In a storied career that spanned 50 years, legendary “Mad Man” David Ogilvy sold over $100 million worth of advertising. He was known and widely respected for his highly disciplined approach to copywriting.
A recent Copyblogger.com article listed 10 “copywriting crimes” that David urged his fellow scribes to avoid. If you committed any of these blunders on his watch, it noted, you were likely to receive a biting memo or “handwritten note scribbled on a scrap of paper.”
David was renowned for his sparkling, spare, and seductive prose. While we may not be copywriters in the advertising game, I think there may be value for us all in pondering his list of writing misdemeanors. So here they are, with a dash of spin-doctoring on my end. Do not:
1. Be boring: We all know that sinking feeling we get when we read something that just doesn’t grab us or engage us. To be bored is defined as “feeling weary or impatient because one is unoccupied or has no interest in one’s current activity.” Sounds like the last thing we as writers would want our readers to experience, doesn’t it? Whatever we write has to come alive on the page. I have a card on my desk written in my mom Dorothy’s beautiful handwriting which says, “If the words don’t sing, the idea can’t dance.”
2. Sling mud at competitors: My take on this “crime” is that we all have “competitors” in our writing universe. These may be writers we admire and aspire to emulate in some way — or people whose success sparks envy in us.Whoever they are and whatever role they play in our life, let’s not waste too much time worrying about them. Let’s tend to our own vineyards with joy and gratitude and let everyone else do the same.
3. Write copy that lacks charm: Intriguing: How does this “crime” differ from #1, boring readers? Being boring means that we tire readers instead of enlivening them. And here’s the simplest definition of charm: “the power or quality of delighting or fascinating others.” To me, writing something that “lacks charm” means that we fail to enchant readers, to involve them fully in the worlds that we create.
4. Break a promise: We ask readers to spend time with us with the understanding that we will provide them with an emotionally satisfying experience — a promise we fail to keep at our peril!
5. Use jargon: “Obscure and pretentious language” — this Webster’s definition says it all. Who among us isn’t well advised to avoid fussy, deadening language at all costs?
Well that’s five out of 10 “copywriting crimes” — stay tuned for the rest. Write on!