Everybody Writes — My Interview With Ann Handley

A few years ago I went to a MarketingProfs event and met someone who literally changed my life. It wasn’t Steve Jobs or Barack Obama or anyone my Mom ever heard of.

It was Ann Handley who was speaking on a panel about this up and coming thing called “content marketing.”

I fought my social anxiety, walked up to her, and introduced myself. I told her where I worked. And explained that I needed help and advice. I was struggling to help my organization to be more innovative – to agree to change from an outbound marketing approach to one that earned our audience’s attention.

Ann was as gracious and humble and helpful as anyone you could ever meet. (And smart and funny and a whole lot of other things but I’ll save my gushing!)

So I immediately read her book Content Rules. Then I read Managing Content Marketing by Robert Rose and Joe Pulizzi. And I reached out to the best content marketing practitioner, Joe Chernov.

I slowly started to chart a course of change. One that included not just content marketing, but social media, and personal branding, and change management, and more…and the rest is history. So while Ann’s book has been out for some time, I finally sat down with her recently to dig into some background on the book.

Why did you write it?

I wrote Everybody Writes because I couldn’t find what I wanted—part writing guide, part handbook on the rules of good sportsmanship in content publishing, and all-around reliable desk companion for anyone creating or directing content on behalf of brands.

Other books on writing already exist.

You’re right. They do. Please phrase all questions in this Q&A as Qs.

Noted. So what’s different about this one?

Short answer: It’s designed for content marketers and business organizations – not novelists or essayists or journalists.

Ann Handley’s Tiny Writing House

Slightly long answer: Many writing books are really more aphorism than true advice. They’re entertaining to read and they can be a kind of rallying cry, but they aren’t very how-to or prescriptive. (Which is always my bias. I like (need?) things spelled out.)

Alternatively, much of what passes for writing advice gets too deep in the weeds of writing construction. Great if you’re looking to up your score on the SATs. Not so awesome if you just need some guidance on how not to sound like a total idiot when you craft this week’s customer mailing.

What’s harder to find is a book that functions for marketers as part writing and story guide, part instructional manual on the ground rules of ethical publishing, and part straight talk on some muscle-building writing processes and habits.

What’s also hard to find is a book that distills some helpful ideas about the craft of content simply and (I hope) memorably, framed for people like us.

What books inspired you?

So, so many. But there are two in particular.

My own go-to guide is Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. I read it first in college, and I still re-read my copy every year – in part as a refresher, and in part for the sheer pleasure of “hearing” EB White’s voice again, if you know what I mean.

I never met the man, but still it feels to me like a visit with an old friend. Which sounds odd, maybe. But there you go.

Another favorite is The Essential Don Murray: Lessons from America’s Greatest Writing Teacher.  Murray is a former UNH professor, writing teacher, and a columnist for the Boston Globe, back when I was just starting out. His books aren’t as well known as others – like Stephen King’s On Writing or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. But I like the journalist’s sensibility that he brings to the table.

How is it different from Content Rules?

Read Content Rules if you’re trying to figure out how to create an inbound marketing strategy for your organization – where to start, how to create a content marketing program that actually drives business.

Read Everybody Writes when you’re solid with notion of content as a cornerstone of your marketing, and you’re ready to start implementing or upping your content game.

Also read it if you’re looking to improve what you say (and how you say it) across all your content assets – including emails, Twitter, Facebook, blogging, and so on.

Interesting, some seasoned writers have told me that they are getting a lot out of the book – which kind of surprised me. But at the same time, thrills me, of course. (Unless they are just flattering me? But what would be the point of that…?)

What are the key takeaways?

How much time do we have? 😉

The book is organized into six different parts – how to write (or how to hate writing less, for the “adult-onset” writers out there); some grammar rules framed for a marketing audience; storytelling guidelines; publishing rules; 13 things marketers write most frequently (like landing pages, home pages, emails, LinkedIn posts, Facebook posts, and 10 more things); and finally, content resources or tools to help you work smarter. I think you chimed in on that last section!

One thing you wanted people to think about?

Your words are your emissaries; they carry important messages to your customers.

My main goal with this book was to empower organizations to create ridiculously good content — and to get them a little excited about it! And to me, great content almost always has a story and writing component. So I want people to think of writing and their words not as boring drudgery… but as a way to differentiate themselves online.

