20 Principles of Good Writing

From How to Write Better: the Ogilvy & Mather guide to writing effective memos, letters, reports, plans and strategies, an agency document written by Ken Roman and Joel Raphaelson in 1978. (Roman eventually became Ogilvy & Mather chairman and CEO and Raphaelson, executive creative director. Roman is author of The King of Madison Avenue, a highly acclaimed biography of David Ogilvy. Raphaelson edited and co-wrote The Unpublished David Ogilvy, a much praised collection of Ogilvy’s “private papers and public fulminations.”)

When you are speaking for Ogilvy & Mather, your writing must meet our standards. These allow ample room for individuality and freshness of expression. But “personal style” is not an excuse for sloppy, unprofessional writing. Here are some suggestions on how to improve your writing – 20 principles that all good writers follow.

1. Keep in mind that the reader doesn’t have much time. What you write must be clear on first reading. If you want your paper to be read by senior people, remember that they have punishing schedules, evening engagements, and bulging briefcases. The shorter your paper, the better the chance it will be read at high levels. During World War II, no document of more than one page was allowed to reach Churchill’s desk.

2. Know where you are going – and tell the reader. Start with an outline to organize your argument.

Begin important paragraphs with topic sentences that tell what follows. Conclude with a summary paragraph.

An outline not only helps the reader; it keeps you from getting lost en route. Compile a list of all your points before you start.

3. Make what you write easy to read. For extra emphasis, underline entire sentences. Number your points, as we do in this section.

Put main points into indented paragraphs like this.

4. Short sentences and short paragraphs are easier to read than long ones. Send telegrams, not essays.

5. Make your writing vigorous and direct. Wherever possible use active verbs, and avoid the passive voice.
We are concerned that if this recommendation is turned down, the brand’s market share may be negatively affected.

We believe you must act on this recommendation to hold the brand’s share.

6. Avoid clichés. Find your own words.
Turn over every rock for a solution
Put it to the acid test
Few and far between
Last but not least
Iron out

Try hard
Test thoroughly

7. Avoid vague modifiers such as “very” and “slightly.” Search for the word or phrase that precisely states your meaning.
Very overspent
Slightly behind schedule

Overspent by $1,000
One day late

8. Use specific concrete language. Avoid technical jargon, what E. B. White calls “the language of mutilation.” There is always a simple, down-to-earth word that says the same thing as the showoff fad word or the abstraction.
To impact
It is believed that with the parameters that have been imposed by your management, a viable solution may be hard to find. If we are to impact the consumer to the optimum, further interface with your management may be the most meaningful step to take

Plain English
Limits, boundaries
Carry out
Practical, workable
To talk with
Real, actual
To affect
Effective, to have results
I think
Facts, information
We believe that the limits your management gave us may rule out a practical solution. If we want our consumer program to succeed, maybe we ought to talk with your management again.

9. Find the right word. Know its precise meaning. Use your dictionary, and your thesaurus. Don’t confuse words like these:
To “affect” something is to have an influence on it. (The new campaign affects few attitudes.)
“Effect” can means to bring about (verb) or a result (noun). (It effected no change in attitudes, and had no effect.)
“It’s” is the contraction of “it is.” (It’s the advertising of P&G.)
“Its” is the possessive form it “it” and does not take an apostrophe. (Check P&G and its advertising.)
“Principal” is the first in rank or performance. (The principal competition is P&G.)
“Principle” is a fundamental truth or rule. (The principle of competing with P&G is to have a good product.)
“Imply” means to suggest indirectly. (The writer implies it won’t work.)
“Infer” means to draw meaning out of something. (The reader infers it won’t work.)
“i.e.” means “that is.”
“e.g.” means “for example.”

When you confuse words like these, your reader is justified in concluding that you don’t know better. Illiteracy does not breed respect.

10. Don’t make spelling mistakes. When in doubt, check the dictionary. If you are congenitally a bad speller, make sure your final draft gets checked by someone who isn’t thus crippled. If your writing is careless, the reader may reasonably doubt the thoroughness of your thinking.

11. Don’t overwrite or overstate. No more words than necessary. Take the time to boil down your points. (The Gettysburg Address used only 266 words.)

