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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Writing Tips from the Master (Not Me!)

#5. “Never write more than two pages on any subject.”
Many days it seems, I am asked how to be a good writer. To be sure, I don't know why people come to me. Humbly I say, you either love my writing or you hate it (but geez, I hope more love it than hate it). Anyway, who knows? I've made a living for nearly thirty years putting word to paper or film or audio so I guess I did something right.

How did I learn? 

It surely wasn't from Norman Mailer's school of hard knocks where the motto was "Writer’s block is only a failure of the ego."* (However, maybe it was.) I should definitely give a nod and a tip of the cap to David Ogilvy.

Wait! You don't know who Ogilvy is? The original Mad Man? The man whom in 1962 was called "the most sought-after wizard in today's advertising industry" by Time Magazine? The man who seemed to invent unorthodox imagination in advertising? If you don't know Ogilvy, you need to. Today.

I remember attending an intimate evening with Ogilvy where I sneaked a plus one from a viscous corporate ladder climber I was dating at the time. Ogilvy's words still echo in my vacuous mind. He could still bring the heat late in his life. He spoke uninterrupted for 53 minutes. Even to this day, his philosophies and methodology are timeless:
The better you write, the higher you go.
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. 
I remember reading a memo that he sent around in the early eighties to his peeps. The memo -- it was it a mission statement? -- was simply titled How to Write.** with these pearls of wisdom:

  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.

You know who could have used a better copywriter? Folger's Coffee in the 1960's. Take a peek at this ad ('ve come a long way. Keep it rolling.)

(*) You don't know who Norman Mailer is? Norman Mailer? The author of 40 books and the chronicler of the American Century? Oh my. Well, start here.

(**) You can find more of Ogilvy’s timeless advice in the 1986 book (you remember those things, right?) The Unpublished David Ogilvy. I found a copy on Amazon, right next to this classic:

Only a few hundred thousand left unsold.
What does the book jacket say?: A book of photographs of the royal family with humorous captions. Ogilvy said it best. Less is more.