Writing Copy using the Dark Arts

How You Can Make $62,723.85 From Writing In Two Weeks Without An Education

Imagine if you could work for two weeks and collect $62,723.85 in cold, hard cash for writing words on a page.

Imagine if it didn’t matter where you lived, what your educational background was, or even if you had an education at all. The money was yours now, and you could do whatever you wanted with it.

That might sound pretty crazy. Fantastically mad, even. But just imagine the possibilities if that story was true, and I could prove it to you right now?

Well, I can. Because the story is true. I know, because it happened to me. And if it happened to me, it can happen to just about anyone. Maybe even you.

I don’t have an education. I was actually taken out of school in the fourth grade, and never even pursued a higher education beyond getting a handful of community college credits.

If you don’t believe me, I understand. The prospect of someone without any sort of formal education making that kind of money from writing in such a short amount of time doesn’t seem believable, and in fact, many people haven’t believed me when I’ve told them.

So if you don’t believe me, that’s okay. Because I have proof. And after I show you the receipts to back up my claim, I’m going to show you how I did it.

And if you want to, hopefully teach you how you can do it, too.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of receipts, because the client we were writing for liked to retain royalties due and pay them out over the course of the year, so they could measure refund rates for the products we were writing ads to sell and make sure they weren’t paying for phantom performance.

The ad also ran twice, and the first version did much bigger sales numbers. The larger checks came from the first version, and the smaller ones came from the second version.


Now that I’ve shown you the “receipts,” as the kids call them, I think, I want to let you in on a little secret that will sound totally absurd to most reasonable adults, but which is nevertheless true and can be exploited by those who understand it for unending profit.

The secret is very simple, and something that most of us believed as children but foolishly lost on our path to adulthood.

The secret is that magic is real.

But it doesn’t reside in the worlds of elves and fairies, or those of angels and demons. Quite frankly, I don’t believe in that sort of magic or spend much time thinking about it.

Instead, it resides inside of us, as a sort of primal coding. We act as we’ve evolved to, across however many millennia that we’ve been evolving.

The magic isn’t in the conjuring of otherworldly forces, but rather in understanding that coding and manipulating it to conjure emotion within us and action out of us.

That is the job of a copywriter. That’s how I made the money.

You might be wondering where the writing comes in. After all, the money DOES come from writing on a page. But the truth is that the writing is just a conduit for universal truths; a good copywriter is really more of a psychologist than a writer.

I’ll show you what I mean by that by providing two examples to compare and contrast in my own career.

The first is from when I thought that copywriting was a skill about writing.

The second is from when I understood that copywriting isn’t about writing, but about understanding how humans behave and using their emotions to direct them into behaving however you want them to.

The first is also, perhaps interestingly, the first piece of copy I ever wrote. I entered it into a competition that my then employer hosted for its marketing team, and my copy ended up winning.

The story behind that is sort of odd, because I wasn’t even a part of the marketing team at the time. I had initially joined as an analyst, and just entered the competition on a lark because I wanted to understand more about how the sales process in my industry worked.

The prize wasn’t much. Just $2,000 to my memory, which was promptly spent partying with my coworkers at the local bars and restaurants. After all, the money wasn’t the point, and was inconsequential compared to the knowledge I gained from the process.

To prepare for the competition, I read one book on the subject of writing ads, and it’s one I recommend to this day to learn the ropes. It’s called Tested Advertising Methods, written by John Caples.

There’s a lot of cool and useful information in there, but as far as what was useful for this piece of copy, there were really just a few key points.

The first is that nobody cares how good your product or service is, or how fantastic you are as a person. If you write an ad about YOU, it will most likely be read as ego stroking and be a loser.

If you want to write about yourself, that’s fine. It can be cathartic. But stick to personal essays, because that sort of writing doesn’t belong in a commercial setting where the goal is to turn a profit.

That’s not to say you can’t promote your product or service, or talk about how great it is, or how wonderful your track record is. After all… that’s kind of the point of effective advertising. To bring exposure to your offerings, in order to generate more sales.

If that’s confusing considering I just told you NOT to write about how great you are, it’s because there’s nuance there and the nuance is extremely important.

The key to understanding that nuance is understanding that nobody cares about you, but everybody cares about themselves. So when you’re writing an ad, it’s important to talk about what your offering is going to do for the prospective customer.

