In the episode of the Hot Copy podcast, Belinda and Kate discuss copywriting swipe files. Belinda uses them quite a lot but Kate doesn’t use them at all. Dun dun duuuuuuun. Will drama ensue?!

Tune in to learn:

  • What a copywriting swipe file actually is
  • How to use a swipe files
  • How agency copywriters get inspired


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Show notes

Read the transcript

Belinda: Welcome to the Hot Copy Podcast with your hosts Belinda Weaver and Kate Toon. In each 20 minute episode we’ll be sharing the secrets of successful copywriters including copywriting tips, shortcuts, writing resources, interviews and laughs, all focused on helping you to become a better copywriter. I’m Belinda Weaver and this is my co-host Kate Toon.

Kate: Hola!

Belinda: Today we’re going to be talking about swipe files, do they lead to lazy copywriting or are they the tool that smart copywriters use? Now, I actually use copywriting swipe files quite a lot and I was a little bit surprised to hear that you don’t use them Kate?

Kate: Look, I’m going to be perfectly honest and say before you suggested this topic for the podcast I didn’t really know what they were. I’ve Googled it now and I know what they are now but no, I don’t use them.

Belinda: So I thought I should start by briefly explaining what swipe files are for anyone listening who’s not familiar with them and a swipe file is essentially a collection of copywriting ideas or wording or examples that you can refer to or swipe when you need inspiration. So you commonly see swipe files for things like headlines, sales letters, advertising, but they could also be a collection of really great calls to action, great subject lines for emails, you know, stuff like that.

I use swipe files to help get me started on things like writing headlines because they give me a bit of structure to work from and they help kind of give me a little poke in the inspiration stakes, and I kind of like seeing some clever spins on old ideas. So I actually use swipe files for things like headlines a lot and I’ve included a lot of swipe files in my copywriting masterclass just to kind of help students, new copywriters, shortcut their writing process.

Kate: Yes, I mean, it’s interesting. I think a lot of my copywriting methodologies come from my time working in big ad agencies and none of the agencies I was in had swipe files or anything like that. But that said I do use a lot of templates which I think could be similar. I have a copy deck template, email templates, all that kind of stuff – which is all available on the Clever Copywriting School website by the way, just a little plug there – but I don’t template stuff like this.

I have structures laid out of how I might structure a page, but I definitely don’t have files full of, like, potential headlines or calls to actions. I’m just not sure it would work for me and I don’t know, maybe I’m misunderstanding a bit, it feels a little bit cheaty. Like, you know, you’ve got this big file full of headlines and you’re going to cut and paste it for Client A and change a word and cut and paste it for Client B and change a different word. But maybe am I not understanding them, am I being stupid?

Belinda: No, not at all. I mean, the point you make is valid but I don’t think having a whole lot of ideas ready to roll out is actually a bad thing because old copywriting techniques still work today because while technology is changing all around us, people aren’t changing, we’re still motivated by the same basic emotions. So I don’t think we have to reinvent the wheel every time we approach a headline or a sales letter or an email, things like that.

But the key to using swipe files isn’t just to cut and paste and you repeat something verbatim or fill in the blanks with really bland language, it’s actually how you adapt the letter or the headline for your audience that’s really critical. So really what you’re starting with is a formula or structure and it’s what you do with it that can make it exceptional. If you do it really badly you are just a lazy copycat copywriter.

So just to explore that a bit further, when I’m writing an ad I flick though my ad pack of brilliant advertising. And maybe sometimes I don’t get a structure, but I just get a little seed of an idea that I can then explore or when I’m writing a headline I brainstorm a whole range of formulas from the file. But it’s what I fill in the blanks with, how I customise it for my audience; they’re the skills that I call on as a copywriter. So it can still be really hard to create something awesome, but you have a foundation that you can work from.

Kate: Well I think that’s really interesting and I think what that highlights is the difference in the way that we became copywriters because, if I’m not mistaken, you actually did a copywriting course and then became a copywriter, is that right?

Belinda: Yes, that’s right.

Kate: Yes and it’s an admission I will make that I’ve actually never been classically trained as a copywriter. I’ve never done an evening class or a workshop or a correspondence course. And I’ll be even more honest and admit I’ve never ever read a “how to write copywriting” book. I know that lots of people swear by Bob Bly, you’re a fan of Bob I believe Belinda?

Belinda: Yes, yes, absolutely. He has “The Copywriter’s Handbook” I think it is, that’s the one I’ve got on my shelf and that’s something that I flick through quite regularly. And I’m certainly not implying that you’re not always sharpening your copywriting skills because I know you are, but I find things like flicking through a copywriting book, flicking through my old copywriting notes, flicking through my swipe files just helps to remind me of some of those classic techniques that have worked for decades.

Kate: Yes and I think, again, as I’ve said, a lot of my training comes from agency time and, again, I was never handed any kind of copywriting book or “how to” guide, so I don’t know. I think when I’m writing copy I often refer back to previous copy decks that I’ve written which are, to some degree, swipe files in a way. As I said, I have a lot of templates. I think my training for copywriting and my constant education is reading an awful lot.

So if I’m about to start writing a website for a dentist I’ll probably look at 20 or 30 other dentists’ websites before I start the job and I mentally create a swipe file. I may not have anything that I write down, but mentally I’m collating ideas, things I like, things that don’t work. So maybe my brain is one giant swipe file.

