CMWorld Recap: Ann Handley on How To Make Your Writing Spectacular

Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs, was a key player at this year’s Content Marketing World. Her keynote speech at the end of Day One, A Look Back At The Best Marketing of 2017, was a humorous take on how to “kill it next year” with the elements you should use for best-in-class-content.

Kelly R is a 5-Star Writer at WriterAccess.

Kelly R is a 5-Star Writer at WriterAccess.

Handley is a monthly columnist for Entrepreneur magazine, a member of the LinkedIn Influencer program, and the co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business. Her most recent book, Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content is a Wall Street Journal bestseller.

Her CMWorld session, How To Level Up Your Writing and Make It Ludicrously Spectacular, had a line out the door of attendees trying to get in. Here are just a few of the many takeaways of the session.

Five Steps from a Bestselling Author

Handley joked that she felt like she may have overstated the title of her session — maybe “ludicrously spectacular” was a bit of a reach; maybe she could just make our writing a little bit better. She added that there isn’t any “magic feather” in writing. People are disappointed to find this out and some, upon reading her book, expect that it would unlock some secret writing ability.

Handley made attendees say a writer’s pledge out loud: “I do not believe in unicorns, fairies, or Santa. I know bridges are not guarded by trolls. I do not wear a tinfoil hat. And I do not believe in magic feathers.” She punctuated this by showing a slide of a cat wearing a tinfoil hat. Being humorous about the subject of writing is a refreshing turn and Handley is a candid, bright speaker with an easy to understand way of explaining things. Most of her slides were amusing, with a clear message behind each one. For example, she says “words are hard, but they aren’t as hard as this.” Then showed the words superimposed over someone chiseling away at an underground coal mine. So there is some truth to what she is saying.

Here are Handley’s five steps to attack the writing process and make it “ludicrously spectacular.”

  • Not Writing
  • The Ugly First Draft
  • Screw and Do
  • First Line
  • Voice

Step 1. The Way You Should Not Write

The first step, Not Writing, is a vital part of the process. It’s the best time to hoard ideas. Be a “scatter-hoarder” of ideas, since the “difference between creative and desperate is an abundance of ideas.” You can put them down anyway you want. Whether you are a paper person using a Moleskine notebook, a computer Scribble program, or even Evernote, the important part is just getting your ideas out of your head onto paper.

Many people find that the bulk of their time writing is not the actually writing, preparation, or editing. There’s a big chunk of time dedicated to, as Handley’s put it, “an hour of despair where you research another career.” Everyone who is a writer has had that experience probably multiple times in their life.

Step 2. The Ugly First Draft

This is supposed to be bad. In fact it’s supposed to be spectacularly bad. Handley’s says that if you are having trouble getting started putting words on the screen or page, you should trick yourself into thinking it’s just an email, list, or just dictating some thoughts. That’s what she has found helps her get the words down easier and once you do, don’t ever hit the backspace button. Just don’t.

Step 3. The Screw and Do of Writing

This means that you should have one key point that is easy for the reader to digest. Then you have to edit like you mean it. Take a chainsaw to your words if they aren’t adding to the meaning of your piece. You want to have flow that creates momentum for the reader. Each sentence must be of value which can lead to a precise editing task for the writer. Don’t forget to keep in mind that the “voice of the piece” must be consistent throughout.

She also recommends reading your work out loud at this point during your editing process. The HemingwayApp is a good one to try out if you need assistance with editing, because it grades the readability of your work. Handley says that she likes to stay on target of a ninth grade reading level for reference. The app also breaks up long complex sentences, and highlights when the “passive voice” is used excessively.

Step 4. The First Line

This is one of the most valuable parts of your writing. The first line is going to lead to all the good parts of the piece, so make it snappy. You want to set up the story with this line, put your readers into it, ask a question, or even throw in a head turning quote. It’s the ultimate hook. Whatever you say in that first line has to be attention grabbing to make the reader want to continue. Sounds simple enough, right?

Step 5. Voice

When you don’t have a clear voice in your writing, it’s very apparent to the reader. They are reading the words silently, but they will hear the voice of the piece if you do it right. The voice is “who you are and why you do what you do,” according to Handley. She asks if the byline is removed from the piece, will you be able to tell it’s your writing?

The voice of your writing is conveyed through, tone, word choice, sentence length, and accessibility. Her example was the high end travel company, Trufflepig. They go to great lengths to cater to the elite person who has a ton of money to travel. Trufflepig doesn’t apologize for their snooty tone, they embrace who they are as a company providing a service to very wealthy people. They feel like their travel planning services aren’t neuroscience, but would you want to build your own car or house? The answer is no. Gregory Sacks of Trufflepig says that their tone is a “beacon attracting the right kind of person, who prize expertise delivered with a heaping of playfulness and quirk.”

In the end, Handley made attendees all promise, out loud, to “not sound like everyone else.” It’s very good advice that will obviously help anyone who is making a bigger deal out of the writing process than it truly should be. Writing isn’t so mysterious and fragile after all. This especially true when you use Handley’s advice and tools to get through the process.

Kelly R is a Beauty Editor and Copywriter. She has written for many different online and print publications including Allure, Mode Magazine, Working Mother Magazine, Seminole and The New Yorker.

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