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There are two kinds of people: Those who think they can write, and those who think they can’t. And, very often, both are wrong.
The truth is, most of us fall somewhere in the middle. We are all capable of producing good writing. Or, at least, better writing.
Why does good writing matter? Isn’t the best content marketing very often something short, snappy, and non-text? Like Skype’s Born Friends video, Lowe’s Vines, or Chipotle’s haunting video commentary?
Sometimes, yes. But here I’m not just talking about content in a marketing context. I’m talking about content, period.
Text is the backbone of the Web, and it’s often the backbone of any content you watch or listen to, as well. That Born Friends video started with a story and a script.
Words matter. Your words (what you say) and style (how you say it) are your most cherished (and undervalued) assets.
Yet, so often, they are overlooked. Think of it this way: If a visitor came to your website without its branding in place (logo, tagline, and so on), would he or she recognize it as yours? Are you telling your story there from your unique perspective, with a voice and style that’s clearly all you?
Here, in no particular order, is what I’ve learned about the necessary qualities of good writing (or content, in our digital vernacular), based on my own 25 years’ working as a writer and editor… and even longer career as a reader.
1. Good writing anticipates reader questions.
Good writing serves the reader, not the writer. It isn’t indulgent. “The reader doesn’t turn the page because of a hunger to applaud,” said longtime writing teacher Don Murray. Rather, good writing anticipates what questions readers will have as they read a piece, and (before they ask them) it answers them.
That means most good writers are natural skeptics, especially regarding their own work. They relentlessly think of things from their reader’s point of view: What experience is this creating for the reader? What questions might they have?
(I did this above, when, before listing the qualities of good writing, I thought, “Why does good writing even matter to you? Why should any of us care?”)
George Orwell said the “scrupulous writer” will ask himself at least four questions in every sentence: “What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he or she will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?” (Hat tip to The Economist style guide for that one.)
Here’s where marketing can really help add value in a business context, by the way, because “simple” means “making it easy for the customer.” It means being the advocate for them. As Georgy Cohen writes, “The marketer should be identifying (and ruthlessly refining) the core messages and the top goals, then working with the web professionals to create a website supporting them.”
2. Good writing is grounded in data.
Data puts your content in context and gives you credibility. Ground your content in facts: Data, research, fact-checking and curating. Your ideas and opinions and spin might be part of that story—or they might not be, depending on what you are trying to convey. But content that’s rooted in something true—not just your own opinions—is more credible.
Said another way: Data before declaration. If you are going to tell me what you think, give me a solid reason why you think it.
3. Good writing is like good teaching.
Good writing strives to explain, to make things a little bit clearer, to make sense of our world… even if it’s just a product description.
“A writer always tries… to be part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on,” says Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird.
4. Good writing tells a full story.
Good writing roots out opposing viewpoints. As Joe Chernov says, “There’s a name for something with a single point of view: It’s called a press release.” Incorporate multiple perspectives when the issue lends itself to that. At the very least, don’t ignore the fact that other points of view might exist; to do so makes your reader not trust you.
So make sure he or she knows you’re watching out for them. To quote Hemingway: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”
5. Good writing comes on the rewrite.
That implies that there is a rewrite, of course. And there should be.
Writing is hard work, and producing a shitty first draft is often depressing. But the important thing is to get something down to start chipping into something that resembles a coherent narrative.
As Don Murray said, “The draft needs fixing, but first it needs writing.” Or Mark Twain: “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”
6. Good writing is like math.
I mean this in two ways: First, good writing has logic and structure. It feels solid to the reader: The writer is in control and has taken on the heavy burden of shaping a lumpy jumble of thoughts into something clear and accessible.
It might not follow a formula, exactly. But there’s a kind of architecture to it. Good writing has more logic to it than you might think.
Second, good writing is inherently teachable—just as trigonometry or algebra or balancing a balance sheet is a skill any of us can master. Journalism professor Matt Waite writes in his essay, How I Faced My Fears and Learned to Be Good at Math: “The difference between good at math and bad at math is hard work. It’s trying. It’s trying hard. It’s trying harder than you’ve ever tried before. That’s it.”
I think the same is true about writing. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic, spent a year teaching writing to MIT students. He later wrote, “I felt that the rigor of math had better prepared these kids for the rigor of writing. One of my students insisted that whereas in math you could practice and get better, in writing you either ‘had it’ or you didn’t. I told her that writing was more like math then she suspected.”
