craft, Writing improvement

Think the “Experts” are Perfect? Think Again

While reading and studying some famous direct mail samples, I found some things that stood out to me as errors. I admit, I might be picking nits here. Yet I think it’s important, and I’ll leave the explanation of why to another post.

For now, I’ll point out a few errors that I noticed, and give a little insight to why they stuck out to me.

These materials are all part of AWAI’s Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting. Included within the program is the AWAI Hall of Fame: 50* best-performing sales letters (and space ads) from the past half-century. Winning promotions for The Wall Street Journal, American Express, The Nature Conservancy, and more are collected here for study and edification. I am grateful for the chance to learn from the best, and see how my skill matches up. And yet, even within this list of “best of the best”, I still found errors. Hopefully at the end of this post you’ll see what I see.

First up: Wall Street Underground.


Wall Street Underground

This was a promotional letter for Nick Guarino’s newsletter Wall Street Underground. I’ll point out 2 errors here:

#1)         The commentary from AWAI starts like this:

This is one of their best offerings. You’d be hard-pressed to find another pitch like it. Especially worth noting — the writer locks his sites on a “Common Enemy” message.

Did you see it? It’s in the last sentence. “the writer locks his sites” [emphasis added]

This throws me off a little as I’m reading. Wait a minute, I think. You can’t lock “sites”. Shouldn’t it be “locks his sights”? Locking “sights” is something hunters would do, to ensure that they are fixed on their target. You can’t lock a “site”, because that is a location. It’s meaningless in the context of aiming at a “Common Enemy”. So when I read that, I’m tossed out of the flow just a bit, and it takes a moment for me to get back into it.

#2)         About halfway through, I find this sentence:

If the truth about skyrocketing inflation were to appear on the front page of the Barron’s or Wall Street Journal, it could trigger another crash – all by itself!

Now, maybe this is just a little bit of esoteric knowledge, and maybe it’s not. But the publications mentioned there are Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal. Check their websites if you don’t believe me. You’ll see that Barron’s is not modified with “the”, and The Wall Street Journal clearly has “The” as the start of its name. What’s wrong is a misuse of little “the”, yet it caused two twitches in my mind as I’m reading. Instead, it should have been written like this:

If the truth about skyrocketing inflation were to appear on the front page of Barron’s or The Wall Street Journal, it could trigger another crash – all by itself!

There are more, but I’d like to move on.


The Oxford Club

This letter invites potential members to join an exclusive investment advice club called “The Supper Club.” Again, I’ll point out 2 errors:

#1)         One statement about a stock of a gold mining company reads like this:

Consider these facts … It’s selling more than three times cheaper than Placer Dome ($90 per ounce to Placer’s $290 per ounce).

The problem here is that to say something is “three times cheaper” means there must be two comparisons – one that demonstrates the “cheaper”, and another to be “three times cheaper” than that first comparison. So, suppose that Masterworks is selling at $230 per ounce. This would be “$60 cheaper than Placer Dome”. Now, once that is established, the target can be described as “a $200 discount, more than 3 times cheaper than the Masterworks discount!”

To be a more clear, more effective statement, it should probably have been written like this:

Consider these facts … It’s now selling at less than a third of the price of Placer Dome ($90 per ounce to Placer’s $290 per ounce).

You just can’t have a multiplier on “cheaper” without having multiple comparisons, one to be the baseline and another to be the reference. With only one comparison, it needs to be something like “a third of the price” or “a 60% discount”.

#2)         A headline reads as follows:

A Full Compliment of Wealth-Building Benefits

And right away, Microsoft Word is on the task! It’s underlined “Compliment” for me. It must have noticed the same thing I did, that the spelling with an “i” means a nice thing to say about another. The word necessary here is “Complement”, with an “e”, meaning an element which “completes”, or adds on to, a primary element. So if you’re looking to describe these benefits as completing a wealth-building arsenal, so to speak, you’d want this headline:

A Full Complement of Wealth-Building Benefits

Again, you may find this nit-picky. Sure, it is. But it’s also important. A fuller explanation is forthcoming.



These are just a few examples of how even the best may make mistakes at times. Yet, despite some small errors, these were included in the Hall of Fame. Perhaps everything else was overwhelming enough to counteract these little deficiencies, or perhaps they really are small enough that they didn’t make a difference.

For me, I’ll strive to eliminate any such errors in anything I write, and I hope that this post demonstrates not just what, but how as well.


* P.S.: I can pick nits with modern businesses, too. Though the Hall of Fame says it includes 50 direct mail classics, there are only 49 samples included. Worth is #8, while Rogue Trader is #10. What happened to #9?

3 thoughts on “Think the “Experts” are Perfect? Think Again”

    1. I am Stephan. If you find I’ve done something wrong, feel free to advise. Otherwise, if you’ll check out my ABOUT page you’ll see my qualifications.


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