Many of us have complicated relationships with writing – we self-identify as writers or non-writers. I want everyone who works in marketing to feel a little more competent and confident about creating content, and also to have a little fun.

Lofty goal? Maybe. A girl’s gotta dream, though.

What is one story you can share about the journey you took to write it (funny anecdote?)
I didn’t think the world needed another book on content marketing. And, as I say in Everybody Writes, I’m not sure I wanted to even write another book… because writing a book is like birthing a Volkswagen. It’s hard and you sweat a lot. And most of the work is done while crying.

But I couldn’t get this idea out of my head… as much as I tried to drown it, it kept bobbing to the surface again. So at some point I gave in – and decided to just write the book so I would quit annoying myself. And then once I had chosen to write it… I promptly retired to the couch where I spent the next month or two binge-watching Netflix. I am an excellent procrastinator when I have to do hard things. (See Volkswagen comment, above.)

Go here to buy Everybody Writes. Ann has also offered 2 free copies of the book to the best comments (determined by her!) below.

Let me know what you think in the comments below. And please follow along on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook  and Google+ or  Subscribe to the B2B Marketing Insider Blog for regular updates.

Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner  is a Top CMO, Content Marketing and Digital Marketing Influencer, an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula" and he is the CEO and Founder of Marketing Insider Group, a leading Content Marketing Agency . He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael helps build successful content marketing programs for leading brands and startups alike. Subscribe here for regular updates.

24 thoughts on “Everybody Writes — My Interview With Ann Handley

  1. I’ll have to look into these recommendations. I’m new to the content marketing world. I can definitely relate to the “pulling your hair out” feeling while writing. I love it and hate it. Glad to hear this books a little less cerebral and offers more practical advice I can implement today. Thanks for sharing

  2. Okay, I’m going to come clean here. The idea behind Everyone Writes confused me at first. As a writer, I was a bit defensive (okay, more than a bit) about the idea of everyone writing…shouldn’t we leave that to the ‘experts’?

    But the premise turns out to be true. While the world definitely needs a Stephen King and a Margaret Atwood, the rest of us can’t apply for those jobs.

    The reality is we all have to write as part of our day jobs. And penning a practical guide to help people do that is not only smart, but admirable. Especially if it’s like giving birth to a car.

    Thanks for telling the story behind it (and particularly for not going into the details of that last part). Great interview!

    1. Thanks Mike and really happy to see you came to see what Ann was after. Ann is such a great example of what happens when your mission is just to help people be better. Not only does she know her stuff, she is also an amazing writer. Incredibly Smart. Good at what she does. As nice as anyone you will ever meet. What’s not to like!

  3. Something Ms. Handley said at a conference I was at last year has haunted me every day since. “Everything the light touches is content.” Its origins are clear, but the connotation is so resonant to everything that we do. I think I’m making it my next tattoo … maybe in another language for mystery 🙂 Some great quotes here too, so thank you for the interview.

    1. Thanks Kelton, that is an awesome quote. That is definitely going on my list of amazing content marketing quotes. But not on my body. My wife might get upset 😉

  4. I loved Ann’s thoughts on writing as a way to differentiate ourselves online. These days we have the tools available to differentiate ourselves and businesses and build trust and transparency into business relationships.. and yet writing and then actually publishing your work is hard. I’m looking forward to reading the book.

    1. Thanks Sarah, you are absolutely right. It’s so easy to fall into the traps of excuses for why not to write more. But we all have a personal brand. We all have unique skills and experiences and interests. We need to take control, contribute our thoughts to the world. And with each submission, (and some help from Ann’s book) our writing can get better and better.

  5. Thanks Michael and Ann – both content marketing and writing heroes to me. I use your 12 step process from the book all the time, it keeps me honest.

    In marketing we can get bound up in strategy and agency doublespeak. It’s easier to put on a wizard’s fireworks display than come out from behind the curtain and speak plainly to create an emotional connection. That’s at the core of great writing, and your book is great advice, written clearly.

    Long live the power of great stories told simply. Thank you for raising the flag – and the bar.

    We review Ann’s book here https://anderspink.com/7-ways-become-better-writer-review-ann-handleys-everybody-writes/ if people want another review too.

