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Five Style Ideas for Writers from David Ogilvy

Introduction: Five Style Ideas for Writers from David Ogilvy!

We spend a lot of time on the blog talking about writing. Bloggers typically like to write, I certainly do. Writing is the core of what bloggers, public relations and advertising people do. It’s unlikely that anyone would debate that or try and tell you that your ideas and business philosophy are wrong. Some may disagree but would also quickly acknowledge that everyone has a right to an opinion and we value freedom of expression. And at the end of the day, the marketplace will decide who has the best ideas. Not so, at least in my experience, are the choices about style. I can’t say that the style I use is for everyone. I can say that this style works for me and that I learned it under very stressful circumstances.

When I was first asked to write advertising for a subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company I was petrified. Scared beyond reason. Why? Because I knew absolutely nothing about it and because I feared failing at anything more than my own death. What to do?

Inside our local bookstore was a volume entitled, “Ogilvy On Advertising” by David Ogilvy. I had either by accident or the hand of God found the definitive work on advertising by the man most credit with the invention of modern advertising. It turned out that this “David Ogilvy” was the Ogilvy of the world famous “Ogilvy and Mather” advertising agency. His failures in life and business were many. The thing he had learned from them was among other things, the value of research.

Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy is a classic that helped me greatly and might for you as well.
Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy is a classic that helped me greatly and might help you too.

Advertising worked for his and other agency clients. Ogilvy wanted a competitive advantage over those other agencies by writing and designing ads that worked better than those of his competition. So he studied and tested and consulted with the best minds available. Here in brief is what he designed for print advertising.

Style Guide for Print and Web Based Materials

  1. Font: Use the Times Roman font, in 12-point size. This is the same font that is used by newspapers and high circulation magazines. Known as a “serif” font, the differences in thickness in these letters are easier for the eye to literally “grasp” and hold. The use of sans-serif (smooth) fonts allow the eye to “bounce off”. This is less an aesthetic choice than a mechanical one. This font is easier for the eye to read because of the way human eyes are designed.
  1. Line length: Keep sentences to an alphabet and one half in length. Like the font, this is the amount of space the human brain can reasonably process and keep track of, where longer lines are confusing. Our brains do not have the “band-width” for longer lines.
  1. Black type on a white surface: art directors will not like this. You see a lot of reverse (white on black) and other color combinations that are deemed “creative”. Advertising, brochures and other printed materials are not media for creative expression, particularly in business to business sales. Ogilvy and others have found that the reverse type is much harder to read than the black on white. If it is harder to read, it is less likely to be read.
  1. Headlines and photos: The Ogilvy formula was to have a full page ad with a color photo, headline beneath and copy started below, using a “drop cap”. This follows the progression of how the western educated eye will move. The “drop cap” will signal the brain that this is the place to start and direct the eye across and down the page.
  1. Long copy or short? Ogilvy was an advocate of long copy because he said it conveyed the idea that there must be something important to say. This was counter-intuitive 50 years ago and more so now in the age of twitter. I still think long copy is the best way to work because it allows writers the opportunity to share important details, again important for the B to B marketer. So use short sentences on twitter or your web site to attract attention and link them to the longer articles you want to share. The reader self-selects what he/she wants and proceeds accordingly.


There are as many opinions about how to write and how to layout and design a page as there are people who care to share an opinion. I cannot say that this is the absolute and only way to do this. What I can say is that this worked