Book - Everybody writes: your go-to guide to creating ridiculously good content

  • Metadata:
    • author: Ann Handley
    • title: Everybody writes: your go-to guide to creating ridiculously good content
    • year: 20142014

Unprocessed highlights and reading notes (turn them into separate notes when revisiting the topic):

As David Carr of the New York Times says, “Writing is less about beckoning the muse than hanging in until the typing becomes writing.”

Think of your content, then, as any medium through which you communicate with the people who might use your products or services.

Content Rules, my first book (with C. C. Chapman),

Utility means you clearly help your customers do something that matters to them—you

Inspiration means your content is inspired by data (more on this later) or it's creatively inspired (or both).

Inspiration means your content is inspired by data (more on this later) or it's creatively inspired (or both). It's fresh, different, well-written, well-produced, nicely designed—and it feels like it could come only from you.

Empathy means you relentlessly focus on your customer. You view the entire world through his or her eyes—because,

Utility × Inspiration × Empathy = Quality Content

This would be a good time to thank Neil Patel and Kathryn Aragon, coauthors of The Advanced Guide to Content Marketing (2013).

realize that you probably already do write every day. You write emails; you post to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram; you comment on blogs.

realize that you probably already do write every day. You write emails; you post to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram; you comment on blogs. Recognize all that posting for what it is: writing.

Don't write a lot. Just write often. The advice to write often is from author Jeff Goins, who points out on his site, GoinsWriter.com, “Spending five hours on a Saturday writing isn't nearly as valuable as spending 30 minutes a day every day of the week. Especially when you're just getting started.”

Notes: 1) Links to spaced practice

Jeff Goins, “Why You Need to Write Every Day,” Goins, Writer (blog),

This is the first sentence of an introductory paragraph of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention style guide: “According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), released in 2006 by the U.S. Department of Education, 30 million adults struggle with basic reading tasks.”1 The primary idea in that sentence is that millions of people are not fully literate; everything else in it is secondary. The primary idea—the important words—should be placed at the beginning. So: “Thirty million adults struggle with reading, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) report, released in 2006 by the U.S.

Notes: 1) Rule: Place mot important part of tbe sentence in the beginnig

This is the first sentence of an introductory paragraph of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention style guide: “According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), released in 2006 by the U.S. Department of Education, 30 million adults struggle with basic reading tasks.”1 The primary idea in that sentence is that millions of people are not fully literate; everything else in it is secondary. The primary idea—the important words—should be placed at the beginning. So: “Thirty million adults struggle with reading, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) report, released in 2006 by the U.S. Department of Education.”

What follows is the 12-step process for any new, longer text you might produce—blog posts, e-books, white papers, site content, and the like.

Notes: 1) Look them up for pdf

Think before ink means finding your key point by asking three questions about every bit of content you're creating. We talked a lot about this process in Rule 6, but to recap: Why am I creating this? What's my objective? What is my key take on the subject or issue? What's my point of view? And, finally, the critical so what?-because exercise: why does it matter to the people you are trying to reach?

Chicago-based marketer Andy Crestodina writes an outline of a piece and then makes the main points its headers. Then he fleshes out the outline in a kind of fill-in-the-blank exercise.

Chicago-based marketer Andy Crestodina writes an outline of a piece and then makes the main points its headers. Then he fleshes out the outline in a kind of fill-in-the-blank exercise. For him, “great writing isn't written, as

Chicago-based marketer Andy Crestodina writes an outline of a piece and then makes the main points its headers. Then he fleshes out the outline in a kind of fill-in-the-blank exercise. For him, “great writing isn't written, as much as assembled,” Andy told me.

Similarly, Chris Penn, who writes prolifically (almost daily) about marketing and social media on his Awaken Your Superhero blog,

Recognize that brilliance—or anything close to it—comes on the rewrite. That implies that there is a rewrite, of course.

Recognize that brilliance—or anything close to it—comes on the rewrite. That implies that there is a rewrite, of course. And there should be.

Relentlessly, unremittingly, obstinately focus on the reader.

Relentlessly, unremittingly, obstinately focus on the reader. So write your first draft as you usually would—then go back and rework it, swapping places with your readers to consider things from their point of view, with honest empathy for the experience you are giving them.

In other words, empathy for the customer experience should be at the root of all of your content, because having a sense of the people you are writing for and a deep understanding of their problems is key to honing your skill.