    1. Thanks Stephen, you are absolutely right. What I really love about Ann’s writing is that it comes from the heart. You can feel her passion. And because she is a great writer, her story is really helpful and told simply as well. Emotion beats promotion every time.

  6. Thanks for the “Everybody Writes” love (LUV?). I’m truly honored to know you and count you as a friend! Also — it’s about time you posted this! 😀

    1. hahaha. ok nice try. It might be the longest space between an interview request and a response ever. But this one actually happened where others have fallen off.

      Seriously, I’m the privileged one! You may never know how much you’ve inspired my career and set me in the direction I’ve been taking for the past few years. And for that, I will be forever grateful.

      So, does this comment get me a free book or what?

      XOXO

  7. Solid article Michael, and I’ve been a long-time fan of Ann’s “Content Rules”. Haven’t read the Rose/Pulizzi book, but will put that one on the list (along with Everybody Writes, of course :)).

    My question for both you and Ann is, when crafting content for a brand’s corporate blog, do you feel people read that content expecting bias toward the brand? If so, how do we as writers counter that bias?

    Great interview, glad I overcame my social anxiety to ask a question.

    1. Hi Russell,

      That is a great question. I think people are smarter than we give them credit for. I think they will suspend their distrust and give brands a chance. Once they smell even the faintest scent of bias, they run. Never to return. I think they realize that brands won’t promote their competitors, so maybe some active filtering, but not outright bias.

      In order to protect against this, brands should establish very clear editorial guidelines. For example, at SAP, I stated:
      1. We only publish content that is helpful and not promotional of our brand (or our competitors)
      2. We publish at least once per day on every topic important to our audience
      3. We allow our writers to tell the whole story and do not restrict what they want to say
      4. We cover our topics “like a journalist would,” with integrity, quality and devotion to the idea that the content should help inform or entertain

      Trust me, there were some things that were controversial. Such as when we published articles that talked about security concerns of large IT vendors or cloud software (SAP is one). But in the end, the objective of publishing non-promotional, helpful content, and our editorial guidelines really helped to demonstrate the value of what we were doing.

      I hope that helps.

  8. So, this morning I am here procrastinating on some real writing of my own by sharing links on Twitter and I came across this interview with Ann. I like to think I know her, having read her words for so many years, but we have never met. Not even at an Internet Oldtiners event.

    Anyway, congratulations on publishing this book and on the amazing reviews it has gotten on Amazon. I think I am now ready to go tackle the birthing of my own VW.

  9. I have both of these on my wish list…. definitely need something to spark this creative slump….. big fan of Ann’s!!

  10. Ann (and Michael), I love the premise of a more practical book for people who aren’t writers. I don’t consider myself a writer, and my dabbling with it is most certainly of the adult-onset variety. For context: my required writing class is the (very) low-point of my college transcript…

    Yet, through my own journey, starting with simply joining the discussion happening on blogs like Michael’s, MarketingProfs and more, and later in joining the content fray with my own personal blog on marketing, I learned to appreciate first-hand the value of creating content and have become a vocal advocate of content with clients and others.

    So a book for people that never learned to write and that doesn’t try to teach me the grammar lessons that didn’t make sense the first dozen times? We need it, and I love it. Thanks!

    1. Thanks Eric, but I think you need to give yourself more credit. I think you’re a pretty darn good writer and always appreciate the point of view and the approach you take to your writing. Hope all is well with the family, new house, and work.

  11. Intrigued! Books like this one truly reflect the broader transformation that is going on in communications, writing, and journalism. Companies are shifting to content-driven marketing, partially because the hit to the bottom line is so much less than traditional advertising — and of course, today’s consumers have little-to-no patience with pushy, sales-y approaches. Journalists and publishers are working to maintain their integrity in the face of that same bottom-line struggle and in light of the blurring lines between publishing and editorial (e.g., the leaked NYT internal report). It’s all exciting and a bit scary — all of us involved in the anguish and ecstasy of writing must work to be innovative and open to change, but remain fierce guardians of quality and integrity in all that we do.

  12. Nice interview- it actually made me want to buy the book (haven’t bought it yet, but looking into it).
    Honestly, though, the tiny house was half of what sold me. I wish you’d asked her about the tiny house featured in the images. It says “tiny writing house”. But is that tiny house just her office, or her home? Does she live/work there alone?
    Anyway, good work.

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