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How to Write by David Ogilvy (listsofnote.com)
84 points by dirtyaura on Sept 3, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 43 comments

"Write the way you talk. Naturally."

WTF... He probably means something different than what he's saying here. The way most people talk naturally is pretty poor. It often doesn't even make sense when they're saying it out loud - reading it back in written form can be headache-inducing.

He's probably not saying "write exactly what you would say out loud", but that's the takeaway I got from it, and probably many others have too over the years.

he means write in your natural tone. many people write in a completely different manner than they speak.

When I wrote for my high-school paper, people would often comment that I wrote how I spoke. That it sounded as if they were speaking to me. Other writers, read like they were giving a speech or making a presentation, and it wasn't natural for the reader.

he means write in your natural tone. many people write in a completely different manner than they speak.

I wish he had said this, however. Many people do think that writing requires a windy, pretentious tone, which it doesn't. But I specifically tell students not to write the way they talk for the reasons the GP hits.

it still ignores the point that not everyone has a good natural tone. some people may be never be good verbal presenters, and they'll need to develop a good written tone in the absence of good speaking skills.

Keep in mind he was writing to an audience who had been hired for possessing those skills.

This reminds me of a quote from Christopher Hitchens. I'm paraphrasing, but it was something along the lines of, "If you can speak then you can write. The problem is that few people know how to speak well."

What he means, most probably, is to write colloquially. That is, write in informal, conversational style.

Ogilvy on Advertising is still one of the best books on advertising, ~30 years later.


Vapid nonsense that doesn't hold up to scrutiny. A well placed synonym can do wonders for a piece of text, making it a pleasure to read and sharper than a razors edge. I'll take my highfalutin words over the soulless all-inclusive drivel that's infested ad-copy since the likes of David Ogilvy got their sweaty mitts on it.

Also, I don't know what the work ethic was like in 1982, but in 2012, if you want something done make damn sure you've got a paper trail.

For those interested in the topic, there's a free version of the original edition of The Elements of Style for the Kindle.


[The latest edition is not free, but this is a good start]

I was looking for the book less than 3 hours ago, thanks so much for the link.

Interesting misuse of logical converse (or Bayes theorem) at the start:

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

Most of this advice applies to coding as well (with some liberties...):

1. Read Effective Java / Effective Go, etc

2. Use normal idioms of the language, not clever constructions.

3. Short variable names, short methods, short classes.

4. Don't force "Patterns" into your code unnaturally.

5. 1000 lines to a file, max.

6. Check the APIs you use (at least the docs), that they do what you want them do.

7. Don't submit code the day you write it in a fury of creation. Sleep on it and review it the next day, and clean it up.

8. Code Review.

9. Write clear understandable code, not just code that you fiddled until it compiled and ran.

10. Don't just send an email and expect the reader to act. Talk to the person to get their commitment.

Interesting - just ordered the suggested book. I still think there is some potential in some virtual writing training camp for all the bloggers, self published authors and everyone in between who wants to improve the writing capabilities.

A quote from the article: "Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass."

When I worked as a NASA engineer on the Space Shuttle, I met a manager who was fond of the word "definitized" (where "defined" would have done as well) and he would use it whenever possible. In spite of my persistence, I never managed to wean him from this usage. It eventually came out that he believed smart people, important people, used smart, important words, by which he meant words longer and more obscure than their meaning required.

This was, of course, years before I heard a U.S. President insist that he was "misunderestimated." It was then that I realized the problem was getting worse.

This advice may seem out-of-date, but a classic style book named "The Elements of Style", popularly known as "Strunk & White", offers many useful writing rules. The rule I find most memorable and useful is "make every word count." What applies to a sentence, applies with equal justice to the sentence's words.

I see concision in writing as a sign of respect for your reader -- you don't plan to waste his time with obese verbiage.


Another good reference, although less advertising oriented, The King's English, by H.W. Fowler, insists on solid principles:

  Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
  Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
  Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
  Prefer the short word to the long.
  Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.
Freely available here: http://www.bartleby.com/116/

Ironically, "circumlocution" is borrowed nearly exactly from its Romantic roots in Latin: circa (around) locum (place)

Is there a Saxon alternative?

Writing better is a worthwhile endeavour.

But: Please do not recommend Strunk & White. They don't know what they are talking about. (See your own link (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Elements_of_Style#Criticism) and the blog posts cited http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1485 and http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1369 .)

