Ann Handley is just like you and me.
She eats French fries with ketchup, sold an internet company, runs a B2B marketing firm, and has written several bestselling books about writing… oops, wait. Maybe some of the things she’s done we only aspire to. But at least we’re all writers (and many of us do like ketchup).
Full disclosure: I’m an Ann Handley fangirl, and I subscribe to her biweekly newsletter. I’m far from alone in my admiration. Handley is widely regarded as a top content marketing expert. She’s currently the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs, a keynote speaker, and the author of several books on writing.
So when I found out her new book—Everybody Writes: Your New and Improved Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content (2nd Edition)— was about to release, I couldn’t wait to read it. Then, to my delight, my Contently editor accepted my pitch for a series of interviews with content icons, giving me an excuse to reach out to Handley for a one-on-one convo.
In our interview, I chatted with Handley about the ingredients that go into “ridiculously good content,” as well as her specific advice for freelancers in 2023. Below are some of the top takeaways from our conversation.
Find your voice—and write confidently in it
Willingness to write using your own voice can be daunting, even for icons like Handley. While reviewing the original version of Everybody Writes in preparation for the second edition, she noticed that her writing in the first book was less certain. “Instead of putting forth my own ideas, I quoted a lot of other people,” she explained. “I didn’t need to do that.”
“In a world where automation and AI are creeping around the edges of marketing, creative individuals need to make our voices heard.”
But in the eight years since her first book published, she’s overcome that hesitancy—and now encourages other writers to do the same. “Everyone has a unique voice, and that is what we need to embrace to make our writing shine,” she said. “In a world where automation and artificial intelligence are creeping around the edges of marketing—and sometimes are actually in the heart of marketing—we, as creative individuals, need to make our voices heard.”
Handley believes voice is so important that there’s a whole section of her book devoted to “Voice Rules,” including how to define and develop a brand voice.
Nail the formula for high-quality content
If only there was a recipe for creating high-quality content, it would make life so much easier, right? Luckily for us, Handley has created one:
Utility x Inspiration x Empathy = High-Quality Content
She defines the elements of this formula as follows:
- Utility: The information helps people.
- Inspiration: The work is backed by data or creativity (or both), and sounds like it could only come from you.
- Empathy: The focus is on the reader.
The key is to make sure your writing includes all three components. As those of you with basic knowledge of multiplication know, when the value of any number is multiplied by zero, the end result is zero—or, in the context of content, useless.
Follow a multi-step framework
Beyond the simple equation above, Handley has also pinned down a few other helpful nuts and bolts in her Writing GPS framework, which she applied when writing the second edition of her book. The process includes 17 steps (!) for producing amazing content. Thankfully, not all of them are time-consuming—in some cases, they involve simple tasks like reading your draft out loud.
For those of you who got by on SparkNotes in college, here’s a condensed version—seven steps Handley believes are the “required minimum” for content writing:
- Set a goal
- Ask, “So what?”
- Organize your thoughts
- Craft the first draft
- Refine a second draft
- Create a headline
Those first two steps are often ignored by content writers and brands. Marketers sometimes forget to ask basic questions like, “How is this article part of a larger business goal?”
For guidance, Handley provided an example of what a concrete goal might look like: “I want to drive awareness of and interest in the launch of our incredibly cool, collaborative editing software, because we want to sell more of it.”
That second step—the “so what?”—is another element that often falls by the wayside when marketers are trying to get a piece of content out the door quickly, but it’s a critical one. In this step, writers should reframe the goal so that it relates to the reader.
As an example, consider a blog post about a company award. This may be quite an accomplishment, but why would a reader care? For an internal audience, you could highlight the individual contributors who helped the company win the award, which provides recognition of those employees. For an external audience, you could explain how the award highlights specific features that benefit customers.
Break the rules
When I read a book about how to write better, I want to hear about writing faux pas and their fixes. All that is in Handley’s book—but even better is the part on “Grammar Rules Made to Be Broken.” If you want permission to start a sentence with “and,” “because,” or “but,” you’ll find it here. Want to write a paragraph with only one sentence? Have at it.
“Language today is much looser, especially due to communication through social media and online.”
“Many of the rules of writing that were taught in high school and college have changed,” Handley said. “Language today is much looser, especially due to communication through social media and online. Writing has evolved.”
Not sure when to break those long-standing writing rules? “Read it aloud,” Handley said. “Does it sound okay? If the answer is yes, go with it.”
For those times when you’re still on the fence, consider consulting an editor. (Even Handley has one. That’s right—the writing guru doesn’t send anything into the world, including her popular email newsletter, without a second set of eyes on it first.)
Differentiate yourself as a freelancer
I asked Handley what advice she would give to freelancers of any stage and age about future opportunities. She shared the following ideas:
- Offer content strategy services. Learn and understand content strategy so you can provide it as a premium service.
- Provide editing services for brands. Many brands produce content that needs to be edited. If you’re working directly with a brand and there’s no editor on staff, suggest yourself for the role.
- Write B2B email newsletters. Make the case to take on email newsletters for brands by offering suggestions for how to nurture customers, drive business to the company, or make the content more subscriber-friendly.
When it comes to the future of content writing, Handley is optimistic. “Writers have never been more critical to marketing because content has never been more important to marketing,” she said. “The writers who will be most successful are those who constantly seek to level up.”
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Author: Margie Zable Fisher