How to Write Well: 12 Timeless Rules from Legendary Ad Exec David Ogilvy

The ability to write well is one of the most important skills you can develop in business and in life. Good writing can help you connect with people, influence decisions, and inspire action. But what does it mean to "write well" exactly? How can you hone your writing ability to communicate with greater impact?

Legendary advertising executive David Ogilvy had a lot to say on the subject. Often called "The Father of Advertising," Ogilvy founded the agency Ogilvy & Mather and was responsible for some of the most iconic ad campaigns of the 20th century. More importantly, he understood the power of the written word to command attention and shape opinion.

In an internal memo to his staff in 1982, Ogilvy laid out his core principles for great writing. "The better you write, the higher you will go," he told his team. "People who think well, write well." He went on to share 10 practical tips anyone can use to improve their writing.

Nearly 40 years later, Ogilvy‘s advice on effective writing is just as relevant as ever. Here‘s a closer look at his essential rules, updated and expanded for the digital age:

1. Read Widely to Recognize Good Writing

Ogilvy recommended reading a classic book on business writing three times to absorb its lessons. But his broader point was this: To write well, you must read well. Consume as much good writing as you can to internalize the qualities and characteristics of powerful prose.

Reading remains essential, but your options have expanded exponentially since Ogilvy‘s days. Blogs, ebooks, and online magazines offer a constant stream of high-quality writing to analyze and emulate. The more good writing you read, the easier it becomes to spot (and fix) the flaws in your own work.

Make reading a daily priority. As author Ryan Holiday suggests, treat it like eating or breathing – a necessity, not an optional luxury. Carry a book, ebook, or article with you at all times, and dive in whenever you have a spare minute. Over time, you‘ll develop an intuitive feel for what works.

2. Write Like You Speak (Only Better)

Ogilvy was famous for his informal, conversational writing style. He used simple language, short sentences, and a healthy dose of wit. Even when discussing complex topics, his writing sounded like he was casually chatting with a friend. This relaxed, natural tone immediately put readers at ease.

When crafting your own writing, imagine you‘re having a face-to-face discussion with your audience. Use everyday language, contractions, and even slang where appropriate. Inject your writing with personality. Business writing doesn‘t need to be stiff or impersonal to be professional.

Of course, "write like you speak" doesn‘t mean you should ramble on without any structure. Use your natural voice as a starting point, but tighten it up. Remove filler words, run-on sentences, and awkward phrasing. Your goal is to write like a more articulate, concise version of your speaking self.

3. Embrace Brevity

People today are busier and more distracted than ever. They don‘t have time to wade through walls of text to find the point. Every word needs to earn its place on the page. As Ogilvy put it, "Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass."

To write concisely, you need two things: 1) The awareness to spot opportunities to condense, and 2) The discipline to follow through and cut the fat. Try the ‘LEDE‘ approach, limiting yourself to:

L – One key point per Line
E – 2-3 short sentences per paragraph to Explain your point
D – 5 paragraphs or fewer to Discuss the whole concept
E – A clear Example to illustrate

Get in the habit of trimming needless words, combining related sentences, and collapsing similar ideas. Reread each draft with an unsympathetic eye. Highlight areas where readers may get bored or lose the thread. Then streamline those sections to be crystal clear.

4. Prioritize Clarity Above All Else

Simple writing isn‘t "dumbing it down." It‘s a sign of respect for your reader‘s time and mental energy. Ogilvy said it best: "Write to someone you know, with the intention of getting them to do something or at least understand something fully when you‘re finished."

Rephrase complex ideas using familiar analogies and relatable examples, like celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain did when explaining collateralized debt obligations in layman‘s terms for the movie The Big Short. Wherever specialized lingo appears, balance it out with a quick definition.

If readers need to pause to decipher any of your sentences, you still have editing to do. Install the free Hemingway App to get instant feedback on readability as you write. It highlights difficult words, dense paragraphs, passive voice, and other common clarity killers.

5. Check (and Recheck) Your Facts

Modern writers face a credibility crisis. With misinformation spreading rapidly online, readers are increasingly skeptical of unfamiliar claims and sources. Anything you publish will be scrutinized and fact-checked by the crowd. Any mistakes – even unintentional ones – can undermine your authority.

"In the age of self-publishing and Fake News, a writer‘s integrity is paramount," Ogilvy warned. His advice? "Check your quotations." Manually verify every fact, figure, name, and source in your writing. If you make an argument, back it up with research from credible institutions.

When linking to external websites, point to primary sources like academic papers, government databases, and reputable publications with rigorous editorial standards. Avoid shady stats from unknown origins. Showing your work will demonstrate the depth of your expertise.

6. Let Your Writing Marinate

No first draft is ever perfect. That‘s why Ogilvy recommended putting some distance between writing and publishing: "Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it."

The Paramedic Method, developed by writing professor Richard Lanham, is a great system for methodical self-editing. First, identify potential problems like unnecessary prepositional phrases, overused ‘to be‘ verbs, confusing sentence structures, and redundant descriptions. Then make targeted edits to strengthen each sentence.

