Harry Cresswell

Everybody Writes

Notes taken from Everybody Writes by Ann Handley

Notes #

Note to self: Look into “The Elements of Style by Strunk and White” and “On Writing by Stephen King”.

Writing well is part habit, part knowledge of some fundamental rules, and part giving a damn.

Choose words well, and write with economy and style and honest empathy for your reader.

Think of your content, then, as any medium through which you communicate with the people who might use your products or services.

Your words define your brand. If you had know branding would you still recognise your brand via the words you use.

Are you telling your story from your unique perspective, with a voice and style that’s clearly all you?

When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences and complete paragraphs, it forces a deeper clarity of thinking.

Words matter. Your words (what you say) and style (how you say it) are your most cherished (and, yet, undervalued) assets.

Brevity and clarity matter more than ever.

What matters now isn’t storytelling; what matters is telling a true story well.

Quality content means content that is packed with clear utility and is brimming with inspiration, and it has relentless empathy for the audience.

Utility — you clearly help your customers do something that matters to them.

Inspiration — your content is inspired by data. What credible source supports your main idea? Are there examples, data, real-world stories, relevant anecdotes, timely developments, or new stories you can cite?

Empathy — you relentlessly focus on your customer.

Utility × Inspiration × Empathy = Quality Content

Words are your Web currency: they are a proxy, a stand-in for the important things you want to convey to your customers, and the world.

“Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life.”

“Start with empathy. Continue with utility. Improve with analysis. Optimise with love.”

The first words of every sentence should make a friendly first impression to encourage the reader to keep going.

Goal. What’s your business goal? What are you trying to achieve? Anything you write should always be aligned with a larger (business or marketing) goal—even an individual blog post.

Reframe the idea to relate it to your readers. Why does it matter to them? What’s in it for them? Why should they care? What’s the clear lesson or message you want them to take away? What value do you offer them? What questions might they have? What advice or help can you provide?

Organize. What structure helps communicate your point? Some options are a list, a how-to guide, and a client narrative. Organize the outline or general architecture that suits that type of story best.

Write to one person. Imagine the one person you’re helping with this piece of writing. And then write directly to that person (using you, as opposed to using people or they).

Produce The Ugly First Draft. Then walk away. Rewrite. Shape that mess into something that a reader wants to read. Give it a great headline or title. Have someone edit. One final look for readability.

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

The more you think about what you want to say, and plan for it, the easier it is to say.

“If I’m really struggling, it’s usually not about the writing—it’s about the thinking.”

“An hour with a fresh mind is worth five hours of fog.”

Before you begin the writing, be sure you know the purpose or mission or objective of every piece of content that you write. What are you trying to achieve? What information, exactly, are you trying to communicate? And why should your audience care?

Some writers —including me— write as a way to figure out what we think. You, too, might develop your thoughts through writing, and you might not always have a clear sense of what exactly you want to say until you’re knee-deep in the water.

Helps to first jot down thoughts to try to find a focus and points in support of it.

Why am I creating this? What’s my objective? What is my key take on the subject or issue? What’s my point of view?

Why does it matter to the people you are trying to reach?

In some cases that key point becomes the headline.

You might have more supporting points in a book or longer piece of content, but you should still be able to describe the key point in a single sentence.

“great writing isn’t written, as much as assembled.”

“I almost always write an outline, even if it’s only a scribble on a piece of paper,” Doug Kessler said in an interview with me. “It helps me plan the arc of the story and the flow,

Good writing serves the reader, not the writer. It isn’t self-indulgent. Good writing anticipates the questions that readers might have as they’re reading a piece, and it answers them.

“Good writing (and therefore crafting good experiences) requires us to understand and have empathy for our audience, their situation, their needs and goals.”

What matters now is creating useful content that solves customer problems, shoulders their burdens, eases their pain, enriches their lives.

Watch how customers behave. See what problems they have. “Look for patterns.”

Spend time with your customers or prospects.

Be a natural skeptic. A powerful question is, Why? Why do you do things that way? Why do you feel that way?

Use a customer-centric POV. Replace I or we with you to shift the focus to the customer’s point of view.

Put your reader into the story. Put your reader—or someone just like your reader—into the story. You might share an anecdote about someone grappling with a problem your piece solves, or set up a scenario your reader will recognise.

Describe a problem your reader can relate to. Set a stage. Ask a question.

Tell a specific, simple story really well, aligned with a bigger idea and broader strategy.

Good, pathologically empathic writing strives to explain, to make things a little bit clearer, to make sense of our world—even if it’s just a straightforward product description.

Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. So think what you want to say, then

Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. So think what you want to say, then say it as simply as possible.”

