Read This if You Take Writing Seriously

Shannan with Ann Handley2
My picture with Ann Handley, after her presentation at Content Marketing World 2017

Were you assigned to write a blog post that’s due next week? Oh, horror of horrors! Are you worried about starting with a blank page? Do you dread writing a story from scratch?

Every bit of writing in marketing has an objective. And that can be worrisome if you don’t know your objective. If you think the words matter, then you take writing seriously. So if you’re in this camp, you may want to keep reading.

I’m sharing some pointers from Ann Handley’s presentation at Content Marketing World 2017  – Writing Secrets from Productive and Prolific Writers (the Jerks!): How to Create Better Content When No One Has Enough Time.

Her advice just might boost your writing today. 

1. First, Think Like a Writer

What does this mean? Ann says writers put the reader first. They think about the audience, the reader. Actually, they obsess about the reader. The writer’s mindset has a mantra continuously looping in her brain, “What does my audience need from me?”

Let’s say we work for a glitter makeup manufacturer. Instead of the point of view, “We need to sell more glitter makeup, so let’s create a brochure,” we think differently. We put our audience’s needs above our own.

What is our audience concerned about? What problems does glitter makeup solve? The words we choose are all about them – the audience. Maybe the audience is wondering if it’s acceptable to wear glitter makeup in the office. They may want to know the latest creative ways to wear glitter makeup – smokey glittery eye, anyone? They may be looking for the best advice on removing it.

When we focus on our audience, we’re more likely to communicate usefulness. Our words solve a problem, help someone live better or enjoy life more, or learn more how to fix a bad situation. In essence, we’re adding glitter to someone’s life with our words!

Ann talks about the characters of Charlotte’s Web as good representatives of a content marketing team. Remember Charlotte’s Web? According to Ann, Charlotte the spider was the world’s best content marketer. Charlotte needed to save Wilbur, the pig, from being butchered and she did this with words she spun in her web.

“She had to express in four words something that was pretty life changing for the pig,” Ann Handley

Charlotte's Web Content Marketers1
Ann Handley’s presentation, Content Marketing World 2017

Ann points to Templeton, the fat rat. She says he portrays the fat bloated content available everywhere. There’s a lot of content produced (and we produce it) but it’s not necessarily meeting our objectives.

Ann Handley’s presentation, Content Marketing World 2017

She reminds us what people who excel at creating content do:

“85% of the most successful content marketers prioritize quality over quantity.” New B2B Content Marketing Institute/Marketing Profs research

And we should choose quality over quantity every time.

Stuck on what topics should be in your next email marketing message? Here’s what Ann suggests …

2. Look to Your Email Sent Folder for More Content Ideas

Want to speak from a place of authority? Client saying, “I have no ideas on posts for social media or white papers.” Ann says anytime someone asks you a question, the response can be a source of content later. When you respond in an email, write a well-thought out answer and then save the email. It’s a great resource for future content.

She gives many more tips on coming up with content ideas, such as:

  • Answers to questions from clients, prospects and friends
  • Help a Reporter Out (HARO), Quora
  • Interviews via email conversations or round-up posts
  • Comments you’ve written on a blog post
  • Responses you’ve written on social media
  • Meetings
  • Phone conversations
  • Just about any interaction offline

These tips give you a new perspective for the next client meeting. What will you learn about the client’s struggles in marketing? Suppose other companies are dealing with similar issues?

Perhaps your post’s topic can be what others are looking for help as well.

3. Shortcuts to Prize-Winning Writing

1. “Use concrete nouns that hurt if they’re dropped on your foot.” Ann Handley

I love Ann’s description. You would notice if a solid object as heavy as concrete landed on your big toe. I murmur an “Ow!” just imagining it. Writing precisely is hard. Vague is easy, but generic. She gives an example: solution. No one knows what a solution is. Tell me what the solution will do for the reader.

I can think of other examples: Freedom, liberty or happiness. Each term or phrase is too broad. And we want to wipe out generalities and pursue specificity. Exceptional writing shows what freedom is. What does liberty look like? Describe happiness to the reader.

2. Keep your reader awake with active verbs.

Imagine the director saying, “Scene one: Action.” Caught your attention? Action verbs serve as pulling your reader into the story. When your reader continues reading the next sentence, and then the next, they engage.

Now, I can easily find homepages online that contain statement with passive verbs. One has to do a little more digging to find active verbs. Visit Maine’s website draws you into Maine’s Maritime Story.

“Give or take a few liters, the earth’s surface is 70% water. That’s a lot of water for a single species to navigate. Especially one whose primary mode of movement is walking. But that didn’t stop us. Why? Because at heart we’re all explorers, adventurers. And there’s usually a swashbuckler or two in every family.

What is it that fuels our maritime pursuits? Two words. The horizon. That faraway edge of the world we connect with every time we look out, in a flat trajectory, toward the sea. Of course, it was the flat trajectory that suggested for a long time it was the actual edge. So how much raw courage or deep faith did it take for all those human beings to venture out there?”

Excerpt from the Visit Maine website.

The words encourage you to pay attention – there’s nothing passive about it.

3. Raise your writing grade by using simple words.

You also improve the readability of your prose when you choose simple words. Leave the complex, long words for the novel or a technical report. To engage more people in the content you publish online, make the prose conversational.

Take a look at the website of Samson Software Solutions, a software company in New Jersey and New York.


The excerpt below is jargon-filled language and confuses the reader. At the homepage, can you quickly discover what the company does? Do you learn immediately how the company can help you?

“Our solutions range from offering consultancy on strategizing IT road map for your organization to developing global standard e-Business solutions. In the past few years of our operations we have gained a formidable mind shares in the new age business paradigms, not to mention our experience and exposure to the cutting-edge technologies.

All this gives us an immense sense of looking forward for a healthy business relationship with our clients for future growth, and diversification. We are strategically positioned to meet client’s need across the globe in a 24X7 channel.”

Contrast this with Invonto’s website, another software company in New Jersey.


Immediately, I understand what Invonto does.

If a reader must pause and retrieve a dictionary to understand the material, you’ve made the text too complicated. And thinking seriously about your writing doesn’t mean the words have to be boring. Lighten up.


What do you say?