The difference is subtle, but extremely important. So let’s use an example from the first ad that I ever wrote.


The “ME ME ME” version.


The actual version.

The broader theme of the story is the same in both versions. A Chief Investment Officer has discovered a major “changing of the guard” of tech companies, and believes that he has found a stock that is going to benefit from this trend.

So these two variants are very similar, the difference is only a handful of words. But those words are very important, and change the focus of the message entirely. Do you notice what they are?

They’re the ones that make the ad about the potential customer instead of the Chief Investment Officer’s big idea.

This is important, because focusing on the customer’s money gives them a reason to become invested and to care about whatever it is you’re going to say next.

Some Chief Investment Officer thinks a stock is going to triple? Who cares? Opinions are a dime a dozen; I can find a dozen articles on sites from SeekingAlpha to Yahoo Finance making similar projections.

But when the words “you” and “your money” are inserted, all of a sudden the customer can visualize what he could do with the extra cash. It helps motivate his greed impulse by making the narrative about him instead of the CIO.

This is actually very basic stuff, but it is pretty universally true.

I recommended Tested Advertising Methods to a friend who writes ads trying to generate referrals to local businesses and he discovered the same thing. Simply inserting the word “you” into the ad headline more than doubled his conversion rate.

That leads us to the second useful insight for this ad from the book.


This isn’t a mistake. I’m showing you this again for a reason.

So why am I showing you the same excerpt you just saw all over again? Because it’s important, and will drive probably 80% of your results as an advertiser.

Not this specific ad, but what I’m asking you to focus on. You see that bolded part? It’s the headline, or as close to a unique headline as I was allowed to write for this ad.

Why is it important? Because people are selfish and self-centered. That’s not a value judgment, it’s just how it is. We all have our own lives to live with demands from work, family, friends, our community, and any number of other things.

This means that in our downtime, our attention is very scarce. If you don’t hook somebody quickly, no matter how good your product or service is, it won’t matter because your potential customers aren’t going to stick around long enough to figure that out.

What’s the first interaction your customers are going to have with your advertisements? The headline.

So, it follows that your headline needs to be good so that you can draw the potential customer’s attention to your “body copy” to learn about how great your offerings really are.

Body copy is akin to what you’re reading right now. The headline about making a lot of money in a short amount of time may have interested you, and now you’re reading the “body copy,” the elaboration of how to do that.

If you just assume that a customer will give you their attention, you can safely assume that they won’t.

The way to deal with this is pretty obvious, and ties into the first lesson. Make your most impactful point first to draw the customer in, and only then use your body copy to elaborate.

In copywriting, narrative doesn’t have to follow a normal story structure. It’s often the case that following a normal story structure with a beginning, middle, and end is a terrible idea. Nobody has time for that shit.

Start with your conclusion, the big claim about how you’re going to improve your customer’s life, and only then use the body copy to justify your claims in the customer’s mind.

In this example, the big conclusion is that the CIO has discovered a stock that he believes will triple your money in five years. This is what draws the potential customer in and makes them want to engage with the copy, and hopefully, buy the product.

It’s not the headline’s job to convince them. That’s for the body copy to do. The headline is there to elicit a strong emotional response in them, to make them want to believe, so that they keep reading your copy to learn more.

That’s it. As a result, your headline is orders of magnitude more important than your body copy.

You can have the most convincing body copy ever written, but if your headline converts customers to the body copy at a rate of 0%, it won’t matter. You still won’t have any customers.

If you work in digital marketing broadly, you may be familiar with the customer acquisition funnel. If not, it’s essentially a framework to think about acquiring and converting potential customers into actual customers.

The top of the funnel is your way of finding potential prospects, so the larger it is, the more potential customers you can bring in. Size isn’t everything, of course, quality is very important too.

You can think of a headline in copy in a similar way; it’s the intracopy version of the “top of the funnel” of sorts, which makes it very important for acquiring customers. If no one ever goes beyond the top of your funnel, after all, there are no sales.

I’ll be explaining that more later on with body copy excerpts from much better copy; to do it here would be a waste of your time and mine.

Just understand that the primary purpose of body copy is to support and add credibility to your big claim in the headline. Your potential customers don’t care about anything except what’s in it for them, so convincing them of that is important.