But analytics only tell us what people did, not why they did it. So ask. And then ask again. And keep asking until you

Use a customer-centric POV. Replace I or we with you to shift the focus to the customer's point of view. Then write (or rewrite) accordingly. For example: Company-centric: We offer accelerated application development. Customer-centric: Deploy an app to the cloud at lunch hour. And still have time to eat. (From the home page of Kinvey.com.)

Enormous empathy

Make every sentence earn its keep. Does it bring something unique to the paragraph? Or does it simply restate what its buddy before it already said? If so, kill it. Be ruthless. Adopt a less-is-more mind-set: many writers take too long to get to the point; they use too many words. Don't be that guy.

Notes: 1) Does this work without it? Yes? Kill it

Editing with surgical tools. Next, turn off the chainsaw and turn back to the words. Trim the bloat and fat. Are you potentially using far too many words to say things that might be said more concisely?

I don't believe in writer's block. “My father never got truck driver's block,”

I don't believe in writer's block. “My father never got truck driver's block,” as the journalist Roger Simon has said.1

So I might not believe in writer's block, but I do believe in writer's evasion.

Try it with the next piece you write: Can you trim the start, or lop it off completely? Does doing that help the reader get into the heart of things more quickly?

Give special love to the first and last sentences of your piece—the opening and closing, or the lede (lead)1 and kicker—in traditional journalism terms. Why do that? As Articulate Marketing's Matthew Stibbe explains, “A good lede invites you to the party and a good kicker makes you wish you could stay longer.”2 This rule honors him.

What is this?

“How to Use Instagram in a Genius Way,” AnnHandley.com.

“Don't tell me that the moon is shining,” wrote Russian playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekhov. “Show me the glint of moon on broken glass.” Show, don't tell is a Content Rules rule, and it's also moonlighting here as a writing rule. Good content—and good writing—doesn't preach or hard-sell. Instead, it shows how your product or service lives in the world, explaining in human terms how it adds value to people's lives, eases troubles, shoulders burdens, and meets needs.

Notes: 1) Think of apple commercials

You'd think the generic and nonspecific might apply broadly—and therefore almost anyone reading the description of a product or service would come to regard it as being relevant to them. But the truth is that specific details make content vibrant, and they add a necessary human element that makes your content more relatable.

Notes: 1) Be specific

Or substitute cocker spaniel for dog. Or write Vietnamese sandwich truck instead of food-truck service. Or Alan Arakelian from Accounting instead of client.

Notes: 1) This flows so much better

Thirty million sounds like a lot. But is it? It's about 12 percent of the population (that helps) or just over the total population of Texas (much better). You could say you've acquired 842 new accounts in 2014. Or you could put that into context by pointing out that it's more than the capacity of the London Eye.

Notes: 1) Analogies for numbers

At the same time, the best analogies have an element of surprise to them, and they don't rely on obvious clichés (e.g., as big as four football fields).

A bit of wisdom from my journalism days: No one will ever complain that you've made things too simple to understand.

A bit of wisdom from my journalism days: No one will ever complain that you've made things too simple to understand. Of course, simple does not equal dumbed down. Another gem from my journalism professors: Assume the reader knows nothing. But don't assume the reader is stupid.

Finding the best fit for your message. Do we need more or fewer words? Would a chart or graphic or visual convey an idea more simply? Would a video convey what we are trying to say more directly?

For a marketer, design and content aren't separate processes; they are actually key parts of the same process. They are best friends and life partners, and they deserve to be treated as such.

Notes: 1) Content first, this is the reason that design courses start with typography

Copyeditors/proofreaders, who check facts and wield a push broom to clean up messy style issues, punctuation, typos, misspelling, and so on. Substantive editors, who give a piece of writing a higher level read and offer suggestions on how parts of it might be improved or which parts need to be expanded or condensed. Their review includes broad feedback on things like the overall development of a piece. Line editors, who comb through a piece to correct grammar, word choice, and paragraph and sentence flow—while doing a good deal of rewriting as well, all without overwhelming a writer's voice. The first type is relatively easy to find

Notes: 1) 23 harder to find

In general, the best Web writing isn't necessarily short, but it is simple, with… shorter paragraphs with no more than three sentences or

In general, the best Web writing isn't necessarily short, but it is simple, with… shorter paragraphs with no more than three sentences or six lines (and just one is fine). shorter sentences with no more than 25 words in a sentence.

