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Monday, July 30, 2012

20 PRINCIPLES OF GOOD WRITING | Ken Roman and Joel Raphaelson, Ogilvy & Mather

From How to Write Better: the Ogilvy & Mather guide to writing effective memos, letters, reports, plans and strategies, an agency document by Ken Roman and Joel Raphaelson in 1978. (Roman eventually became Ogilvy & Mather chairman and CEO and Raphaelson, executive creative director.)

Their advice is more than 30 years old, but it still applies to all types of writing. I especially liked their first point ... about the limited time of readers. Because of that time limitation, writers must make their point clearly early in a document. And they must use as few words as possible in the entire document.

Three comments on their advice: 
  • They suggest underlining text to emphasize it. With the advent personal computers (since 1978), boldfacing key words or sentences or italicizing short statements is preferred. Underlines can be misleading or hard to read, especially if used on the Web; they suggest a Web link. 
  • They frown on using "hopefully" to begin a sentence; times have changed, and using hopefully to modify an entire sentence is now acceptable. 
  • They stress  the difference in meaning between i.e. ("that is") and e.g. ("for example"). Rather than using those abbreviations for Latin terms, I recommend using English instead!
Roman and Raphaelson introduced their document with this statement:
When you are speaking for Ogilvy & Mather, your writing must meet our standards. These allow ample room for individuality and freshness of expression. But “personal style” is not an excuse for sloppy, unprofessional writing.
Here's a summary of their 20 principles "that all good writers follow":
  1. Keep in mind that the reader doesn’t have much time.
  2. Know where you are going – and tell the reader.
  3. Make what you write easy to read.
  4. Short sentences and short paragraphs are easier to read than long ones.
  5. Make your writing vigorous and direct.
  6. Avoid clich├ęs.
  7. Avoid vague modifiers such as “very” and “slightly.”
  8. Use specific concrete language.
  9. Find the right word.
  10. Don’t make spelling mistakes.
  11. Don’t overwrite or overstate.
  12. Come to the point.
  13. State things as simply as you can.
  14. Handle numbers consistently.
  15. Avoid needless words.
  16. Be concise, but readable.
  17. Be brief, simple and natural.
  18. Don’t write like a lawyer or a bureaucrat.
  19. Never be content with your first draft.
  20. Have somebody else look over your draft.
For more similar advice, check out Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide. It provides a seven-step approach to writing clearly and concisely to meet the needs of your readers. It covers reader and purpose, organization, paragraphs, sentences, words, design, and testing. 

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