What One of the World’s Great Novelists Learned About Writing from David Ogilvy

Image of Vintage Schoolhouse Interior

Salman Rushdie is one of our greatest living novelists.

His novel, Midnight’s Children, won the Man Booker Prize in 1981, and in 2008 the novel was named the Best of the Bookers, the best Booker winning novel since the prizes’ inception.

However, before Sir  Salman Rushdie was a famous, knighted novelist, he was a copywriter under the suspender-wearing, direct marketing pioneer, David Ogilvy. Yes, that’s right. The great novelist learned from the great copywriter.

What do copywriting and creative writing have in common? Some would say, “Nothing.” It’s easy to look at Rushdie’s time at Ogilvy and Mather’s London office as his period of “working for the man” while he wrote his novels.

However, the lessons Rushdie learned as a copywriter were essential to his development as a novelist, and the fact that Rushdie wrote Midnight’s Children  on the off hours from his copywriting job shows that maybe he should never have quit?

Let’s explore these lessons about effective writing from novelist and copywriter Salman Rushdie.

1. Spend an inordinate amount of time on headlines

While finishing Midnight’s Children, Rushdie reportedly spent several hours at the office trying to choose the novel’s title, even resorting to typing his two finalists “Children of Midnight” and “Midnight’s Children” over and over.

Today, we’re inundated with titles and headlines.

Everywhere you go online, from Facebook, to Twitter, to your email inbox, someone is trying to grab your attention with a compelling headline. If you want your blog post or book to have a chance, you need to spend time making sure your titles are both clear and engaging.

Salman Rushdie knew how important the title of his book was, and spent hours debating which to choose.

How long are you spending working on your headlines?

2. Panic your way to success

Imagine it’s your job to convey the taste of a chocolate bar in just one word. And by the way, you’re not going to get paid for, “Delicious.”

This was the situation Rushdie was in one afternoon when a panicking co-worker asked him to brainstorm a new slogan for Aero, a British candy bar filled with air bubbles. As they batted around ideas, the unthinkable happened. The client called unexpectedly, demanding results.

This particular co-worker, according to Rushdie, “Had a tendency, when he was panicking, to sweat profusely and to begin to stammer, also extensively.” When the client asked him to do something, he said, “It’s impossib-ib-ib-ible.”

Rushdie says the light went on. “While he was still on the phone sweating and stammering, I wrote down every word I could think of that ended with ‘able’ or ‘ible’ and turned it into ‘bubble’.” Rushdie ended up with “Irresistibubble,” which is still Aero’s slogan, over 30 years later.

Panic can be an excellent tool for creativity. Here are a two easy ways to summon panic in your creative process:

  1. Become accountable: While Rushdie had the benefit of a client on the other end of the phone and a boss like David Ogilvy looking over his shoulder, bloggers don’t always have people to hold them accountable. However, you do have your audience, and you can always imagine them sitting at their computers, waiting for you to publish your next post, and wondering what’s taking so long. Are they really doing that? Probably not, but we can hope, right?
  2. Set Deadlines: When I used Feedburner as my email subscription service, my post had to be finished by 11 every morning or it wouldn’t be emailed to subscribers until the next day. At 10:55, I sometimes found myself in a nervous sweat, rushing to finish my post. I could have easily changed the setting to a later time, but I left it because it forced me into a panic that fueled my productivity. Want to force yourself to write faster? Why not tweak your subscription settings to set a deadline of your own?

3. Make a big statement with few words

At the 2008 IAPI Advertising Effectiveness Award ceremony, Rushdie said:

One of the great things about advertising is you have to say a lot in very little. You have to try to make a very big statement in very few words or very few images and you haven’t much time. All of that is, I feel, very, very useful.

Short, simple sentences work. In fact, simplicity actually makes you sound smarter because your readers will actually understand what you’re saying.

You may think it’s more difficult to write complex sentences with five-syllable words. In reality, one sign of a master is to communicate much in just a few words.

(Of course, if Rushdie had worked for Ogilvy a little longer, he may have cut a few of those “very’s.”)

4. Great (copy)writing is a job

While Rushdie certainly was a strong writer before he began working at Ogilvy and Mather, his career as a copywriter taught him the tough discipline he needed to succeed as a writer. He says says:

I write like a job. I sit down in the morning and I do it. I don’t miss deadlines. I do feel that a lot of the professional craft of writing is something I learnt from those years in advertising and I’ll always be grateful for it.

With writing, I don’t believe in talent. Instead, you are either practiced or not.

Whether you’re a six-figure copywriter or someone who blogs for fun, if you want to become a better writer, treat it like your job.

5. Don’t give into rejection

When Rushdie was assigned an ad for Fresh Cream Cakes, the client rejected his tagline, “Naughty. But Nice.”  However, a year later, after he’d moved onto writing fiction full time, his tagline was everywhere in the U.K., including billboards and television.

Rushdie, didn’t let rejection stop him, and when his first novel was rejected by publishers, it motivated him to grow as a writer. As he says in a recent interview:

It took me a long time to learn to be a writer. One must find themselves an editor or, failing that, a group of people who will tell you the truth about your writing, and are not afraid to say, ‘This really isn’t good enough.’ … Unless someone can tell you that what you’re writing is no good, then you won’t know how to push it to a point when it can start being good.

