Sales Letter Copywriting

Write On The Money:
The Ten Commandments (Plus Five) of
Highly Profitable Sales Letter Writing

by Ernest W. Nicastro

According to the Direct Marketing Association, in 2001 U.S. direct mail marketing efforts produced a total of $583 billion in sales. Over the last several years direct mail marketing has been one of the hottest and most profitable advertising mediums going. And its future continues to look bright.

Several key factors are critical to your direct mail marketing success. One of the most important is the letter. In many cases, particularly with small to mid-size organizations, the sales letter may be the entire marketing package. But given the right list and the right offer, a skillfully-crafted sales letter can be all you need to turn a substantial profit — or, pull in a large number of high-quality leads. With that fact in mind I offer you: Nicastro’s Ten Commandments (Plus Five) of Highly Profitable Sales Letter Writing.

I. Thou Shalt Always Focus On The Wants, Needs, Hopes, Dreams And Desires of the People To Whom You Are Writing. Always write with an outward, “you” focus. Put — and keep — yourself in the prospect’s shoes when writing your letter. And remember, when your prospect looks at your letter his or her mind is tuned in to only one station — WIIFM. What’s in it for ME! So make sure your letters plays the same refrain over and over again — you, you, you.

II. Thou Shalt Always Write To Someone Specific. An aunt, uncle, brother, sister, cousin, friend — anyone. As long as it’s a living, breathing person. This mind-set will make your writing more personable, friendly, genuine; important traits that every salesperson must have. In person and on paper. As you write, keep in mind the words of the great copywriter Malcolm Decker, “The Letter itself is the pen-and-ink embodiment of the salesperson who is speaking personally and directly to the prospect on a one-to-one basis.”

III. Thou Shalt Never Forget That Benefits Are The Reason Why People Buy. What your product or service does is a feature. What it does for me — Mr. or Ms. Prospect — is a benefit. Give your readers benefits, benefits, benefits! As my good friend and top-flight wordsmith Barry Freed likes to say, “Keep piling on the benefits till they can’t stand it anymore. They have to get out the checkbook. They have to pick up the phone. They have to get in their car and drive to your place of business.”

IV. Thou Shalt Grab The Attention Of Your Reader With Your Very First Line. 1-2-3-4. You have exactly that long — 4 seconds — to grab the attention of your reader so your opening line better be good. Because it’s the most important line in your entire letter. The objective of your first sentence is to get your prospect to read the second sentence. The second sentence must get him or her to read the third. And so on. Every word, every sentence of your letter is important– and must advance the sale.

V. Thou Shalt Provide The Reader With Relevant And Specific Information. You’ve got great service? What is it — specifically — that makes your service so great? And why should I care? You make a “total quality” product? What specifically do you mean by “total quality?” Do you mean the dang thing never breaks down and you have third party maintenance records to prove it? Then tell me. That’s relevant. That’s specific and verifiable. That’s a benefit! And that’s why I buy.

World-class motivational speaker Zig Ziglar likes to ask his audience: “What would you rather be, a wandering generality or a meaningful specific.” Fill your letter with meaningful specifics and you’re more apt fill your coffers with cash.

VI. Thou Shalt Write To Sell Because That’s All That Matters. Write in a conversational, working person’s, sitting-down-talking-to-someone-you-know-face-to-face style. Forget about always writing in complete sentences. You don’t always talk in complete sentences do you?

And it’s OK to start sentences with “and” or “but”. Remember, you’re trying to generate a lead or advance or close a sale, not impress your high school English teacher. Not a one of your prospects is getting paid to read your letter.

VII. Thou Shalt Stop And Ask The Following Question Several Times While Writing Your Sales Letter. “If someone were sitting in front of me . . . trying to sell me what I’m trying to sell them . . . and speaking the words I’m writing . . . would I be reaching for my checkbook or the phone?”

VIII. Thou Shalt Use Active, Action-Oriented Language. Don’t write, “When we receive your check your order will be shipped right away.” Instead write, “When your check comes in we’ll ship your order that very same day.” Active, action-oriented language is more motivating, involving and persuasive.

