10 No-Bullshit Techniques for Writers, Artists and Musicians

Why do we all love lists so much? The Great Umberto Eco claims that list making is humanity’s attempt to make sense of the universe. “How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.”

As a writer, I am draw to creating to-do lists, and then ignoring them. The items on lists pile up until guilt finally coerces me into getting it done. 

David Ogilvy, famous as the father of advertising, created a no-bullshit list on how to be a better writer (specifically in the corporate office). With a double of tweaks, his advice can serve for any creative type. Often, artists are a corporation of one, and we need ways to motivate our workforce.

1) Ogilvy suggests that everyone read Writing That Works (by Roman-Raphaelson). I haven’t personally read this book, but I have delved into many other tomes on proper writing. The goal of this book is effective communication.

2) Write the way you talk. Naturally.

This is excellent advice. Rather than adopt some false style, or mimic another style, we should strive to create in a way that comes naturally to us. 

3) Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.

The key here is to avoid over-complicating things. Often, when I’m unsure of a drawing or a piece of music, my instinct is to add more detail. Layer it on. But all this does is attempt to cover up a sloppy starting concept. Better to keep things short and concise to begin with. 

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

Solid advice. It’s okay to be an ass (if it suits your style), just avoid being pretentious. 

5) Never write more than two pages on any subject.

When we get going on a good scene or bit of dialogue, our tendency is to keep the good times rolling. But the best books are made with careful editing. 

6) Check your quotations.

Though this is more aimed at the business/academic world, it can also apply to creative types. We should think back to our inspirations. What elements are we consciously adapting from other sources and how can we tweak them? SEE OTHER POST

7) Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.

I work primarily with stories and the temptation is to just send it out when it’s done. However, waiting to review a story (or any other creative project) is crucial. This goes double for any communication we might send out to prospective publishers and agents. 

8) If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.

A good critique group is the lifeblood of any creative individual. We can never see our work objectively. The advice of others working in our field can mean the difference between mediocre and awesome. 

9) Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.

Obviously this can apply to emails. But with a little stretch, we can adapt it to our entire project. That novel you’re writing, is the elevator pitch crystal clear? Can you communicate the main idea of what you’re creating in a few simple sentences. 

10) If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

This is more advice for life. As an elementary school teacher, I can attest to the effectiveness of this. If I tell the class to work on some task, a few might get started. If I go straight to the people that need help, I can assure that the task will get done the way I want it. 

Few of us are running an advertising firm like Ogilvy, but his list of writing tips can help all of us focus on creation, without getting mired in needless details. 

Tim Kane

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