Review of John Carlton’s Simple Writing System

It was a hard choice for me to shell out the money for an online writing workshop. In the end, the sales page convinced me. So now I’d like to pass on a detailed review to anyone else struggling with the decision to enroll in the Simple Writing System.

High-level overview

Overall, I’m extremely happy with the course. For me, it was money well spent. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. (I’ll get into the disclaimers and nuances below.) So yes, I think taking the course with the coaches is an extremely worthwhile investment.

I’d be disappointed, however, if I paid the $800 to do it solo.

My background for reference

Here’s where I was when John Carlton began the Simple Writing System (SWS) launch in the summer of 2015:

  • I’d had writing-related jobs in the corporate world since I graduated with an English major/Marketing minor in 2009. Ever since that time I’d been a freelance writer as well. I did a mix of corporate communications and copywriting in a variety of industries.
  • I’d voraciously read copywriting books from the legends, and regularly read copywriting blogs. I entered John’s funnel through his blog, after all.
  • My day job was a campaign manager for a technology company where I regularly craft miniature sales pitches. I create the campaign ideas, create the materials, execute everything, then measure it and report on the results.

But I’d never worked in an agency or had any “formal” training.

John’s style resonated with me. He always woke me up. And even though I knew I was being sold during the SWS process, I couldn’t sleep without seeing what it had to offer.

So I was in.

The course setup | How it works

The course is set up in “classrooms” with different top-level copywriters as the “instructors.”

In my course, we had four classrooms, each with a different number of coaches.

The coaches in my course:

  • David Garfinkel
  • Harlan Kilstein
  • Mark Landstrom
  • Scott Haines
  • Lorrie Morgan-Ferrero
  • Jimmy “Jimbo” Curley
  • Colin Chung
  • Robert Gibson
  • Mike “Million Dollar Mike” Morgan

The class setup dictated that for each of the 17 lessons you would ….

  • watch the video lesson
  • post your exercise for that lesson
  • receive feedback from your coach
  • make necessary changes (and sometimes you’d go back and forth for a while; rarely you might get a go-ahead from the start)
  • only after sign-off from the coach could you go on to the next lesson

(For these lessons it’s most beneficial if you have your own business, product or something else of yours to create the sales letter for. That’s what you do throught the system: create a sales letter.)

John Carlton would jump around and give his input from time to time. Sometimes he’d ease tension between coaches and students. Sometimes he’d sing praises of certain coaches. But he wasn’t an instructor himself.

This is all for the coaching version of the course. For the materials-only version, then you’d get the lessons and work them on your own without feedback.

Each student was assigned a specific coach. Each classroom had two to four coaches. You could ask your coach anything you wanted related to the exercises. You could play along with the other coaches in your classroom. And you’re encouraged to roam around the other classes — but not to interrupt lessons or pester the other coaches so each instructor could focus on their students.

I’m guessing the pairing between coach and student happened based on a mixture of your input from a pre-course questionnaire about your goals, specific requests, and a random lottery.

Buying the course gave you access to the coaches for two months. You’d have access to the Marketing Rebel Club and the bonuses throughout the duration of the course plus a few weeks.

My experience and feedback about the course

I began the course extremely skeptical of the lofty promises — not to mention feeling extremely uneasy about spending so much money for an Internet course. So remember that as my starting point going in.

I was paired with Jim Curley. He was a perfect fit for me. Each coach had their own idiosyncrasies and strengths. Jimbo was especially strong in stories, and that really resonated with me. (I tell people I was an English major, but to be more specific I was a fiction creative writing major.)

The one-on-one coaching made the course worth every penny.

I went in thinking I knew a good deal about copywriting. Thinking I was pretty decent. (And Jimbo and Lorrie gave me early shout-outs in the class, which made me feel like I might one day be worthy to approach the table of the copywriting greats!)

But Jimbo tore me apart again and again. Nicely. Respectfully. Always backed by reasons and experience. But man, was it humbling. (And comforting to hear stories about all the other coaches getting the exact same treatment from mentors of their own — even after they’d made a name for themselves.)

I had a lot of bad habits I didn’t even know about. Sometimes I thought my bad habits were strengths! Jimbo found all of them. I also realized some of the strengths I did have. But here’s the thing:

I would have received none of that insight from the self-paced course. If you do the self-paced course, the idea is that you’ll get an overview of the usual mistakes based on the critiques given to the attendees in the seminar. But it only went so far. The real value was having a coach walk you through it.

I also LOVED lurking in the other classrooms.

It was interesting to seeing how someone else would respond to an exercise. I’d form my own opinions about their exercise, then see what the coach had to say.

