• David de Souza

The 80/20 Guide to Copywriting -114 Core Principles

Updated: Jun 15

Don't fool yourself. Copywriting isn't just for advertising professionals. Writing effectively and persuasively is a multidisciplinary skill that impacts many areas of your life including your career, business, and relationships.

Copywriting is a skill that will stand the test of time. It has been used for over 5,000 years, since humans started writing on clay and it will continue to be useful until the day we stop writing.

There are thousands of books devoted to copywriting but you only need to read a few to learn the core principles. I've asked the best copywriters to recommend the most valuable books on the subject:

The Books:

  1. Scientific Advertising

  2. Baron Letters

  3. Ogilvy on Advertising

  4. Confessions of an Advertising Man

  5. Breakthrough Advertising - Part 1 - Persuasion

  6. Breakthrough Advertising - Part 2 - 7 Techniques of Breakthrough Advertising

  7. The Robert Collier Letter Book

  8. Persuasive Copywriting: Using Psychology to Influence, Engage and Sell

  9. Read Me

  10. How to Write Better Copy

  11. The Copy Book

  12. On Writing Well

I've studied these books and distilled the core principles from each. I've deleted any overlapping principles to produce the ultimate guide to the 80/20 of copywriting:

The 80/20 oF Copywriting:


1. Break free from reason and unblock your imagination to be creative.

2. Be a rebel with sufficient independence of mind to express your private opinion and not the party line.

3. Unless your campaign has a big idea, it will go unnoticed.

4. Big ideas come from your subconscious. Stuff your mind with knowledge and then walk/relax.

5. Finding the most effective promise is the best use of research. Show people a number of promises and say they are for different products. Ask them to rate for importance and uniqueness.

6. Your ad can not be all things to all people. It can't be a male brand and a female brand. The result will be a brand without personality.

7. Concentrate on creating a sharply defined personality, it will get the majority of sales at the highest margin.

8. 'The essence of drama is conflict' - if a brand story contains tension it will be more readable and memorable.

9. "Our job is not to make people think what a great ad, it's to make them think what a great product".

10. List words that suck you in and divide the list into 2: Positive words + Negative words eg. 'Crisis' instead of 'problem'. Read this list before writing.

11. Committees can criticize ads but don't allow them to write them.


1. The biggest mistake: Finding a product first. You must always find a market first.

2. When picking markets to test: Use 3 guidelines (RUF): Recency, Frequency, Unit of Sales

3. Pay attention to what isn't free and is staying on top of: Amazon/The New York Times Non-Fiction List.

4. Prevention does not sell. People will spend a lot to cure troubles but not to prevent it.

5. Don't attempt to sell obviously, it makes you look desperate and creates resistance.

6. Suggest. Don't sell.

7. Your add should not be cute or funny. People don't buy from clowns.

8. Forget about you and 'your proposition', 'your goods' and 'your interests'. What will the product do for the reader?

9. The most important sentence in the book: Ads that offer no benefit do not sell.

10. 'You aren't selling the product you are selling the experience of ownership'

11. These Magic Words for headlines are most effective in making people buy: How to/Truth/Life/Love/At last/Now/Advice/Fact's you should know about…

12. The more facts you provide the more you'll sell.

13. The most effective method is 'The 1,2,3,4': This [x] is probably not like anything you've ever tried because: 1/2/3/4 reasons.

14. Emotions cause buying vs information (that causes analysis). You want your reader to act.

15. People naturally postpone, get immediate action with (TID):

  • A time-limited offer

  • An incentive

  • Letting them know that a delay will cost them.

16. Will you do me a favor? Ask a prospect to try your product or give you their opinion.

Human Nature/Emotions

1. Curiosity is one of the strongest human incentives.

2. When improvements to a product have been made, naming the person that made the improvement will increase believability.

3. Platitudes such as "best in the world" make readers discount all other claims. Statements of fact are often believed and have their full weight and effect.

4. To be in high demand be hard-headed. Clients, won't admit it but they are relieved with someone who takes a hardstand.

5. Invoke the senses.

6. Tell clients about your weaknesses before they are noticed. It will make you more trustworthy and your strong points more believable.

7. Headlines that offer a benefit are remembered by 4x more people.

8. 35 times more people read the headline vs the copy

9. People read/view an ad in the following order (so put them in this order): (1) Illustration (2) Headline (3) Copy

10. Start with axioms that people can not question and then move on to more questionable ones.

11. Tell prospective clients about your imperfections. You become more believable and trustworthy.

12. "People don't change: only the direction of their desires do."

13. Don't build better mousetraps. Build larger mice (or the perception that they are big). Build a fear of mice in your customers.

14. "Your prospect must identify with your headline before he can buy from it. It must be his headline, his problem, his state of mind at that particular moment".

15. The job of the copywriter is not to create desire but to channel and direct it by taking hopes, dreams, fears, desires.

16. Use mental imagery through verbalization which can do 3 things (SIR):

  • Strengthen the claim by measuring it or making it more vivid.

  • Intrigue the reader and pull them in by promising information, a partial payoff/open loop.

  • Renew the claim by making it fresh again: highlight it from a different angle or use an example.

17. Sharpen desire by allowing the reader to see it, feel it, touch it, sit in it, imagine their friends talking about it.

18. Desires can be PMS: Physical (Strong), Material (car), sensual (thirst for a cold beer).

19. Make them feel like the prestigious group that owns the product.

20. Their beliefs may be shallow or profound, valid or false, logical or wishful thinking. It is not your job to argue with them.

21. The rule of Belief: "If you violate your prospect's established beliefs in the slightest degree nothing you promise him, no matter how appealing, can save your ad."