Belinda: [laughs] I mean, it’s an approach that works for you I guess. It’s a reflection on the fact that my brain doesn’t have the capacity, not now that I have a toddler as well. [Kate laughs] No, but I feel that I can’t tax my brain to remember all the different ways that you can write a great call to action or all the different formulas for headlines. And I find that when I don’t refer to my swipe file for headlines, for example because that’s probably the one I use most often, I end up writing the same headlines over and over again.

Kate: Yes. And I think this also could be a big time saver because where I’m spending a lot of time staring out the window trying to remember stuff that I like or that I think works or formulas that I know are going to really be great for this particular project, and if it was all in a document maybe it would save me some bleedin’ time. [Belinda laughs] So yes, I think we all find different ways to be inspired.

Belinda: Yes. As I said, I still have to put in the time to fit the letter or the call to action or the email subject line or the headline, I still have to make it fit for the audience that I’m writing for. I still have to spend time understanding their pain points and their dreams and their frustrations and all those kind of things and build a connection between the business and the customers. But I just get these little nuggets of inspiration that I don’t have to carry around in my head.

Kate: Yes.

Belinda: So that’s why I like them. So Kate, you mentioned your methodologies come from your in agencies, how did people get inspired in agency land? Was it just left to each copywriter to just come up with the goods?

Kate: Well, I think the joy of agencies is the indulgence, for want of a better word, that is given to creatives. They really are given time to come up with ideas and we used that time to do a lot of brainstorming and often we were paired with a designer, so that was really helpful. So there was a copywriter/designer partnership and often copy would inspire design or design would inspire copy.

But we also had creative directors who obviously have huge experience and had worked on lots of campaigns. Not all of them were particularly pleasant characters [Belinda laughs] but they were often very inspirational and so we would often have to go and present ideas and they’d kind of say, “Hey, that doesn’t work, maybe try this way of doing it, this formula” or “That’s been done to death, that’s clichéd, try this”. And our copy also went through producers and project managers, account managers and clients, so we had a lot of feedback and a lot of ideas would come out of that.

But the main thing really, the main way that we got inspired was we had a lot of time. You know, often you’d have an entire day to come up with one line of copy for an ad if it was a big campaign.

Belinda: Wow.

Kate: Yes, or more. I’ve often been given three days to come up with some concepts for some banner ads. Now you wouldn’t just sit there for three days solidly doing that, you might do a few other things, but when you’re a creative in an agency you can happily go downstairs and play ping-pong and call that creative brainstorming time because you’re kind of chewing over the idea in your head. There’s a lot of sitting on beanbags and a lot of time in the bar and…

Belinda: That really surprises me I have to admit, because I’ve never worked in an agency and I just had this vision of it like, “We need awesome copy and we need it by 3pm. Go!”

Kate: Well that does happen, believe me that definitely does happen and it’s amazing what you can pull out of your bum hole at the eighth hour. [Belinda laughs] And often the truth is you’d have these three days to think of ideas, but really you wouldn’t put pen to paper until the last hour when the pressure really struck. But in that time maybe you’d have read some magazines, you’d have watched some stuff online, you’d have chatted to some people, flicked through some old campaign books.

But really it was time and I think the truth is when you’re a working for yourself copywriter you can’t afford that time. You can’t afford to spend eight hours coming up with one line of copy, unless you’re very, very well paid.

Belinda: Yes, that’s a good point.

Kate: So your swipe files not only sound like a good source of inspiration, but a time saver. Yes.

Belinda: And when you’re working on your own you don’t have that workshopping, brainstorming, because that sounds fantastic, of talking to people and shooting ideas back and forth, when it’s just you in your office. And I’m sure you have this now, because I know I have it, you’re sort of like I’ve got to come up with something amazing and it’s me and my dog [laughs] and the wall.

Kate: Yes.

Belinda: So that’s I think where I find the swipe files can be useful, because it’s essentially flicking through old campaigns but with really specific focus.

Kate: Yes.

Belinda: So the question we’ve realised here is are swipe files lazy copywriting or are they a smart tool to use? So I’m going to throw it back to you Kate after this discussion, you started it kind of not knowing what swipe files were. How do you feel about them now?

Kate: Yes, I think they sound great and I might start using them, and maybe you could give me yours for free?

Belinda: [laughs] Yes, expensive.

Kate: As a good starting point, because the thought of having to sit down now and compile some kind of feels a bit exhausting. But yes, I think it would be a lot less taxing to have that kind of little pot full of inspiration ready to dip into. But another thing just to finish off – and you’ll find the links to these on our website at – there are a lot of great tools online that I also use for inspiration for headlines and things like that.

So we’ll put some links for those on the website as well as potentially a swipe file. What do you think Belinda, do you think we can pull one together?

Belinda: Oh yes, I think that’s a fantastic idea. You’re right, there are a lot of really great tools you can use online, the swipe files don’t have to be a document that you refer to but yes, we should put something together. So watch this space.

Kate: Excellent. But yes, in answer to your question, you’ve sold me on swipe files. [Belinda laughs] Okay, you’ve won. You won this round, ding, ding.

Belinda: Yay! [both laugh] Well, that’s it from us. Thanks for listening. If you liked the show don’t forget to leave us a rating and review on iTunes and Stitcher – your review will help other copywriters find us. You can also head to and leave your comments on the blog post for this episode. Until next time, happy writing!


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