Book cover art for Everybody Writes
Everybody Writes
Ann Handley

An excellent introductory book but, if you already know your way around the world of publishing content—and especially if you have read a few other books on the topic—this will perhaps be too light. Covers an enormous amount of ground without going into too much depth. Jumps all over the place sometimes, but plenty of gold to be found and would be exceptional for a beginner.

'If you have a website, you are a publisher. If you are on social media, you are in marketing. And that means we are all writers.'

You Are a Publisher

We all 'make content', but at some fundamental level we all seem to have something of a hard time creating content that truly engages people. Good writing is at the heart of this

While people tend to bang on about 'storytelling', it can be just as powerful to tell true stories well. Again, if you can write about those true stories in a really compelling well, you've got an edge that few others have.

Quality content = Utility x Inspiration x Empathy

How to Write Better

'There are no shortcuts to becoming a better writer. So show up at your desk and get to it. Daily.'

There's great value in simply turning up every day and making writing a habit you can't budge. The way you learnt to write in high school or college isn't that good or helpful, though.

For example, start sentences with what you mean to say. Don't use rubbish fillers like 'According to...' or 'It is important for us to...' Some of these things simply need to be unlearnt by writing regularly in a way that people actually find useful.

Key to all of this is to treat writing like a process, not a monolithic task:

  • A good idea...
  • Reframed for a reader...
  • With supporting data and evidence...
  • Organised into a coherent structure...
  • Turned into a shitty first draft...
  • Written to one person...
  • Left alone for a short while...
  • Then revised and rewritten into a better second draft...
  • With a compelling headline and subheadings...
  • Proof read, checked for readability and carefully edited...
  • Then, maybe, finally, published.

Think carefully before committing words to the thing you are writing:

  1. Why am I writing this?
  2. What am I trying to say here:
  3. So what? Because...

The 'ugly first draft' is important to get done because it helps you make a start and means you don't crawl through. Barf it up, walk away from it for a while, then re-write it later.

Serve the reader. Be their advocate.

'Good writing serves the reader, not the writer. It isn't self-indulgent. Good writing anticipates the questions that readers might have as they're reading a piece, and it answers them.'

Empathy and understanding of your reader/customer is incredibly important and makes an enormous difference. Spend time with them, always ask 'why' and look for stories, not just statistics.

Two types of editing:

  • Developmental editing - big picture, structure and flow
  • Line editing - small picture trimming of the fat
'I might not believe in writer's block, but I do believe in writer's evasion. I believe in writer's difficulty and writer's procrastination and writer's I-wonder-if-there's-any-donuts-left?-I-should-go-check.'

How to write a good lede/lead:

  • Outline a problem they can relate to
  • Set a stage (a bigger, surprising context)
  • Ask a compelling question
  • Quote surprising data
  • Tell a story or anecdote
'A Good Lede Invites You to the Party and a Good Kicker Makes You Wish You Could Stay Longer'

How to write a good kicker:

  • Recast the takeaway of the piece
  • Introduce a tonal surprise
  • Let others have the last word, e.g. a quote from another party, or interviewee

Show, don't tell.

It depends on what you're writing, but try to avoid writing by committee:

  • Get sign off on an outline first
  • Set expectations for rounds of approval
  • Seek an 'OK', not opinions

Promote good readability:

  • Shorter paragraphs
  • Shorter sentences
  • Straightforward words
  • Clear headlines
  • Bullets
  • Highlights
  • Subheadings
  • White space

You can also try running it through a readability checker like Hemingway App, Yoast, Read-able.com etc.

Writing Rules, Grammar & Usage

It's important to use REAL words and avoid buzzwords and jargon wherever possible. One or two where appropriate? Fine. But more than that? No.

It's important to know the difference between active and passive voice:

  • Active: 'I raided the fridge'
  • Passive: 'The fridge was raided.'

Prefer strong verbs wherever possible, depending on the context:

  • Etch > Put
  • Slash > Cut
  • Devour > Eat
  • Steal > Take

Avoid using large amounts of adverbs unless absolutely necessary and where the situation calls for them in changing the meaning, e.g.:

  • 'Most writers use adverbs.' (Duh!)
  • 'Most writers use adverbs gratuitously.' (Oh!)

Cliches are mostly worth avoiding unless, like adverbs, they confer meaning that otherwise would be hard to express.

You can find more detailed guidance on this topic in William Zinsser's 'On Writing Well'.

Story Rules

Compelling stories are:

  • True: they show, don't tell
  • Human: specific enough to be believable, universal enough to be relevant
  • Original: new and fresh, unique to you
  • Serves the customer: told in terms of the context of what interests the customer or the reader

Tell a story that only you can tell. If you were to remove your company name from the publication, would you still be able to make sense of it, recognise it as yours?

Voice and tone: are the backbone of the overall look and feel of a piece of writing. Voice doesn't change, tone should depending on the context. For example, it's the difference between 'cheeky' and 'helpful'.

'Voice (like story) is another one of those literary terms that can sound abstract and high-minded in a business context. But the concept is pretty straightforward: your brand voice is simply an expression of your company's personality and point of view. That personality is expressed in how your words sound when they're read, and it's a key differentiator for a company that takes the time to develop it.'

Publishing Rules

Brand journalism is 'reporting on' the business. It's interesting, and it's always positive in nature. You're not going to write a hit piece on your own company, are you.

'Such content creators convey your company's true story in a compelling way by uncovering the stories about your brand and the way your customers are using your products and services. They narrate those stories in a human, accessible way, and they spark conversation about your company, customers, and employees.'

How it works:

  • Generates brand awareness ('the larger story')
  • Produces industry news (reports and articles about the company and industry at large)
  • Creates and sponsors (vendor-agnostic support and resources)
  • Generates leads (email-gated content, such as white papers)

Truth and integrity are vital.

'Credit sources; ground your content in data; acknowledge any bias that may compromise your point of view; link to sources generously; cite reliably; disclose all connections, sponsors, conflicts, or potential biases; and limit the number of anonymous sources.'

Again, it's important to 'show don't tell'. If you focus on customers, this shouldn't be an issue.

'Newsjacking' is inserting yourself into a news cycle early into a story with your unique commentary or take on the topic. It's an opportunity to lead.

If you're going to post 'news' make sure it's really news. New product feature or a recent hire? Snooze.

An important test is whether or not it would make you turn to someone and say 'hey, listen to this!'

Seek out the best sources, and make sure they're not just the PR person:

  • 'On record': attributable, named quotes
  • 'Background': can use the material, can't attribute it
  • 'Off the record': confidential, between source and reporter

Also included are some details on copyright, fair use, fact checking, sources, citations and references.

Things Marketers Write

Ideal lengths for different pieces of content:

  • Blog posts: 1500 words, but don't pad to hit targets
  • Email subject lines: 50 characters
  • Text lines on websites: 12 words wide, easier to keep place
  • Paragraphs: 4 lines on average
  • Podcasts: 22 minutes, attention span length

Emails should have short subject lines of 6-10 words, use their name if you have it. Keep the email copy short. Write like a real person.

Landing pages should be simple, clean, with obvious navigation. Match the message to the promise (if you have one) and focus on the benefits/outcomes, not the products you are selling. Use 'human' CTAs such as 'talk to us!' instead of 'submit'.

'A highly effective [landing page] contains just enough information to inform visitors without making them feel as if fireworks are going off in their faces. Ideally, your landing page should convey three simple things:

  • Where your visitors are (where they've landed)
  • What you're making available to them (and how awesome it is)
  • What the next step is to procure (or find out more about) that incredibly awesome thing.'

Home pages should speak directly to your audience, show that you know what their motivations are, keep things as simple as possible, use words your audience uses and use the word 'you' way more than 'us' or 'we'. Convey trust through social proof: reviews, features, testimonials.

About pages are a chance to humanise the company and keep talking about the customer in that context. It's not just about the company itself.

'Yet here we are, decades later, and our writing and content are still littered with revolutionary, value-added, impactful, cutting-edge, best-of-breed, go-to ideated words designed to leverage and incentivize and synergize the current paradigm.'
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