Everybody Writes: Your go-to guide for writing killer marketing content

If Book Review of Everybody Writes, by Ann Handleyyou had two days to learn everything about how to write killer marketing content, but could only choose one resource, glom onto Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes.

Everybody Writes: Your Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content is Handley’s second book, following Content Rules, the New York Times best seller she coauthored with C.C. Chapman. She’s also the chief content officer of MarketingProfs, the well-known training and education company.

Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of Handley’s work, having read and used her first book as a resource for a master’s thesis a few years ago. I also saw her deliver a memorable keynote at a content strategy conference. That said, I’ll keep my viewpoints as objective as possible, but I bet this book makes it on to your “must read” list.

If you’re a marketer and create content for a living, Everybody Writes should be mandatory reading. Why this book? Handley wants to “wage war on content mediocrity.” She says “Ninety-three percent of business-to-business companies are using content in their marketing mix. Yet, nearly half of B2B companies struggle to develop content that engages.”

Today, content marketing pundits harp that we all need to be storytellers. And why not? Readers (customers and prospects) easily forget facts, but recall a good yarn in the right context.

Handley offers this raison d’être for all content marketing pros: “What matters now isn’t storytelling: what matters is telling a true story well.”

The quintessential how-to

This is one of the most useful books on writing I’ve read. You’ll be able to put its principles into action immediately and improve your writing. Handley’s predilection for how-to books was one of the reasons that drove her to write this book in the first place. She says there are already many excellent books on writing, “but they aren’t very how-to or prescriptive. (Which is always my bias. I like how-to advice. I don’t know what to do with more high-level, other than to wish it were more how-to.) Alternatively, much of what passes for writing advice gets too deep in the weeds of writing construction. 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 an idiot when you craft this week’s customer mailing.”

The author followed her own writing advice in how she organized the book. It’s chopped into pithy, short sections and chapters with colorful titles, and digestible paragraphs. Plenty of graphics and Handley’s casual, sometimes funny style, make the 300-page book easy to plow through. Everybody Writes is divided into six parts:

Part I:  Writing Rules: How to write better (and how to hate writing less)

Part II: Writing Rules: Grammar and Usage

Part III:  Story Rules

Part IV:  Publishing Rules

Part V:  13 Things Publishers Write

Part VI: Content Tools

In the first few parts of the book, the author teaches you how to be a better writer by urging you to ditch your bad habits and get started on good ones. Some of her advice is not that new—active vs. passive voice—but remind us what the tenets are of good writing.

She reminds us how marketing writing differs from most other genres in a chapter titled Develop Pathological Empathy. “Empathy for the customer experience should be at the root of all your content.”  What matters most, she says, is the content must solve customer problems.

Handley’s book is brimming with aphorisms, titles and tips that are just too numerous to name them all here. Here’s a list of my favorites:

  • Writing is a habit, not an art 
  • Show, don’t tell
  • Shed high school rules—Yes, you can begin a sentence with and or but.
  • Utility x inspiration x empathy = quality content
  • Ban frankenspeak (buzzwords) like solopreneur, ginormous, etc.
  • Ditch weakling verbs
  • Be rabid about readability—use bulleted lists, subheads and short paragraphs
  • Use analogies to make your writing more colorful—instead of the leaves of the pumpkin plant are huge, say the pumpkin leaves are the size of trash-can lids, covering pumpkins the size of beer kegs.

Another one of my favorite sections of the book is Part VI: Content Tools. Think of this as an enormous toolbox stuffed with dozens of gadgets and tools:

  • Research and knowledge management tools
  • Writing tools
  • Productivity tools
  • Editing tools
  • A few great style guides
  • Non-text writing tools
  • Blog idea generators
  • Google Authorship
  • Image sources (Or, stock that doesn’t stink)

Finally, when it comes to telling true stories well, Handley implores us to speak from the heart (and get rid of buzzwords). She quotes author Neil Gaiman who says “Start telling the stories 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.”

“What sets you apart? What’s unique about your story?”

Read this book …write killer marketing content and start telling true stories well.

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