There’s inspiration out there, not necessarily in ‘them thar hills’, but in the writings of the good and great of copywriting and journalistic writing from bygone days. And I’ve been reminded of a couple of gems that can help everyone who writes for business – including you.
With the fast-pace of technological change, we’ve become used to computers and phones being out of date the day we buy them. But in the world of business writing, the pace of change isn’t so fast and loads of advice that worked decades (or even a century) ago still holds good today.
The timeless wisdom of Claude C. Hopkins
You only need to read Claude C. Hopkins‘ My Life in Advertising and Scientific Advertising to get this. Amongst other things, Hopkins was the brain behind the famous, and still influential, Schlitz Beer ads that are always being quoted in advertising texts.
I’ve been reading these two books recently and was struck by how simply relevant his thoughts on letter writing, testing and other advertising matters remain some 82 years after his death. No wonder David Ogilvy wrote:
Nobody should be allowed to have anything to do with advertising until he has read this book (Scientific Advertising) seven times. It changed the course of my life.
You can read Scientific Advertising online for free (or buy the combined books in hard copy).
More recent inspiration for any business writer
Another, more recent gem that I’ve been reading is Donald M. Murray’s Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work – my copy was published in 2000. In the book, Murray, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, covers topics as diverse as the journalist’s craft, writing before writing and development of journalistic pieces. As well as a healthy dose of experience-based advice, the book also includes a fascinating selection of interviews with journalists where they talk about writing.
Though the book is primarily aimed at professional journalists, there are gems that will transform the way anyone writes for business. In particular, I was struck by the chapter titled ‘DEVELOP: Work on What Works’ where Murray discusses the process of developing a draft document.
If there was one thing that jumped out from this chapter, it was Murray’s assertion that writing will take a huge leap forward if, when revising a draft, you focus not on what is wrong, but what is working – what is right. By doing so, the improvement on an original draft is accelerated and, interestingly, most of the problems of early drafts will solve themselves. Those that aren’t can be more easily isolated and worked on. It’s a radical change from the idea of focusing on what’s wrong with a document. Murray also advocates thinking about revision, not as a punishment for failure, but as an opportunity. Sounds a bit like the old ‘challenges, not problems’ thing, doesn’t it.
Is this for real? I guess it is.
And here’s one last thing which I took away from reading Murray; it resonates with me as someone who regularly has to transform clients’ drafts from ‘we orientated’ to ‘you-oriented’ when writing for website or brochure readers. Here’s what Murray writes:
It is print journalist tradition to avoid the first person (in fact, the capital letter I had been filed off all the Royal typewriters in the old Boston Herald city room when I arrived in 1948).
Although Murray then goes on to state that there is an occasional place for the first person in journalistic writing, I just liked this anecdote and it is a great reminder of the importance of writing directly to your reader – and talking about them much more than about you!
A worthwhile read – even if it’s only Chapter 7
So there you go, a few thoughts prompted by a trip back in time into my copywriting library. If you have to develop draft documents, you could do worse than invest in a copy – even if you only read Chapter 7, it will be worthwhile.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve ever learned about copywriting or editing? feel free to comment below.