22. Build a bridge between what your reader currently believes and what you want them to believe. Build up using their kind of logic, not your own.

23. Using the word "and+most important" as a joining phrase which implies the sentence after is similar to the one before.

24. Use "experts have discovered" which continues the acceptance momentum.

25. Use common symptoms that allow for a stream of "yes" answers.

26. To strengthen believability use an inclusion question.

27. Build a picture in the buyer's eye of what she will get from your product.

28. Use "bricks she can handle". Words and mental images that are common and familiar.

29. Find the main thing that your prospect is interested in.

30. Find the primal motive that your product appeals to and direct your copy there "Appeal to emotion and follow up with a swift shift to intellect".

31. Alternate between persuasion and fear for optimal results in getting people to pay.

32. Both flattery (and greed) are one of the most powerful motivators. Use them at the start of your copy.

33. Reveal a secret (or a lie) in headlines.

34. Find your reader's pain point and you've found your way into their emotions.

35. We make a snap emotional decision to buy a product. We then look for information to rationalize our decisions.

36. Use surprise. One way to do this is to start a couple of sentences into your argument. This will create a jolt that will grab the reader's attention.

37. Use language that encourages readers to join the tribe by aligning themselves.

38. Use different tenses for different effects:

  • 1st person (I/we/us/our) = warmth / subjective opinions

  • 3rd person (s/he, it, they, its, their) = formal / objective points

  • 3rd person creates distance from the writer and reader

39. Appeal to the reader's self-interest.

40. Use empathy to overcome resistance, build rapport and make your copy more engaging.

41. Use juxtaposition. The reader must use their intelligence to reconcile and gets a 'smile in the mind'.

42. The most powerful short word is 'you'.

43. Use your life to bring your copy to alive. If something has moved you, chances are that it will move someone else.

44. The basic motivations of people never change. Use them for great advertising. Human history boils down to the influence of (SIGH HL) Love, hate, sex, greed, hunger, insecurity.

45. The reader's imagination is important - Spell it out and you ruin the spell.

46. Raw statistics are better than opinions e.g 68 MPG is better than "outstandingly economical"

47. Find a concept that connects with people. For example: A childhood game

48. What made your experience different from everyone else's? The reader doesn't want to hear that the grand canyon was amazing They want to hear if someone fell off the Grand Canyon or something out of the ordinary.

49. At the beginning, grab the reader using a provocative idea.

50. Readers can only process one idea at a time, in a linear passage. Therefore, each sentence should contain one thought.

51. Qualifiers dilute your style, persuasiveness and trust. Remove qualifiers related to: Your thinking/feelings/what you saw.


1. Avoid fine writing (and talking), it takes away from the product and makes it appear like you are selling.

2. Take a train or a plane. Movement will help you write better.

3. Write every headline 100 possible ways, don't stop too soon.

4. Express yourself briefly, clearly and concisely.

5. Consider only new customers, don't write for existing ones.

6. AIDA - Attention, Interest, Desire, Action

7. Ask questions and answer them yourself in your writing

8. Transition words help your writing flow "And, of course, ...."

9. Use the following features in headlines: Promises/ News/ Long/ Specifics/ information/ flag/ quotes (FLIPS QN)

10. Use Captions under photos.

11. The only job of your headline is to stop your customer and to compel her to read the second line.

12. Your st/age in the market determines your headline.

13. After centuries of use and conditioning, these words, regardless of their truth carry weight and should be woven in the writing:

  • It's as simple as

  • Here's why...

  • And, most important of all is the fact that

  • Therefore...

  • There is a basic underlying reason for this

  • They discovered in case after case that....

  • This has been proven in thousands of studies

14. Make a promise that is: (1) Commanding (2) Specific (3) Desirable e.g.Earn your annual salary by working 4 hours a week.

15. If your product stimulates the senses, then describe how.

16. The dos/don'ts of adjectives and adverbs (TIES):

  • Don't TELL how great something is, let the reader decide.

  • INFORMATION, not emphasis

  • EVOKE the emotional response you are looking for. Do not describe your emotions. Readers do not care how the writer is feeling.

  • SHOWING. Don't say it was night: show the reader it was night by saying "the moon reflected in the lake"

17. The best headline would be one written about literally me! The more you can make the ad personally relevant the better.

18. If you can't find a story turn a description into an intriguing tale.

19. Use Repetition, Alliteration, Rythme (ARR)

20. Be abruptive: For example: New/Announcing/Now

21. Use short sentences and paragraphs.

22. Keep the momentum going by asking a question at the end of a paragraph.

23. Include the problem the reader has within the headline.

24. Write headlines that make you think: "Bloody Hell, that's interesting, tell me more.

25. The first paragraph must segway from the headline into the sales pitch.

26. Make sure that "you" appears 3 times more than "I" or "we".

27. Your best writing will often relate less to the subject than with its significance. It's not about what you did in a situation but how that situation affected you and shaped who you became.

28. "Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought". Decide on the one point you are trying to make.

29. Don't say something was fascinating. Describe how it was fascinating.

30. The last word of a sentence stays in the reader's ear and gives the sentence punch.

31. Reduce an abstract principle into an image that can be visualized.

32. Verbs are the most important tool of a writer. They provide momentum.

33. Use active verbs. "Joe saw him" is better than "He was seen by Joe".

34. Use precise verbs. The president "resign/retire/fired" vs "stepped down".

35. Strong verbs are weakened by unnecessary adverbs

36. Sentences with concept nouns don't contain people and are strange as the reader can't visualize anybody.

37. At the end, use a quote or bring the story full circle.

The 80/20 of Worldly Wisdom: