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To get her best writing done, Ann Handley retreats to a tiny, one-room house in her backyard. The Chief Content Officer and Founder of MarketingProfs built this 11 x 12 foot house to get away from the distractions in her home and create an optimal environment for writing.
While her new book, Everybody Writes, doesn’t come equipped with a tiny house, it does provide marketers everything they need to become better writers. From tactical advice about editing and grammar to best practices on content publishing, this book covers a wide array of topics regarding how to write in the content marketing space.
Here are four reasons why anyone who creates content on behalf of a brand — from the CEO to a blog writer — should keep a copy of Everybody Writes at their desk.
1. All of the answers. All in one place.
A day in the life of a content creator is full of questions. Do I capitalize this? Is this active voice? How long should this subject line be? What should I title this post? Will this appeal to my audience?
As a content creator myself, sometimes I Google the answers to these questions or scour the Internet for best practices. Other times, I ask the questions aloud, hoping someone sitting nearby might be the definitive source on well…everything. (Kudos to my colleagues who always try their best to answer my questions, especially the software engineers, who, I’m sure, are largely uninterested).
Enter Everybody Writes — a book that really does have all the answers. Problems with grammar? Check Chapter 37. Wondering what the ideal length for a blog post is? Chapter 60. There’s even a full list of words to avoid because they simply aren’t real. (Spoiler alert: contrary to popular belief, “amazeballs” is not a real word.)
2. Learning doesn’t have to be boring
We’ve all taken a course in writing at one time or another — whether it was freshman composition in high school or an advanced business writing class in college. This means we’ve seen the basic writing textbook, packed with rules about paragraphs, grammar, spelling, tone of voice, style etc.
Although useful, these books are boring. Everybody Writes has the same utility as these textbooks, but is far from boring. At times, it’s even laugh-out-loud funny.
One of my favorite lines in the book comes when Ann applies the phrase “You can’t rush art” to the writing process:
“But forget that mantra. Because at some point, you do have to rush your own art. Otherwise, your art sits on its butt on the couch eating chips and salsa.”
Later, she urges content creators to establish a voice for their brand, or as she puts it, “an expression of your company’s personality and point of view.”
She lists examples of brands with unique voices such as Wistia and Burger King. However, it’s clear that one of the most unique voices to draw inspiration from is Ann’s.
3. A humanizing look at content curation
Ann offers up some great advice on how to make the often-automated process more personal.
She urges readers to add context, commentary and a human element to each curated piece.
This is valuable guidance for many content marketers who tend to curate content without adding any value for the reader.
For almost every tip or fact that Ann provides, she also includes a specific example of how this tactic worked (or didn’t work) for a well-known brand.
In the chapter “Writing With Hashtags,” Ann cites this tweet from DiGiorno, published during a 2013 live production of The Sound of Music:
#TheSoundOfMusicLive Can’t believe pizza isn’t one of her favorite things smh
— DiGiorno Pizza (@DiGiornoPizza) December 6, 2013
To prove that it’s best to “Keep It Simple, Stupid” when writing copy for homepages, she pulls in Dropbox’s homepage (which has a grand total of 15 words on the entire page!).
To the content marketers who are searching for the best examples of content across all channels, this book is a great place to start. You can purchase the book on Amazon.
An Interview With Ann
After taking an early look at her book, I also had the opportunity to interview Ann. Below, she answers my questions, provides a peak inside her book and also shares the best writing advice she has ever received.
What inspired you to write this book?
I wrote this book because I couldn’t find what I wanted—part writing guide, part handbook on the rules of good sportsmanship in content marketing (based on the rules of journalism, in part), and all-around reliable desk companion for anyone creating or directing content on behalf of brands.
Many excellent books on writing already exist. But I’ve found that a lot of writing advice is really more aphorism than true how-to advice.
Alternatively, much of what passes for writing advice goes too deep into the weeds of grammar. Great if you’re looking to up your score on the SATs. Not so awesome if you just need some guidance on how not to sound like a total idiot when you craft this week’s customer mailing.
What’s harder to find is a book that functions for marketers as part writing and story guide, part instructional manual on the ground rules of ethical publishing, and part straight talk on muscle-building processes and habits for writing.
What was the hardest part about writing this book?
The hardest part was conceptualizing how I might present to you what I (and other writers) have been trained to do automatically—without putting much conscious thought into how we are doing it. Writing this book felt a little like trying to explain to someone how to breathe.
You know that George Bernard Shaw idiom, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”? It’s total BS. There’s nothing harder than trying to tell someone something in an easily understood, interesting, lively manner… so that the reader both understands and enjoys the telling.
Which, by the way, is a challenge for any content marketer who is likewise very close to a subject.
What do you find most difficult about writing in general? How do you overcome these challenges?
Many writers hate to write—but love to have written. I fall into that category. So the hardest part for me is avoiding procrastination: forcing myself to sit down and just get to it.
My new Tiny Office helps. I wish I had it during the writing of Everybody Writes!
You identify a lot of writing techniques that marketers should avoid. What do you think is the most important practice to stay away from?
Well, I see a lot of grammar and usage errors. But they don’t bother me nearly as much as uninspired, boring, generic writing that lacks confidence and a point of view.
We are now a planet of publishers, yet many of us are squandering our opportunity.
What mistakes do you notice marketers making the most?
A couple of things…
1. Thinking that writing isn’t part of their job description. Clear communication is part of every marketer’s job description—hence the title, Everybody Writes!
Understanding the customer mindset is a critical skill for marketers. Being able to write with clarity and brevity helps us to be more persuasive, and making the experience as great as we can trains us to have empathy for the reader or recipient.
Good writing also helps us to think critically in general. Clear writing is clear thinking.
2. Not spending enough time on the rewrite or edit… or, not spending any time on it. The people you think of as good writers are often terrible writers on their first drafts. But here’s their secret: They are excellent editors of their own work.
“Writing is easy,” said Mark Twain. “All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”
What can content marketers take away from the writing style and reporting methods of traditional journalists?
There are a lot of specifics in the book, but I think the biggest one is this:
Thinking like a publisher is simply not enough; you also need to act like one.
Key to that is adapting some best-practices from journalism, including a broader awareness of the responsibility and privilege that come with building an audience.
I don’t use that word “privilege” lightly; publishing is a privilege, not a right.
I like how my friend Shane Snow (co-founder of Contently) puts it: Those creating content on behalf of brands should actually adhere more strictly to standards than mainstream journalists do, because people are naturally skeptical of something produced by a brand. So content creators and brand publishers should adhere to journalism’s core values of honesty, integrity, accountability, and responsibility.
I’d also add generosity to that list. Generosity might not be an original tenet of journalism, but it’s a necessary mindset for modern-day content creators: You need to freely and generously provide content that has real value for your audience.
What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever been given?
My journalism professor at Simmons College in Boston used to tell the class, “No one will ever complain that you made things too simple to understand.” That’s pretty much how I approach both my writing and my work more broadly.
I used to think I needed to sound more sophisticated, but I was allergic to complicated writing, so I thought perhaps I needed to pop the equivalent of a complexity antihistamine to churn out text that sounded more lofty or urbane.
But I’ve since realized that simple, direct communication is far more useful—and rare—than you’d expect.
Where do you think the future of content marketing is headed?
Good writing matters more now, not less. Businesses that value not just what story they are telling but how it’s told will win. Or, to paraphrase Jack Kerourac: “It ain’t only whatcha write, it’s also the way atcha write it.”
To learn more about writing content for blogs, download our eBook, Business Blogging Secrets Revealed.