The 10 Rules of Writing Explained

A fantastic guide to writing well is David Ogilvy’s “How to Write” in The Unpublished David Ogilvy. (Ogilvy is more commonly known as the “Father of Advertising.”) His 10-step process to writing is hanging in multiple offices and workspaces here, taking up valuable corkboard real estate.

Writing is a very polarizing topic for many people. Reading someone’s written work and feeling a significant understanding or appreciation is highly subjective. But identifying a quality writer isn’t.

Pictured: A colleague’s desk

Here are Ogilvy’s ten steps and a brief explanation of each:

1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.

This book is over sixteen years old but it’s still worth a read. (It’s on its third edition now.) It was significantly ahead of its time when it was published. Its main selling point: here’s how you get things done.

2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.

Don’t try to sound smarter than you are. It will be painfully transparent. And keep Thesaurus usage to a minimum (or, rather, eliminate it entirely).

3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.

Don’t give your readers an opportunity to lose interest or drift off. Be respectful of their time. Keep it short, from word-to-word, sentence-to-sentence, and paragraph-to-paragraph.

4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.

What do those even mean? (Note: I do actually know what they mean. That’s what they pay me for. But still.) Again, write the way you talk.

5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.

If you’re following Rule #3, this should be no problem. Sure, you’ll have documents much longer than two pages. But if you’re trying to convey a point or explore something with your writing, you need to consider all opposing arguments. This means you’ll have plenty of opportunities to break up your pages.

6. Check your quotations.

Nobody deserves to be misquoted.

7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught a mistake or found a better way to word something the day after. Waiting a day puts you in the mind of the reader instead of the writer.

8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.

Sometimes a fresh set of eyes is better than spending hours proofreading the same thing. You may have mannerisms in your writing that make sense to you but not to anyone else.

9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.

That’s the point, after all. Once you’ve taken a break, try to read it quickly like a colleague or client might. If it’s not actionable or immediately obvious what you want, they may shift it to the backburner or downgrade its priority. If you get that feeling, fix it.

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

Nothing conveys urgency like your voice. Tone and non-verbal communication do a better job of stimulating a reaction.

In this field, we follow a few simple rules: keep it short, simple, and on point. Almost nobody wants to read something dense with industry terminology, particularly given the rise of podcasting and social media However, the value of the written word will never completely disappear, which means you have every opportunity to become a better writer.

So go out and do it.