Edit the gush
I’m encouraged by David Ogilvy’s habits as a copywriter, as quoted by the brilliant Letters of Note.
Ogilvy’s list suggests the work of writing does not come fluently or naturally to him (a master ad man), but happens in fits and starts, painfully, and almost as a by-product of other activities. These are, variously, researching, brainstorming, establishing a brief, criticising his early work, drinking, listening to music. It’s the edits that show his skill. “I am a lousy copywriter,” he says (David Ogilvy), “but I am a good editor”.
Here’s his list:
1. I have never written an advertisement in the office. Too many interruptions. I do all my writing at home.
2. I spend a long time studying the precedents. I look at every advertisement which has appeared for competing products during the past 20 years.
3. I am helpless without research material—and the more “motivational” the better.
4. I write out a definition of the problem and a statement of the purpose which I wish the campaign to achieve. Then I go no further until the statement and its principles have been accepted by the client.
5. Before actually writing the copy, I write down every concievable fact and selling idea. Then I get them organized and relate them to research and the copy platform.
6. Then I write the headline. As a matter of fact I try to write 20 alternative headlines for every advertisement. And I never select the final headline without asking the opinion of other people in the agency. In some cases I seek the help of the research department and get them to do a split-run on a battery of headlines.
7. At this point I can no longer postpone the actual copy. So I go home and sit down at my desk. I find myself entirely without ideas. I get bad-tempered. If my wife comes into the room I growl at her. (This has gotten worse since I gave up smoking.)
8. I am terrified of producing a lousy advertisement. This causes me to throw away the first 20 attempts.
9. If all else fails, I drink half a bottle of rum and play a Handel oratorio on the gramophone. This generally produces an uncontrollable gush of copy.
10. The next morning I get up early and edit the gush.
11. Then I take the train to New York and my secretary types a draft. (I cannot type, which is very inconvenient.)
12. I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor. So I go to work editing my own draft. After four or five editings, it looks good enough to show to the client. If the client changes the copy, I get angry—because I took a lot of trouble writing it, and what I wrote I wrote on purpose.
– David Ogilvy, in a letter written in 1955 to a Mr. Ray Calt