There are several readability scoring methods, but the best known is Flesch-Kincaid, in part because it's embedded in Microsoft Word.

Writing in MarketingProfs, Grant Draper of the United Kingdom's Vibe Tech Media explains how you can figure out the Flesch-Kincaid score of a piece of your writing manually. (The math-inclined can check out Draper's article at bit.ly/MarketingReadability.) The higher the score, the easier the piece is to understand. So if its readability score is…

Here are some examples of average scores for various types of content using the Flesch-Kincaid scale: Comics: 92 Consumer ads: 82 Reader's Digest: 65 Time magazine: 52 Harvard Business Review: 43 Standard insurance policy: 10

“Art is never finished, only abandoned,” as Leonardo da Vinci said.

Do the best work you can by the deadline you've set, and then consider your writing project finished.

Notes: 1) Relates to parkinsons las

In other words, write for real people, using real words.

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.

If I had a nickel for every time I saw text with words like that, I wouldn't have a 2002 Volvo sitting in my driveway. Why do we use buzzwords and jargon? Some of us might use them to mask our incompetence or insecurity.

If I had a nickel for every time I saw text with words like that, I wouldn't have a 2002 Volvo sitting in my driveway. Why do we use buzzwords and jargon? Some of us might use them to mask our incompetence or insecurity. Some might think those are simply the words of business, especially if their company sells to other businesses rather than to consumers. (But no business truly sells to another business; we all sell to people.)

Generally you want to use the active voice, or active writing, instead of the passive voice. Using the passive voice is not incorrect, but you'll vastly improve your writing just by making your sentences active.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, author Stephen King rails against the unfortunate adverb: The road to hell is paved with adverbs. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, author Stephen King rails against the unfortunate adverb: The road to hell is paved with adverbs. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn't expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

George Orwell took a hard line against clichés: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

are the top 17 followed by their anti-wordiness, anti-fuzzy thinking, pro-brevity, pro-clarity equivalents:

Notes: 1) use grammarly as a tip

Avoid beginning sentences with words that you'd hear from a pulpit, your parent, or a professor. Lose the excessively prescriptive and the moralizing, because it can come off as condescending. Specifically, watch the use of… Don't forget… Never… Avoid… Don't… Remember to…

Avoid beginning sentences with words that you'd hear from a pulpit, your parent, or a professor. Lose the excessively prescriptive and the moralizing, because it can come off as condescending. Specifically, watch the use of… Don't forget… Never… Avoid… Don't… Remember to… And one so awful I can barely type it: Always remember to…

But we've also seen some terrible efforts. Because coming up with your bigger story is (relatively) easy, yet telling a true story in an interesting way “turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat,” says the writer Anne Lamott.

But we've also seen some terrible efforts. Because coming up with your bigger story is (relatively) easy, yet telling a true story in an interesting way “turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat,” says the writer Anne Lamott. (Anne wrote that line in her important book on writing, Bird by Bird.)1

Start by grokking a few characteristics of a compelling story: It's true. Make truth the cornerstone of anything you create.

It's human. Even if you are a company that sells to other companies, focus on how your products or services touch the lives of actual people.

be specific enough to be believable, and universal enough to be relevant.

It's original. Your story should offer a new, fresh perspective. What's interesting about your company? Why is it important? Is it uniquely you?

It's original. Your story should offer a new, fresh perspective. What's interesting about your company? Why is it important? Is it uniquely you? If you covered up your logo on your website or video or blog or any content you've produced, would people still recognize it as coming from you?

It serves the customer.

As Jay Baer (author of Youtility) told me, “Give yourself permission to make your story bigger.

What is unique about our business? What is interesting about how our business was founded? About the founder? What problem is our company trying to solve? What inspired our business? What aha! moments has our company had? How has our business evolved? How do we feel about our business, our customers, ourselves? What's an unobvious way to tell our story? Can we look to analogy instead of example? (See Rule 19.) What do we consider normal and boring that other folks would think is cool?

What is unique about our business? What is interesting about how our business was founded? About the founder? What problem is our company trying to solve? What inspired our business? What aha! moments has our company had? How has our business evolved? How do we feel about our business, our customers, ourselves? What's an unobvious way to tell our story? Can we look to analogy instead of example? (See Rule 19.) What do we consider normal and boring that other folks would think is cool? And most important: relay your vision. How will our company change the world?

