Writing copy usually involves two major things: figuring out what to say and then how to say it.

The second part is usually the easiest part of my work. Why? Because figuring out what to say is often a whole lot harder than how to say it.

Finding the right thing to say requires a lot of research, creativity, time, and, of course, “sales detective work,” as my friend and top copywriter John Carlton calls it.

But when I know what to write, when I figured out what I’m going to say, the question I’m often asked is, “Do you start with the headline, or do you work the headline last?”

Let me share with you a formula I use. First, when I write new copy, I tend to start with the copy itself, then create the headline and headers (some people call them “subheads”).

With existing copy however, it’s the other way around: I start with a better headline — after reading the copy and questionnaire replies from my clients — and then the rest.

Why? Because…

Sometimes (in fact, a lot of times), my client’s copy is already pretty good. The culprit behind a poor response, and this is true almost 9 times out of 10 in my estimation, is a poor headline. And it’s often the one element I test the most, too.

The headline is the pivotal element in copy upon which the success of your copy will hinge. If people are not interested enough in reading the copy further after reading the headline, they will leave without reading any more — regardless of how good the copy is, how great the product is, and how perfect the offer is for their situation.

So I tend to try to find a good hook for the headline.

After a little bit of detective work, usually by going through some of the answers my client gives me after filling out my preliminary questionnaire, this usually comes to me after tinkering with the headline a bit, sometimes writing several of them down.

(Or I rewrite it several times until I come up with the one I think will pull best. You’ve probably seen me do this on my critique videos at TheCopyDoctor.com as an example. In it, check out the brief 15-minute video sample where I reconstruct a headline.)

Headers are usually parts of the copy — either pulled from the copy where they make sense, create curiosity, and force the reader to stop scanning and start reading.

With new copy, I usually start with an outline, but I really don’t write the actual headers. I often start with the concept or idea I want to introduce in specific sections of the letter, but then write copy and use headers at that point, all based on the flow of ideas.

Here’s how I do it. Most of my salesletters focus on five core components. What I usually do when I write or rewrite copy is follow this format. Call it my “5-step guide,” if you will.

It’s sort of my own take on the AIDA formula — well, it actually complements it, as I still follow AIDA. I’m sure you’ve heard of the AIDA formula: you grab their Attention, arouse their Interest, build their Desire, and then ask for some kind of Action.

My formula is this: I call it going on a “QUEST.”

  1. Qualify
  2. Understand
  3. Educate
  4. Stimulate
  5. Transition

It’s like traversing a mountain, so to speak, when you start climbing the mountain on one side, reach the summit, and start climbing back down on the other side. And just like climbing a mountain, the incline is where much of the hard work is done.

Almost all my salesletters take on this quality.

Here’s what “QUEST” means:

Q = Qualify

You qualify the reader and prepare her for what’s about to be discussed. And it’s also where you weed out the non-prospects, tire-kickers, time-wasters, etc.

That’s why it’s good to ask questions at the beginning or to set the stage by giving a scenario they can immediately relate to, such as by talking about how terrible things are with “this” or “that” problem, or how nice it would be to solve “this” or “that” problem.

You also try to denominate who usually has this problem, who this solution is for, and/or who it is not for. You can do this outright, but I often incorporate this into a story.

The aim is not only to create awareness, but also to qualify the reader, and more importantly reinforce how qualified the reader truly is, in their mind, for the offer.

This is especially true where there’s a bit of an education involved — where the prospect doesn’t really know or is not fully aware there is a problem in the first place. The problem may be in the back of their minds, but my job is to bring it to the top.

In fact, this is why the next part is crucial and flows from the first.

Because, the next step is to…

U = Understand

After qualifying the reader, you express how much you understand her. You do this by reaching out to them, connecting with them, sympathizing and empathizing with them.

To this end, you expand on the problem. You agitate their pain. You not only get the reader to identify themselves with you, but also magnify the problem by making it more real and vivid in their minds. You “add salt on the wounds,” so to speak.

In other words, you share their pain or in their pain, and you tell them how much more painful it is either because there is no solution out there, or because other solutions, even competing or previous solutions, are not as good for whatever reasons.

It’s where you bring the problem to the top of their minds — and it’s why, once you’ve reached to the top “of the mountain,” it becomes an easy downhill trek afterwards.

You can also use this section to tickle their curiosity about a potential solution, and insert specific benefits other solutions don’t have but without fully disclosing “your” solution yet — i.e., a unique selling point, superior nice-to-have benefits, something new or different that will be linked with the offer later on, the story behind the product, etc.

In fact, if the creator of the product used to be in the same situation as the reader, I would include a story behind the product based on that fact. It’s also a great place to build credibility and give the reader reasons why they should keep reading.

Readers identify themselves with the author. You create a certain affinity with them. They get a sense that “you get them.” They might say to themselves, “Hey, I felt the same way!” Or, “I certainly don’t want to go through what she went through!”

When you introduce the solution later on, you can tie it to all of these. It’s like telling the reader: “Wouldn’t it be great, if…” And later, “Well, there is a solution that, which is…”

And that leads to the next step, which is to…

E = Educate

You educate the reader on the fact that there is a solution. Your solution.

This is where you introduce your product or service — but not the offer. You expand on the fact that a solution not only exists, but also is unlike and better than all the others. Usually it’s in the middle of the copy. It’s “the summit of the sales mountain,” if you will.

