What was the last piece you wrote that stood out to you?
Account Director Elizabeth Robbins-Sabourin kicked off Franco’s Renaissance Readers Book Club with a simple question. The answers were long.
Touching letters to friends. Blogs. Postcards from exotic locations. Facebook status updates that took 30 minutes to write. Each Franconian bared a bit of their soul with their answer.
It showed us something: We enjoy writing.
Writing is all around us as media professionals. From press releases to agendas, blog posts to tweets, the click-clack of keys dominates the ambiance of Detroit’s pioneer full-service PR and marketing firm. Since humanity has yet to figure out telepathy, writing is an important way we communicate with other people – and even then, writing will have a role. Though almost everyone can write, writing well is a skill – and like any skill, it needs to be sharpened from time to time.
So when we chose the next book for our Renaissance Readers book club, we looked for something that would remind us why we love writing. There was no shortage of options. A quick Barnes and Noble search shows over 81,000 books related to writing available for sale.
But as a fan of Ann Handley, columnist and Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs, Elizabeth knew Handley’s 2014 book Everybody Writes would be a hit with Franconians. Elizabeth had recommended the book in her 2015 Summer Reading List, then saw her at Digital Summit Detroit in 2016.
Already the author of a bestselling marketing book, Content Rules, Ann Handley takes her audience through the writing process, from organizing thoughts to grammar rules to sentence structure. She even breaks down how to write for each part of a website and the audiences of major social media channels – with her unique touch of humor. Ultimately, if you don’t want to read it yourself, we provided 6 takeaways from the book to improve our writing.
Embrace TUFD – The Ugly First Draft
Pick your favorite author. Guess what? They needed an editor.
Handley stresses how the first iteration of a piece is not going to be perfect. Having “The Ugly First Draft” is part of the writing process and should be embraced. It will need editing. It will look nothing like the final piece. However, it’s no excuse for substandard work. Handley suggests getting all your thoughts onto the paper in this stage – even if they aren’t complete sentences. Then, walk away. Do something else and get your mind off of what you’ve written. When you come back to it, you’ll have a different mindset, which will allow you to critique yourself differently than if you had begun editing as soon as you finished the conclusion. Messiness is a necessary part of the writing process – use it to your benefit!
The Most Important Part of the Sentence Goes First
I’m a bit of a wonk when it comes to sentence syntax and structure, I have to admit. There’s information to be gleaned from the way a writer constructs a sentence. Handley agrees, and advises writers to avoid starting with qualifying phrases such as “It’s important to remember that…” or “In my opinion…” These are perfectly appropriate at the end of a sentence in most cases, and it helps keep the reader hooked.
Mark Twain once wrote a letter to his friend, saying “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead.” Writing short pieces isn’t easy and takes time. That time, says Handley, is well-spent and benefits the reader. Bogging the reader down with unnecessary details will make some lose interest. We’re tempted to overshare certain details to “set the scene” or add backstory. While they may be important, remember what is and is not important to keeping the story moving. Readers rarely wish a marketing piece was longer.
Make Your Piece Readable
Words matter. They convey meaning. With that in mind, pay attention to what you’re saying. Handley wants writers to be “rabid about readability,” especially online. This means three-sentence or six-line paragraphs, a 25-word limit in sentences and straightforward verbiage without clichés. Also, use bullets or lists and give your words “room to breathe” with some white space. If your reader doesn’t enjoy reading your piece, it loses its effectiveness!
Use Simpler Words
Handley implores readers not to use a long word when a shorter one would do. Writers have a tendency to use “ten-dollar words” to make themselves sound smarter. Why use ‘juxtaposition’ when ‘comparison’ would work better? Or how about ‘surreptitious’ when ‘secret’ would be more easily understood? It links back to the previous point about readability – you don’t want to cause your audience to lose interest!
Tailor Your Message to Your Audience
Tech-savvy. Frequent social media user. Communications professional. Works in or near a city with a professional sports team. Sound familiar? If you’ve made it this far, there’s a good chance you tick all these boxes, because you’re who I’m writing to. My tone is informal, yet informative, much like Handley’s tone herself. It’s part of what makes her book effective. By leveling with your audience, the message comes across as more sincere, and you’ll keep their attention. But take that a step further – seek near-pathological empathy for readers. “Empathy for the customer experience should be at the root of all your content,” says Handley. Content written to increase a search engine ranking is a waste of time.” Many of us are used to writing to get the job done, or to “check it off your to-do list” – and smart readers can tell. The best writing comes from a true understanding of what the audience seeks and giving it to them – and isn’t that what you came here for?
Writing skills must be constantly honed, sharpened and refreshed. Handley does that and more – it gives you a new perspective on writing. These six points are but a fraction of Everybody Writes – we’d recommend purchasing the book for the full experience!
Learn anything? Interested in more of Franco’s perspective? Leave a comment!