Advice on writing from the original “Mad Man”

The best writing is clear and concise. Easily said, but difficult to do – which is why it’s popular to say “If I had more time I’d have written a shorter letter”. Practice helps, but only if you concentrate on writing high quality prose.

David Ogilvy, founder of Ogilvy and Mather had this to say on the subject in an internal memo sent to all Ogilvy staff:

Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well. Here are 10 hints:

  1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.
  2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
  3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
  4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize,demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
  5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.
  6. Check your quotations.
  7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.
  8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.
  9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.
  10. If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

I’m not sure that waiting a day before sending (no. 7) or favouring in person conversations when action is required (no. 10) stand the test of time, but the others do. I especially like 2. Write the way you talk. Naturally. I see so many people afraid of not writing “properly” that end up not writing at all, or at least not for wide consumption. That’s BS. In my opinion good writing is writing that communicates effectively, and natural writing generally achieves that far better than writing which is formally correct according to some ageing standard. Much better to let the spirit shine through.

  • ‘The best writing is clear and concise’ nice words, Nic, I agree! Also that learning to write naturally is really important. Two great books that I have had the pleasure of reading recently that have in part embodied this and also gone further are Stephen Kings semi autobiographical book about writing – well worth hunting down, happy to share my copy. In addition Essentialism by Greg McKeown, which having just listened to it, has become an essential guide to all. Particularly with regards to writing he uses an adapted Mark Twain quote (potentially bad attribution of quotation #6) “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

    It is very much the same with product development and the great work you do at Forward Partners. Brought into neatly by the quote from Jack Dorsey about ‘..every leader in any company is an editor’

    Happy to have found your blog and look forward to reading more insights shared.

    – Carl

  • Thanks Carl. Much appreciated.