famous Atkins’ diet as “research” and lost 20 lbs.)

Still another time, we finished the sales letter, did the production, and were days away from mailing when the guru we were pitching just stopped answering his phone. He disappeared.

Here’s what you can do, just in case: 

Maybe you can salvage the copy. Maybe you can even help the client brainstorm a replacement product, then repurpose some of what you’ve written. 

Especially in the world of info products, there are options — so don’t throw in the towel yet.

Better, though, is to work a “kill fee” into your deal. This means you get paid something even if your client has to cancel.

If you’ve got some industry cred, it’s often around half to three-quarters of your base fee. Of course, you’re out of luck on any royalties. 

But still, it’s something. 

Inevitable Copywriting Crisis #4:

Your deadline moves or the timing is otherwise “off.”

This is always a risk when pitches are tied to current events, which they often are when you want to build real urgency into the message. 

Here’s what you could do, as a precaution: 

While you can’t do much about what happens in the headlines, you can sometimes anticipate and write around possible oncoming changes. 

That is, you can craft seasonal ideas that might feel timely, but will come back around again. Or craft macro pitches that address urgent but less time-sensitive ideas (for instance, “Doctor’s Warn: Never Take This Drug” or “America’s Looming Debt Crisis”).

Or you might create a deadline that repeats. Something like, “You have until midnight, this Sunday night.” Then keep doing updating the deadline every Sunday. 

Or, if you really can’t avoid In short, look for ways to write around timing issues. They’re often there if you search creatively enough.

Inevitable Copywriting Crisis #5:

Your pitch is ready but the product isn’t. 

There are many moving parts in a product launch or even repeat product marketing cycle. 

Sometimes, the advertising copy even precedes the creation of the product. This is especially true in the world of information products. 

So what do you do if your finish your marketing piece before the final product is ready to roll?

Here’s an idea:

I make it a point to get to know who the product “champion” or creator will be, right from the start. I also like to know who will create the premiums (in my case, usually a written report of some kind).

And then, during the copywriting process, I’ll feed those poor fellas anything and everything I have that’s related to what the final product could or should be.

Keep them aware from the start. Ask them for input and details on what they’ll deliver. And let the marketing or product manager know when you’ll be done while asking politely at the same time how things are going on the product development end.

You’re looking for feedback, of course. And giving them content they can use to sync up and keep up with your copywriting efforts. But you’re also fueling momentum. 

Last Straw Copywriting Crisis #6:

You haven’t a clue what’s happened, but it’s just… stalled somewhere.

Something’s gone wrong, but you haven’t a clue what or who is holding up the works. 

It happens. And it can cost you time, nerve, and money. What to do?

Here’s a pre-emptive strategy: 

You never want to harass or harangue a client. But there’s no getting around it, sometimes you’ve got to be prepared and persistent.

Identify your contact on a project early. Stay in touch and emphasize specifics. Turn in copy when you promised, then — as suggested above — try to get a review deadline at the outset. 

Three days, a week, but be specific about when you’d like to hear back. If the project is already stalled, politely be specific about setting a new follow-up deadline. Sooner rather than later.

Often, it’s not intentional. Internal dynamics aren’t always clear. Or there’s a lot going on. And some people work better together than others.

If you can, you might even try to get more than one contact on the inside. This increases your chance for feedback, taps into different types of energy, and ups your chances of being heard.

Of course, even where fortune favors the prepared, there’s room for bad luck and more surprises. 

Which is why it doesn’t hurt to be ready to take your blows and improvise. 

Like we had to do, that time we got stuck in the hurricane I was telling you about. By midnight, huge trashcans were flying 15 feet off the ground. Waves were surging across the highway. And the winds were hot and loud. 

We huddled in the middle of the house (there was no basement or even a first floor). We cursed our stupidity for staying. And yet, we got lucky and survived. 

So did Phil’s car, by the way, which he then had to pay off after all. Lesson learned. And a lucky one, considering the alternative.

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For now,

John

P.S. We did get stuck in a hurricane again, two years later, despite renting earlier in the season. And yes, this time we evacuated. 

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