Does David Ogilvy’s Advice for Writers Apply to College Writing?

Newsflash! When people talk about how a liberal arts education encourages the development of skills that will be essential to success in the workforce? They’re talking about writing. (Amongst other things. But we’re a writing blog, so excuse us for honing in.)

David Ogilvy

We’ve harped on this before and will surely continue to do so in the future, but it bears repeating: the ability to write is an extraordinarily valuable skill that, if mastered, will reward you long after you graduate from college. Renowned businessman David Ogilvy certainly thought so; check out this spectacular memo entitled “How to Write” that forwarded to his employees in 1982 (Brain Pickings).

His succinct list of writing advice includes such gems as “People who think well, write well” and “Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.” Hear, hear! For some reason, it’s understood but rarely stated that writing is an invaluable component of the business world!

Yet as I continued to peruse his other points, my initial enthusiasm faded. For some of the rules Ogilvy mandates, while logical, seem to fly in the face of the type of writing we typically see here at Wesleyan. For instance:

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

Ouch. Ogilvy would probably claw his eyes out simply scanning the titles of papers written for a typical COL course; all the “engendering”s and “stigmatization”s would likely be too much for him to bear.

Now, I’m a staunch proponent of writing at your own vocabulary level. Too often students fall into the trap of thinking they can disguise weak arguments with fluffy language, awkwardly jamming complex and irrelevant words into their sentences. I see where Ogilvy is coming from: a simple “WORD” is almost always  more effective than “WORD.” Yet I can’t even count the number of times I’ve written that a certain author encourages the reconceptulaization of a certain topic. I don’t choose to use it because it’s 19 letters long, but because the scholars I am quoting frequently employ it themselves. To successfully enter into academic discourse, we must engage with both the content and language of the discipline we are writing in. We mimic the syntax, structure, and vocabulary of the authors we read as a way of legitimating our own prose. Scholars tend to favor writing that aligns with the conventions of their disciplines.

Ogilvy’s second point raises a similar issue:

2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.

Again, this might not be a rule we can follow from our ivory tower. Colloquial speech, no matter how eloquent, typically is not well received in academic discourse. Get a group of college writers together and ask them whether it’s appropriate to use “I” in an academic paper; chaos ensues.

We must adapt our writing to fit specific contexts. In our case, as students, we must write according to the rules of academic discourse. Nevertheless, Ogilvy’s points are worth keeping in mind. Sure, you shouldn’t begin an essay with “I totally loved Romeo and Juliet“…but neither should you begin it with “In penning Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare rescripts classical gendered pedagogies through his tacit circumnavigation of conventional paradigms.” You should avoid sentences like this not only because more often than not they wind up being completely gibberish (like this one), but also because they simply don’t read well. They don’t read well because nobody talks like this.  It’s not natural.

Ever attended a lecture from a truly astounding speaker? (If not, it’s time to get out of the dorm more often.) Great lecturers speak with advanced vocabulary and complex syntax, but they make it sound effortless. Natural, yet sophisticated. That’s what you’re aiming for.

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One Response to Does David Ogilvy’s Advice for Writers Apply to College Writing?

  1. derek says:

    There is no group of individuals that can contribute more from Ogilvy’s advice than academicians. The craze of postmodern jargon and arcane, impenetrable philosophical-analysis is in its dying days. It embarrassing to think that so many scholars, especially those in the humanities and social sciences, exist solely in their small, elitist circles, feeding off each others’ intellectual validation and respect. Not a single journal article from The American Journal of Semiotics, International Journal of Zizek Studies, or Theory, Culture & Society has had or will have any influence on the society and works that they study. Instead of providing the collective world with knowledge to help influence society, scholars invent praise for their work, much like the meaning they invent in literature and other arts. In part, this cancer on academia stems from obscure language. If scholars lost the terms they clutch to, limiting them to Ogilvy rules, the pointlessness and absurdity of most work in the humanities and social sciences would be plainly obvious. For generations “we mimic the syntax, structure, and vocabulary of the authors we read as a way of legitimating our own prose.”Now we see the result. Instead of idea-driven writing, academia now favors borrowed prose. And in its self-contained discourse, the humanities fails to provide any work of intellectual substance.

    The problem is in the writing. People hide behind terms like “reconceptulaization.” Their analysis is essentially artistic interpretation. Any objective reality in scholarship is lost. This mindless game of mimicking prose has to stop. It has pushed the ivory tower far from social importance. It is disturbing to think about the filth that has been paraded as academia to the public. Let ideas to the talking, not the language. Why so many bright students feel the need to devote their lives to an bickering circle on DFW’s notion of a consumer society is beyond me. Don’t you realize that this “scholarship” does nothing to advance human kind?

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