How to Write Well: 10 Timeless Rules From Legendary Ad Exec David Ogilvy
Writing is easy. Most people can do it. If you’re reading this, you can write.
But can you write well? Does your writing connect with people? Does it engage readers, compelling them down the page? Does your writing inspire action, selling things or services or ideas?
If so, you have a potent skill at your disposal: you can command attention, a valuable commodity. More importantly, you can influence free will.
David Ogilvy, the creative force behind Ogilvy & Mather, understood this. He respected the potential of good writing.
“The better you write, the higher you will go,” Ogilvy wrote in a memo to his management team. “People who think well, write well.”
The note, drafted in 1982, later appeared in The Unpublished David Ogilvy, a collection of incisive letters and speeches by the man hailed as “The Father of Advertising.”
“Good writing is not a natural gift,” he writes. “You have to learn to write well.”
How to Write Well
He closed out the memo with “10 hints” that anyone could apply to make their writing better.
I’ve transcribed his suggestions below, along with some modern context:
1) "Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times."
Full disclosure: Kenneth Roman, Joel Raphaelson, and David Ogilvy were cronies. In fact, Roman served as the agency’s CEO, which explains the front-and-center mention of his book. That said, it’s still a great business-writing resource.
Aside from the knowledge you’ll glean from Writing That Works, reading it over and over and over will acquaint you with the voice, tone, and style of two excellent writers. The more good writing you read, the more good you’ll internalize. The more good you internalize from others, the easier it’ll be to spot and correct the bad in your own writing.
TAKEAWAY: Good writing is the product of prolific reading.
How to read more:
Ryan Holiday, an author and media strategist, offers some advice here: change your mindset.
“Stop thinking of it as some activity that you do,” writes Holiday. “Reading must become as natural as eating and breathing to you. It’s not something you do because you feel like it, but because it’s a reflex, a default.”
Holiday cites three main barriers that keep people from reading:
Time: “Carry a book with you at all times. Every time you get a second, crack it open.”
Money: “Reading is not a luxury … It’s a necessity … Books are an investment.”
Purpose: “The purpose of reading is not just raw knowledge. It’s that it is part of the human experience. It helps you find meaning, understand yourself, and makes your life better.”
If you want to read more, make it a priority.
2) "Write the way you talk. Naturally."
Ogilvy, by all accounts, was down to earth, cool.
“His latest book is called Ogilvy on Advertising. Please welcome, David Ogilvy!” said David Letterman in a 1983 Late Night interview. He reached across the table to shake his guest’s hand. Ogilvy shook back without a word.
“The book is very informative,” said Letterman. “Anyone interested in a career in advertising should certainly do themselves a favor and take a look at that thing.”
Ogilvy broke his silence. “Damn right,” he said.
Ogilvy wrote like he spoke, naturally, which enabled his success as a copywriter.
TAKEAWAY: Good writing is informal.
How to write informally:
Unless you're writing a legal document, feel free to relax your tone. Use:
Active voice: “We have noticed that …” vs. “It has been noticed that …”
Contractions: “can’t” vs. “can not”
Abbreviations: “t.v.” vs. “television”
Colloquialisms: “kids” vs. “children”
Informal writing is less cumbersome, easier to read.
3) "Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs."
Reading is hard, you know. It takes energy and concentration and time, all finite resources.
Dense, long-winded writing that meets the intrinsic needs of the author, rather than the extrinsic needs of the reader, won’t get read. Writing should deliver value, quickly, to the audience. The author’s personal satisfaction is irrelevant.
TAKEAWAY: Good writing gets to the point.
How to write concisely:
Concise writing boils down to:
Awareness: your ability to recognize wordiness
Discipline: your willingness to cut unnecessary words
These six exercises will help you do both.
4) "Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification,
attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass."
It’s true, big words make writers sound snobbish and conceited. What’s worse, they run the risk of confusing the reader, making her feel foolish, detaching her from the message.
As a writer, you have only a small window to capture attention. Don’t narrow it even more by using obscure words.
TAKEAWAY: Good writing is immediately understood.
How to write coherently:
Cut your risk. Use words even a child can understand. For example, instead of:
Reconceptualize, write “rethink”
Demassification, write “breakup”
Attitudinally, write “with attitude”
Judgmentally, write “with judgement”
Need help with word choice? Use Hemingway Editor.
5) "Never write more than two pages on any subject."
Take this one with a grain of salt. While “two pages” is subjective, Ogilvy’s point is clear: never write more than is necessary on any subject.
In other words, if you can abridge an explanation without diluting the concept behind it, do it.
TAKEAWAY: Good writing simplifies complicated information.