“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there'll always be better writers than you and there'll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that—but you are the only you,” author Neil Gaiman

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.

Generating brand awareness. The effort is largely centered on creating awareness of the company's larger story,

You're not trying to generate sales directly from such articles.

Producing industry news. You write reports and articles about your own company and its industry, creating coverage that supplements the work of mainstream media

Creating and sponsoring. When you want to establish your company as a thought leader, you can create a vendor-agnostic, independent site to help people you are trying to reach.

Generating leads. You can use content as a way to generate leads, which might then be converted into customers.

For example, they'll write a blog post announcing a minor product upgrade, or a new hire, or something so boring I can't even think of it to use as an example right here…because I delete it without reading it when it arrives in my in-box.

Notes: 1) Internal news need to be exciting

that guy. In his seminal book on journalism, Writing to Deadline, Donald Murray offers a pointer on how to find the focal point (or lead) in a story: “What would make the reader turn and say to her husband, ‘Now listen to this, Ira…’?”

but consider her a proxy for your own reader by asking, would the reader find this useful to know?

“Mark Twain's 10-Sentence Course on Branding and Marketing.”1

Seek out primary, not secondary sources. A primary source is an original research project, or the originator of an idea or statement. A secondary source quotes the original source.

Notes: 1) Always cite primary

If you are merely regurgitating content from elsewhere without adding your take, that's not curation—that's aggregation. A robot can aggregate content, but only a human can tell me why it matters.

If you are merely regurgitating content from elsewhere without adding your take, that's not curation—that's aggregation. A robot can aggregate content, but only a human can tell me why it matters. Your curated content might not be original to you, but you should deliver an original experience that adds unique value.

Notes: 1) This might be the secret to content curation

Said another way: data before declaration.

Notes: 1) This should be logical 2) For content length

If you are looking for more, check out the full monty on Andy's site at OrbitMedia.com (http://bit.ly/IdealAndy).

Paragraph. The ideal length for a paragraph is between 3 and 4 lines, maximum. But as we talked about earlier, even one will do.

Notes: 1) Look this up, but remember that simplicity is king

For Twitter, I'm suggesting that you be Ira's wife and write a tweet as if you were talking directly to Ira. Even if you, like me, are sometimes representing a company or brand.

(“What would make your reader turn and say, ‘Now listen to this, Ira…’?”). For Twitter, I'm suggesting that you be Ira's wife and write a tweet as if you were talking directly to Ira. Even if you, like me, are sometimes representing a company or brand.

Share the why and who, not just the what. Remember: think dialogue, not monologue. Social sites are often condemned for encouraging banal and useless noise, such as “Eating a burrito for lunch.” But they provide a rich opportunity to share updates that offer context or reveal character. So rather than posting “Spent the day reading” (boring), try “Spent the day reading David Sedaris's new book. Unplugging after last week's big shipment!”—which

Remember, you're building relationships, not running a direct-marketing channel.

Use Bitly to shorten links, because it offers rich analytics, and short links generate the most retweets.

Always try to say it again in fewer words. Trust your own voice. Use humor whenever possible.

Notes: 1) 3 rules of social media

A landing page should offer visitors a hyperfocused experience that delivers them to a specific page and gives them a clear path to follow.

You want your home page to say, “We get you. And, what's more, you belong here. We understand your challenges, your fears, your pain, your hopes, your needs. We shoulder your burdens. We've got your back. We'll give you a leg up.” Whichever of those metaphors you prefer, the main headline on your page should communicate that customer-centric value. Remember: your value is not what you do or what you sell, it's what you do for your customers.

All good content puts the reader first, and that's no different on your About Us page. In other words, About Us gives you a chance to talk about yourself, but always in the context of what you do for your customers. What burdens you help them shoulder, what problems you solve for them.

Notes: 1) New angle

I also like the Hemingway mode (based on the line “Write drunk, edit sober” often attributed to him), which doesn't allow you to delete anything you've written.

Notes: 1) Interesting Hemmingway quote

WeaveWriter (weavewriter.com) is a three-part, self-guided course to help you develop better lifelong writing habits. It was developed by my friend Dane Saunders after he burned himself out by writing two books in a year (and then promptly collapsed).

Also, certain industries have their own stalwarts—like the AMA Manual of Style (www.amamanualofstyle.com), the recognized leader in medical and scientific publishing.