And the insights the other coaches delivered — while you watched the learning process of the students — was a mini-class all in its own. I took away a ton of valuable nuggets from that process. I read every single post of every single coach and classmate. It was time well spent.

Seeing the other coaching styles was interesting. Some coaches spent a lot of time on each student’s post, including doing their own outside research to help bolster the feedback. They’d offer feedback couched in stories about their own lessons. They’d share proprietary materials from their own courses or books to give another angle to John’s lesson. They’d reference your previous lessons and make sure you’re being consistent, and would reveal bad patterns that created roadblocks to effective writing.

But not all the coaches.

Frankly, I’d have been utterly disappointed with certain coaches. Some didn’t seem to be involved in the least. No coaching whatsoever.

Here, for your, is my review of each coach from the summer class of 2015. (Remember, I read every post as I went along.)

  • David Garfinkel
    •  Amazing coach. Insightful, great feedback. Posts introductions to each lesson and weekly reviews about the class. Spends time on critiques giving deep answers, showing what does and doesn’t work. Tears down weaknesses, and rejoices in breakthroughs.
  • Harlan Kilstein
    • By far the least involved. It was interesting to see John sing his praises at the start of the class. I can’t help but wonder if he did it to set the stage because of how unhelpful he typically was. I’d have been furious if I were paired with Harlan. I’ve heard him dispense pearls of wisdom (in videos, blog posts, etc. outside the class), but his responses in the course were terse.
  • Mark Landstrom
    • Amazing coach. This guy is hilarious. He spends a lot of time with each post and offers tons of advice about writing in general. His personal stories and writing style constantly had me laughing. I learned a lot by reading his posts — and not just about writing! Also, Mark posted at all times of day and night. Several of his students remarked on it. He seemed to respond quicker than any of the other coaches (and all the responses were within 24 hours unless it was a weekend).
  • Scott Haines
    • Decent coach. He seemed like he’d have hot and cold spells, sometimes offering good advice, sometimes just giving a perfunctory response without any meat. He definitely knew what he was talking about. His coaching style just seemed to typically be more hands-off.
  • Lorrie Morgan-Ferrero
    • Great coach. She was the second (of two) teacher in my classroom. She offered four webinars in addition to the class to expound on topics, answer questions and interact with students. She was also extremely generous with proprietary material both from her course and the way she ran her copywriting business, Red Hot Copy. Seeing how her style differed from some of the other coaches was enlightening. Again, I gleaned this from reading her feedback and everyone else’s feedback. It wasn’t better or worse feedback — it was just a different perspective, and I really appreciated that.
  • Jimmy “Jimbo” Curley
    • Amazing coach. I’m biased here because JImbo was my instructor and he took great care of me. I particularly enjoyed how he’d always reference my previous exercises and show how the pieces were meant to build on one another. He kept me from rambling. He showed the “reason why” for each piece. He also had strong opinions about the story exercise and how to structure it. He had very specific recommendations, and he insisted on the story being much shorter than the other coaches did. At first I was surprised and frustrated (because I know stories, dammit!), but it was the best feedback I could have received. He helped me get through a lot of sticking points and bad habits I’d accumulated in the corporate world.
  • Colin Chung
    • Great coach. He seemed to keep a low profile. It sounded like he rose through the ranks from a student. His critiques were thoughtful and deliberate. I ended up saving a lot of his advice. I liked his style. He dispensed quotable nuggets about copywriting in a way that impressed me.
  • Robert Gibson
    • Amazing coach. Extremely detailed responses. His might be the most in-depth, caring comments of anyone. He incorporated outside research that he didn’t have to do. He tackled weaknesses head on and never shied away from a tough criticism, but he was abundantly positive.
  • Mike “Million Dollar Mike” Morgan
    • Great coach. I learned a ton from his classes. Great responses. Great style. He too had a lot of quotable nuggets.

Since I had a good coach, here’s my main critique about the course: completing all the lessons in two months.

Now I totally get the time restraint. You have to give people a deadline to actually do something. Not to mention the amazing copywriters who donate their time and expertise for pennies.

My critique stems from the fact that time is considered a complete nonissue. In the sales letter, it’s basically blown off because of how little time you need to invest and how much time is available. Throughout the course, quite a few students raised concerns over the time they had left to complete the course. Over and over, coaches assured students that there was plenty of time. Nothing to worry about. Quit fretting and focus on the process. It seemed like all the coaches knew something the students didn’t — like an extra month was hidden until the last week of the course, then suddenly revealed as everyone panicked.

Nope.

In fact, Stan Dahl sent the douchiest email I’ve ever read from someone I’d paid money to.

When talking about the course wrapping up, he said, “If you’re running behind, I’m sorry, but please don’t try to make that someone else’s problem.”