What creative writing and copywriting have in common

Before Salman Rushdie worked for David Ogilvy, he was a poor, out of work actor. By the time he quit copywriting, he was a published novelist about to release one of the most celebrated books of the 20th century.

It’s easy to think of commercial writing and creative writing as two different worlds, but Rushdie shows us the lines between the two are much more blurry than one might think. Both are about presenting your readers with new opportunities and transforming the way  they see the world.

If you’re a creative writer, perhaps you need to give copywriting a try. If it worked for Salman Rushdie, it might just work for you.

What have you learned about writing from copywriting?

Print Friendly

What do you want to learn?

Click to get a free course and resources about:

Reader Comments (43)

  1. says

    I do my best writing at the very last minute. I love the panic because it gets me moving. I’m a procrastinator of the 3rd degree. Which means that I have to motivate myself to get started long before my time runs out. Otherwise I’ll wait till the last hour. Many times, I’ve gotten great results and happy clients from this. But, my hair is going grey…

    I think there is a lot more in common with copywriting and creative writing than most people think. I write fiction (though unpublished as of yet) and am a mildly successful copywriter. To me, you have to be creative in order to be successful writing copy.

    That however, is just my loose change.


  2. says

    Story telling and copywriting are identical. The best stories and best ads have conflict, agitation, and solutions. And a main character, of course.

    Great article.

  3. says

    What I’ve learned about writing from copywriting is that it’s not about me. It’s about what my clients/readers want and need. It’s about what will resonate with them. For example, I may think a headline is clever but readers may not understand it. They’ll ignore the post. It’s the same with blog copy. I may think I wrote a 1,200 word amazing post; however, readers may have been satisfied with a 700-word post. Finally, I’ve learned to keep sentences short and simple. I toss out the fluff and keep the substance. I also learned this from catalog writing. You have to write persuasive copy if you want products in a catalog to sell.

  4. says

    Great points, Amanda. It’s so helpful to have that kind of connection with your readers. Deliberate practice is all about getting feedback, and feedback from readers is the best kind.

  5. says

    I’ve learned a lot from both sides, but I think one of the most important things is getting over my ego. A lot of amateur fiction writers have an attitude of “If the masses don’t understand/appreciate my brilliance, that’s their problem.” When you’re a copywriter, dealing with clients who expect results, you’re forced to admit to yourself “Maybe I’m not that brilliant. Maybe I do have a lot to learn about this craft. Maybe I can create something my audience will respond to without compromising my artistic values.”

    • says

      Beginner screenwriters fall into this category, too. Their first drafts have all the usual beginner errors that make seasoned writers wince, but they will defend their choices vigorously. If I had a dime for all the times I’ve heard authors defend their screenplays without endings by saying, “but I want my readers to think about it…,” well, I’d only have a couple of bucks, but gimme a break! It’s OUR job as writers to write the ending – not the audience’s.

      Writing good endings is hard. For the most part, stories without endings are a cop out and really unsatisfying to audiences. So, get back in there, writers, and finish your story. And while you’re at it, try writing another draft. Rarely is something excellent at first pass; taking the time to polish and perfect is part of the craft.

      And that’s my rant. Thanks for the article. As a writer paying the bills with copywriting, it’s much appreciated.

  6. says

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Joe. I’ve learned that strong writing mimics how people speak and think. And it’s not always in full sentences. Powerful words and combinations of words don’t have to be in perfect sentences that your high school English teacher would approve of.

    I have to disagree on panic though. For me, panic is a creativity killer. I need time and space to come up with my best writing. I nearly always write on deadline but my writing is better when I can stay with it for a while and not feel a crunch.


  7. says

    Great _ is a job.

    Unless you get serious about your writing, then you’ll never get even close to your full potential.

    This goes for literally anything.

    Too many people treat their writing as a hobby in the hopes that it will provide a full time income.

    99% of the times, it won’t.

    It takes hard work to become successful, so to succeed you must be prepared to work, grind and sacrifice until you’re closer to your goal.

  8. says

    Brilliant. Good writing and good copy seem super similar to me though. They can both either entertain, educate or be a call to some sort of action.

    I can definitely see why being good at copywriting would help any other writing, mainly for that point you mentioned of having to keep things short and sweet. The most effective messages are always the shortest. “Got Milk?”

  9. Janine says

    I thought I was a good writer. And then I accepted a job as a copywriter with a manager who was not afraid of using red ink. It was, hands-down, the best thing to ever happen to my writing–and my former red-ink-loving manager is now, and always will be, my mentor.

    So I couldn’t agree more with every aspect of this article. :)

    • says

      Yes, gotta love tough critique. Speaking of red ink, I was just talking with an old professor who switched from red to green ink. He felt that ink the color of blood sent the wrong message. 😉

    • says

      I also used to think I was a good writer. But then I took an arrow in a knee.

      On a more serious note, I wonder how many of the TOP 100 copywriters had a good editor/mentor and how many learned this art on their own?