Simplicity comes primarily from approaching any writing with empathy and a reader-centric point of view to begin with—

Designing with your words, rather than fitting words into a design.

White space is a prerequisite, not a luxury. Large chunks of text are formidable and depressing.

Make your words the hero of your design, rather than adding them to a completed design the way a supermarket baker pipes a name into the blank field on a prebaked birthday cake from the case. Pasting words into a blank space without respecting their role in a design is called the lorem ipsum approach,

That approach treats the content as secondary to the design.

For a marketer, design and content aren’t separate processes; they are actually key parts of the same process.

Find a Writing Buddy

good writing is more about thinking, rewriting, and keeping your focus relentlessly on the reader

Know the Difference between Active and Passive Voice

passive means that something is being done to something,

passive means that something is being done to something, instead of that something doing the action on its own.

Generally you want to use the active voice, or active writing, instead of the passive voice.

Ditch weakling verbs in favor of bold action words if you want to breathe life into your writing.

an adverb describes more fully what’s going on with the words around it. An adverb often (but not always) ends in ly—

Often you can ditch an adverb if you also ditch a weakling verb in favor of livelier one.

Use should have, not should of.

Keep your verb tense consistent throughout; don’t switch around between present, future, past tenses.

“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking” (George S. Patton)

Use who for people, which for things, and that for either people or things.

just don’t refer to a nonperson as who.

your content is not about storytelling, it’s about telling a true story well.

Your story should be the steel-infused backbone of whatever content or social media presence you ultimately create

Incidentally, focusing on your bigger story also helps you communicate strongly what makes you truly unique. (B-school types might call this, depending on the situation, your value proposition, positioning, or unique selling proposition.)

clearly communicating what makes you unique helps position you for long-term success.

What is unique about our business? What is interesting about how our business was founded? About the founder? What problem is our company trying to solve? What inspired our business? What aha! moments has our company had? How has our business evolved? How do we feel about our business, our customers, ourselves? What’s an unobvious way to tell our story? Can we look to analogy instead of example? (See Rule 19.) What do we consider normal and boring that other folks would think is cool?

And most important: relay your vision. How will our company change the world?

Tell the Story Only You Can Tell

The problem with all of these samples is that they could be describing a hundred different companies, rather than one unique company. What sets you apart? What’s unique about your story? Don’t tell me who you are—tell me why you matter to me.

“Start telling the stories that 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,” author Neil Gaiman

“Innovation is often the act of taking something that worked over there and using it over here.”

Generating brand awareness. The effort is largely centered on creating awareness of the company’s larger story, because you want people to know about and be familiar with your company—what it is and what it stands for. You’re not trying to generate sales directly from such articles.

Adobe’s CMO.com. Also, American Express’s OPEN Forum, which publishes information designed to help small business owners.

As much as possible, your content should show, not tell. It should show your product as it exists in the world—

Be an advocate for your audience. What are you trying to get out of the interview for the benefit of your audience—the people who will consume this piece of content you’re creating as a result of an interview? If it’s something specific, make sure you open with a question that answers the biggest

Converse, don’t interview. The best podcast hosts converse with their guests instead of interviewing them. They start out with a planned question or two and then let the response dictate the conversation. “Be prepared, but don’t read off a script,” suggests Kerry O’Shea Gorgone, who hosts the weekly MarketingProfs podcast, Marketing

Superlatives can make for great interview fodder. Questions like, “What’s the more interesting/best/baddest/most controversial/greatest/worst” can give you some great material to work with. Other favorite questions of mine: How did you get interested in this line of work/program/etc.…or How did you wind up here?

People’s journeys are always interesting—both to themselves and to others. And they can reveal some interesting bits of color about a person.

Shut up already. Your job is to draw the interviewee out, so try to speak less and let the other person speak more. Try not to interrupt unless it’s to ask a clarifying question.

We take the trust our community places in us very seriously. Credibility is perhaps the most important trait of great curation. So don’t worry about spreading bad info. If it says “Upworthy,” you can share it with confidence, knowing that it checks out.

“Mark Twain’s 10-Sentence Course on Branding and Marketing.”

Tom Bentley, “Mark Twain’s 10-Sentence Course on Branding and Marketing,” MarketingProfs, July 15, 2013, www.marketingprofs.com/articles/2013/11152/mark-twains-10-sentence-course-on-branding-and-marketing

Seek out primary, not secondary sources. A primary source is an original research project, or the originator of an idea or statement. A secondary source quotes the original source.

Generally, the more recent the research, the more appealing it is. Try to avoid anything older than four years, since it’s likely to be stale. In some fast-evolving industries—mobile or social media, say—avoid anything more than two years old.

