David Ogilvy On Writing

I posted this on our old website years ago. It never gets old and I often revisit this. We're writing a LOT these days, so I thought I'd share this since it's been helping me so much!


I read a LOT of blogs and RSS feeds, and I listen to a LOT of podcasts!  From all of this content I get all kinds of inspiration to share on my personal blog, for business, our future office space, travel, food...the list is endless.  Today I wanted to share two things I saw about writing that I found really intriguing and thought some of you would also find interesting.

On two separate blogs, a few days apart I saw two posts about David Ogilvy and a letter he had written in 1955, a reply to someone who had asked him about writing, and the second was a memo to his staff from 1982.  It’s interesting, not least because Ogilvy is one the original Madison Avenue ad men, responsible for a lot of what we’d consider modern advertising, but because they pretty much espouse the same principals: brevity leads to clarity, edit, edit and then edit some more, and always have another set of eyes read your writing before you officially share it!  That’s not a perfect summary, but it’s what I take away from it.  Perhaps you’ll see something else.

This is cool to me because these have been really important bulwarks in my own writing.  Though I don’t always succeed at brevity everything I write goes through successive edits.

This is super cool to find, especially right now as each of us here at Copperworks is spending an awful lot of time writing.  From proposals to policy, to reports and external communications, it feels like that’s all we’re doing at the moment.  Which is why these two documents are so timely.  I know they’re going to help us, and I hope they will help you too!

I’m attaching both the letter and the memo below as well as the links to the sites where I originally saw these posts.  Enjoy!

Letter Number 1*

April 19, 1955

Dear Mr. Calt:

On March 22nd you wrote to me asking for some notes on my work habits as a copywriter. They are appalling, as you are about to see:

1. I have never written an advertisement in the office. Too many interruptions. I do all my writing at home.

2. I spend a long time studying the precedents. I look at every advertisement which has appeared for competing products during the past 20 years.

3. I am helpless without research material—and the more "motivational" the better.

4. I write out a definition of the problem and a statement of the purpose which I wish the campaign to achieve. Then I go no further until the statement and its principles have been accepted by the client.

5. Before actually writing the copy, I write down every concievable fact and selling idea. Then I get them organized and relate them to research and the copy platform.

6. Then I write the headline. As a matter of fact I try to write 20 alternative headlines for every advertisement. And I never select the final headline without asking the opinion of other people in the agency. In some cases I seek the help of the research department and get them to do a split-run on a battery of headlines.

7. At this point I can no longer postpone the actual copy. So I go home and sit down at my desk. I find myself entirely without ideas. I get bad-tempered. If my wife comes into the room I growl at her. (This has gotten worse since I gave up smoking.)

8. I am terrified of producing a lousy advertisement. This causes me to throw away the first 20 attempts.

9. If all else fails, I drink half a bottle of rum and play a Handel oratorio on the gramophone. This generally produces an uncontrollable gush of copy.

10. The next morning I get up early and edit the gush.

11. Then I take the train to New York and my secretary types a draft. (I cannot type, which is very inconvenient.)

12. I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor. So I go to work editing my own draft. After four or five editings, it looks good enough to show to the client. If the client changes the copy, I get angry—because I took a lot of trouble writing it, and what I wrote I wrote on purpose.

Altogether it is a slow and laborious business. I understand that some copywriters have much greater facility.

Yours sincerely,


[via Letters of Note]

The Memo*

The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well.

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.


[via List of Notes]

*Writing That Works, by Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson

*(Source: The Unpublished David Ogilvy: A Selection of His Writings from the Files of His Partners; Image: David Ogilvy, courtesy of Ads of the World.)