How to Be a Better Writer: Tips from Ann Handley

During my career as an editor, I’ve often come across the myth that there are two kinds of people in the world: good writers and bad writers. In my experience, it’s more accurate that everyone’s writing improves with practice — there’s really no such thing as a “natural” writer.

At Rep Cap, we’re always looking for new ways to improve our craft, our team been passing around a well-loved copy of Ann Handley’s new book, “Everybody Writes.” If you read one business book this year — especially if you don’t see yourself as a “writer” — I’d make a strong case it should be this one.

I asked Ann for her best tips for everyone who writes — people who love writing and leaders who are getting nudged into writing by their content marketing teams.

What did you learn from writing this book? How did your own writing develop and improve through the process?

It’s one thing to know something well. It’s another to be able to explain it to others in a way that makes it accessible and fun and inspiring.

So while this book collects what I’ve learned over 25 years of editing and writing for marketers and business, it forced me to break down what I’ve done almost by instinct into a manageable, accessible path.

Thinking through how to articulate what I knew almost by default made me understand the material at a deeper level. If that makes sense.

I also learned that I really am a world-class procrastinator who will go to great lengths to avoid doing really hard things. Like writing a second book.

In your book, you suggest writers “write to one person.” Who did you imagine as your one reader when you wrote this book?

Good question — no one has ever asked me that! (Insert double high-fives emoji here!)

I imagined my neighbor. She isn’t a marketer — she works in development. She has to do a lot of marketing and communications writing as part of her job … but she hasn’t taken a writing class since college.

She’s whip-smart, but isn’t as familiar as many of us with social media, blogging and other platforms.

What’s your best tip for someone who already thinks of herself as a good writer? How can good writers improve their craft?

One of the things I love about writing is that you are never quite done. As with public speaking or, say, art: You never stop learning or improving.

It’s not like riding a bike or learning to bake bread, where once you get the hang of it, you’re done. A writer is never fully done.

Good writers become great writers in two ways: By caring a lot, and by writing, writing, writing. And also by reading great writing … because there’s not much more inspiring to a writer than reading something that makes you go “Wow, I wish I wrote that.”

With all of the content being created by businesses, there’s a new need for good editors. What do you look for in a good editor? What’s your best tip for becoming a better editor?

I really love your first sentence, because what you state as fact (“there’s a new need for good editors”) isn’t actually considered fact by many organizations. So I love that you espouse that view! YES! (Second high-fives!)

So what I look for in an editor is someone:

  • Who is able to improve a writer’s work without changing the writer’s voice.
  • Who adds, and doesn’t detract.
  • Who makes the writer look even better than he or she is but who is also, paradoxically, an advocate for the reader. It’s a delicate balance.

Interestingly, some of the best editors I’ve worked with aren’t great writers. The two skill sets/interests overlap some — both are rooted in a love of words — but that love manifests in different ways.

The best way to become a better editor is by relentlessly thinking of the reader’s experience. Some online tools and apps (HemingwayApp, or Grammarly) can help you develop that sensibility, because they can act as another perspective when you’ve become too close to a work. (But neither should be a stand-in for an actual human editor.)

I love your tip “Brevity and clarity matter more than ever.” How can marketers (and everyone) cut the “content meandering” and write more succinctly? AND, how do marketers guide senior leaders away from jargon and unnecessary explanations? 

Stephen King once said, “Write with the door closed. Edit with the door open.”

So write what you want to say — just barf it up on the page. And then go back and edit it with empathy for the reader experience. This works for CEOs and senior leaders, too.

Jargon isn’t always bad, by the way. Sometimes it can signal to an audience that you are one of their tribe, that you speak their language. Just be sure it’s not being used to obfuscate.

How do you think content marketing will change in the next couple of years? Where will content marketing go next?

As I wrote here, I think content marketing will grow up. It might not happen in 2016 as I predicted. It might take a bit longer than that.

But I do think that it will exit its exuberant college years and fulfill its potential as a functioning and fun key to marketing!

Thanks, Ann! Get your copy of “Everybody Writes.”