Wikipedia is not a credible source

If you are merely regurgitating content from elsewhere without adding your take, that’s not curation—that’s aggregation.

A robot can aggregate content, but only a human can tell me why it matters.

The sections you create in your own words should be longer than any sections you’re quoting. Quote short passages or a short section of the original piece only—don’t reprint the whole enchilada. You’re curating parts, not reprinting the whole. The idea is to give your readers the gist of another piece so you can share your take on why it matters, or why it’s important, or what else to consider.

I were linking to an article on marketer Mack Collier’s site, I’d link his name to his main URL at MackCollier.com, and I’d separately link to the curated article as well. Even if in the future he moves content around, he likely won’t change or lose his domain name. So a reader could still click on Mack’s name, arrive on his site, and search for the article there.

Ground Content in Data

Data puts your content in context and gives you credibility.

Google’s Ngram Viewer is more obscure, but it lets you search and graph words and phrases from a vast number of books that Google has scanned in public libraries to populate its Google Books search engine (https://books.google.com/ngrams). It’s a useful (if quirky) tool for finding trends over a much longer time frame than measured in Internet time.

write every tweet as you would speak it…to your girlfriend, boyfriend, significant other, dog, cat, goldfish swimming in its fishbowl—or whoever you can imagine in the room with you.

Content hack: Try reading each sentence backward, instead of the usual way. Doing so jars your brain to consider each word independently, allowing you to spot typos more readily.

“Follow the company you want to work for on LinkedIn and you’ll not only discover what their business goals and priorities are, but also the words and phrases they use to describe these objectives,” Nicole suggested in an email interview.

“Companies want to hire people who have an understanding of who they are and what they do,”

Nicole says. “If you already sound like them they’ll be more apt to reach out to you if you’re already talking their talk.”

Consider the key words you want to be known for, and optimize your profile by including those words in your headline and summary.


It uses you and your repeatedly, which makes it clear that the email isn’t about TaskRabbit, it’s about me—how TaskRabbit can help me. Subtle difference (maybe), but a critical one (definitely).


Writing Landing Pages Less Is So Often More

Match the message to the promise.

Yet 45 percent of the landing pages that were evaluated failed to repeat the email’s promotional copy in the headline. If you sell someone on a promise, make sure that the first thing she experiences after taking action based on your promise doesn’t tell a whole ’nother story.

Keep your headline benefit-driven.

A product-driven headline highlights what your product or service will do; a benefit-driven headline tells customers what your product or service will do for them.

“Why the Title Matters More Than the Talk,” Upworthy Insider (blog), May, 19, 2014, blog.upworthy.com/post/26345634089/why-the-title-matters-more-than-the-talk.

Speak to your audience. Who is your audience? Whom do you want to attract? And—just as important—whom do you not want to attract? All good content is rooted in a clear understanding of your audience.

the main headline on your page should communicate that customer-centric value.

Remember: your value is not what you do or what you sell, it’s what you do for your customers.

Use words your audience uses. You don’t need to embellish what you do. Use words that are familiar to your potential customer. Did you notice that Dropbox uses stuff instead of files, data, photos, and so on? I suppose it could’ve come up with a more sophisticated sounding word (maybe assets? property? resources? content?). But stuff really does cover all the things we all have stored on our computers, phones, and tablets. And that’s how many of us refer to all those things, right?

Writing the About Us Page When It’s Not Really About You The key to a successful About Us page sounds paradoxical: the best About Us pages aren’t really about the company; instead, they focus on relaying who they are in relation to the visitor. All good content puts the reader first, and that’s no different on your About Us page. In other words, About Us gives you a chance to talk about yourself, but always in the context of what you do for your customers. What burdens you help them shoulder, what problems you solve for them.

The best infographics are entertaining, educational, and intrinsically useful.

Infographics should be based on fact, not merely opinion.

The best infographics have a hypothesis and narrative at their core. That sounds high-minded, doesn’t it? But it just means that you need to home in on the key idea you want your data to express. Write a kind of thesis statement. Then outline the main data points you want to use that support your thesis.

Lay out the narrative with an eye toward information architecture. This means organizing your information in a way that flows logically, without undue complexity. Create an outline that highlights your key ideas in a narrative form. You might be tempted to skip this phase and go straight to design. But mapping is the critical step to creating an infographic that tells a meaningful story and doesn’t read as a jumble of numbers and drawings.

“When you go to an art gallery, you notice little plaques next to the artwork that share crucial information to the artwork itself,” said Jarski. “Now imagine, you’re looking at Van Gogh’s Starry Night and the plaque beside offers details about the Mona Lisa. Jarring, right? The images and text need to make sense together.”

