Key Takeaways From Ann Handley's "Everybody Writes"

October 21, 2014 Braveen Kumar

Everybody Writes

The first thing I read when I opened Everybody Writes, Ann Handley’s latest book, was this epigraph by American writer and poet, Carl Sandburg:

“Beware of advice—even this.”

I’ve read a few books about writing (my favorites include Stephen King’s On Writing and Robert McKee’s Story), and it's a generally accepted truth that there’s no such thing as a definitive “writing rulebook”; there are only guidelines. Clearly, Everybody Writes was written with that in mind.  

Ann’s latest book, like most books about writing that are worth reading, is based on the author’s knowledge, supported by her experiences, and flavored with her personality. Not only does the book offer value through actionable advice, but Ann’s sharp wit and honest tone make it a pleasure to read.

If the bulk of your day is spent writing—emails, tweets, landing pages, blog posts, or even infographics—this is a must-read. Beginners will finish the book with a working knowledge of writing in a content marketing context, and I'm sure that even veterans of the industry will walk away from it a little wiser.

If you're "somebody who writes", Everybody Writes is worth a read. So, for those who haven't had a chance to dive into this book, I thought I'd share some of the things you can expect to learn.

Writing Redefined

During the course of her book, Ann takes the mystery out of writing and helps us read between the lines.  

Ann’s book starts by dismissing the common notion that only “writers” write. She opens up the definition of a “writer” to include anyone who decides to put words on a page and talks about writing as a valuable life skill that we should all strive to practice.

Perhaps more important for marketers, Ann describes a relationship we have with language that we sometimes forget: our words represent us out there in the world, especially online. She  elaborates on the importance of avoiding typos and paying attention to details such as how brand names are capitalized (SlideShare vs. Slideshare). She discusses the capacity for your words to paint a portrait of you, to make an impression on your readers, and why we should take greater care when we choose them. 

Interindustry Wisdom

Content marketing is a melting pot for a number of different fields outside of marketing: publishing, journalism, design, research, sociology, psychology, linguistics, writing, tech, and more.  

That’s why, rather than merely reiterating tired cliches from the content marketing "echo chamber", Ann shares words of wisdom from different worlds: from famous authors, like Stephen King and Anton Chekhov, and from household names in the marketing world, like Scott Strachan and David Meerman Scott.

Ann even named a whole chapter about editing after one of my favorite bits of writing advice from Mark Twain:

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”

This book does more than teach you how to create better content; it helps you discover all the different perspectives that make up our diverse industry—especially brand journalism versus traditional journalism.

As a linguistics nerd, I was pleasantly surprised to see Ann joke about mondegreens and spoonerisms, the funny (and often embarrassing) instances when we mishear and mispronounce words.

There's a breadth of knowledge to be found in this book.

Writing with Confidence

Everybody writes, so that means everybody has to overcome the fearsome proverbial blank page.

With an overview of grammar and ideas to conquer the blank page, including a comprehensive list of content tools to help, Everybody Writes is a go-to guide for creating ridiculously good content with confidence. There is even a section about citing sources and attributing credit to help us ethically borrow work from others.  

But perhaps the most important thing that this book does for readers is to inspire us to be better creators, to be different, and rise above the noise. Ann removes some of the fear of writing by showing us what a good beginning, middle, and ending should do in a variety of different situations. By the end of the book, readers will walk away feeling more confident about tackling writing tasks big and small. I know I did.

Storytelling for Marketers

Content marketers, myself included, have written more blog posts about storytelling than I care to count, effectively transforming this age-old craft and "marketing superpower" into just another buzzword.

However, Everybody Writes breaks down how marketers should tell a story that “feels more important than marketing” as Ann says, pointing to Chipotle’s viral animated commercial and other examples of stellar storytelling in the marketing world.

She reminds us that all brands should develop a consistent voice and that the content and copy you create has the capacity to carry that voice, personifying your brand and making it memorable. Your brand’s voice is part of telling your company’s story and all your content  can contribute to it.

Marketers Write Many Things

There’s an entire section of the book, which I’m sure I’ll frequently revisit, dedicated to “Things Marketers Write”.  

In this section, Ann covers the ideal length of different content (supported by data) and offers different approaches to writing in various spaces from LinkedIn to your website’s home page. She also gives advice about writing landing page copy and drip marketing emails.

The main thing to note is that each social channel is a different beast and we can’t approach them all the same—like tweeting on Facebook or posting Facebook updates on LinkedIn.

My favorite takeaway from this section: Don’t “pitchslap” your audience after enticing them with the promise of educational content. Give them information, not an infomercial.

Final Thoughts

The best way to gain experience is to do your time in the field, learning as you go and making all the necessary mistakes.  

But a great supplement, I think, is to read books written by established individuals who have already paid their dues and are willing to share their perspective. Everybody Writes is that kind of book, not only for writers and content marketers but for anyone who spends a good chunk of their day working with words.

Everybody Writes has easily earned a permanent spot on my desk, delivering on its promise to be a “go-to guide to creating ridiculously good content”.

Read the first chapter of Ann Handley’s latest book in this preview of Everybody Writes

About the Author

Braveen Kumar

Braveen is a Content Marketer at Shopify.

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