7. Good writing is simple, but not simplistic.
Business—like life—can be complicated. Products can be involved or concepts may seem impenetrable. But good content deconstructs the complex to make it easily understood: It sheds the corporate Frankenspeak and conveys things in human, accessible terms. A bit of wisdom from my journalism days: No one will ever complain that you’ve made things too simple to understand.
“Simple” does not equal “dumbed-down.” Another gem from my journalism professors: Assume the reader knows nothing. But don’t assume the reader is stupid.
If you think your business-to-business concept is too complex to be conveyed simply, take a look at the very first line of The Economist’s style guide: “The first requirement of The Economist is that it should be readily understandable. Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. So think what you want to say, then say it as simply as possible.”
8. Good writing doesn’t get hung up on what’s been said before.
Rather, it elects to simply say it better. Here’s where style is a differentiator—in literature and on your website.
Mark Twain described how a good writer treats sentences: “At times he may indulge himself with a long one, but he will make sure there are no folds in it, no vaguenesses, no parenthetical interruptions of its view as a whole; when he has done with it, it won’t be a sea-serpent with half of its arches under the water; it will be a torch-light procession.” He also might’ve said: “Write with clarity and don’t be indulgent.” But he didn’t.
That doesn’t mean you need to be a literary genius, of course. It only means you have to hone your own unique perspective and voice.
9. A word about writers: Good writers aren’t smug.
Most of the really good writers I know still feel a little sheepish calling themselves a “writer,” because that’s a term freighted with thick tomes of excellence. But like many achievements in life—being called a success, or a good parent—the label seems more meaningful when it’s bestowed upon you by others.
“Most of the time I feel stupid, insensitive, mediocre, talentless and vulnerable—like I’m about to cry any second—and wrong. I’ve found that when that happens, it usually means I’m writing pretty well, pretty deeply, pretty rawly.” —Andre Dubus III (House of Sand and Fog)
BONUS: Good writing has a good editor.
Writers get the byline and any glory. But behind the scenes, a good editor adds a lot to process.
Remember what I said above about there being two kinds of people? Those who think they can write, and those who think they can’t? And very often, both being wrong? A good editor teases the best out of so-called writers and non-writers alike.
The best writing—like the best parts of life, perhaps—is collaborative.
And by the way, is it odd that I’m seeding what’s essentially business advice with insight from artists? And if so, why is that odd?
Because in a world where we have an opportunity and responsibility to tell our stories online, we need to find not just the right words… but the very best ones.
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Christopher Lee says
Great post, Ann. Particularly timely as I’m trying to write more on my own website. Part of the challenge is balancing writing for academic journals and writing for my own website as the structure and expectations can be different.
Great blog. I often think of myself as a good writer until I’m writing something and end up spending so much time perfecting one sentence. So I found it very interesting that Mark Twain mentioned that it makes you a good writer. I also tend to ask myself a lot of questions as I’m writing. I don’t see myself as an excellent writer because there’s always room for improvement but at least an effective writer.
john l. monk says
I like this, great list 🙂 I almost think the Bonus should come first.
Ann Handley says
You know what, John? You’re totally right! EVERYONE needs an editor Especially the best writers.
Ernest Nicastro says
Outstanding! Very enjoyable and highly informative.
Ann Handley says
Means a lot to me coming from you, Ernest — because I consider you a fine writer!
Leigh Durst says
Pithy post, Annie. I love it and am convicted of it. I need a CLONE dangit! A writing CLONE!!! Someone to dot my i’s and cross my t’s and do my math for me. Wah.
Ann Handley says
Two Leighs. Not sure the world is ready!! XOXO
Susie Weitzman says
I always try to write as though I am the reader/audience. Key to good communication. Thanks Ann – this is excellent!
Vinish Garg says
Excellent list. I would add that ‘Good writing is a joy to the eye’ as well; that is why we have all the styles and layout preferences to make it is an enjoyable experience for readers.
Natacha Guyot says
Thank you for this post! This is one of the most inspiring posts I have read about writing. And that bonus is so true and crucial in good writing! I know that my editor has been an important influence in how my writing improved over the past couple of years.
Higher Ed Head says
Thank you, Ann! Higher eds everywhere would benefit from this, too. Sharing now…
kathy backus says
Agree completely – people in higher ed & the students they teach. The interns in our University Comm office NEED to learn this. I will be sharing with them.
