How To Write

I came across these 10 good tips on writing well for business. This is from a 1982 internal memo by David Ogilvy, a famous businessman.

His ideas apply to creative writing too, I think. I studied business writing and rhetoric in college, as well as creative writing. I believe all writing skills inform each other.

I’m going to follow his list by repeating it with my thoughts. Because, you know, I’m a writer and it’s my blog. I have to do the heavy lifting around here.

  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.

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

    There are many good books on writing. My favorites include:

    Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
    Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg
    Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott,
    On Writing by Stephen King

    Please share your favorites in the Comments.

  2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.

    Well, not exactly. Not everyone speaks well. I don’t know anyone who speaks as well as they would like to write, and that includes me.  

    I would say try to find a good, natural voice for the work you’re doing and the audience you’re writing it for.

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

    This is becoming even more important in writing for the Internet and e-mail. It’s unusual for me to create a paragraph of more than 2 sentences for e-mail or a blog.

    I presume that others have the same difficulty I do, in plowing through blocks of text on a screen.

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

    He’s right. This kind of writing has been getting worse in the last 20 years.

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

    OK, that’s a good rule for his company. I would say never write more than you have to on any subject.

    That includes creative work. I remember a professor telling us once that a sentence is like a team of sled dogs: every dog has to pull his share of the weight.

    If a line, a paragraph, or a chapter isn’t helping your work, into the chipper with it. … Easy to say, right?

  6. Check your quotations.

    Yes! Check your sources, check your facts, double check your links!

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

    Yeah, that’s a good idea if you can pull it off. I don’t have a problem putting poems and stories in a drawer (folder on the PC) for as long as it needs to rest. Even for years.

    Blogging is instant, though. There’s a huge temptation to post it now because you’re trying to keep your web site active and engaged with readers. Tomorrow is a long time these days.

    Notice he says, “aloud.” That’s important. I promise your mouth will find errors and chances to improve that your eyes alone have overlooked.

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

    Peer review is vital. I’ve almost never been sorry I asked someone to check my stuff. And in most tech pubs departments, it’s required for all publications.

    I believe that every writer benefits from a support group or a writing buddy and there’s plenty of advice out there to back me up. 

    I’d add this suggestion: Don’t get feedback until you’ve done a shitty first draft.
    If you ask for help writing the first draft, you’re just working together on a shitty first draft, and that’s just a complication. Get something on the page, then collaborate.

    Even if your first draft has holes in it, the second draft will be better this way.

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

    This is so important for business: if the reader isn’t told s/he can take action – and what action to take – they probably won’t.

    It’s also important on Web sites. I used to think the first thing on my site should be something creative, beautiful. Just a portal, with menus and such on the next page.

    Here’s my old start page: http://kylekimberlin.com/writing.html. Watch what happens when you float your cursor over the image. … Cool, huh? I was so proud of that.

    I’ve learned that the days of people taking the time to be impressed by your design are behind us. The Internet is huge, and you only have a moment to set your hook.

    Of course, presentation still counts. But here’s my current Index page: http://kylekimberlin.com. Down to business.

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

    OK, I have to disagree with this one. I’m sure that was wise in 1982, but not anymore. The only time you should go bug a co-worker is if they’re ducking your
    e-mails. 

    People use computers to gather, set and track tasks now. We use computers to work. You need to get your request in their computer, not in their face.

    Going to someone’s workspace is an interruption, not a work process. Calling them on the phone isn’t much better.

    I believe that people rarely need to be involved in communication at the same time. In fact, it’s better if they’re not.

    Say what you need, and when you need it. Get on with what you’re doing, and make a note to follow up later if you don’t hear back.

    More on that last point in a later post: Tools and tips for following up.

Here’s one of my favorite business videos, Jason Fried: Why work doesn’t happen at work.

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