How to Write, for the 21st Century

David Ogilvy was a master advertiser. He was a big proponent of “give away the good stuff,” writing an entire monograph on how to do automobile advertising, and then giving it away to all the automakers in the United States.

He was also an ardent proponent of quality writing. So I was very interested to stumble upon Shaun Usher’s Lists of Note blog, with Ogilvy’s list of How to Write.

David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy

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 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.

Writing for the 21st Century

Having never seen Ogilvy’s list before, I was very excited to see that some of the same writing rules I’ve been teaching are the ones that he espoused. Like a confirmation that I was doing it right. It also made me rethink some of what I’ve been telling people, and forced me to crystallize my thoughts on the matter.

So, if I may be permitted to stand on the shoulders of giants, here are my 10 hints for writers and bloggers in the 21st century.

  1. Read Stephen King’s book On Writing. Also Bird by Bird
    by Annie Lamott and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
  2. Avoid adverbs. Use descriptive verbs, don’t describe the verbs.
  3. Still use short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. Big words don’t make you sound smart. Being accessible to many readers makes you sound smart.
  4. Write visually. Use metaphors, and if you have to, similes.
  5. Write intentionally. Practice your writing whenever you can, whether it’s a new blog post or an email.
  6. Never write more than 1,000 words on any subject. No one wants to read that much, unless they’re following the #longreads hashtag.
  7. Read more than you write. Don’t just read books in your industry, read fiction, history, and biographies. Especially fiction.
  8. Never publish anything important the day you write it. Let it sit for at least 24 hours before you edit it again.
  9. Agonize over word choice. Don’t just spit out the first words that come into your head. Choose the best ones for maximum impact.
  10. Don’t wait for inspiration. If you only wait until the “right moment,” you’re not going to have many of them. The right moment will come when you’re already busy, or when you’ve got the time, you won’t be inspired. Schedule a regular writing time, either every day or a few times a week.
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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency He co-authored four social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (3rd ed., 2017, Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.


    1. Great post, except now I have follow up work to do. Sigh. The post reminded me of one of Lee Iacocca’s 8 rules of management, “Say it in English and keep it short.”