Politics and the English Language

Politics and the English Language

Good ideas write themselves

Good ideas write themselves

10 Tips on Writing from the original Mad Man

shared 10 tips on writing from advertizing legend David Ogilvy.

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.

These are good tips from a man who knew how to get his way with words. Kenneth Roman, writing in Strategy+Business observed that good writing was part of the culture Ogilvy nurtured around him.

“It did not escape our notice that everyone in the upper levels of Ogilvy knew how to write — and write very well,” said the head of an agency newly acquired by Ogilvy. Discipline in writing was a mark of the culture. Ogilvy considered himself an advertising writer, nothing more. “If I were a really creative writer, like my cousin and great friend Rebecca West, I would probably prefer to seek fame as an author — instead of devoting my pen to the services of Rinso,” he said.

Being edited by Ogilvy was like being operated on by a great surgeon who could put his hand on the only tender organ in your body. You could feel him put his finger on the wrong word, the soft phrase, the incomplete thought.

The greatest invention

Tom Standage argues that writing is the greatest invention.

The greatest invention of all must surely be writing. It is not just one of the foundations of civilisation: it underpins the steady accumulation of intellectual achievement. By capturing ideas in physical form, it allows them to travel across space and time without distortion, and thus slip the bonds of human memory and oral transmission, not to mention the whims of tyrants and the vicissitudes of history.

Many of the great inventions since (e.g. the printing press, email, the internet, social networks) are powerful because of the way they efficiently transmit the written word. The great inventions since writing have been better ways to spread writing, iterations on a central idea.

Writing today is ubiquitous and everyone learns it in school, but it wasn’t always like that.

The amazing thing about writing, given how complicated its early systems were, is that anyone learned it at all. The reason they did is revealed in the ancient Egyptian scribal-training texts, which emphasise the superiority of being a scribe over all other career choices, with titles like “Do Not Be Soldier, Priest or Baker”, “Do Not Be a Husbandman” and “Do Not Be a Charioteer”. This last text begins: “Set thine heart on being a scribe, that thou mayest direct the whole earth.” The earliest scribes understood that literacy was power – a power that now extends to most of humanity, and has done more for human progress than any other invention.

Last post from a writer’s writer

One of my favorite writer’s writers has given a final sign off from his weekly blog. William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, signed of after several years of writing for The American Scholar, which will not be the same without him.

In his final post he shared a final great piece of advice to aspiring writers:

Give yourself permission to believe in the validity of your own narrative.

I’m going to miss his weekly posts but hope he keeps writing elsewhere.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.