Heather MacLean says
Always a great read Ann. You are right that many who think they are good writers, aren’t. That being said, there are many people who can tell a great story. They might not win the Pulitzer, but they get their point across and people enjoy reading what they write. To me that is a success.
Richard Pelletier says
I kind of love it that “writer” comes last on your About page. I’d kind of love it if it came first too. Life is long and there are so many decisions.
Margot Merrill Fernandez says
I wanted to be able to say, “my favorites were…” but then I wanted everything. There are many lines in here that I’ll be quoting. Thank you!
Ann Handley says
Big thanks, Margot. Appreciate you chiming in here…!
ellie dreisenstock says
Thank you for a very interesting read. I am a trully dreadful writer! You have given me a little inspiration to carry on with my mediocre copy writing skills for websites in the hope that I will learn more and get better at it as I also believed that it was a skill you were born with.
deloreses Newton says
Thank you for you knowledge and experience. I have been writing my lifes story for 23 years . It has been trying. Starting and stoping. I am using my honest voice and there are a lot of questions to be asked in it. I am now focused on delivering it to the universe. I dont have a editor as of yet.
Tony Faustino says
Ann, “#5 Good writing comes on the rewrite” has been a HUGE learning step for me in the last year (but from a slightly different perspective). Perfection isn’t the objective. Shipping the work is. I remember utter terror to even start writing. Paralysis and fear of choosing the wrong words, my writing sucks, etc derailed everything. At some point, I realized every post is a “permanent draft.” Now I write the 1st draft quickly (and the post usually sucks), sleep on it, then rewrite and ship. And, if I want to tweak because a “why didn’t I think of that yesterday” moment hits, cool – I’ll improve it, simplify it, etc. and re-ship. Addressing and managing that fear has been vital (because I don’t think it ever goes away).
Ann Handley says
That’s pretty much my process, too, Tony. I agree on the “permanent draft” thing. Perhaps a 10th quality here might be, “Don’t be afraid to hit publish!”
Ivy blood says
hehe hi umm im a writer to hehe im writeing about 4 books right now
Ryan Cox says
I always hate that it seems I only leave comments when I agree with something (mental note) and I start it off with some unabashed “OMG amazing!” comment. With that being said…this was brilliant Ann. I hate using brilliant, because I feel like the social webs overuse of it has devalued the meaning somewhat, but that is the first thing that came to mind. I absolutely LOVE your writing (and whomever helps edit it), and I found myself saying on more than one occasion: “damn that was smart or I’d never have used that word or that context.”
You make it extremely simple to understand a very complex topic, and even simpler description. As someone who never thought writing would be a big part of his success, I’m having to relearn a lot of the middle school level English class stuff I blatantly ignored…and I was in the excel program.
This is something I’m going to bookmark, and reread on a monthly basis to hopefully refresh and remind.
A huge #highfive Ann. Huge.
Ann Handley says
Whoa, Ryan. I think you just made my day!! Big thanks!!
kathy backus says
Absolutely spot on article on writing! I have habit of posting/sharing good tidbits on writing, PR, social media with people in my circle of life, in doing so I typically include my favorite pull outs from articles I share with yours – I’m going to have to include everything as my favorite/pull outs. Thanks for pulling together these 9 points.
Though I think the advice is directed at non-fiction writing (could have read it wrong), I also think all writers can learn something from your list. And even if you are a fiction writer, you still have to market yourself and your work, which also makes you a non-fiction writer as well.
I’d love to syndicate this article on The Masquerade Crew. I’d link back of course and even encourage my readers to check out the comments over here. I’ll also include an ad for a book if you want. If you are interested, send me an email.
Ann Handley says
Hey Mark — I was speaking more about non-fiction. But I suppose you’re right — lots of application to fiction, as well. (Although that’s a world I know less about.)
Becky Tumidolsky says
I love this! As a longtime B2B writer and emerging blogger, I’m never, ever content with what I do. It’s good to be reminded of the fundamentals–what makes for excellent writing in any discipline. If I’ve done my level best to meet these standards, I know I can let go with confidence. Thanks so much.
Kelly Grace says
I’m currently reading Content Rules. I started blogging about a year ago and shared our ministry experiences in Ghana, West Africa on the blog. What a revelation! I had no idea anyone would really be interested. We’re going again in January 2014 and I’m beginning to incorporate the advice you’ve generously shared.
