Grammar Hammer: A Lesson in Writing from David Ogilvy


“Don’t use 10 words if you can say it in five.” This is one of the most common writing tips I come across while I’m researching grammar rules.

Oddly enough, we were all taught to practice the exact opposite in school.

Remember writing papers that were required to be at least 1,000 words or 10 pages long? Then, after pulling an all-nighter you ended up with 7-1/2 pages and tried triple spacing sentences or finding additional quotes you could throw in there to hit that required page length or word count.

Thankfully in the professional world, less is more.

David Ogilvy, a legend in advertising, sent the below memo to all his employees at Ogilvy & Mather in 1986. Entitled “How to Write,” his tips hold true almost 30 years later. This list is one of many writings in the book, The Unpublished David Ogilvy.


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.

– David

*Writing That Works, by Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at [email protected].

Click here for more Grammar Hammer and writing tips.

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire. A version of this blog post originally appeared on Beyond PR

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