Remember the story of the man who apologized for writing such a long letter, explaining that he just didn’t have the time to write a short one.

12. Come to the point. Churchill could have said, “The position in regard to France is very serious.” What he did say was, “The news from France is bad.” Don’t beat around the bush. Say what you think – in simple, declarative sentences. Write confidently.

13. State things as simply as you can. Use familiar words and uncomplicated sentences.

14. Handle numbers consistently. Newspapers generally spell out numbers for ten and under, use numerals for 11 and up. Don’t write M when you mean a thousand, or MM when you mean a million. The reader may not know this code. Write $5,000 – not $5M. Write $7,000,000 (or $7 million) – not $7MM.

15. Avoid needless words. The songwriter wrote, “Softly as in a morning sunrise” – and Ring Lardner explained that this was as opposed to a late afternoon or evening sunrise. Poetic license may be granted for a song, but not for phrases like these:
Don’t write
Advance plan
Take action
Have a discussion
Hold a meeting
Study in depth
New innovations
Consensus of opinion
At the present time
Until such time as
In the majority of instances
On a local basis
Basically unaware of
In the area of
At management level
With regard to
In connection with
In view of
In the event of
For the purpose of
On the basis of
Despite the fact that
In the majority of instances

Did not know
By management
About, concerning
Of, in, on
By, from

Always go through your first draft once with the sole purpose of deleting all unnecessary words, phrases, and sentences. David Ogilvy has improved many pieces of writing by deleting entire paragraphs, and sometimes even whole pages.

16. Be concise, but readable. Terseness is a virtue, if not carried to extremes. Don’t leave out words. Write full sentences, and make them count.

17. Be brief, simple and natural. Don’t write, “The reasons are fourfold.” Write, “There are four reasons.” Don’t start sentences with “importantly.” Write, “The important point is…” Don’t write “hopefully” when you mean “I hope that.” “Hopefully” means “in a hopeful manner.” Its common misuse annoys a great many literate people. Never use the word “basically.” It can always be deleted. It is a basically useless word. Avoid the hostile term “against,” as in “This campaign goes against teenagers.” You are not against teenagers. On the contrary, you want them to buy your product. Write, “This campaign addresses teenagers,” or “This campaign is aimed at teenagers.”

18. Don’t write like a lawyer or a bureaucrat. “Re” is legalese meaning “in the matter of,” and is never necessary. The slash – as in and/or – is bureaucratese. Don’t write, “We’ll hold the meeting on Monday and/or Tuesday.” Write, “We’ll hold the meeting on Monday or Tuesday – or both days, if necessary.”

19. Never be content with your first draft. Rewrite, with an eye toward simplifying and clarifying. Rearrange. Revise. Above all, cut. Mark Twain said that writers should strike out every third word on principle. “You have no idea what vigour it adds to your style.” For every major document, let time elapse between your first and second drafts – at least overnight. Then come at it with a questioning eye and a ruthless attitude. The five examples that follow were taken from a single presentation. They show how editing shortened, sharpened, and clarified what the writer was trying to say.
First Draft
Consumer perception of the brand changed very positively.
Second Draft
Consumer perception of the brand improved.
Generate promotion interest through high levels of advertising spending. Use heavy advertising to stimulate interest in promotions.
Move from product advertising to an educational campaign, one that would instruct viewers on such things as… Move from product advertising to an educational campaign on such subjects as…
Using the resources of Ogilvy & Mather in Europe, in addition to our Chicago office, we have been able to provide the company with media alternatives they had previously been unaware of. Ogilvy & Mather offices in Europe and Chicago showed the company media alternatives that it hadn’t known about.
Based on their small budget, we have developed a media plan which is based on efficiency in reaching the target audience. We developed a media plan that increases the efficiency of the small budget by focusing on prospects.

20. Have somebody else look over your draft. All O&M advertising copy is reviewed many times, even though it is written by professional writers. Before David Ogilvy makes a speech, he submits a draft to his partners for editing and comment. What you write represents the agency as much as an advertisement by a creative director or a speech by a chairman. They solicit advice. Why not you?

Lawrence Creaghan is The Write Stuff

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