I teach others how to teach the Bible and a favorite quote I use is “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man” Francis Bacon. I’ve found it’s easiest to speak with conviction and fluency when the writing process has first settled the content in the mind. I believe you can help me be a better writer which will translate to being a better speaker and teacher.
I’m being mentored by someone who knows you and he suggested I visit your blog. I have to say, it made my day.
Ann Handley says
Thanks for stopping by, Kelly. Who is your mentor?
Ben Adam says
Thank you so much for this (beautifully written) article.
Dan Mulvihill says
I agree with all of the above comments, but the word “shitty” did not match the tone at all! It sure wouldn’t wReplace that one clunker and you have a masterpiece!
Dan Mulvihill says
Argh – shitty iPhone interface. Always makes me post before I’m done. : )
Ann Handley says
LOL… thanks for the note, Dan. Mine was probably a gratuitous use of shitty. But it seemed to fit there.
'TC' Teresa Clark says
Really loved reading this article. Thanks for sharing your insights! I completely agree with you that Good writing is like good teaching, making sure that it educates the readers. Here is what I like to do when creating writing for my readers.
I produce content that comes from the people who understand the most about why somebody buys, the customer. Customers are a vital source when making content to help you improve your business’s success. Not only will they share stories about their exposure to you, they will also have unique antidotes that can help increase the morale and performance of your company.
Thanks again for an awesome article,
‘TC’ Teresa Clark
Susanne Lumsden says
Love the quotes especially Hemingway’s! Of course writing for the web focusses our attention on writing, given that text on the web needs to be 50% shorter than for conventional print. That’s a lot of editing.
In case anyone is inspired to look for some how-to guides on improving your writing, I’ve listed my four favourites at the end of this post.
Does anybody have any others to recommend?
Pat Frantz Cercone says
Thanks for the great article. I have shared with a few people who, I hope, will appreciate it as much as I did.
Roger C. Parker says
Thanks for a great article, I look forward to sharing it.
I was especially pleased to see the Don Murray quote, “The draft needs fixing, but first it needs writing.”
Don was a huge influence as friend and mentor; few could say so much so simply. I recommend “The Essential Don Murray: Lessons from America’s Greatest Writing Teacher” to anyone looking for fresh, practical insights.
BTW, Ann, as a Boston-area resident, I wonder if you were a long-time reader of his Boston Sunday Globe columns?
Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2014.
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This is wonderful, informative and encouraging. My manuscripts are set for edition. But I’m yet to recognize a very good editor.
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What are the characteristics of a good editor? I need a very good editor but have not been able to recognise one. Is PhD and high level of professoship a criteria?
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Prof Rebel says
“Words matters” or “Words matter”?
Ann Handley says
Ah yes – good point.
And copy editing matters too! 🙂 (Thanks!)
Nancy Flowers says
Fantastic post, Ann. I like how the blog compared writing to math. How math and writing both require logic and practice. It’s good advice and it works to keep writing simple and to the point. How when you are writing keep it simple and to the point. I really liked that Ann talked about the importance of the editor and how writing is a collaborative experience.
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Henry Molokwu says
Beautiful article Ann, may God bless and increase your literal skills, Amen.
I am a young, skilled, potential writer, but I don’t know how to go about it, urge to write, is growing greater by the day & getting heavier for my own being; but I do not know on how to go about starting. Please I need your advice Auntie Ann.. & you all.
Thanks & God bless
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i’m not a good writer but it is essential to have a manual in writing or not ?Others says that write everyday and it become a magic,but many other says that you need a manual like strunk and white.
Ingermar Peter Turner says
The top five are the best! Thank you.
Ritesh Agarwal says
This is good post. Really pepped me up
eye catching part…. “no one will ever complain that your words are simple enough to be understood”….impressive article…
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suresh chandra verma says
writing is an art. besides the content it requires the best editing to make it acceptable, marketeable and helping mind fertile.
Angelica Manlunas says
There are two kinds of people: Those who think they can write, and those who think they can’t. And, very often, both are wrong. – This sentence and I’m in!
Thank you for this post, Ann. We are in the process of increasing the number of fresh content on our website. That means a lot of writing,researching and editing!
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I wrote a manuscript of over 160k words. With the exception of a couple of beta readers, I am the only editor. A manuscript the size I wrote will be prohibitively expensive to edit professionally. So I’d better do a proper editing job myself.
