“Everybody Writes” is not only the title but also the basic premise of Ann Handley’s bestseller. Not that long ago, the market didn’t allow for many writers or publishers; however, as soon as high-speed internet became a thing, almost everybody became both. Very few actually succeeded – for the simple reason that there’s a difference between being a published author and being a good published writer.
Hadley’s book is here to help. “An all-around reliable desk companion for anyone creating content,” it is essentially a collection of writing tips – or, to paraphrase the author, a series of rules and memorable how-tos. So, get ready to learn how to perfect your writing skills and how to produce that magnificent, reader-friendly copy!
Writing is a habit, not an art
Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up; Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, and George Orwell wrote lying down. All six had one thing in common: regular routine and predictable schedules for writing. Moreover – since all were humans like us – they often had to discipline themselves into keeping to their schedule. Case in point: Victor Hugo would ask his valet to lock away his formal clothes so that he would not be tempted to go out while writing!
Writing is not an art – it is a habit. In other words, it is not something you’re born with – but something you acquire and develop. And the key to being a better writer is turning writing into a habit. Or, in the even simpler tautologic words of Hadley, “the key to being a better writer is to write.”
To make a regular habit of writing, stick to these two straightforward pieces of advice:
- Set aside time each day when you’re freshest. Writing is a mental activity, so don’t force yourself to write when your brain is interested in doing something else – such as sleeping or eating. That way, you’ll only grow to hate writing more.
- Don't write a lot. Just write often. According to American blogger Jeff Goins, “spending five hours on a Saturday writing isn’t nearly as valuable as spending 30 minutes a day every day of the week.” The advice is more than sound, because “habits practiced once a week aren't habits at all. They’re obligations.”
Your writing GPS: 12 steps to writing a good copy
In Hadley’s opinion, there are two types of people – those who think they can write and those who think they can’t. And, too often, both are wrong! “In reality,” she writes, “most of us fall somewhere in the middle, capable of shedding mediocre writing to reveal something more inspired and reader-centric. We just need to train the necessary muscles.”
But just as you need a gym trainer to help you plan your meals and workouts on your way to a six-pack, you also need an experienced writer to help you hone your words, refine your sentences, and organize your paragraphs into an A-plus piece of writing. Needless to say, Hadley is such an experienced writer.
And since she is also a firm believer in the idea that “good writing takes planning and preparation,” she offers a 12-step cheat sheet to mastering the craft while getting a big-picture view of the process. Since there’s no one way to write, the order of the steps is merely Hadley’s suggestion, but the necessity of each of them is not. So, let’s have a look at them all:
- Define your goal. Before putting even a single word on a page, ask yourself what you are trying to achieve and why it matters. In Hadley’s words, “anything you write should always be aligned with a larger (business or marketing) goal – even an individual blog post.”
- Reframe: put your reader into it. Once you’ve defined your goal, reframe it so that it relates to your readers. Think of your text as a gift – if it doesn’t offer value to your audience, then you’re writing it for yourself, and not for them. But in that case – what’s the point of writing it, in the first place?
- Seek out the data and examples. Personal experience matters, but relying exclusively on it is not a good practice. You must find credible sources that support your main idea – “examples, data, real-world stories, relevant anecdotes, timely developments, or new stories.”
- Organize. There’s no single way to organize a piece of writing, but there are several tools that are immensely helpful. For example, Hadley uses bulleted lists to catalog the main ideas and key points of an article and then expands them into paragraphs. Flowcharts, sticky notes, mind mapping, or a whiteboard are also a good idea. Either way, organize the outline or the general architecture of a story before you start writing it!
- Write to one person. “Imagine the one person you’re helping with this piece of writing,” suggests Hadley. “And then write directly to that person (using ‘you’, as opposed to using ‘people’ or ‘they’).” To put your reader into your story, dedicate special attention to the first and last sentences of your piece – the opening and closing, or the lead and the kicker. As Matthew Stibbe explains, “a good lead invites you to the party and a good kicker makes you wish you could stay longer,”
- Embrace The Ugly First Draft (TUFD). “Producing The Ugly First Draft is basically where you show up and throw up,” quips Hadley. “Write badly. Write as if no one will ever read it.” The only goal at this stage is to get the mess out of your head onto the screen. So, barf up TUFD as if you don’t care!
- Walk away. Put a distance between the ugly first draft and the second one. If you have the luxury, give yourself a day or two. Your brain needs some time to let your thinking season and mature. You’ll feel better prepared to shape it into words and sentences once you come back to TUFD.
