3 rules of great copywriting, taught by Vogon poetry
Ian Lurie May 17 2011
Caution: Lots of ‘inside joke’ humor for Hitchhiker’s Guide readers in this post. If you haven’t read the books, consider moving on quietly while avoiding eye contact. Or, read it and see what you’ve been missing.
Vogon Poetry, described in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as “The third-worst poetry in the Universe”, is a fantastic look at writing done right.
In case you’ve never read The Hitchhiker’s Guide (shame on you), here’s a quick sample of Vogon verse:
Oh freddled gruntbuggly
thy micturations are to me
As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.
Groop I implore thee,
my foonting turlingdromes.
And hooptiously drangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles,
Or I will rend thee in the gobberwarts with my blurglecruncheon,
see if I don’t!
Caution: Do not, under any circumstances, read this poetry out loud. It’s sheer badness has caused psychotic breaks, hemorrhoids, sunburn on the tops of your feet and mange.
Douglas Adams was a literary genius—this godawful poetry is some of the best writing you’ll ever read. Here’s why:
1: Vogon poetry taps our basic linguistic wiring
I’ve come to realize that great writing—great storytelling—has to tap basic human impluses. Vogon poetry does that. Read the poem above (silently, for God’s sake!) again. Can you pick out the verbs? Nouns? Adjectives?
I have no idea what a bindlewurdle is (and I’m grateful), but I know it’s a noun. Drangle is clearly a verb that I don’t want to experience.
Great copy sets context so well that, even if you don’t understand the topic, you can get the gist. It taps the most basic ways that we process language—it is sub-verbal (don’t know if that’s the right use of the phrase but hopefully it makes sense).
2: Vogon poetry sticks in your mind
Once you’ve heard the phrase ‘Freddled gruntbuggly’, you can’t let it go. What is it? Is it cute and cuddly? Is it a mode of transportation? Or a geological feature?
No idea, but man, it sticks in the mind. You can forget all about it, but if someone walks up to you on the street and says “Oh, freddled gruntbuggly”, you’ll snap your fingers and say “HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY”. The Vogons own that phrase.
This is a combination of #1 and #3, really, but it deserves its own mention: Great writing sticks in your mind. You may hate Shakespeare, but you still know “To be, or not to be.”
3: Vogon poetry has rhythm
Lack of sleep, lack of exercise and helping my daughter with her homework have made me totally addled and more than a little silly. But there’s another great copywriting lesson to be had: Rhythm is as important in copywriting as it is in (truly) great poetry. Which sounds better?
Coke is it!
Coke really rocks!
The first. It’s not a happy accident. Look at great mottos/phrases and see how many have a rhythm that:
- Punctuates in threes: Just do it; Coke is it; Ideas for life; Shift_the future;
- Rolls off the tongue: Finger lickin’ good; All the news that’s fit to print; Semper Fidelus; or
- Is so catastrophically bad it sticks in your brain like a rusty nail: You gotta love these guys; Anything is possible, the impossible just takes longer.
Vogons may have no literary taste, but ‘foonting turlingdromes’ still has a nice ring to it, yes?
You get the point: Rhythm makes all great writing—including marketing copywriting—work. It’s the icing on the cake. The yin to the yang. The Pippen for Jordan.
It’s all intangible
All great copywriting has these three characteristics:
- Tap our basic language skills at the sub-verbal level;
- Is ‘sticky’, clinging to our brains like velcro;
- Has rhythm that makes it easy to read & remember.
…and Vogon poetry is no exception.
Douglas Adams would’ve been a great marketing copywriter.
I’m glad he stuck with fiction, though.
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Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent Inc. He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Forbes.com and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, SIC and ad:Tech. Follow him on Twitter at portentint. He also just published a book about strategy for services businesses: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle. Read More