David Ogilvy is one of the most legendary marketers of all time.
In 1982, David wrote an internal memo to the employees of his advertising agency titled "How to write." Inside, he noted to employees of Ogilvy and Mather, "The better you write, the higher you will go. People who think well, write well. Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well."
And he packed more insight into the 10 bullets that followed than any writing book out there.
1. Read the Roman-Raphelson book on writing. Read it three times.
Every company on Earth would be a better place if this book was required reading before email permissions were given.
If you work for a company that sends a lot of email, you know who I'm talking about. The person where every email is a Wall of Text with no clear purpose. To make sure you're never this person, pick of a copy of Writing That Works.
"The classic guide that helps you communicate your thoughts clearly, concisely, and effectively. Essential for every professional, from entry level to the executive suite, Writing that Works includes advice on all aspects of written communication—including business memos, letters, reports, speeches and resumes, and e-mail—and offers insights into political correctness and tips for using non-biased language that won’t compromise your message."
Sounds like something everyone could use a bit more of.
2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
Many writers spend hours thinking (and procrastinating) trying to "find their voice."
But this is a waste of time. You already have a voice - the one you use every day. And yet, some writers sound nothing like they do in real life.
So - how do you prevent this? Easy.
- Choose a topic
- Go for a walk and record yourself talking about it using Otter.ai.
This app will transcribe everything you say. And just like that, you've found your writing voice. Cut any filler words, then try to write exactly like you sound.
3. Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs.
This one takes practice.
Everyone knows you should be concise. But somehow, despite all of their best intentions, beginner writers end up going through hoops and valleys with run on sentences, so much so that their reader either gets out of breath or gives up, ready to send their attention elsewhere.
Just like that last sentence.
The easiest way to find when you're being too wordy?
Read everything aloud before you publish it.
You'll find yourself fumbling over words or out of breath. This is a sign you need to simplify.
4. Never use jargon words like "reconceptualizes, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally."
I have a hot-take on jargon.
When you see someone using it, they're hiding their lack of understanding. The Feynman technique is a learning technique that requires you to describe your concept to someone in the 6th grade. Because if you can't explain it simply, you don't really understand it.
And you can use this lens in your writing: write everything like you're talking to a 6th grader.
5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.
It's too easy to publish your thoughts on the internet.
99% of books should be blog posts. And 99% of blog posts should be tweets. And yet, people think they need to write an expose on something you could summarize in six bullet-points.
Now, some things deserve good, long-form writing. Technical white papers, journaling, and thoughtful, deeply-thought-out memos.
But Ogilvy was talking about business writing. And if you can't fit your business communication under two pages, you're probably tackling something too big.
6. Check your quotations.
This one is simple enough.
Misquotes are unforced errors. Don't make them.
7. Never send a letter or memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning, then edit it.
This is the number one piece of writing advice I can give people.
If you are publishing something important, always, always, give it room to breathe. Your writing is a function of your current state. Which means you should always change your perspective at least once before publishing something.
Chances are, you'll sit down the next morning and see a few places where you think to yourself "What was I thinking writing that?"
Sit down, read it aloud, edit out the unnecessary bits, then send it on its way.
8. If it something important, get a colleague to improve it.
This pairs nicely with point number 7.
If it's something really important, write it, give it a day, edit it, then send it to a colleague. Like you give your letters and memos a second perspective, you want a third perspective for things are truly important.
If you're looking for a way to request edits, check out this video from Tim Ferriss on how he uses writing to sharpen his thinking:
9. Before you send your letter or memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.
This one is so simple, but so easy to forget.
Everything you write should have a clear purpose. Some writers get so caught up in the writing itself they forget what they're trying to accomplish.
Before you start writing, jot down the exact purpose of your message (from the reader's perspective).
Then, work backwards, articulating those steps for them.
10. If you want ACTION, don't write. Go and tell the guy what you want.
Last and most importantly, writing is never a replacement for a targeted conversation.
In fact, most emails and messages should be direct conversations, especially ones that require action.
How to write, summarized
- Never use jargon
- Use shorter words
- Write how you talk
- Check your quotations
- Read "Writing That Works"
- Give your writing time to breathe
- Get edits on important messages
- Never write more than two pages
Now staple these on your desktop (or maybe your coworker's desktop).