27 February 2023
With AI tools like ChatGBT in open circulation, are writers destined for the workhouse? Copywriting luminary Ann Handley doesn’t think so.
In the second edition of Everybody Writes – a foundational text for copywriters everywhere – Handley predicts:
AI will take over a lot of the mundane, data-driven repetitive tasks most of us creative people don’t enjoy anyway.
Ann Handley responds: Thanks for calling this out right away. P.S. “Luminary.” That’s so generous. Thank you.
As you can already see, this review is a bit like a conversation. We’re privileged to hear the distinctive voice of Ann Handley interjecting frequently throughout this review, giving her comments. Spoiler alert: We don’t always agree.
I’ve known Everybody Writes by reputation for some time now, but now I’ve read the second edition, I see it as our north star. The breathtaking scope and depth of its guidance will help skilled marketing writers navigate an AI landscape in which dull and pedestrian writing will have no place to hide.
As a reading experience, Everybody Writes is a game of two halves. It’s long, so it’s tempting to consult or dip into the first half, as it is a bit like a reference book. The problem is that you never know what you don’t know. So you’ll be amply rewarded by treating it as a linear read from the get-go.
Ann Handley responds: I like that you noticed how the book is in more or less two halves. Side note: It’s always interesting to see what other people notice or relate to. A truth about writing is this: When you publish a book, it’s no longer yours… it belongs to everyone else. Including you.
At part four, the book takes off. I wouldn’t call it a page turner, but it’s definitely an engrossing read.
In this review, I’ll discuss key content in each part – except for part seven on writing tools (because I think individual readers need to pick out the tools that meet their own needs).
Handley is big on process. She takes us through the 17 steps of her own writing process – the Writing GPS. But she makes it clear that process is no substitute for good, clear thinking.
Think before you ink.
The thinking starts with these three questions. Why am I creating this? What’s my key take on this issue? And why should the reader care?
At the heart of Handley’s process is what she calls The Ugly First Draft (TUFD). Of course, this means a lot of subsequent editing. And that’s why the section in which she takes us step by step through a real editing job is invaluable, a true masterclass. I’d love to see more of this.
Ann Handley responds: Good idea. Will think about that. And by the way…. I’m big on process because process gives overwhelmed writers a place to start – like a bouldering hold on a rock-climbing wall. But as I say below… take what works for you. Adapt what you wish. Discard what you don’t like. I’m not precious about that.
Ann Handley responds: #1 ALL DAY. It’s the simplest thing you can do. A true game-changer. And yes – actually OUT. LOUD. Don’t cop out and read it silently to yourself. It’s not the same.
Handley explains that the internet transformed marketing by turning it into a conversation (a shift heralded in the 1999 Cluetrain Manifesto). A more relaxed approach to both grammar and choice of words gathered steam (pun totally intended).
Ann Handley responds: Train! Steam! Excellent wordplay and extended metaphor. (More on Meatier Metaphors in Chapter 97.)
In part two, then, Handley provides a curated set of grammar rules for 21st century writers, taking a pragmatic line while safeguarding clarity and meaning.
Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.
With Handley, so much comes down to balance and judgement. Jargon, for example, is not pure evil. It can signal belonging through the use of insider terms. It’s the same with adverbs and the passive voice – Handley takes a measured approach, pinpointing specific instances where they’re acceptable.
You still need to apply your own judgement. I personally dislike some of Handley’s writing examples. “Our founder stirs the boiling kettle of change” made me cringe. Maybe it’s because I’m British but it doesn’t sit comfortably with my voice. Handley allows for context and preference (except where she doesn’t!).
Ann Handley responds: Good writing isn’t a prescription. Take what you want. Leave the rest.
Voice is what will give your writing personality. Part three gives practical, and impressively detailed guidance on how to shape and document your own brand voice.
I’m a modern languages graduate, and I was taught that a foreign accent is simply the accumulation of pronunciation errors. With brand voice too, the small things matter.
In business, tone of voice is how we speak to one another. It’s how our writing or copy sounds in a reader’s head. And it’s a powerful signal, especially in a world of content overload.
The apex of this guidance is a tone of voice chart, which deserves to be consulted as often as Andy Maslen’s table of emotions and triggering words in Persuasive Copywriting.
Ann Handley responds: I blew the Voice section out quite a bit in this second edition. (I barely touched it in the first.) I’ve thought a lot about Voice in the past few months/years…. and how important it is, especially with the explosion of AI tools and platforms.
Up to now, Everybody Writes can seem like a manual. But from this point, it really flows, so sit back and enjoy. Part four is a treat because the storytelling guidance is out of the ordinary, and advanced enough for experienced copywriters.
Marketing = art + intent
This seems to be a central tenet of Handley’s belief system, and it couldn’t be more important. Marketing stories need to be emotional and memorable, but they also have a commercial purpose behind them.
Ann Handley responds: I just sat with that first sentence in that last paragraph for a minute… is it actually a central tenet to my belief system? Maybe. Probably. One quibble: I don’t think marketing stories need to have a “commercial purpose” attached to them. Some marketing isn’t at all commercial – for example: Creating awareness for causes, social issues, or political organizations or ideas.
Ann Handley responds: I sometimes wonder if I should have published the entire Story section as a completely new book, since so much of it is brand new to this edition. And like Voice, it’s vastly expanded from the 1st edition. I didn’t, of course. But still… it’s a thing that nags at me in those 3 AM moments. You know the ones. We all have them.
Handley argues that by jettisoning some of the formality of old-school publishing, we may have lost important principles and practices.
Many companies are chanting the ‘we’re all publishers now’ mantra – yet without a clear understanding of the ground rules of publishing and the ethics of journalism.
For me, Handley’s discussion of whether to gate content is particularly valuable:
Will ungating your content help you build trust and meaningful relationships? Trust is everything. Gates and lead forms at the first touch don’t communicate trust.
I saw a great, innovative approach recently, where one company made a significant chunk of insightful content openly available and gated the rest. Handley recommends ungating all long-form content and offering it as a downloadable PDF.
Part six, which takes us through specific types of marketing content, is amazing.
Handley explains that it’s less prescriptive than the first edition:
Eight years ago I told you exactly how long a YouTube video should be (3.5 minutes!) and how long a podcast should be. (An average 22 minutes, because that’s the average commute!)
She now says: “Your prospect will watch your 30-minute video if it’s interesting to them.”
Handley has a special affection for email newsletters. She explains that because an email newsletter is inherently personal, the letter is more important than the news. And she points out that you own your mailing list, whereas platforms like LinkedIn can take away features like newsletters at any time.
Ann Handley responds: I love this section, too. I also wrote the book linearly (is that a word? I think so) so I was a little punchy toward the end. LOL. I guess you didn’t notice that? Good.
Everybody Writes really matters because good writing will always matter. And now that AI is here, the personal is what will stand out.
Ann Handley responds: Yes. The personal… and the personality.
Handley is on hand to help you to choose and use words well. And she manages to sneak in some geeky stuff like the difference between an eggcorn and a mondegreen. I challenge you to find a broader and more detailed copywriting guide.
All along, I’ve been looking for a professional text that I’ll come back to again and again. Well here it is. Every one of Handley’s 400 pages demands to be read, ideally on a yearly basis.
Thanks so much for the time you put into this review. It was fun to see your reaction to it. I realized that you probably wanted a commentary to place at the end? But I figured I’d offer real-time reaction. Really appreciate this, Sarah. Thank you.