Jaden Lell says
i need good advice for the novel i am writing(The Forgotten Omega’s™) because i am getting writers block and loosing inspiration please help…
Hai,Ann. I am a really young person who just wishes to write. I haven’t sent to university or college but I just feel I must write. Thousands of ideas in my mind but I don’t know if I can do it. I mean like I know I can because it starts with me to believe in myself but I know nothing about writing. I have no idea what it takes but I am willing to learn. Please may you be my mentor.
Sorry for spelling errors. I know I should have checked but I was in a haste when typing.
Desmond Stephens says
I heard it said that good writers are birthed from very painful or very good experiences. My understanding is that experiences enable a person to look deep within. Once we are able to understand better who we are then we are able to better express ourselves. Obviously good writing requires more than an ability to look within. Would you agree that experiences help to flourish a person’s ability to write?
Rudy Gomes says
Such a clear-headed, well-sorted writer! As Desmond rightly said above: “Experiences enable a person to look deep within.”
Love the sheer simplicity of style which enhances the piece of writing!
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nice article, great tips and advice within
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Michelle Famularcano says
This was definitely a great read. I’m into poetry and seriously this gives me more of an open mind how to write and what to write. Your right…my words do matter, whether through raw emotions or just trying to explain what you can’t tell someone face to face on a daily basis. I’m always lost for words but once the words flow, I’m there drafting and finding what other ways to be a much effective writer.
Johny Thomas says
I am a youthful, skilled writer, however i have no idea how to pull off it, urge to create, keeps growing greater each day & getting heavier in my own being but I don’t know on how to pull off beginning.
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Hi! Thanks for the new ideas!
And what about the practical side of the question? )
What tools to check your audience and competitors do you suggest?
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Alexander Jarvis says
For critical things such as when fundraising, your copy is incredibly important. But the messaging is super hard to get right if you do not know what you are doing.
The first intention is to write far more than one should. It took me years to figure out that less is more.
I’m a beginner in the art of serious writing but garnered plenty points on casual writing over the years…so I can say am an “experienced’ writer.
having said that, I totally agree with the line on writing being a chop and chip sort of employ. I used to think I think too much about how readers read my little pieces of writing. you know, cede too much credit to the audience; be it mid school, high school or college Profs. I just swap the roles almost without knowing it.
then, like you pointed out, I’m my no 1 critic. many a times, I get so skeptical of the final draft that I just up and quit before even starting.
thanks for this post. shows am not really dumb
Fran Thring says
The more I write the more aware I am of the work I need to do to get better. It is a humbling thing for an enthusiast! Thank you for this post, Ann, I love the practical tips and I feel more prepared to tackle my next post already.
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Millie Hue says
I like that you mentioned that a good writer would think most of the time about how their readers will take the content. I think that is essential to catch people’s attention. My sister should know about this so that the person that she will be hiring will be a good one. She just needs a good content to be written down for her blog post for the first ever ad content that she needs to produce. From what I know, it is the makeup line who contacted her due to her skills and gave her those products to try out and critic.
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hei, am just a begginer writer and am looking for an editor who will hold me accountable for my writings
Sergio Koller says
Thank you for the article!
Rafayatul Kabir says
You got me hooked throughout this entire piece, great post Ann!
Could you also mention those things or activities capable of hurting that creative talent inside each of us?
This is what I needed right now. I’m always so lost with how to keep a flow in my articles. And yes including stats increases the credibility.
Ray Johnson says
Can you suggest me any book on writing? Any particular book that worked for you?
Dorothea Lou C. Pelino says
I have read Ann’s work in writing.
Her language style makes reading fun and exciting!
Content of her articles motivates me to keep on exploring.
She is an icon worth remembering. 🙂
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I love this Ann 🙂
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Got recommended to subscribe to Ann’s newsletter. This is the first post I’m reading and I have to say I love it!
Hi. It was refreshing to read your article. I am writing “Family History Narratives” about my recent ancestors based on interviews with my relatives, Censuses, local newspaper articles, maps, etc. I enjoy writing but have a tendency to be “fussy”. I end up going through several drafts before I am happy with my writing. I want to write well in respect for my ancestors and also include inspirational info about their lives without including negative aspects. It is hard to balance quality with the amount of time you spend on a project.