Savid Ogilvy famously said: “I hate rules”.
So do I. Ask anyone who’s ever taught me.
Instead of following rules, I prefer to listen to people I respect, or refine techniques that have worked well for me. Though I do agree with Ogilvy on at least one other point:
Many people – and I think I am one of them – are more productive when they’ve had a little to drink. I find if I drink two or three brandies, I’m far better able to write.
Some people need rules, though. Rules reassure them and make them feel comfortable. Sometimes, knowing about the rules gives folk the confidence to break them.
Charles Dickens wasn’t one of them
If you do a quick Google search on ‘copywriting rules‘, you’ll turn up thousands of pages of well-meaning advice. Some of it’s good. Lots of it is bad.
Most of it would have been wasted on Charles Dickens.
What the Dickens?
Let’s be honest here. I don’t really like Dickens, apart from the vulgar joke he inspired (“Do you like Dickens?” “Yes, but not on a first date”). But there’s no denying he knew how to write books that sold.
So, I decided to put the Victorian literary giant up against a set of copywriting ‘rules’. I chose 13 Copywriting Rules That Should Never Be Broken (Part 1), simply because there aren’t many of them; and I’ve applied them to Oliver Twist because most of Dickens’ other books send me to sleep.
Rule 1: “Always Use A Compelling Headline”.
How does Dickens Measure Up (HDDMU)? (‘scuse the capitals – They’re Infectious)
Not well. He gives us: “Oliver Twist”. Sounds like a cocktail, but not a particularly compelling one. Must try harder.
Rule 2: “Always Use A Subhead”
HDDMU? Well, we get one of those, but there’s a problem with it.
THE PARISH BOY’S PROGRESS
Frankly, the only people interested in parish boys tend to be rather sinister and often in holy orders. It’s also too small a group to market to – this book is going to be a flop.
Rule 3: “Always Connect Your Opening To Your Headline”
HDDMU? Okay, let’s shift to chapter one. Here’s the headline:
TREATS OF THE PLACE WHERE OLIVER TWIST WAS BORN AND OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES ATTENDING HIS BIRTH
And here’s the opening:
Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.
There’s no denying it – Dickens has got this one down to a fine art. He even says his opening is connected to the head of the chapter. It’s just a shame he’s long winded and excruciatingly boring.
Rule 4: “Use Compelling Subheads Throughout Your Copy”
HDDMU? I can’t see a single subhead. The readers will have lost the will to live by the end of the first page, and may have died by the end of the second. It’s a risky tactic.
Rule 5: “Always Write The Way You Talk”
HDDMU? Well, here’s an extract from one of Dickens’ speeches:
Ladies and gentlemen–Let me begin by endeavouring to convey to you the assurance that not even the warmth of your reception can possibly exceed, in simple earnestness, the cordiality of the feeling with which I come amongst you. This beautiful scene and your generous greeting would naturally awaken, under any circumstances, no common feeling within me; but when I connect them with the high purpose of this brilliant assembly–when I regard it as an educational example and encouragement to the rest of Scotland–when I regard it no less as a recognition on the part of everybody here of the right, indisputable and inalienable, of all those who are actively engaged in the work and business of life to elevate and improve themselves so far as in them lies, by all good means–I feel as if I stand here to swear brotherhood to all the young men in Glasgow;–and I may say to all the young women in Glasgow; being unfortunately in no position to take any tenderer vows upon myself–and as if we were pledged from this time henceforth to make common cause together in one of the most laudable and worthy of human objects.
Well, there’s no denying he writes like he speaks – and there’s one advantage. By writing like that, he won’t asphyxiate. By speaking like that, he will.
Rule 6: “Always Make Your Copy Transparent”
HDDMU? Sorry, but I rarely have a clue what Dickens is banging on about. Do you?
Rule 7: “Always Write About ‘ME'”
HDDMU? Actually, I’m going to step in here and say that rule is a load of nonsense. It’s my blog post, so I can do what I like. Anyway, let’s push on…
Rule 8. “Always Sell Benefits”
HDDMU? Surprisingly, this is one of the great novelist’s strong points. Take a look at this:
Although I am not disposed to maintain that the being born in a workhouse, is in itself the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being, I do mean to say that in this particular instance, it was the best thing for Oliver Twist that could by possibility have occurred.
Whoah! A workhouse becomes a benefit. I’m convinced. I’m sending my children to one.
Rule 9. “Always Be Specific“
HDDMU? Good idea. What use is moral certainty if you can’t be specific. Dickens knows this:
The surgeon leaned over the body, and raised the left hand. ‘The old story,’ he said, shaking his head: ‘no wedding-ring, I see. Ah! Good-night!’
Rule 10. “Always Use Testimonials“
HDDMU? Another Dickens #fail, as you might say on Twitter. But he does name-drop like crazy in his introduction to the book.
Rule 11. “Always Offer ‘FREE’ Bonuses”
HDDMU? A good showing here from the author.
‘Coals, candles, and house-rent free,’ said Mr. Bumble. ‘Oh, Mrs. Corney, what an Angel you are!’
Rule 12. “Always ASK For The Order”
HDDMU? A failing, and Dickens’ characters know it:
‘Oh!’ said Noah. ‘I wish yer’d ordered her to make some buttered toast first. Well. Talk away. Yer won’t interrupt me.’
Rule 13: “Always Use A P.S.”
HDDMU? Dickens is a bit hit or miss here. This is what my edition ends on.
PRINTED BY BERNHARD TAUCHNITZ
So, what’s the verdict? Did Dickens have the makings of a copywriter?
Well, he was good at breaking the rules. And at using the ones that worked for him.
But let’s face it – he was extremely boring. And that’s one rule that a copywriter simply must not break.
Forget it at your peril.