April 28th, 2015


That's the way you do it ...

I've met Ann Handley of MarketingProfs a couple of times, and her new book was getting a lot of play over in the marketing discussions of Facebook, so I dropped a line to the good folks at Wiley to request a copy of Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content. I was a bit hesitant about slogging into this, as, frankly, having been a professional writer of one kind or another for decades, I'm a bit resistant to having people tell me what I should be doing in what I've been doing for (in many cases) longer than they've been alive. Fortunately, Ms. Handley is not dictating from these pages like some schoolmarm with a Ruler of Pain at the ready (or the “style guide” equivalent), but as a fellow wordsmith bringing the consensus view of a lot of fellow marketing communicators on what works and what doesn't and how to get your verbiage closer to the former. The book also has a particularly comforting Epigraph*: Beware of advice – even this. - Carl Sandburg

One thing I especially liked about the book is that it's presented in “bite-size chunks” … with its ≅300 pages divided up into 74 chapters spanning five “parts”, with a sixth part devoted to Content Tools. The other five are: Writing Rules: How To Write Better (And How To Hate Writing Less), Writing Rules: Grammar And Usage, Story Rules, Publishing Rules, and 13 Things That Marketers Write. There's a lot of humor in this (like the chapter heading “The More the Think, the Easier the Ink”), and a lot of context building (such as having Ben Franklin's personal daily schedule displayed in the “Writing Is a Habit, Not an Art” chapter).

Early on, Handley presents a 12-point “Writing GPS” … a GPS because “in writing you need a road map to get you to where you need to be”. This serves as a framework for the first section of the book (“Writing Rules”), as the chapters that follow pretty much step through these in sequence:

  1. Goal.

  2. Reframe: put your reader into it.

  3. Seek out the data and examples.

  4. Organize.

  5. Write to one person.

  6. Produce The Ugly First Draft.

  7. Walk away.

  8. Rewrite.

  9. Give it a great headline or title.

  10. Have someone edit.

  11. One final look for readability.

  12. Publish, but not without answering one more reader question: what now?

This list, I think most writers will agree, is a pretty good approach to getting work done. One quirk in how things are handled here is that Handley refers to what I'm calling chapters as “rules” - even though these generally feel more along the line of how Pirates of the Caribbean's Captain Hector Barbossa framed the Pirate's Code: “more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules”. Of course, not all of these are created equal, some chapters run to 8 pages or so, and some are a mere handful of lines.

So, the basics on Everybody Writes: it's very useful, it's very entertaining, it's crammed full of good stuff, and if you're in Marketing Communications, you should definitely go grab a copy, because you'll be happy that you did. That being now out of the way, I'm going to indulge in cherry-picking some bits & pieces that I bookmarked while reading through it.

In the “Develop Pathological Empathy” section she notes:
... you have to meet people where they are, with an attitude of benevolence and largesse, to help them find answers to the problems that they have. All of your content – your product pages, your landing pages, your customer support text, your About Us pages, and so on “need to use language to support people's needs and goals”. {that quoted bit is from Facebook's Jonathon Coleman}
In the “Keep It Simple – but Not Simplistic” chapter she delves into her journalism school experience for some classics:
No one will ever complain that you've made things too simple to understand.
Assume the reader knows nothing. But don't assume the reader is stupid.
To which she adds:
Simplicity comes primarily from approaching any writing with empathy and a reader-centric point of view to begin with – that is, it's the result of writing with clarity and brevity, and in human language ...
There's an interesting chapter on readability, which looks at the various scales and provides information on and links to resources for testing your text (including one that's built in to Microsoft Office that I'd been unaware of). I'd never really looked into this, personally, and was interested in the following … a score of 90.0 to 100.0 would be understood by an average 11-year-old student, a score from 60.0 to 70.0 would be understood by 13-15 year-olds, and a score of 0.0 to 30.0 is best suited to college grads … and she breaks out how an assortment of types of material fall on that scale.

Another suggestion I found on-target was for writing goals … that one should “make sure you measure your writing in output (words) rather than in effort expended (time)”, which is coupled with a concept taken from boxing – one's “weight class” (an idea borrowed from Mitch Joel), where a novice writer might be only good for 50 words at a sitting, while a “heavyweight” can “churn out 5,000 words … before breakfast”. The idea here is to know what your limits of quality composition are … and to work to build up those “writing muscles”, to 250 words, 500 words, 750 words, etc. Interestingly, I recent found a resource on-line for doing 750 words as an exercise (http://750words.com/) … Handley notes that 750 words is about 3 pages of text, so getting to the point where you can generate that without much strain is a fairly significant accomplishment.

There's a section on words one may be misusing or confusing … but I'm hoping that most writers aren't having problems with those words … the part, however, on “usage confusion” is very useful, with discussions of “fewer vs. less”, “bring vs. take”, “who vs. whom”, “that vs. which vs. who”, and several others that I'm sure even the most seasoned word mongers trip up on from time to time!

The book's full of anecdotes, quips, and borrowings from industry sources, and the fifth part is a platform-by-platform look at “writing for” Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, email, hashtags, landing pages (and other web real estate), blog posts, annual reports, and how long everything from these to podcasts ought to be. There's also a look at infographics and resources for developing them.

As you can no doubt tell by this point, I'm a fan of Everybody Writes, and really have nothing negative to say about it. This came out last September, but I'm sure it has settled in to its long-term niche in the brick-and-mortar bookshop shelves, with the on-line sources having it at predictable discounts. Of course, it's targeted to Marketing Communications folks (like me), and might not be quite the awesome resource to playwrights, poets, and technical manual writers. However, if you want to improve your marketing writing, you'll want to add this to your stack of "books about writing" (oh, come on, you know you have one).

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