      Because currently I don’t have one and wonder if I won’t take too long to learn all the DO’s and DONT’s.

      • Janine says

        While I’m faaaaar from calling myself one of the top 100 copywriters, I can say that in addition to her guidance, my mentor often gave me copywriting/ad books to read. We’d then have weekly lunch-and-learn sessions to discuss the books. So I learned a lot of the DO’s and DONT’s of copywriting by reading about them–it’s even how I discovered Copyblogger (thank God).

        So I think that with or without a mentor, it can’t hurt to read/learn as much as you can about copywriting . At the very worst, it’ll give you some extra trivia-winning fodder–should it ever come up. 😉

    • says

      I agree. Before I started writing copy for people I thought I was good. Other clients told me that, but when it came to copy, no, couldn’t cut it.

      I’m slowly starting to improve; clients take what I give them after a draft or two instead of yelling at me for wasting their time.

    • says

      Agreed! Writing essays didn’t quite prepare me for writing copy. I remember one of my first jobs, the client said, “Where’s the beef?” I’ve never worked harder since I started writing copy! Thanks, Joe. Great article.

  10. says

    Great post! I love Salman Rushdie and I love the reminder that practice is of the upmost importance!

    I also am very, very thankful that Rushdie didn’t stay at Ogilvy long enough to remove the extra “very” from his speech—even just this tiny excerpt from his speech sounds just like his writing, and it goes to show that sometimes conforming to what’s expected may come at the expense of your uniqueness.

  11. says

    Some great points in this article that I am going to steal! As I continually try to get my professional staff to understand how important it is to publish, something, anything, a blog, an article, to even be quoted as a thought leader, I need little tips and secrets like these. It is one thing to know how important it is to practice writing, it is another to do it, do it well, with modesty and with heart in hand knowing you really could just get skewered. Thanks

  12. says

    Freewriting and fiction writing enhance my copywriting and blogging.

    Yoga and running enhance my Muay Thai training.

    All things that use the body are one. All things that use the written word are one.

  13. says

    I have just finished reading Ogilvy on advertising. Great inspiration for young people in advertising.

    I have spend a fair amount of time trying to get headlines right on my blog. In my experience headlines containing words like “you” has a very high CTR.

  14. says

    So good. More creative writers need to get this. Thanks for writing this, Joe. I can tell you put a lot of time into researching it. I, embarrassingly, don’t know much about Rushdie and a little about Ogilvy. Need to give both them a closer read.

  15. Leonard Kennard says

    A year or so ago I wrote a book using words of 4,5,6,7 syllables. This was a deliberate ploy to emphasise an essential part of the main character’s personality. He used long words as a cover for a number of psychological shortcomings. People seem to like it. But I am in general agreement with the aims of the original post.

  16. says

    Joe you pack a powerful punch in your piece. Big names and good tips for aspiring writers like me. I believe I write better when Im not trying to write for the masses. When I write about something important to me, that I can share without lecturing my reader and hopefully they take something small from my experiences in life. I love your website by the way, one of my favourite posts to read and on my wish list of courses to take maybe next year.

  17. Danny Thompson says

    One of the most important lessons I learned is that there is no such thing as writer’s block.

    As a brand new copywriter, where my boss had loved all of my work to that point, I came down with a case of writer’s block. With him being a former copywriter himself, I thought I could commiserate with him about it as the deadline loomed near.

    He looked at me curiously and said “What if a plumber told you he couldn’t fix the leak that’s flooding your basement because he had plumber’s block? Or a doctor said he couldn’t do the emergency open-heart surgery because he had surgeon’s block? I hired you because you’re talented and capable. You have a job to do and our client is paying serious money for it. I expect to see something on by desk before the end of the day.”

    And I had something on his desk by the end of the day. It wasn’t the greatest thing I’d ever written, but after a little revision it became something the client wen’t nuts for. And in the process I realized that “writer’s block” is simply procrastination and it stems from either a lack of knowledge, lack of enthusiasm, or fear of rejection.

    Get the information you need or put on your big boy/girl pants, and get on with it. You’ve got a job to do.

  18. says

    I especially like the “panic your way to success” point. Incorporating this sounds a little daunting, but it’s certainly a great way to squeeze out some extra inspiration, or at the very least, increase productivity. I’ll be doing my best to put this into practice… soon 😉

    thanks for the great post.

  19. says

    I especially connect with the idea of treating your writing as a job. Writing has always been in my life, but now that I want to take it to the next level I have to change how I prioritize it. It’s so important to keep that consistency going. This was a great post, thanks for sharing it.

  20. says

    I really love this article, especially the first point: Spend an inordinate amount of time on headlines. Nothing repels me more from reading an article than a dull headline. For me, it’s like picking out sushi from a menu. The more extravagant it looks on the outside, the more of it I’ll order.

  21. says

    Can’t say I’m surprised that Rushdie’s a former copywriter given his concise and compelling style. I do think that copywriting is an end on its own however, rather than a means to an end.

    • says

      Interesting point, Mike. What do you mean by that? My guess is that most copywriters would say that the end is the sale, and that copywriting is a means to make that sale. Do you disagree?

Comments are open for seven days. This article's comments are now closed.