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.

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8 thoughts on “Charles Dickens’s Five Rules of Compelling Copywriting

  1. And don’t forget Dickens’ ad copy for the first cosmetic anti-aging products, those snake oil panaceas for highly-suggestible, panicking middle-aged women (not that I’m in the target audience) (okay, yes I am):

    “Cheerfulness and contentment are great beautifiers, and are [only…] fatuous preservers of youthful looks.”

    Back then, factoring in life expectancy, “middle-aged” was what, 30?

  2. Interminable sentences utterly fascinate me. Dickens and Trollope knew how to toss ’em out there. I really got hooked though when I read Pynchon’s “Against the Day” about two years ago.

    Some of Pynchon’s interminable sentences were paragraphs in themselves, and they grabbed me like one of those Dickensian trollops late on a Saturday night, after much merrisome libation in the district; by that I mean the Dickensian trollops you mention above, who are quite a different species than a Trollopian dickens, the one being a woman who sells the services of her very body for monetary compensation, the other being an impish young boy from the Victorian era, who would, of course, no matter how impish he may be, never be found on the streets at such a late hour as when the Dickensian trollops are out and about.

    Like that.

  3. Rick, your grasp of the Dickensian/Trollopian Trollops-Dickens Paradox is nothing short of uncanny. It’s almost as though in one of your past lives (say, six years ago), you were one of those grubby urchins moldering in urban squalor, peeping at bawds in passing and perhaps vending some 143-proof potato-cellar squeezings.

    I’m wondering if you flossed back then.

  4. Annie, lucky for me, rubbing my face with one of those poisonous South American cane toads every day has preserved my youthful (albeit criss-crossed) complexion.

    Anyway, you already know that 50 is the new 32 (as long as you keep drinking those high-proof squeezings that I alluded to in Rick’s comment).

  5. Tom, I WAS one of those grubby urchins, though it was Gack&Bacon Nut Graf Quaff I was obsessed with, being an aspiring reporter in that life, dontcha know.

    I only hope that my Dickensian/Trollopian Trollops-Dickens Paradox made you laugh. I really do hope I caused some mirth.

    Oh. And yes, I flossed, but it was with strands plucked from the hawsers that tied up pre-dreadnought battleships in the Victorian Royal Navy. The fact that they were a bit rum-soaked made them appealing…

  6. Good Doctor Wilson, I laughed, indeed I laughed. Thank you for the moment(s).

    I believe you can get the rum-soaked hawsers in 12-packs through the Harry and David catalog.

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