Writing Better Blog Posts

“This is like asking if the quality of food in a restaurant matters. Writing is the primary determinant of the success of the post.

Keep headlines tight. Guy suggests headlines of four or five words.

Time it well. Usually the best time for publication is between 8 and 10 a.m. weekdays, in the time zone where your readers live, Guy says.

Use bullets and numbered lists.

Use an interesting approach. Remember the mandate in Rule 8: good writing has logic and structure. But the structure itself can help to draw your readers in; revisit Rule 8 for some ideas about approaches and organizing.

Show up. Half of blogging is consistency, or just showing up on a regular basis. As writer and content marketer Barry Feldman told me: “Write. Write now. Write a lot. Write freely. Write what you feel. Write first and edit second. If you want hits, you need to keep going up to the plate and swinging.”

Buffer expanded its blogging strategy, focusing on lifehacking, business, customer service, and other topics alongside social media, because he realized it was key to getting access to a larger audience, he said.

In 2014, Buffer split its blogging efforts into two blogs, refocusing on social media tips in its main blog (blog.bufferapp.com) and launching a second blog it calls Open (open.bufferapp.com) as an expanded, more general outlet to talk about company culture and lifehacking tips.

“Reaching our audience’s audience is a big goal for us,” Leo said, a strategy he said was inspired by Rand Fishkin’s content marketing manifesto at Moz.com. “The reason for doing this is that ultimately it’s the best way how your brand and your audience can grow. You don’t limit yourself to just a certain audience, but you make sure that your content is relevant to your audience’s audience at all times.”


Writing Annual Reports (or Annual Wrap-Ups)

“The reader doesn’t turn the page because of a hunger to applaud.” Write something that encourages them to keep following you, and get a little more involved in your story.

Start with some basics: Who did we grow to become in the past year? What changed? What didn’t? How have we evolved since our founding? What have been our biggest successes and our crushing failures? What’s commonplace to us that might be interesting to others?

HubSpot’s 2013 Year-in-Review. The Boston-based technology company produced a magazine-like look back at some of its key achievements of the previous year. What it is. Produced with a tool called Uberflip, HubSpot’s 2013 Year-in-Review reads more like an issue of People magazine than a business-to-business company production.1 Magazine sections include financial information, charitable efforts, events, and so on.




Content Tools

using off-line tools eliminates friction between the writer

Draft (draftin.com) was started by engineer Nathan Kontny to help people become better writers. I like the on-demand copyediting feature (which is kind of like an Uber for editing). I also like the Hemingway mode (based on the line “Write drunk, edit sober” often attributed to him), which doesn’t allow you to delete anything you’ve written.

Scapple (literatureandlatte.com/scapple.php) is from the folks at Scrivener. It’s designed to help you brainstorm by mapping and tracking ideas and identifying connections between them. It’s not exactly a mind-mapping tool for writers, but it’s close.

Editing Tools

Grammarly (grammarly.com) bills itself as an automated proofreader and “your personal grammar coach.” It’s both a Web app and a plug-in for Word and Outlook, and so it is fairly robust.

ProWritingAid (prowritingaid.com) is an online writing coach that flags spelling and grammar errors, clichés, and redundancies; it also checks for plagiarism and readability.

The Economist Style Guide (economist.com/styleguide) is one I fell in love with at its first line: “The first requirement of The Economist is that it should be readily understandable.” And that was only the start of our relationship. It goes on to offer great, practical, real-world advice for content of any type. Word nerds will appreciate its commentary and updates via Twitter, too (twitter.com/econstyleguide).

Dragon Naturally Speaking (Nuance.com) is speech recognition software, which is a way to capture a first draft for those who either think better by talking or who can’t take the time to write something out. “It helps me write twice as fast and the writing is better because the tone is more conversational,” Paul Gillin told me.

Google Authorship

Although Google Authorship may not improve the rank of a page, it can increase traffic simply by making the search listing more prominent. And it’s not hard to set up. There are two links involved: (1) a link from the written page to the author’s Google+ profile page, and (2) a link from the author’s Google+ profile page to the blog or website. The first link must include a special tag, rel=“author.” The second link must appear in the Contributor To section of the author’s About page on G+. That’s it!

TinEye (tineye.com) is a reverse image search engine. Upload an image and it can identify its source and how it’s being used and modified. It’s handy to identify an original photographer or source, but also handy if you’re looking for a higher-resolution version of an image you want to use.

Epilogue A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper. —E. B. White Done is better than perfect.

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