The Elements of Style: Writing Expert Ann Handley on Honest Storytelling and E.B. White

September 4, 2018

Ann Handley starts each day by writing an email to herself.

For the Boston-based content strategist and digital marketer, it’s one way that she practices what she teaches: making writing a habit.

In her daily emails to herself, “I don’t write about anything in particular,” Handley said during a recent telephone interview. “Some days I’ll have something on my mind, and some days I won’t. You don’t have to use a quill pen and Heirloom stationery and write beautifully. You just need to write down a few ideas every day, and not worry about anybody ever reading them or whether they even sound coherent. It’s the art of developing a habit.”

Handley, the author of several books, including “Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content,” will be the General Session speaker Oct. 9 during the PRSA 2018 International Conference in Austin, Texas.

Here, she discusses best practices for creating content and telling stories, as well as her affinity for E.B. White, the legendary author, educator and contributor to The New Yorker.

On your website you describe yourself as an “E.B. White Superfan.” What’s the story?

I loved the book “Charlotte’s Web” when I was a kid. When I got to college, I discovered “The Elements of Style.” I found out the name White in its authors Strunk and White was actually the same man who wrote “Charlotte’s Web,” and I was like, “Pow! Mind-blown!” [Laughs]

My last book, “Everybody Writes,” was inspired by “The Elements of Style.” I wanted to create [that book] for a content-marketing age.

I’ve gone back and reread “Charlotte’s Web.” It’s such a great book, and I recommend that communications professionals read it as adults. There’s so much you can learn from it, in the way E.B. White structures the story and the spare language he uses. It’s the most perfect story I’ve ever read.

Many writers and teachers cite “Charlotte’s Web” as having the greatest opening line in literature.

Yes, right — “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” That opening line invites curiosity and sets up the tension in the story so beautifully.

You’ve discussed the importance of the opening line in writing.

The opening line is hugely important in communications, public relations and marketing. We hear a lot about the importance of the headline, but in my view, the first line is equally, if not more, important.

The truth is that readers are looking for a reason not to read. Assuming they’ve clicked through a headline, they reach a first line. Does it grab them?

I spend a lot of time thinking about that first line. It’s ignored by too many communications professionals who waste that opportunity and just clear their throats [in an attempt] to justify why they’re about to write the piece they’re writing. But there’s much we can do to improve those opening lines.

I see a lot of boilerplate content in the leads of press releases and communiqués.

Exactly. It’s not inviting. Think about the opening lines that really grab you as you’re reading a book, blog post or article. Ask yourself, Why is this inviting me into the piece? In your own writing, don’t waste that opportunity to get the reader right into it.

How do you approach your writing projects?

The most important part of writing is actually not writing. The process is more like thinking, daydreaming or researching. To me, writing that fails to engage the audience doesn’t necessarily have a writing problem; oftentimes it’s a thinking problem. The writer hasn’t thought through what they’re trying to say, the main point they’re trying to make. And this is true whether it’s a tweet, blog post or book.

First, there should be one main point. Obviously, the way you expand on that is going to vary depending on [the platform].

Second, think about why your audience should care. What’s in it for them? If you can answer those two questions before you sit down and put a single pixel on a computer page or a pencil mark on a piece of paper, then you’re ahead of the game.

What’s your definition of good writing?

We all want that magic formula. [Laughs] But the truth is that there’s no one way to write well or one thing that makes great writing. There’s no template.

But good writing does have some common themes. First, it’s real and honest, and sometimes raw. It feels like it’s telling the truth. When I say that to a professional audience, they might respond, “Well, yeah, but I’m writing about a technology solution.” It doesn’t matter to me what you’re writing about. Are you expressing a fundamental truth or describing pain that your audience feels? Do they recognize themselves in what you’re writing? That’s what I mean by honest.

The second common theme in good writing is that it’s specific enough to be believable, but universal enough to be widely understood. So even if you’re writing about yourself or your own particular problem, or about the pain of a specific person, at the same time you’ve got to make it feel more universal than being just about that one person, to give the reader a reason to care.

The third thing about good writing is that it has a sense of style, a recognizable tone of voice. I’ve been editing marketing and PR professionals for a long time … and that [lack of style and voice] is the downfall of many professional communicators. They take themselves out of it too much. A lot of that has to do with the approval process and writing by committee, and all the things that I know communicators have to deal with. However, the onus is on them to be adamant that the writing feels like it’s written by a real person, that it has a recognizable point of view and some style.

Why is making writing a habit so important?

Writing well isn’t just about marketing, or a skill that you need for your job — it’s important in your life. You have to be able to communicate your ideas with clarity whether you are writing for a professional audience or just communicating your ideas in any format. Writing well helps you think better, because you’re thinking of the audience at all times.

When you adopt the habit of writing regularly, you get better at it as you go along. And your confidence increases — not only to express your ideas, but to express them publicly. Because when you do anything in public, it makes you vulnerable to criticism. Writing regularly helps you develop a more confident tone in your writing, which also gives you confidence to grow as a person and a professional. 

Many people have the idea that writing is hard, which I think stops them from sitting down to write. But you can reframe how you think about writing.

What’s the best way to build a writing routine?

It’s as simple as committing to it. I hated going to the gym for the first few months, but I forced myself to get in the car and go. I had an accountability partner, my trainer, who would kick my butt if I didn’t show up.

I also have an accountability partner [for my work] who I meet with every week. We review what we’ve done and the projects we’re working on. I don’t work for him and he doesn’t work for me, but we are in the same industry. We help each other stick to our goals.

What are some common writing mistakes that you see?

Writing by committee is a real problem. It strips the humanity from any piece of writing. I talk to many writers who face this issue. A lot of it comes from the fear organizations have of appearing less professional somehow. So they write by committee, and it makes the writing boring.

The answer is to find great writers and let go of that fear. My life’s work has been to get companies to embrace the idea that their writing voices matter.

Where do you find inspiration for your writing?

I love reading personal essays, which is part of why I love E.B. White. He’s written several books that collect his essays from The New Yorker. You can learn a lot from reading personal essays, too, in terms of how they’re structured. Whenever I pick up a good book of essays by a confident, capable writer, there’s nothing more inspirational than that.

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.



Sara Busse says:

Loved this! So encouraging and thoughtful. My take aways - work on the opening; my personal voice is important - don't lose it; never stop writing. And I too think Charlotte's Web is the best! I only read it two years ago...with my then 8-year old...and then wondered why?!?!?

Sept. 7, 2018

Magdalena Gómez says:

It is refreshing to know that using my voice will make a difference in my writing vs. writing by committee as was my expectation.

Feb. 7, 2019

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