The Elements of Style: the ad writer’s best friend

March 22, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

The Elements of StyleThe best book ever written on the art of effective writing is The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.

There is much good advice in this classic text, especially in the last 20 pages, titled “An Approach to Style.” Nowhere have I seen more helpful advice in so few words with such precision. This is why I always keep this book within reach.

I will leave it to you to explore this book on your own. But I would like to provide my own version of select advice from this essential reference. This applies to all writing, of course, but it is particularly important for advertising copy.

  • Put the reader first. The purpose of writing is clear, sometimes persuasive, communication. It is not about you or your clever ideas. If you write with the goal of being impressive, you will distract the reader from the content. Good writing is like a store window. It should be clean and clear and provide an unobstructed view of the contents within.
  • Organize your thoughts. You don’t need a detailed outline for most writing. But you do need to know what you want to say before you say it. If you’re comfortable with the sort of outline you learned in school, use it. Otherwise, simply jot down the important points you want to make and arrange them in the order you want to make them. Be sure to eliminate any ideas that are not directly related to these points.
  • Use short paragraphs. Look at any newspaper and notice how short the paragraphs are. That’s done to make reading easier since our brains take in information better when that information is broken into small chunks. In ordinary writing, each paragraph develops one idea and includes many sentences. But in ad writing, the style is less formal and paragraphs may be as short as a single sentence or even a single word.
  • Use short sentences. You should keep sentences short for the same reason you keep paragraphs short: they’re easier to read and understand. Each sentence should have one simple thought. More than that creates complexity and invites confusion.
  • Use simple words. Since your purpose is to communicate and not impress, simple words work better than big ones. Write “get” instead of “procure.” Write “use” rather than “utilize.” Use the longer words only if your meaning is so specific that there is no simpler word to use.
  • Be specific. Don’t write “Many doctors recommend Brand X.” Write “97% of doctors recommend Brand X.” Don’t write “The Big Widget is offered in many colors.” Write “The Big Widget comes in red, green, blue, and white.” Get to the point. Say what you mean. Use specific nouns.
  • Write in a conversational style. There is a road sign often posted near construction sites that always irritates me. It reads, “Maintain present lane.” Why so formal? A more conversational style would be better: “Stay in your lane” or “Do not change lanes.” If you write as if you’re wearing a top hat and spats, you distance yourself from the reader and muddle the message. If you write like you talk, in a friendly and simple way, you will communicate more clearly and directly.
  • Be clear. This may be the most important rule of all. Without clarity, your writing fails on every level. You must look at your writing with an objective eye. Consider what might be misunderstood and rewrite it. Find what is irrelevant and delete it. Notice what is missing and insert it.

There are many fine books on good writing. But I have yet to find one that surpasses The Elements of Style. When you find yourself mired in a thought that won’t resolve itself on paper, this book raps you on the head like a ball-peen hammer. It’s written with the same simplicity and clarity it advocates.

When writing fails, the most common causes are that the writer doesn’t have something to say, or the writer is too concerned with affecting a style, or both. Follow the suggestions here, and you will avoid these problems and many others. Plus you will find that your ad copy is more lively, more meaningful, and more profitable.

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Smart Comments

8 Comments on The Elements of Style: the ad writer’s best friend

  1. Josh Hanagarne on Mar 22nd, 2010 5:56 pm
  2. Dean, did you know that there’s an opera based on the Elements of Style now? It’s my last hope for people who won’t listen to me at the library when I tell them to read it.
    .-= Josh Hanagarne’s last blog … I Am The Movement =-.

  3. Dean Rieck on Mar 22nd, 2010 6:38 pm
  4. Josh:
    Do you have a link for that?

  5. Josh Hanagarne on Mar 22nd, 2010 6:42 pm
  6. Dean, here’s an old NPR link:

    I heard about this at a conference when I got to meet the director of the NY City public library’s director of programming. His job, as he put it, is to “create havoc.” Staging this opera in the famous Reading Room was one of his ventures, although he wasn’t involved with the creation of the opera at all.

    .-= Josh Hanagarne’s last blog … I Am The Movement =-.

  7. Dean Rieck on Mar 22nd, 2010 7:03 pm
  8. Josh:
    That’s just too funny. I love it.

  9. Dean on Mar 23rd, 2010 3:04 am
  10. That book has been mentioned to me so many times, but your recommendation is the most persuasive. I will now buy a copy and read it. Thanks.
    .-= Dean’s last blog … Are banners an effective ad medium? =-.

  11. Kevin Francis on Apr 4th, 2010 8:19 pm
  12. Dean,

    Thanks for the post! Prompted me to actually go and read my copy of the book (As opposed to it sitting on my shelf along with the many other unread volumes)!

    Quick question. You’ve used an image of the book to illustrate the post. What are the copyright rules about using images like this? Also, using images of film posters and actual advertisements? I would assume that because items like that are in the public domain it’s OK to use them. But I’ve been trying to find some definitive info.

    Thanks again for the post!

    Kevin Francis
    .-= Kevin Francis’s last blog … One Easter Marketing Success Story… =-.

  13. Dean Rieck on Apr 4th, 2010 9:00 pm
  14. Kevin,
    Well, the image is from Amazon. They make these images available on purpose to help them sell books. So there can’t possibly be any copyright infringement. But if you want definitive, you’d have to talk to a lawyer. That’s just a smidgeon worse than talking to a marketing consultant. :)

  15. Kevin Francis on Apr 4th, 2010 9:12 pm
  16. Hi Dean,

    Thanks for your reply. Yes, that makes sense if it’s a link from Amazon. Presumably they know what they’re doing!!

    Yes, you’re right, I’ll need to get some legal input to satisfy my curiosity about this. Ouch!

    Safest approach, of course, is to only use your own graphics, royalty free images or where you have permission (as with Amazon).

    Hey, great blog! Wish I found it sooner!

    Kevin Francis
    .-= Kevin Francis’s last blog … One Easter Marketing Success Story… =-.