Title: Everybody Writes
Author: Ann Handley
Would I recommend: To people who aren’t confident writers and need a book helping them build confidence, maybe. To people who are already confident writers and need a book teaching them to write marketing copy, no. This book does not teach you to write good marketing copy.
If you aren’t convinced that Microcopy and Strategic Writing for UX are worth reading, look no farther than Everybody Writes. This book completely ignores the idea of a branding guide and tries to sell you on the idea that you might want to open your marketing copy to any audience (apparently) with no fewer than six paragraphs painting a vivid scene of, uh, your puppy as some kind of weird serial killer (page 85), I guess, completely unrelated to the product you’re selling or the information you’re teaching to your audience.
Well, I mean, okay, for one type of voice and tone guide. Not okay if, for example, you’re writing for developers, who want straightforward content that answers their fucking question. (Help, I just deleted my client’s data! I need to learn about restoring from backups! And whether your product has automatic backups! I sure hope so! Aww, you have a pandemic puppy? Yes, certainly that’s what I want to be reading about right now….)
The tone of this text is conversational, cute, cloying, almost condescending. “If I can do a push-up, you can learn to write!” And…yeah, I mean, that’s what you need if you’re nervous. That’s the literal last thing you want if you asked, very specifically, “how do I write marketing content,” when you don’t need an answer to the first four words of that question.
The chapter on introductions and conclusions, starting on page 79, also contained a lot of advice that’s straight-up bad if you’re writing for an audience of developers. Yes, tell me more about the squirrel eating pizza (please don’t, don’t open your copy with a personal story, tell me something relevant to the topic).1
Another example, from the puppy chapter: “Meet your new pantry staple” is preferred over “Ready-to-use Asian sauces and spices” (page 87). Well…where? By what brand? In Strategic Writing for UX (and I loved this so much), the author introduces three original case studies: A formal club, a transit authority, and a fun app. The first two would probably prefer the second, “uncorrected” version!
And where exactly in our website/app is this line of text going? Is there actual context conveying to the user what this “pantry staple” is? Because if not, we’re doing a disservice to:
- Anyone who can’t see an image of the product
- Anyone who didn’t navigate to this page in the order we assumed they did (and this is the point of the book Every Page is Page One, which I’ve only read about 1/3 of, but is absolutely worth reading at least the title of)2
- Anyone who didn’t read the subject of an email
Clear writing is just as important as catchy writing. Now, of course (if you work at a company large enough to have the infrastructure to support A/B testing) you A/B test this, but make sure you aren’t leaving out disadvantaged groups when you A/B test things. Listen to accessibility consultants. If you cannot A/B test, my advice is to go with what’s clearer because you’re probably overestimating how clear your language is in the first place.
AND LISTEN TO YOUR BRANDING GUIDE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
What I learned
Despite my rant, I did actually learn some things from this book. The most important thing is that if you want to learn about your customers, you need to talk to them. If you can’t talk to them, then read their customer support tickets.
I guess, if you can’t do that, then at least learn everything there is to possibly learn about the ICPs (ideal customer profiles) of the people (B2C) or companies (B2B) that you’re marketing to. And if you can’t even do that…then I would deeply question your marketing strategy. Maybe it’s not time to be putting effort into marketing yet.
She also has a really fantastic chapter called “Publishing is a Privilege” and I guess the book might be worth buying just to read that chapter (chapter 5). It’s kinda completely reframed how I think about writing to publish.
What this book teaches you about writing (not specifically copywriting)
Okay, so rant aside, if you don’t treat this as a COPYWRITING book, it’s a pretty helpful writing book. I don’t think I’d recommend this particular one, though; Developing Quality Technical Information is just so good that I have to recommend it instead, even if you’re not looking specifically to write technical information.
But if you want something that’s maybe two parts motivational for every one part informational AND that you can finish in a weekend because it’s even more conversational than it is educational, then sure, read Everybody Writes. Or pick it up if you already read Developing Quality Technical Information and you want something that answers more “how to write” rather than “how to present information to an audience” (these are a bit different).
Here are some things it covers (not an exhaustive list, and it has entire chapters that delve into depth on each bullet point):
- Use active voice
- Avoid too many adverbs
- Write in the present tense
- The reader is “you”
- Edit your writing a lot
- Grammarly is useful!3
Unfortunately, the book was published before ChatGPT was, and there’s an entire chapter on tooling. This chapter is now mostly obsolete because you can expect to see ChatGPT used in the majority of categories that are covered, and many “competitor” tools are no longer worth mentioning.
She’s encouraging. Her book has a ton of content about things like adverb use, agreement, and other grammar stuff. Go in with expectations for a writing book that uses copywriting as its stage, and you won’t be disappointed. That’s just, you know, not a book I wanted to read. It’s a book I was specifically trying to avoid wasting my time on.
Maybe I should have taken my hint from its title. Everybody Writes sounds a bit different from “Copywriters Write Marketing Copy.”
This is actually a rule I have on this blog. No “recipe life story intros.” I’m going to write an entire blog post about this rule one day, maybe. But I will never, ever, ever do an intro like that. Those are what I want to tell you, not what you want to read. ↩︎
You may consider that a compliment to the title or an insult to the book’s content at your discretion. ↩︎
TBH, I brushed off Grammarly until very recently. But I’ve come to rely on it as essential to the writing process. Ignore it when it’s wrong (and it’s often wrong), but it’s a valuable source of input. Especially for me, because I have no human editor. ↩︎