Obey these rules on writing from David Ogilvy

Content marketers don’t just need to recognise good writing – we should be able to produce it too

David Ogilvy was one of the original Madison Avenue set. He was also very keen on what has recently been labelled the ‘listicle’, numbered lists of advice.

Originally from England, Ogilvy followed a route typical of novelists or spies, going to Edinburgh for school, and then Oxford for university, although he didn’t graduate.

Instead he moved to Paris to work in the kitchens of the Majestic Hotel. On his return he found considerable success as a door-to-door salesman, selling AGA cookers. His success was such he was asked to write the manual on how to sell them, The Theory and Practice of Selling the Aga Cooker, reproduced here, in 1935.

He emigrated to America in 1938 to work for George Gallup’s polling company. Finally, he set up his agency, Ogilvy & Mather, in 1948.

Ogilvy made his name as a copywriter, crafting highly persuasive sales material, and remained active throughout his life. He was keen on writing well-written briefs to get the most for clients.

In 1982 Ogilvy sent this memo, titled, “How to Write,” to his employees:

“The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well.

Woolly-minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches. 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 ‘reconceptualise,’ ‘demassification,’ ‘attitudinally,’ ‘judgmentally.’ They are hallmarks of pretense.

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.

While Ogilvy had sales writing in mind, the list is superb advice for any writer writing anything at all.

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