TL;DR: Read this Book, when…

  • you want to become a better writer (especially, but not exclusively, in online marketing)
  • you are writing for a blog or marketing department
  • you want to learn some tricks on how to keep writing
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Overview

The book Everybody Writes by Ann Handley aims to be a book for everyone since everybody writes in their daily routine in emails, social media, or on a blog or website.

The book gives very concrete tips on writing, building the habits around it, grammar and usage of words, how to tell a story and on marketing things with words.

Likes & Dislikes

The book is a very easy read. I like the fact that it contains over 70 very short chapters, each with a very narrow focus on a certain aspect of writing, publishing or marketing. This makes it easy to use as a reference when you want to look something up.

The language is pleasantly conversational. The author blends in words like “discombobulated” or “Frankenword”, which breaks one of her own rules (but then, one of her rules is to break a rule here and there to stay interesting, so she’s not contradicting herself).

The second half of the book is focused on writing in marketing, even though the chapter titles sometimes suggest differently. So, despite the “Everybody” in the title, I don’t think this book is in fact for everybody. If you’re writing for a blog or a marketing department, however, this book contains invaluable advice.

Key Takeaways

Since the book is neatly structured in a lot of very small chapters, and I’m always keen on taking away something from every chapter, there are a lot of takeaways.

How to Write Better

  • the quality of content can be measured by the formula quality = utility x inspiration x empathy - it’s zero if any of the components is zero
  • writing is a habit, not an art - write every day to improve
  • don’t just punch emails into the keyboard - use them as writing practice
  • write when you’re freshest to get the most out of it
  • there is no single formula for structuring content like “intro / body / conclusion” - that would be boring to write and read
  • be clear, be brief, and focus on the reader
  • start sentences with the important
  • re-frame your idea of the text to view it from the reader’s perspective to keep the focus on the reader
  • “think before ink” - have an idea of the why and the what before starting to write
  • find a workflow to organize your thoughts into an outline and make it a habit
  • produce an “ugly first draft” without caring about spelling or grammar and then rewrite it to be more productive
  • “relentlessly, unremittingly, obstinately focus on the reader” - best done when taking the reader’s place while rewriting or editing
  • humor comes with the rewrite, not with the draft
  • replace “I” and “we” with “you” to get the reader’s interest
  • during a rewrite, first focus on paragraphs and then on single words (for trimming a hedge, you’ll first use a chainsaw and then a more precise pair of shears)
  • start a page with “Dear XXX” (and delete it later) to create a more conversational writing voice, where “XXX” is a persona of your readers
  • the first one or two paragraphs in a draft are usually superfluous - delete them or rewrite them ruthlessly
  • make sure that modifiers like “only” clearly modify only the part of a sentence you want them to
  • make the lead (first paragraphs) and the kicker (last paragraphs) of a text extra good - a good lead makes the reader read the content and a good kicker makes the reader sad that it’s over
  • tell specific stories instead of generic ones - tell a story about 40-year-old Mr. Smith instead of “a middle-aged man”
  • use analogies instead of simple adjectives to pique the interest
  • writing should always make things clearer and aim to make sense of the world, not only in how-tos
  • make things simple but don’t assume the reader is dumb
  • find someone to write / review with to help make writing a habit
  • don’t write by committee or nothing will get done
  • a good editor (a human, not a computer program) drastically improves quality
  • make readability a primary concern - use checks like the Flesch readability test
  • leave something unfinished at the end of a writing session to take momentum into the next session
  • set a daily word goal, not a time goal (start with something easily achievable and work upwards)
  • set a deadline and don’t let yourself push it

Grammar and Usage

  • use real words instead of made-up marketing buzzwords
  • avoid stitched-together “Frankenwords” like “Awesomesauce” or … “Frankenword”
  • don’t use technical-sounding words in non-technical contexts (“bandwidth”, “radar screen”, …)
  • use active over passive - it makes the text sound livelier
  • use strong verbs over weak verbs to make the text clearer
  • most adverbs only add bloat an can be ditched
  • use clichés sparingly (“the rubber meets the road”, “drink from the fire hose”, …) as they cheapen the text
  • if using “this”, “these”, or “those”, make completely clear what you mean with it
  • one-sentence paragraphs are fine to make a point
  • use “further” for figurative distance and “farther” for actual distance
  • an eggcorn is a misheard phrase that still makes sense, but in another way (“dutch tape” vs. “duct tape”)
  • don’t moralize (i.e. don’t start sentences with “don’t” or “avoid”)

Story Rules

  • if you’re marketing, tell a story that’s bigger than just your company
  • don’t tell who you are, tell why you matter to the reader
  • choose 3-4 adjectives to define your writing voice and stick to them
  • analogies are more powerful than examples

Publishing Rules

  • writing for a brand is a type of journalism
  • be scrupulously trustworthy
  • keep your eyes open for “content moments” that can spark content that make you a thought leader
  • only write about what the reader will find useful to know
  • acknowledge other points of view than your own to build trust
  • if you haven’t understood something, ask or research - you owe it to the reader
  • fact-check diligently - trust and credibility are the cornerstones of publishing
  • always disclose potential conflicts of interest
  • cite primary sources, not secondary sources
  • cite as you write, otherwise you may forget citing
  • if you curate other people’s content, add some value of your own
  • ask for permission before using other people’s content
  • if you use other people’s content, attribute it properly
  • back your text with trustworthy data

13 Things Marketers Write

  • ideal blog post length: 1500 words
  • ideal email subject length: 50 characters (6-10 words)
  • ideal line length on a website: 12 words
  • ideal paragraph length: 4 lines
  • ideal title tag: 55 characters
  • ideal meta description: <= 155 characters
  • use Twitter as a sounding board for ideas
  • don’t overuse hashtags in social media posts
  • use humor when possible - everybody likes to laugh
  • posts on facebook must have an image
  • make social media content “snackable”
  • use unique words to describe yourself on social media
  • in email, talk directly to the reader
  • writing for a landing page should be hyper-focused
  • include a “curiosity gap” in headlines (a gap in the reader’s knowledge that makes him / her itch to read the article)
  • on a homepage, use “you speak” and add 2-4 calls to action, not more
  • even the “about us” page should bring value to the reader and not just state boring facts about the company
  • an infographic should tell a story - hypothesis, narrative, call to action
  • every blog post should have a (non-stock) image
  • writing an annual review with successes, failures, changes, and growth adds a human side to your business

Conclusion

As you see from the lists above, Everybody Writes offers a lot of applicable content. The lists above just include the things I took away, and they may be different for you.

The book is very pleasant to read and makes it easy to take away valuable tips. I now have a big list of things I want to do to improve my writing :).

If you’re already writing a blog or as a marketer - or you’re planning to start - this book is a definite reading suggestion.

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