All along, people expressing concern. All along, worries discounted and disregarded.

Remember, you have to finish a lesson before moving on to the next — and sometimes you’d have 10 tries at an exercise before it getting signed off. And each lesson takes thought and effort — and waiting.

Besides that pissing me off, the course was wonderful. :)

Before I move on to the next point, I need to point out another critique. It’s a total nitpick, but I don’t want to leave it out.

Simple Writing System Ugly DesignThe design is horrible. It looks like a high school student used the text effects in Microsoft Word to create the logo. Sure, it’s the content that counts. But you pay $2,000 and receive hard copies of the materials — and it’s embarrassing. Anyone who doesn’t know copywriting and sees this would look at you like you got totally ripped off. At this price point, you expect good design.

Again, insignificant in the big scheme of things. But I was baffled at how easy it would be to fix this — especially since “thousands” of students have gone through the course.

One final criticism: glaringly absent from the course is a lesson on how everything ties together. Fortunately, Jimbo shared his advice about it. Robert Gibson also provided a detailed post on how to use everything.

The Marketing Rebel Club and SWS bonuses

During the course, you get full access to the Marketing Rebel membership site, lots of bonuses from video recorded with other “gurus,” and premium content from past Action Seminars, workshops and John Carlton swipes.

  • The Action Seminar videos were outstanding. I took away a lot of amazing to-dos from those videos.
  • The Kickass Copywriting Crash Course with John Carlton and Lorrie Morgan-Ferrero was also great. But incomplete. The content is dripped out, and during the course only six of the eight videos were released. Good material, just disappointing that it wasn’t all available.
  • The Marketing Rebel articles about various business and marketing topics were weak. The topic list is impressive,Marketing Rebel Insider's Club Topic Example but the actual content looks like it was quickly researched and then quickly summarized. However …
  • The copywriting crash course videos, hotseats, scuttlebut sessions and the swipe file from some of John’s ads are incredible. Lots of value there.
  • The “Facebook-style” comment feed where Marketing Rebel members, John Carlton, Stan Dahl and Virginia Drew jump in is great for getting a quick business question answered. SWS graduates get continued access to this (but none of the content), as well as a discounted ongoing membership.
  • The bonuses from past recorded sessions were hit or miss (mostly hits!), but everything had at least one nugget to take away. For me it was a great introduction to some great marketing advice that I hadn’t heard. Of all the bonuses, I think Rich Schefren’s video packed the most information into a small, hour-long segment. I walked away from that thinking much more strategically about marketing and had some new tactics ready to put to use.

Support

Virginia Drew seemed to be the point person for questions and acted as a moderator. She was fantastic. She always responded quickly (from minutes to less than a day) and was always over-the-top helpful. From posts not being accessible to getting certain types of content posted or even answering my dumb questions, she was always on the ball.

My results from the Simple Writing System 

Before I took the Simple Writing System, I had a lot of scattered knowledge from reading books from the copywriting legends (like Claude Hopkins, David Ogilvy, etc.) but I didn’t have a structured system to put it to use. Each fresh ad or copywriting gig was a new trip down the rabbit hole.

After learning the system, it gave me a structured way to approach the work. The results were clear in my day job WAY before I started using the sales letter I developed. I became the most in-demand campaign manager in the business, got a significant raise, and the first direct mail campaign I applied the lessons to was heralded as the most successful marketing campaign of the year.

The coaching brought it together for me. They slapped some of my bad habits out of me (habits I swore by until then!) and built up my strengths. I wouldn’t have seen it without the coaching — and I couldn’t have approached my campaigns the same without the system John teaches.

I made my money back in the same amount of time as the course took — and now I’m writing higher-converting copy, getting higher fees, and I’m generally more confident about the entire process.

It’s funny how much that confidence translates into. I write faster, speak more intelligently about why I included or stripped out certain elements of the copy, and can more effectively be “the adult in the room” as John mentions.

Summary

The course was fantastic, and a complete steal for the value you get with a good coach. However, the ~$800 for the course materials without coaching isn’t worth it in my opinion unless you have money to spend and no copywriting background. The good news is that if you buy the materials, then you can pay only the coaching fees the next time it’s offered.

Good parts

  • one-on-one attention from top copywriter
  • seeing others’ mistakes and coaching feedback
  • getting the cumulative effect of seeing feedback from many top copywriters (and sometimes they’d have totally different opinions)
  • lots of valuable information outside the SWS inside the Marketing Rebel Club

Bad parts

  • needs more time (and fewer douchey comments)
  • design
  • potential for lackluster coaching
  • no formal lesson about tying the 17 distinct pieces together into one sales message

Questions? Comments? Let me know!

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