In this case, the body copy uses past examples of stocks in similar competitive positions as the “big idea” that the publisher recommended previously, to add credibility to the idea that the “big idea” stock could triple the customer’s money in five years.

I suppose it’s worth noting that the “big idea” stock recommended here has done way better than tripling the money of investors who bought when this ad went out, but that is beyond the point of this discussion.

But this is all “baby’s first advertisement” level stuff, which is apt because it actually was my first ad. It’s useful and important to understand these basics, but they’ll only get you so far.

Even though I won a competition with this copy, it was by the skin of my teeth against the runner up.

It was pretty good for a first go, but is objectively kind of mediocre. It was probably worth the $2,000 prize, but not that much more.

I doubt I could have done much better given the circumstances, considering I wrote this ad in the middle of the night while also holding down a day job in a separate department.

The next ad that I’m going to show you was written in entirely different circumstances, which I believe contributed to its incredible effectiveness.

In April 2016, I left the working world to try to recover from a deep depression. This was just in time to watch the circus of the 2016 election play out, so that’s pretty much what I did.

At the same time, I was recruited to join a new advertising agency without any formal responsibilities, by the person who entered me into the copywriting competition we’ve already discussed.

I don’t mean to turn this article into the “me” show, but it’s contextually important for analyzing the copy that I’m about to show you.

Between getting to hang out on the agency’s Slack, which was full of elite copywriters, watching the 2016 election, and the unlimited free time that I now had, I decided to pick up my copywriting education again.

This time, I didn’t pick up Tested Advertising Methods to help me. I’d already extracted everything of value from that book.

One of the principles of learning that I’ve come to appreciate is that the best knowledge is the knowledge that you synthesize yourself from adjacent fields and upstream principles.

As I mentioned before, copywriting is only a conduit. The primary skill actually isn’t writing at all. The primary skill is psychology.

Tested Advertising Methods introduced me to that concept with the idea of focusing on the customer’s greed right in the headline, but greed is a pretty simple emotion to evoke and only kind of powerful in isolation.

So I spent the rest of that year researching and practicing what I refer to as “the dark arts,” which mostly consisted of trying to figure out ways to tap into a broader array of emotions to complement and synthesize with a customer’s primal greed.

I found two very good sources for figuring out how to do this, which I am going to share with you now, before we move on to the next piece of copy.

The first is called The Psychology of Human Misjudgment, as explained by Berkshire Hathaway vice chairman Charlie Munger.

Most notably, the consistency and commitment tendencies, as they relate to ideological thought, combined with the Pavlovian associations that ideology creates in a person’s mind.

We’re all susceptible to this. We all have beliefs that are rooted in our heart of hearts, that we’ve either consciously or subconsciously convinced ourselves are beyond question.

For some people, this is their religious faith. For others, it’s their political ideology, Warren Buffett fanboyism, or some other set of beliefs native to whatever tribe they identify with.

The trick is that as a person spouts their beliefs, through the process of taking a public stand on them, the identity that those beliefs take root from is expanded outwards into an ideology.

This process gradually fuses the two together, so that over time, the ideology becomes the identity, and the identity becomes the ideology.

It’s a fascinating trick, because once a person’s identity becomes wrapped up in their beliefs, those beliefs become an innate part of who they are and become incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to dislodge.

After a public stand is taken, if a person changes their mind, they can lose face for admitting they were wrong and must reject what has become a core part of themselves at the same time. This is a big ask, and is a reason that once an ideological road is traveled, it’s incredibly difficult to turn around from.

What does this mean for marketers?

If disconfirming evidence is rejected because it weakens a person’s identity, what happens with confirming evidence, which strengthens the identity?

More often than not, however tenuous the argument, it gets lapped up like a glass of water by a dehydrated Saint Bernard. It may be messy, but the dog will satisfy its thirst.

The identity can safely remain intact and the person can be reassured that they’re good, and that it’s good for them to be who they are, when they get any shred of supporting evidence for their core beliefs, even if it’s not examined too closely.

Or maybe especially if not examined too closely.

This is true even in isolation, but when group dynamics come into play this becomes something of a superpower, and leads us to a second source for understanding the dark arts…

Margaret Singer’s YouTube videos on cult indoctrination.

