New Book Excerpt: Keep It Simple, But Not Simplistic

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The following is an excerpt from Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content, coming this fall from Ann Handley and Wiley Publishing. More about Ann’s new book and some sweet free prizes below.

Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple. ~ Woody Guthrie

Business, like life, can be complicated.

Products can be intricate and concepts may seem impenetrable. But good content deconstructs the complex to make it easily understood. It sheds the corporate Frankenspeak. It conveys ideas in concise, economic, human, and accessible terms.

A bit of wisdom from my journalism days: No one will ever complain that you’ve made things too simple to understand.

Of course, simple does not equal dumbed down.

Make it simple

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.

Here’s where content marketing people like you and me can really help add value in a business context, because simple means making it easy for the customer.

It means being the customer’s advocate. As Boston-based content strategist Georgy Cohen writes (in the context of creating website content):

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.

Simplicity comes primarily from approaching any writing with empathy and a reader-centric point of view to begin with — that is, it’s the result of writing with clarity and brevity, and in human language, as we’ve been talking about here. But also consider the vehicle carrying the message: Maybe you don’t need words at all. Or maybe you need a cleaner, simpler look for the words you do use.

Some tips:

Find the best fit for your message.
Would a chart, graphic, or visual convey an idea more simply? Would a video convey what we are trying to say more directly?

Think before ink.
Think before ink means finding your key point by asking three questions about every bit of content you create.

  • Why am I creating this? What’s my objective?
  • What is my key take on the subject or issue? What’s my point of view?
  • And, finally, the critical so what?-because exercise: Why does it matter to the people you are trying to reach (posit: so what)? Why should they care (answer: because).

Swap places with your reader.
Be a skeptic of your own work. Get out of your own head and into your reader’s or your customer’s.

Relentlessly, unremittingly, obstinately think from your readers’ point of view, with empathy for the experience you are giving them. Edit ruthlessly.

Design with your words, rather than fitting words into a design.
The visual treatment of words on a page (digital or actual) can greatly enhance their effectiveness. So here are two things to keep in mind:

  1. White space is a prerequisite, not a luxury. Large chunks of text are formidable and depressing. Designers will tell you that more white space makes your work readable, and it’s true. It also gives your words oxygen, allowing them to breathe and live on the page with plenty of room to
    relax — instead of being jumbled together in a kind of content shantytown or ghetto.
  2. Make your words the hero of your design, rather than adding them to a completed design the way a supermarket baker pipes a name into the blank field on a prebaked birthday cake from the case.

For a marketer, design and content aren’t separate processes; they are actually key parts of the same process. They are best friends and life partners, and they deserve to be treated as such.

Writing is teaching

Good, pathologically empathic writing strives to explain, clarify, and make sense of our world — even if it’s just a straightforward product description.

In her book on writing, Bird by Bird, writer Anne Lamott says:

A writer always tries … to be part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.

It’s easy to embrace the teaching mindset when you’re writing how-to or instructional content. But the notion is broader than that — strive to explain your point of view to your reader with supporting evidence and context.

Don’t just tell your readers that you feel an emotion; tell them why you feel it. Don’t just say what works; tell them why it works and the circumstances that led you to this moment.

Be as specific as possible:

  • Don’t say “solution”: tell me what your product does.
  • Don’t say “a lot”: tell me how many.

No one will complain that you make something too simple to understand, right?

So, said another way:

Keep it simple — but not simplistic.

This is what I tried to do with my new brand-book, Everybody Writes.

It comes out in early September, and I’m excited to share it with you and others like you.

Create ridiculously good content

Great content is the key to thriving in this digital world, and at the heart of great content is authentic, economic, empathetic writing — the type of writing that explains to our customers who we are and how we can help them in a simple, straightforward way.

Great content isn’t only about storytelling; it’s about telling true stories well.

The ability to do this is not a magic gift bestowed only on the fortunate. We’re all writers — and writing well is part habit, part knowledge of fundamental rules, and part giving a damn.

I want to help you take the next steps to make your writing better. That’s the goal of this book.

I hope you’ll take me up on my offer!

And if you do before August 20, 2014, I have a special gift for you: a free prize pack stuffed with a few fun items that will help you battle against meh content — the Anti-Mediocrity Content Toolkit (AMCT).


Here’s what you get:

  • An Everybody Writes laptop sticker. Slap it on your laptop, grab your usual table at the coffee shop, and flaunt that you’re a decidedly non-mediocre writer.
  • A magic writing pen. You don’t really need a magic writing pen (the magic is in you), but it’s a handy talisman that delivers the will, courage, inspiration, gumption, and the wits to write. (Pro tip: Change the ink color each day so you can discern how many pages you produced the previous day. Author Neil Gaiman does this.)
  • A Hemingway-inspired drink coaster.
  • A “privacy” door hanger, inspired by Stephen King.
  • A two-sided bookmark with (a) an original poem by me that gives the lowly page-marker some respect, and (b) 13 Writing Rules.

Here’s how to qualify:

Pre-order Everybody Writes from Amazon or Barnes & Noble (or your bookseller of choice), then email your receipt to (U.S. only. Delivery in 4–6 weeks, while supplies last.) (I’m sorry that sounds so harsh. But this is what happens when you let the lawyers preview your contest rules.)

And when you get your book, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

For now, let’s discuss strategies for producing ridiculously good, simple content over on Google+!

Image by Ma. Alejandra Gómez via Unsplash.

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