Build in ample time for revisions before any publishing deadlines. Ideally, sleep on it and revisit your draft with fresh eyes. Mistakes, gaps, and opportunities to punch up the language tend to reveal themselves after a mental break. Continue tweaking until every line flows smoothly from start to finish.

7. Solicit Brutally Honest Feedback

No matter how careful you are, it‘s impossible to catch all your own blind spots and bad habits. Ogilvy knew that outside feedback is critical for growth. For important pieces, he said, "get a colleague to improve it."

Asking for constructive criticism requires putting your ego aside. Look for an editor who will give you their unfiltered opinion, not just a cursory thumbs-up. Actively welcome tough questions. If a reader is confused by any part of your draft, that‘s on you to fix, not on them to figure out.

In our hyperconnected world, you have more options than ever for enlisting help. Post in a writing-focused forum on Reddit or Tweet at writers you admire for advice. Join a local writers meetup. Swap drafts with a stickler coworker or friend. Hiring a professional editor is also easier and more affordable than ever.

8. Know Your Goal (and Make It Crystal Clear)

In his famous memo, Ogilvy urged his team to get specific: "Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do." Business writing, in particular, needs a defined purpose. Are you trying to make a sale, change a mind, or inspire a behavior?

Knowing your goal up front acts as a unifying force. It informs your choice of language, evidence, and emotional appeals. It keeps you focused and prevents tangents. "To ignite action, you need to know what you want the reader to think, feel and do by the end," says HubSpot‘s former Chief Marketing Officer Mike Volpe.

Whatever your objective, state it plainly for the reader. Imply the logical next steps throughout the piece. Then punctuate your writing with an explicit call-to-action. After investing their time, your audience shouldn‘t be left wondering, "Well, what now?" Guide them to the finish line.

9. Show, Don‘t Just Tell

In the battle for people‘s attention, you can‘t afford to be boring. Vivid writing makes your ideas stick. As Ogilvy said, "You cannot bore people into buying your product. You can only interest them in buying it."

Dazzle readers by showing instead of telling. Rather than rattling off a list of product features, set the scene and describe how each element creates a better experience. Help them imagine living out the benefits. Appeal to the senses. Use unexpected metaphors.

Crack jokes. Contrary to popular belief, humor is welcome in business writing. Just keep it short and punchy. Ogilvy was a master of the humorous "reveal," saving a clever quip for the last line, as in this famous headline: "At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock."

10. Provide Practical Value

The best writing doesn‘t just entertain or persuade. It arms people with useful knowledge they can apply in the real world. Ogilvy believed that "the more informative your advertising, the more persuasive it will be."

For content marketers today, this means thinking beyond surface-level fluff. Listicles and roundups have their place, but your writing needs substance to stand out. Do original research, crunch data, and uncover fresh insights. Interview experts to give your stories weight and credibility.

Invest the time to create comprehensive resources, like step-by-step guides, detailed case studies, and definitive ebooks. Strive to make every piece you publish the last word on the subject. Aim to write something so valuable that readers would happily pay for it, even though it‘s free.

11. Evoke Emotion

People make decisions based on feelings first and facts second. To win hearts and minds, your writing needs to stir emotion. "The headline is critically important," said Ogilvy. "On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy."

Push readers‘ emotional hot buttons with power words, sensory details, and storytelling. Help them feel the frustration of their problems and envision the joy of your solutions. If you can make prospects feel as well as think, you‘ll have a much easier time persuading them to act.

Just be careful to modulate emotional appeals with logic and proof points. You don‘t want to come across as manipulative. Pinpoint the primary emotion that aligns best with your topic and brand, then use the other tips in this list to keep your claims grounded.

12. Know When to Walk Away from the Keyboard

Ogilvy‘s final tip is paradoxical but profound: "If you want ACTION, don‘t write. Go and tell the guy what you want." Some communication is simply better handled in person. No amount of eloquence can substitute for the trust and rapport of a face-to-face meeting.

In our tech-saturated age, it‘s tempting to hide behind screens. But true influence often requires pressing the flesh, as Ogilvy understood. If you really need to make an impression, do it with eye contact and a firm handshake.

Even in the digital realm, there are times when writing isn‘t the best approach. Instead of firing off an email or crafting yet another blog post, consider picking up the phone, teleconferencing over Zoom, or recording a personalized Loom video. Sometimes the medium is just as important as the message.

The Bottom Line

Writing well is hard work, but it‘s a skill anyone can develop with the right process. By applying David Ogilvy‘s timeless tips, you‘ll learn to write with simplicity, clarity, and power. You‘ll make a deeper impact with your words. Best of all, you‘ll be prepared to let your writing do the talking when it matters most.

As Ogilvy wrote in a passage that‘s still relevant today, "Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well."

Start now, and there‘s no telling how far your words might take you.