How to simplify a concept:
The Big Short, an Oscar-winning film about the 2008 housing collapse, was almost never made because the subject matter was too technical for a lay audience. Mortgage bonds; credit default swaps; collateralized debt obligations: all these concepts required explanation …
How did the producers make it work? Cameos and stories.
Anytime a complicated concept was introduced, a celebrity would appear, armed with a quick story. What made these stories so effective and efficient at educating audiences?
Shawn Callahan, founder of Anecdote, cites several key elements
Familiarity: The stories were told by famous people, like Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain, and Richard Thaler, a renown economist.
Plausibility: The stories were credible, thanks to Thaler’s presence.
Relatability: The stories took place in recognizable settings, like a casino or a kitchen.
Finally, the stories were metaphorical, drawing parallels between the housing crisis and losing a blackjack hand, for instance.
“If you need to explain something that is complex or highly technical to an audience that might not understand it,” writes Callahan, “then tell them a hypothetical story based on something they do understand, something that’s relatable. And pick someone to deliver the message who is familiar to the audience, someone who is like them and also has credibility.”
6) "Check your quotations."
Take this one literally. As a writer, the information you distribute commands public perception over ideas and events and individuals. It’s a tremendous responsibility.
In the age of self-publishing and Fake News, an author’s integrity is paramount. Check your quotes, your facts. Readers are depending on you, trusting you.
TAKEAWAY: Good writing has integrity.
How to maintain your integrity:
Let your conscience be your guide.
7) "Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning -- and then edit it."
Communication rarely comes out right on the first go, especially when it’s written.
You wouldn’t give a presentation without a dry run, so why send an email or publish an article without an edit? Sure, the writing makes sense to you, the author. But only because you’re so close to it: your perspective is shot.
Distancing yourself from the work is the only way to regain objectivity, ensuring your message makes sense.
TAKEAWAY: Good writing is clear.
How to write clearly:
Richard Lanham, an English professor at the University of California, developed a system called The Paramedic Method. It's designed to help writers clarify their sentences with a simple, two-step process:
STEP ONE: Identify the problems in a sentence.
Underline prepositions (e.g., about, to, in, across)
Circle forms of the word “be” (e.g., is, am, are, were, was)
Box verbs (e.g., run, hide, jump; running, hiding, jumping)
Highlight the person or thing performing the action
Bracket wind-up explanations
Cross out redundancies
STEP TWO: Fix the problems you found.
Rewrite or delete unnecessary prepositional phrases
Replace forms of “be” with action verbs
Put the action in the verb
Put the person or thing performing the action into the subject
Delete unnecessary wind-up explanations
Lanham’s method streamlines the editing process. For more context and examples, click here.
8) "If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it."
As far as I’m concerned, if your name is on it, it’s important. After all, your writing speaks for you long after you part with it. In that sense, every word counts towards your reputation, your legacy.
With so much on the line, you should have an insurance policy.
TAKEAWAY: Good writing needs an editor.
How to find an editor:
You could ask a coworker to lend a fresh perspective, like Ogilvy suggests. But you have other options, too. It’s not 1982; leverage the internet. Try:
Reddit: Post your content in a relevant sub-reddit.
Twitter: Tweet your content at a writer you admire.
Inbound.org: “When you can’t just tap someone expert on the shoulder, turn to the inbound.org community to help and be helped.”
As long as you're polite, tactful, and appreciative, someone will give you their time. But you have to ask.
9) "Before you send your letter or memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do."
Business writing, specifically, always needs a goal.
Whether it’s soft (e.g., influencing a general belief) or hard (e.g., driving a specific action), a goal will focus your message, making it more cohesive, not to mention easier to write. Moreover, nobody wants to invest their professional time reading a dead-end message, one that leaves them thinking, What now?
TAKEAWAY: Good (business) writing has purpose.
How to give your writing purpose:
What do you want to accomplish? Do you want to:
Inform, driving home the features?
Influence, driving home the benefits?
Entertain, driving home the brand?
To know for sure, write your call-to-action first. This will give your writing direction, funneling every subhead, paragraph, and sentence towards the same point.
10) "If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want."
In business, nothing is more intimate than a smile and a handshake, a pat on the back. Writing is void of these elements. Even the best writing can’t replicate human interaction, the sensation of being face-to-face.
People are irrational. We like to think we operate logically, but emotions are what ultimately move us. And while reading words can be a powerful experience, nothing replaces eye contact.
TAKEAWAY: Good writing, sometimes, doesn’t work.
How to avoid writing:
Ogilvy said it best: don’t write. Get in front of the person. Get on:
And if you’re down the hall from the person, walk to them. They'll appreciate it. And you’ll be in a better position to get what you want.
“Good writing is not a natural gift,” wrote Ogilvy.
“You have to learn to write well.”
Now, you have his advice. The rest is up to you.