David Ogilvy’s 1982 Memo “How to Write” Offers 10 Pieces of Timeless Advice


Nobody ever went broke writ­ing a read­able guide to writ­ing in Eng­lish, espe­cial­ly those that rise to the ranks of stan­dard rec­om­men­da­tions along­side Strunk and White’s The Ele­ments of Style and William Zinsser’s On Writ­ing WellBoth of those books endorse and exem­pli­fy the virtue of brevi­ty, but even such short vol­umes take a great deal longer to read and inter­nal­ize than this emi­nent­ly to-the-point Eng­lish style guide by the “Pope of Mod­ern Adver­tis­ing,” (and, for his part, a fan of Roman and Raphael­son’s Writ­ing That Works) David Ogilvy, orig­i­nal­ly com­posed in the form of an inter­nal memo.

Ogilvy sent it out on Sep­tem­ber 7th, 1982, direct­ing it to every­one employed at Ogilvy & Math­er, the respect­ed ad agency he’d found­ed more than thir­ty years before. “The memo was enti­tled ‘How to Write,’ ” says Lists of Note, “and con­sist­ed of the fol­low­ing list of advice:”

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.

And since we all send out more writ­ten com­mu­ni­ca­tion today than we would have in 1982, the points on this list have only grown more advis­able with time. “The bet­ter you write, the high­er you go in Ogilvy & Math­er,” Ogilvy adds. “Peo­ple who think well, write well.” Amid all this prac­ti­cal advice, we’d do well not to for­get that essen­tial con­nec­tion between word and thought. I like to quote a favorite Twit­ter apho­rist of mine — and, per Ogilvy’s warn­ing, I’ve checked my quo­ta­tion first — on the sub­ject: “Peo­ple say they can’t draw when they mean they can’t see, and that they can’t write when they mean they can’t think.”

For more on the meth­ods of Ogilvy the self-described “lousy copy­writer” (but “good edi­tor”), see also Lists of Note’s sis­ter site Let­ters of Note, which has a 1955 let­ter where­in he lays out his work habits. A seem­ing­ly effec­tive one involves “half a bot­tle of rum and a Han­del ora­to­rio on the gramo­phone.” Your mileage may vary.

via Lists of Note

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writ­ers

Ray Brad­bury Offers 12 Essen­tial Writ­ing Tips and Explains Why Lit­er­a­ture Saves Civ­i­liza­tion

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Sto­ry

Writ­ing Tips by Hen­ry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Mar­garet Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­maFol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • John Martin Bradley says:

    I read the fol­low­ing arti­cle and was remind­ed of the influ­ence this man had on my life.

    I met David Ogilvy twice when I was 29 years old (24 years ago). He per­suad­ed me to leave Ogilvy & Math­er. He told me to think of it as a build­ing block for more impor­tant things in my career and my life. He had just been in the African bush for ten days and was on fire with the holis­tic notion of the inter­con­nect­ed­ness of things. He spoke with the res­olute firm­ness of an eru­dite man impart­ing wis­dom to a novice.

    His mes­sage was that a mean­ing­ful life lay in get­ting to grips with this notion of every­thing being inter­con­nect­ed, liv­ing a life defined by this and using our gifts as com­mu­ni­ca­tors (we worked in the best adver­tis­ing agency in the world after all) to encour­age oth­ers, with­out evan­ge­lis­ing, to explore this idea for them­selves. This was his time­less advice to me.

    I think he was a man before his time. Have I fol­lowed his advice? I hope so, not always and not very well per­haps, but I think I have fair­ly con­sis­tent­ly fol­lowed it over many years.

    John Mar­tin Bradley

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