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Article david_ogilvy_writing

Published on September 6th, 2013 | by Dan Walsh


Writing Lessons From A Dead Man

David Ogilvy was one of the finest writers of his time and ours. He was clear, persuasive, and the original mad man. He founded the advertising firm Ogilvy and Mather in 1948 and practically invented advertising as we know it. His most famous book, Ogilvy on Advertising is practically the college textbook for advertising classes. I recently discovered one of his lesser known books, The Unpublished David Ogilvy, which is a collection of his memos, letters, lists, speeches and essays. He wrote the following list, as a memo, to his entire staff to perk up their writing skills. I have especially taken numbers 3, 5, and 9 to heart.

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.

Get the book on Amazon: The Unpublished David Ogilvy

Does Ogilvy’s list still hold up in our day of emails and Twitter?

About the Author

I enjoy sharing thought-provoking articles, videos, and tools.

Leave a Reply to Angelica Cancel reply

10 Responses to Writing Lessons From A Dead Man

  1. Angelica says:

    This is awesome. I am not naturally inclined to agree with #3, I am working on #7, and #9 has improved my life so much.

  2. Angelica says:

    By the way, more of this type of post, please! It’s really gratifying to get a lot out of an article, and then have the chance to participate in conversation here, without having to click out to another site.

  3. Ivan Tse says:

    Kind of related:

    I’ve been following the “How Does One Become a Better Writer” question on Quora for a while. Sometimes, fascinating things come up, like this answer which quotes Chuck Palahniuk for an interesting exercise to help you out: http://www.quora.com/How-does-one-become-a-better-writer/answer/Gurshabad-Grover

  4. I read Ogilvy on Advertising last year, after your post. I vaguely recall the marketing advice, though a lot of other books I read echoed the same ideas.

    I do remember that I thought “This guy thinks he’s a bigshot. Maybe he was in his time, but I’d never heard of him”. That thought comes up whenever people around me happen to know who Ogilvy was. I think I read the autobiography of Teddy Roosevelt around the same time and thought the same thing.

    The story that he was a farmer turned marketing guru resonated with me. Yay career change :)

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Ha ha ha. I think Ogilvy had a lot of original ideas for his time. But like all good ideas they were appropriated into everyone else’s advertising / marketing books.

      Career change FTW!

  5. Lauren says:

    I like how #7 and #8 connect to your other article, “Everything Creative Must Suck.” To me they say – you may think what you’ve written is good, but just wait a day, or ask someone else, trust me, it probably sucks. Even small nuggets of creativity, like a good email, are a process of trial and error. I guess it’s just about how much time you’re willing to spend making your memos to your boss just perfect!

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Yeah, I think it’s easy to feel good about accomplishing something in the moment, and maybe confuse that with the quality. That and it’s hard to see typos when the ideas are still so fresh in your head. I definitely should have waited a day before sending out my last newsletter! I had at least 3 typos / homonym mix ups! Yikes!

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