IX. Thou Shalt Write As Much Copy As It Takes To Get The Job Done. There is no such thing as copy that is too long. There is only copy that is too boring, too uninteresting, too uninvolving, too me-me-me-we-we-we-product-product-product-oriented. Interested people will read everything that’s interesting about an interesting offer.

In Denny Hatch’s great book, Million Dollar Mailings, the average letter length for consumer mailings was 3.3 pages. For business mailings, 2.1 pages. And there have been many highly successful sales letters that were 8 pages and longer.

X. Thou Shalt Give Your Letter Visual Variety and Appeal. Break up long blocks of copy. Five lines are usually the maximum for any one paragraph. When you speak you create variety through volume, tone, inflection and gestures. When you write you do this by underlining, italicizing, CAPITALIZING and making bold. This will give your letter a livelier, more inviting look, making it more likely to be read. Be careful though not to overuse emphasis devices. Because when you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing.

XI. Thou Shalt Never End Any Page Except The Last Page In A Complete Sentence. The human mind seeks completion. If a page ends in mid-sentence the natural tendency is to go to the next page to complete the sentence. And the more interesting, dramatic or intriguing you make your copy leading up to that point the better the odds are that your reader will keep reading.

Newspapers do this all the time. You’re reading along on page one, “The officer then pulled out his gun and” (continued on page 27). At that point you turn through 26 pages of ads, which, not surprisingly, is exactly what the newspaper wants you to do.

XII. Thou Shalt Use A Comma In Your Salutation, Indent Your Paragraphs And Avoid Like The Plague Long Drawn Out Sentences. You should strive to give your letter a personal look and “feel.” And when you were a little boy or girl writing home from summer camp you always used a comma and indented your paragraphs didn’t you? So do the same with your sales letter. Plus, indenting your paragraphs will make your letter easier and more inviting to read.

Never, never, never justify or “block” your text! It’s boring and hard to read. And avoid long, drawn out sentences. Remember, you want your letter to be easy to read. Long, drawn out sentences, in addition to being hard to read, can be confusing — a real “deal-killer” in any sales situation.

XIII. Thou Shalt Not Be Cute Or Clever. When was the last time you closed a sale by being cute or clever? Here’s a suggestion: When you’re finished with your letter show it to a friend or colleague. If their reaction is, “Boy, this is really clever. You know, you’re a good writer.” tear it up and throw it away. But if their reaction is, “Boy, this sounds like a really great product. How can I get one?” then, you’re on the right track.

XIV. Thou Shalt Tell The Reader Exactly What You Want Him or Her To Do. Don’t assume anything. As salespeople we all know the consequences of doing that. If what you want is for the prospect to pick up the phone and call then say so, energetically and enthusiastically. Here’s an example: “So why don’t you pick up the phone right now and give me a call at 800-555-1212? Go ahead and do it now while you still have this letter in your hands.”

XV. Thou Shalt Always Include A P.S. Extensive research shows that the P.S. is one of the first things people look at. Restating a key benefit or guarantee here can pull your reader into the body copy of your letter.

The great copywriter Herschell Gordon Lewis tells the story in one of his books about a test mailing of fund-raising letters by St. Jude hospital. The letters were identical except for the fact that one included a P.S. and the other did not. The letter with a P.S. pulled a 19% greater response. The moral of the story? It pays to use a P.S.

These are but a few of the many commandments followed by all top-flight copywriters. Your consistent adherence to the fifteen listed in this article can substantially increase the profitability of your direct mail marketing efforts.

Copyright 2003 by Ernest W. Nicastro

Ernest Nicastro is a Principal with Positive Response, a direct response copywriting, advertising, public relations and marketing consulting company. Positive Response specializes in response-producing copy and strategy for sales letters, ads, brochures, web-sites, press releases and lead-generation programs. For more information on Ernest Nicastro or Positive Response call 614-747-2256,e-mail [email protected] or visit

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