That’s not to say that the point of copywriting is to create cults. That’s pretty much impossible, given the limitations of the medium. We only have a potential customer’s attention for so long before they move on to something else.

Creating a cult requires long hours and often intellectual and social isolation of members from the outside world, something that copywriters don’t have the benefit of.

The value of understanding cults doesn’t come from forming one, but understanding how they work. Some of the ideas in those videos may be quackery for all I know, but what I consider to be the most important concept, the concept of “us vs. them,” certainly isn’t.

The behavior dynamics of in and out groups are always fascinating, and inevitably cause major cognitive distortions in pretty much everyone. If you think you’re immune from this, you are not.

By rejecting the outside world, cult members can get an internal sense of superiority and higher perceived status relative to the outside world, because they’re “smart enough” to be in on the “winning side.”

Leaving becomes very difficult for members because they must face both the internal rejection of themselves and rejection from the group that they believe to be “above” the outside world.

This belief is continually reinforced by the cult leader, with the goal of having the cult subsume the member’s identity in a sort of psychologically parasitic relationship.

This is very similar to ideological belief, as mentioned above, but with the added difficulty of being isolated socially and often only interacting with these people.

So if in and out group dynamics are a pretty consistent framework throughout human social structures, it makes sense that they can be used effectively in copywriting.

All of this is a rather long winded way of saying that although a person may find strength from their true beliefs in their personal life, those same beliefs are also one of a person’s greatest weaknesses because they’re predisposed to believe evidence that confirms them and disbelieve evidence that doesn’t.

When I said that the point of copy is to convince people of your “big claim” in the headline earlier, I wasn’t being entirely accurate. That’s only kind of true.

It’s more accurate to say that the point of copy is to create a mental environment where prospective customers can easily convince themselves that your offering will be useful enough to them to buy it.

The truth is, it’s incredibly hard to convince anyone of anything, especially regarding their core beliefs and ideologies. You certainly can’t do it in the space of one piece of copy, or if you can, that is magic far beyond my level.

But while it’s very hard to change someone’s mind, it’s not all that difficult to hijack it for a while.

If you understand what your prospective customer’s ideology is, and what he or she is predisposed to want to believe, you can make your sales job much easier on yourself by selling their own identity back to them.

In this way, it follows the “you” rule of thumb well, because doing this allows you to meet your prospective customer “closer to where they live,” in an abstract sense.

Forget changing minds. Just roll with what they already believe and write your copy to provide them with psychological validation for those beliefs.

With all the context out of the way, it’s time to show you the ad that made me $62,723.85 for writing over a period of two weeks.


The headline and beginning of the “lede.” Underlining added by me.

So, that’s the headline and the beginning of the lede for this piece of copy. What do you notice?

First of all, probably, there’s a whole lot of “you” and “your” in there. We’ve already gone over this, but when trying to sell someone an offering, it’s absolutely imperative to make it about them.

Second, the ad says there’s a lot of money at stake and makes a big claim about the potential profitability of getting in on the trade the publisher is recommending right now, potentially turning every $2 into $5,744.

For those of you with a finance background, the publisher trading recommendation was for out of the money call options, which are just about the only trading device capable of delivering that kind of return.

For those that don’t have that background, a call option allows you to buy shares at a specified price for a certain length of time. When they’re “out of the money,” meaning when the stock is trading in the market at a lower price than the options allow you to buy them at, the options can be very “cheap” in the sense that it doesn’t cost much to get a lot of leverage.

If the stock goes your way, this leverage can give you a massive gain for relative peanuts out of pocket. If it doesn’t… well, you lose all the money you put in when the options expire. You win some, you lose some!

Third, do you notice any interesting use of language in there as a signalling device aimed at the customer’s identity? How about the words “wealth transfer,” which evoke the famous talking point about socialism being a transfer of wealth?

This is literally what we were just talking about regarding ideology and identity. This is a common phrase used in certain communities, and as it has a special meaning to those communities, it can serve as an effective dog whistle for them and attract their attention quickly.


Part 2 of the lede.

What do you notice here? More “you.” I cannot overemphasize how important the word “you” is.

As a transwoman, my preferred pronouns are important to me, and when it comes to copywriting, my preferred pronoun is “you.”

You, you, you, you, YOU, YOU, YOU, YOU, YOU.

The word you is so important that even with all the yous I put in, when I submitted my first draft to the copy chief, he decided it still wasn’t enough, and this is the result!

Beyond you, there are a couple other interesting things going on with this page. The first is a sort of summoning a grandiosity to this “moneybomb” event, by pointing out that all of the nation’s major financial publications are talking about it.

It’s an appeal to authority regarding the significance of the event, and quickly leads into the statements that the sort of returns being proposed are kind of out there.

Overcoming a customer’s objections is an important part of copywriting. It’s counterintuitive, but rather than trying to sweep the objections under the rug, it’s useful to address what you believe they will be directly.

The copy does this here, first with the disclaimer pleading with any customers not to invest more than they can afford to lose in case the trade recommendation turns out to be a bad one, and then again by highlighting that the magnitude of the potential profits seems otherworldly.

Don’t forget the line about “about as likely as Donald Trump becoming President.”

A big talking point in conservative circles after the election is that the polls were inaccurate and that the elitists had gotten it all wrong, so this was a small nod towards that sentiment.

Two more parts of the lede coming, and then we’re going to skip ahead. I have to cut somewhere — this copy is an epic by industry standards at 13,500 words long — and copy is famously repetitive.


Lede part 3


Lede part 4.

There’s quite a bit to unpack here. I’m going to shut up about “you” and “your” and assume you understand the importance of those two words by now. They are almost literally magic.

The “surprisingly simple one click trade” is about ease of use. People don’t want to get involved in anything complicated. By reassuring them about the ease of entering it, you don’t scare them away as easily.

The Ronald Reagan stuff is obvious. He’s the patron saint of conservatism to a lot of people, so using him as imagery is helpful in establishing the nature of this big tax cut.

Same is true for the paragraph about Republicans controlling Washington. It was true at the time this was written (shortly after the 2016 elections), and most people know that Republicans love low taxes, so it helps to build credibility for the trade thesis.

The tax day stuff is interesting and there’s more going on there than meets the eye. At the time we wrote this, we believed Trump would pick somewhere around that time to unveil his big tax plan. He uses a lot of imagery in his politics, and nothing makes Americans think of taxes more than April 15.

In this case, it also helped with message narrative. Imagery is very important in copywriting, and quite frankly communication in general, because many people are visual thinkers and it can also condense meaning into fewer words. It’s just a useful thing to do.

Finally, the stuff about getting the trade done as quickly as possible BEFORE April 15th… this is standard scarcity and urgency messaging, which is used universally in marketing. The reason you do this is because once a customer leaves a session, it’s very hard to get them back.

Even if they meant to buy, people have so much stuff going on in their lives that it’s easy to forget that they wanted to find out what the Trump trade recommendation was.

Moving on from the lede now, which goes on for several more pages.


The big equation.

I have nothing really to highlight here, it’s just important contextually for what’s coming up as we dig into the trade idea. The equation comes up again and again as something to be solved to understand why the publisher is so confident about this out-of-the-money options trade, and gets potential customers into the mindset of being a sleuth and wanting to discover what each letter means.

Moving on to the good stuff. Something to note is that this copy, given its size, was written in a tag team effort by three separate copywriters.

I worked some on all of the parts up this point, but the stuff coming up in particular was “my baby,” and I’m both incredibly proud and ashamed of it.

Here comes a flurry, because this part is better to take in all at once.


Well… I told you ideology and identity were important, and this is the biggest section of the entire ad dealing with this point.

As you can see now, this copy was about the repeal of the repatriation tax, which the ad later argues will result in massive stock buybacks and special dividends that would send the market on a huge bull run.

That actually did happen, and although the returns weren’t as good as the ad predicted, my understanding is that they were still pretty decent.

Furthermore, the ad made a moral point about how foreigners were using our own money to take advantage of us by propping up their governments and the foreign elite in general.

I mean, you might argue this is aggressive nationalism at best and xenophobia or outright alt-right propaganda at worst, and… well, yeah.

That’s kind of the point. We knew going in that this publisher’s mailing list was full of conservative and libertarian old guys, which is pretty much the prime target for this sort of rah-rah Go America attitude.

But as you can see, it’s a great example of how you can inject ideology and identity into a customer’s purchase motive to make it much stronger. Not only does the potential customer stand to make a profit, which satisfies his primal greed, he now gets to punch a communist in the face as he does so.

This sort of validation is useful, and enhances the raw greed factor by tying his identity into it and giving that identity a sense of validation and of “doing good for the cause” by participating.

Now, you might ask, sure, but wouldn’t this copy backfire if you misjudged your audience?

And the answer to that is, of course. But in this case, it turns out that our team understood the audience pretty darn well.

This actually isn’t anything particularly new. It’s just not widely discussed. There’s an almost unknown book written by Richard Viguerie & David Franke on this topic, called America’s Right Turn.

The book has its own biases and political worldview, but if you can look beyond political beliefs of the authors (or happen to share them), it’s a fascinating perspective into how the conservative movement used copywriting and direct response marketing in general to become the force in American politics that it is today.

For anyone interested in the intersection of ideology, identity, and sales tactics, it’s a must read. It is a shame that it’s not more widely known.

You also wouldn’t necessarily want to tie ideology and identity into an advertising concept that wasn’t made for it.

If it’s not a natural fit, like Trump repealing (or as it ultimately turned out, just reducing) the repatriation tax, it can come off as clunky and forced. The subject matter here just happened to be a perfect fit.

I’m going to stop here, because the length of the ad means that if I keep going, you’ll be here all day. There are literally seventy-five pages of this stuff.

Before I go, though, I want to highlight just one more thing, which is an alternative measure of success for this advertisement.

There is a sort-of well known website out there that tracks ads published by the investment newsletter industry, and many copywriters like to take a look at it to see what the public reception has been to the ads they’ve written.

Follow this link, go to the comments section, and check out some of the posts there.

One that really struck out to me is that a few people were so excited about the advertisement that they created a secret Facebook group to split the cost of the subscription.

Normally, I’d say that’s an awful idea. If you can’t afford the cover price for an investment newsletter subscription, you maybe shouldn’t be putting money to work in the options market.

In that sense, there is a level of frustration involved in reading it.

But on the other hand, our team managed to get a group of people so excited to participate that they went out of their way to find means to afford the subscription.

As a marketer, that makes me very happy and provides me with a lot of validation for the tactics used in this ad.

I won’t lie. After this ad ran and I made the money, there was an almost insane euphoria associated with it. I had pretty much replaced my old annual salary in a matter of two weeks. I’d never felt so powerful in my life.

But for as much fun as this ad was to write, it also bathed me in a sort of magic that darkens your soul. Hence, “the dark arts.”

I had spent the summer before writing it hanging out on message boards, trolling people to see how they would respond to tones similar to the ones ultimately run in the advertisement.

It worked incredibly well, and in some places I became kind of notorious as the forum’s top troll.

But when you get enough at-bats doing that, and it works pretty consistently, you start to see that many people react with a pretty narrow range of behaviors, based on how you interact with them.

If behavior can be predicted, then it can be loosely controlled, more or less, often without a person even recognizing what’s happening.

It makes you come to terms with some uncomfortable truths about human behavior and how easy we are to manipulate. You can lose the magic of human interaction, and start to see people as puppets or play things.

It’s twisted, and after my burst of euphoria from getting the cash, it crashed me deeper into depression. Once you start to see these psychological tricks, you see them everywhere.

They’re all over the media. All over both traditional and direct response advertising. Political parties use them, as do religious institutions. You can’t get away from them.

I still listen when people approach me about writing more ads, because who wouldn’t? Some of the offers in this industry can be pretty salivating.

But realistically, I‘m not sure I’ll ever write copy for someone else again.

I end up feeling bad about myself a couple of months after the high wears off, so I’d rather just stick to writing ads for myself, for ideas that I personally believe in rather than whatever idea can work for a commercial publisher.

Fortunately, I’m also pretty good at the stock market for an uneducated person, so despite my lack of education, it’s not like I don’t have other skills I can use. It’s just difficult to get a formal job with any of them, though I am working on gaining employment as a barista to improve my socialization skills.

When you study the dark arts, the teachings don’t come free. I’ve never seen anything closer to magic in my life, but learning that magic definitely comes at a price. Caveat emptor.


P.S. If you want to talk about copy, you can reach me at lizhallbusiness at the Google e-mail service. I believe in the sharing of knowledge. If you want to learn this stuff, I will show you how to. It’s up to you what you want to do with it.