Also, it’s a great place to add a lead-capture form, if you didn’t use the forced opt-in or “squeeze page” process. That is, if people landed immediately on your salesletter, organically, without going through a landing page with an optin form first.

(Avoid this as much as you can. But if you must, we’ve tested various locations for putting an opt-in form on a salesletter, and this seems to be the highest pulling area.)

It’s a great place to build on and emphasize credibility introduced in the “U” portion of the formula. You should include a lot of proof here, and build on the believability factor.

This includes credentializing the author and why should one listen to her. It’s also a great location to talk about the features of your product or service, dispel any myths, and respond to any objections regarding the product or service.

It’s also the location where I add visual proof elements, demos, case studies, and testimonials. In fact, I tend not to add any testimonials until I’ve reached this section.

Why? Because they tend to scream “salesletter” and scare people off. In tests, pushing testimonials further down in the copy actually increased response in most cases.

(Of course, this depends at what stage of the buying process the market is in. If they are vigorously aware of their problem and they’re hurting already, testimonials a little early won’t hurt. In a few tests, it boosted response significantly.)

Once they’re educated, the next step is to…

S = Stimulate

You stimulate the reader on the offer. I guess you can also say that “S” stands for “sell,” too, as this is the location where the bulk of the selling really takes place.

This where the offer is made and the value buildup really starts. You list and expand on the benefits. (In “E,” I start to talk about features and describe the product. But in here, I talk benefits, benefits, benefits… And I link them to the features described in “E.”

It’s the place where the offer really starts taking shape. Also, it’s a great location to add value to the offer, such as offering premiums, making guarantees, and inserting value boosters, such as adding scarcity and making apples-to-oranges comparisons.

Comparing “apples to oranges” means to compare the price to the ultimate cost (financial or not) of not buying — rather than to the price of some alternative.

In other words, it’s comparing the value of your offer not with the value of a similar or competing product but with the value of all possible alternatives, including missing out on the potential benefits, pecuniary losses, ultimate costs of not using the product, etc.

Use this section to link the offer to the rest of the formula. That is, you restate some of the problems mentioned in “Q,” how the solution answers the greater problems talked about in “U,” and how it links to all to the features and benefits described in “E.”

After that, you then…

T = Transition

You transition the reader from prospect to customer. It’s the famous “let’s wrap this up” or “call to action” section. It’s the response device. The close, in other words.

This includes the order area or order form, and it’s where you talk about the price, the offer, the P.S.’s, additional testimonials (especially results-based testimonials). Above all, it’s where you make the reader feel as if they already own the product.

It’s a great place to summarize the offer, talk about the guarantee, and perhaps introduce new points not discussed to this point to spur action, such as adding an as-of-yet undisclosed benefit or bonus — also called “pot sweeteners.”

(I also tend to add a liftnote in this section, usually a Johnson box or a linked pop-up window, which says, “Click here if you decided not to order today,” and so on.)

Now, I don’t follow this formula precisely as I just explained.

QUEST is a guide, not a goal or a rule.

I usually start with QUEST as an outline first, and use it to create a skeleton salesletter. I then refer back to it later. Once the outline is made, I expand on each point and “go with the flow” of what I think is best for the offer throughout the salesletter.

I also write header (i.e., subhead) ideas in that outline, too. But first, I expand on the copy, and if needed, I re-arrange ideas around for better flow. And then, I write the headers as I see how they fit in the QUEST formula, all keeping the following in mind:

  1. The header introduces a new piece of information. It’s specific and descriptive. It has an element of intrigue or curiosity. Best of all, it has an inherent benefit — whether it’s of the offer or one in reading what follows. (Usually, it’s the latter.)
  2. It helps to introduce the following section. It should read as if the person never read the preceding copy. It somewhat explains it as to not confuse and push people away. (But it doesn’t explain it entirely, as the next point reveals.)
  3. More often than not, it also piques their curiosity in order to force them to stop scanning and go back to the beginning of the copy — as people usually scan and read the headers when they hit a salesletter for the first time.

The third one is the one I use the most.

My favorite is when the header introduces a portion of an idea — like a half-statement, sometimes followed by an ellipse — or some kind of “newsworthy” topic — think of a newspaper’s front-page headlines — that pulls them into the copy.

To continue my mountain-climbing analogy, headers are like “knots” or “hooks” in the rope, so to speak. Why? Because it forces people to stop — and ultimately pulls readers back into the copy (or keeps them reading and clinging throughout the copy).

Finally, don’t force yourself to follow the QUEST formula “to the letter.” Just as I do, use it as a guide to help you in creating the copy and ensuring it has a proper flow.

Just like there are different mountains of different shapes and sizes, there are different markets with different levels of awareness. Therefore, each climb should also be different. And the view is different at every vantage point along the way.

But keep this in mind. Climbing any mountain has three common things: the ascent, the summit, and the descent. You copy should flow in the same way: pull them in, prove your case, and push them to act. I call these the “3 P’s.” But, that’s for another day…

Michel Fortin

Chief Experience Officer at Workaholics4Hire.com, Inc.
A copywriter and consultant for close to 30 years, Michel was instrumental in selling millions worth of products and services. His most notable success is a salesletter that sold over a million dollars online on launch day. Today, Michel is a best-selling author, in-demand public speaker, and highly sought-after marketing consultant. Get his free report, "The 10 Commandments of Power Positioning," at Workaholics4Hire.com.

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