Rethinking Ogilvy’s 10 tips to writing

PR pros and ad execs have long looked to David Ogilvy as a guide. His well-known approach to copywriting is considered imaginative and unorthodox. Here’s a spin on his 10 tips for writing.

Through the wonders of social media, we periodically dust off commentary long relegated to the archives.

So it was with David Ogilvy’s advice on writing that recently made the rounds on LinkedIn. Ogilvy penned these 10 tips for writing on Sept. 7, 1982, in a memo to his employees.

His point of view has relevance for nearly all business communicators. I also think they’re worthy of more permanence than a fleeting update in a social media feed.

With this in mind, I’ve captured Ogilvy’s 10 tips with springboards into today’s business climate.

1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.

The actual title of the book is “Writing that Works.” Although it’s not exactly clickbait, I wonder whether that’s why Ogilvy mentions the authors and not the title.

Though I didn’t read the book three times, I did scan it, uncovering useful passages such as:

“You’re not likely to get the results you seek if your writing is murky, long-winded, bogged down by jargon and topsy-turvy in its order of thought.”

And:

“To get action from busy people, your writing must cut to the heart of the matter. It must require a minimum of time and effort on the reader’s part.”

I also found shards of wisdom such as this one on the value of reading:

“Most people who write well read a lot. They read many kinds of good writing, past and current. Good fiction, good essays, good history, good journalism. Reading gets the shapes and rhythms of good writing into your head.”

Perhaps Ogilvy meant that anyone who writes for a living should become a student of writing.

It turns out that the authors of “Writing that Works”—Kenneth Roman, former chairman and CEO of Ogilvy, and Joel Raphaelson, former executive creative director of Ogilvy—were cronies of Ogilvy.

2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.

Absolutely. This is a particularly tough challenge for the tech industry, which feeds on a complexity drip. I hark back to my high school English teacher, Mr. Harper, who said, “Read aloud what you write. The ear doesn’t lie.”

(Editor’s note: That’s about ditching jargon, not getting sloppy, however.)

3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.

In short, such an approach makes for easy consumption. If you need to see the concept in action, check out novels by Ernest Hemingway or anything on Mashable’s Watercooler channel.

4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.

Turning to the dictionary or thesaurus when looking to liven up your vocabulary can often be a wise decision. Choose carefully, however, because selecting the most difficult word you come across or, worse, opting for a buzzword can cause confusion. Keep things simple and direct.

5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.

I’d like to amend this tip: “Never write more than two pages unless pandering to the SEO gods.”

Actually, I have a second amendment: “Never write more than one page for content likely to be consumed on a mobile device.”

Short words. Short sentences. Short paragraphs. No jargon.

6. Check your quotations.

Check.

An example, the famous Franklin D. Roosevelt quote: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” has been attributed to the likes of Socrates, Albert Einstein and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Be sure your quotations are coming from the correct sources. Google usually helps.

7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning—and then edit it.

As noted earlier, I’m a fan of “read it aloud.” Still, this one also needs refreshing to cover communications in today’s world.

Instead: “Never send a letter, memo, text or snapchat after consuming three glasses of a craft cocktail stored in a vat.”

8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.

This tip falls under the “quaint” category.

Email had yet to gain mass traction in 1982, so it’s understandable that Ogilvy felt the editing function should touch every important letter and memo.

Today, we simply hope the person has turned on the spell-check function.

9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.

This is great advice, especially for emails. Just taking 30 seconds to consider the ideal outcome for each email will lead to crisper writing.

10. If you want action, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

Amen, brother.

If you’re angry with someone or want to deliver critical feedback, it’s the same drill. Don’t write; talk to the person. If talking to face to face isn’t possible, pick up the phone.

Ogilvy believed that “people who think well, write well.” One could make an argument that this is even truer today.

When you learn how to write well, your thinking will come along for the ride.

Lou Hoffman is CEO of the Hoffman Agency, a global communications consultancy. He blogs about storytelling in business at Ishmael’s Corner, where a version of this article originally appeared.

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