IIRC, a lot of the pushback against Strunk & White is against its proscriptive viewpoint towards language, which is a philosophical battle. I don't think this quite merits a "they don't what they are talking about" when it comes to evaluating their writing advice.

Yes. It's just that people who are preachy naturally invite a careful critic of their practice.

I have no opinion on Strunk & White, but boy, oh boy, is the criticism of it that you linked to by Geoff Pullum pedantic!

I think this may be a case demonstrating the adage, "The perfect is the enemy of the good."

That would be the case, if "The Elements of Style" would be a good book.

Read your favourite authors (be it fiction like Jane Austen or non-fiction like the Economist). Pay attention. See what makes their styles tick.

if "The Elements of Style" would be a good book...

--Awkward on many levels

This is not helpful, and it might make some reluctant to contribute. Please don't do it.

Good writing is an art, which benefits from but does not require perfect grammar.

Attacking grammar--which is the topic of this sub-thread--is missing the point.[1,2]


[1] And by perfect I mean pedantic. [2] Off-point critique + sweeping conclusions = logic fail

Next time, we talk in German.

Fair enough. I think "The Elements of Style" is aimed more toward people who must communicate effectively with the smallest number of words, where efficiently conveying information is the only priority.

Obviously someone writing creatively is free to ignore these journalism guidelines. On the other hand, many well-known writers first learned their craft at newspapers where the principles of Strunk & White (or its predecessors) were fully accepted -- Samuel Clemens and Ernest Hemingway to name just two.

> Fair enough. I think "The Elements of Style" is aimed more toward people who must communicate effectively with the smallest number of words, where efficiently conveying information is the only priority.

See http://www.economist.com/styleguide/introduction, if you want to communicate succinctly. The Economist's style is just one possibility, but they do manage to write short and efficient pieces.

A sign of respect for your reader with a bonus that the reader will think you smarter as a result: http://web.princeton.edu/sites/opplab/papers/Opp%20Consequen...

Great paper. Easy to understand, enlightening, fun. My favorite part:

"The ‘non- fluent’ version of the excerpt was created by waiting until the departmental printer was low on toner"

A humorous side note on the excellent linked paper. In the paper Daryl Bem is cited as an authority on clear, simple writing -- the same Daryl Bem responsible for a spectacular bouhaha surrounding his claim that psychological responses in the present are affected by events in the future. Well, we can take comfort that he composed his claim according to the highest literary standards:


That was a very interesting read, thanks. Unless it's already been on HN why not submit it as a main article?

Good suggestion, thanks -- I'll do it.

And the highest scientific standards. His work raises interesting questions concerning the scientific process, what can be experimentally shown in spite of being false, how hard statistics is, even for the experts, etc. It doesn't matter what he believes concerning ESP: no one doubts his integrity, which means the results are mighty interesting.

> And the highest scientific standards.

Nonsense. Bem's work has been rightly criticized for being statistically questionable:


And replication efforts have failed:


Unless you mean "the highest scientific standards" among psychologists, which is an entirely different claim, since psychology's research standards are notoriously low.

> It doesn't matter what he believes concerning ESP: no one doubts his integrity, which means the results are mighty interesting.

The interest in his results revolves around how such a study could be published in the first place -- and this is not my opinion, but that of his many critics, as shown in the above linked articles.

Statistically questionable, but much better than most non-mathematical publications involving statistics. The problem is: every use of statistics outside of pure mathematics is questionable. Even in experimental physics, where perfect distributions are assumed, when an experimental setup may well lead to a bias. That's the major point the paper raises. Given the standards, I don't doubt for a second that this paper was rightfully published. If it wasn't, the question is: how many other papers weren't? I'd argue more than half of those employing statistics.

Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly

--Duly noted. Thanks for posting.

"Definitize" should mean "to make not finite", as when launching a space craft out of gravitational orbit.

"Misunderdestimate" was a flub or portmanteau of "misunderstand" and "underestimate", not a word that was used intentionally and repeatedly. It is actually kind of a cool portmanteau.

Most bloggers and commenters would be improved by taking the last item to heart:

  10. If you want ACTION, don't write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

Facebook-referral tracking link in URL? Messing with their analytics.

That's the second "#.blahId.websiteName" tracker hash I've seen today. What product/pattern is that?

I can't believe nobody mentioned Politics and the English Language by George Orwell.

Orwell recommends Anglo-Saxon words wherever possible (instead of grander sounding Latin and Greek derivatives).


What's great about this essay is his use of examples.

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