- Rewrite. When drunk with inspiration – throw up; but later, when you get sober, clean up the mess. Try swapping places with your reader to consider your idea from their point of view. Remember – you need to please them, and not your boss or client. So, as Hadley instructs, “relentlessly, unremittingly, obstinately focus on the reader” during your rewrite.
- Give it a great headline or title. Spend as much time on the headline as you do on the writing itself. This is not an exaggeration: the headline is a key element of any piece of content. Take some inspiration from BuzzFeed. In fact, use their formula – just be a bit more moderate with the expectations. Seduce your readers by placing them directly into the headline. Use numbers and lively words such as “ultimate” and “awesome.” And, most importantly, create “a curiosity gap” – always aim to tell your readers enough to whet their interest, but not enough to fulfill it.
- Have someone edit. The best writing is collaborative – without a good editor, even good writers may seem average. Unfortunately, good editors are hard to find nowadays. So, Hadley advises, “if you find one, hold on to him or her; get married if you must.”
- One final look for readability. If you want your reader to enjoy your piece, you should make reading it as easy as possible. And a bulky text is never that fun to read. So, use short paragraphs between three and six sentences long. Make those sentences brief – no more than 25 words each. Use subheadings to break up text and highlight key points in bold or italic to make the text easily scannable. Finally, use bulleted or numbered lists as often as possible – they make everything easier for everyone.
- Publish. That’s the easiest thing to do – so do it only after you’re satisfied with your work. However, don’t do it without answering one more reader question: what now? “Don't leave your readers just standing awkwardly in the middle of the dance floor after the music stops,” advises Hadley. Decide what you want them to do next – whether check out other resources, sign up to hear more, register for a free trial, or buy something! You’ve already brought them thirsty to the well – now it’s your chance to give them some water!
Some fundamental writing rules: style, grammar, and usage
In addition to a “writing GPS,” in “Everybody Writes,” Hadley also offers “a gaggle of helpful how-tos” and pieces of advice for livelier and better writing. Here’s just a brief selection:
- Be brief and clear. In a noisy planet of publishers, brief, clear copies get more attention.
- Utility x Inspiration x Empathy = Quality content. Take note of the multiplication signs. They mean that “if the value of any one of these three things – utility, inspiration, or empathy – is zero, then the sum of your content is a big fat zero, too.”
- Shed high school rules. Five-paragraph essays are great for doing well on your SATs. However, using the structure beyond that is a grave mistake – because the only thing more boring than writing a five-paragraph essay is – reading it.
- Place the most important words (and ideas) at the beginning of each sentence. Do away with qualifiers and modifiers: the first words should encourage your readers to keep going, not stave them off. These are some common phrases to avoid at the start of the sentence: “According to,” “I believe that…,” “In my opinion,” and “The purpose of this text is…”
- Show, don’t tell. “Don't tell me that the moon is shining,” wrote once Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. “Show me the glint of moon on broken glass.” He’s considered the one of the greatest short-story writers for a reason.
- Use real words: avoid Frankenwords. Stay away from all the “sale-ageddons” and “show-pocalypses” as often as you can, and try to resist the temptation of using ugly, messy composites such as “listicle,” “solopreneur,” and “chillaxing.”
- Don’t use Weblish (or: words you wouldn't whisper to your sweetheart in the dark). Would you ever tell your love, “You’re my top resource,” or you’d opt for “I don’t know what I’d do without you”? We thought so! Don’t be a robot – add heart and soul to your writing!
- Break these five grammar rules. Whatever your high school teacher taught you, do start sentences with “and,” “but” or “because” – they add energy and momentum. Feel free to use sentence fragments as well – they are great emphasizers. The same holds true for one-sentence paragraphs. Also, split infinitives as often as you wish – it’s basically an imaginary rule. Finally, end sentences with a preposition, if it feels more familiar and relaxed – and unless you can omit the preposition completely.
“Writing well is part habit, part knowledge of some fundamental rules, and part giving a damn,” writes Hadley in the introduction to “Everybody Writes.” Although nobody can help you with the last one – this book can help you with the former two and in ways very few other books can.
Easy to scan and even easier to read, “Everybody Writes” – in the words of writer Sonia Simone – “gets to the core of why most content doesn’t work” and “offers real-world, pragmatic advice for fixing it.”
To become a better writer, be a more productive one. So, don’t just wait for inspiration – force it. As David Carr of The New York Times once wrote, “Writing is less about beckoning the muse than hanging in until the typing becomes writing.”