Charles Dickens’s Five Rules of Compelling Copywriting

Detail from photographic portrait of Charles D...

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Famed adman Charles Dickens (Oglivy stole everything from Charlie) started out as a struggling copywriter in London, at one point so desperate for work he scribbled his business address—he was also the first graffiti artist—on the legs of local trollops working the district.

But then Dickens had a revelation: he did a little fiction writing on the side, and wondered whether his attempts to sell buyers on the chewy goodness of hardtack biscuits would work if he tossed in some storytelling. Stories might deliver the needed ROB (Return on Bamboozling).


So he formulated his Five Rules of Compelling Copywriting, which sleazy scribes have cribbed from for more than a century. To wit:

Hit ‘Em with Headlines
Charlie dug that the headline is the hook. He landed big ones with whoppers like these:
A Whale of a Deal!
Call me (but call me Ishmael)

Finagle Your First Lines
Dickens doctored all the first lines of his marketing pieces with winning words:
For fresh fruit: “These were the best of limes, these were the worst of limes.”
For sandwiches: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero sandwich of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Never Short Your Sales Letters
You knew that Charlie pioneered the use of yellow highlighting in his sales letters, but you probably didn’t know that he perfected the use of the interminable sentence:

There once lived, in a sequestered part of the country of Devonshire, one Mr. Godfrey Nickleby: a worthy gentleman, who, taking it into his head rather late in life that he must get married, and not being young enough or rich enough to aspire to the hand of a lady of fortune, had wedded an old flame out of mere attachment, who in her turn had taken him for the same reason.

Charlie highlighted it all, of course.

Use Tongue-Torquing Character Names
For every vanilla “Bob” you’ve got selling your sparks, Dickens will give you a Wopsle, a Wackford Squeers or a Pumblechook.

Calls to Action that Crackle
Use tactics like pathetic, big-eyed urchins whimpering things like “Please sir, I want some more.” Dickens really knew how to yank hankies. (Hankies are always followed by wallets.)

And don’t forget his exemplary use of Random Capitalization and Emotional Outrage. They don’t call the guy “Mr. Gutbucket Sales” for nothing.

Next week, we’ll examine how Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People started out as a how-to book on trimming hedges.