Everybody Writes by Ann Handley

Everybody Writes is a book that Derek Zoolander would recommend to “adults who can’t write good and want to do other stuff good too”. If you’re one of those, then, by all means, share and enjoy.

It’s not, or not entirely, Ann Handley’s fault that I found her book disappointing. For one thing, I had high expectations. I eliminated at least a dozen books on blogging from my Amazon cart before I decided to buy hers. For another thing, I was, simultaneously, reading a book on writing I much preferred, an erudite tome called Style by Joseph M. Williams. And anyway, I am probably not in the target audience. The subtitle of Part I, “How to Write Better and How to Hate Writing Less”, should have been an obvious red flag: I don’t hate writing.

The book has a lot of good reviews on Amazon, so some people seem to have found it useful, and even I got some use out of it—just not as much as I was hoping to.

More on what I disliked about the book as well as when and why I read it below.

What I Disliked about Everybody Writes

The book, which is less than 300 pages, consists of 74 very short chapters that are referred to as “rules” and that read like a series of blog posts. But, you know, if I wanted to read a bunch of blog posts, then I would just go read a bunch of blog posts, wouldn’t I? They have the advantage of being free (usually) and searchable.

Much of the information sounded like echoes (or echoes of echoes) and not original, insightful content—certainly not “ridiculously good” content. Handley credits the tips she shares to others she’s had contact with in the industry and quotes lots of famous people she’s never had contact with at all. The information was shallow in addition to being recycled, and since some of it was stuff I knew, it was really hit and miss whether it was even interesting.

Some of the content I just flat out disagreed with. For example, Rule 32 is “know the difference between active and passive voice”, but it doesn’t explain any legitimate uses of the passive, such as, for example, when you want to emphasize the action because the person or entity that is acting is unknown or irrelevant. The key is to consider what point you’re making and write accordingly, not rely 100% on the idea that “you’ll vastly improve your writing just by making your sentences active”. I mean, maybe that’s fine for a first approximation of how to write, but it lacks any subtlety whatsoever. The passive voice exists for a reason. Why not tell aspiring writers what that reason is? The “chapter” basically says the difference between active and passive voice is that active is the one you should use and passive is the one you shouldn’t. Um, thanks.

Far worse was the beginning of Part IV, which tells of a time some miscreants lifted some content that Handley and her coworkers had put a lot of effort into. She said this kind of thing is common but that because the thieves copied an idea and its execution rather than just text, “the theft felt more like an ethical violation than straightforward copyright infringement”. Excuse me? Are you saying that when copyright infringement happens to other people, it’s “just theft” and not unethical? Are you saying others whose content has been stolen can’t possibly have felt as hurt as you did? That they didn’t work as hard as you did? I’m appalled. That particular paragraph is either a colossal failure of imagination or a total inability to articulate a coherent and respectable opinion.

When and Why I Read Everybody Writes

There’s no such thing as “writing” in the absence of purpose, audience, and context. This is a book about writing not books, stories, or articles but “content”, because that’s what you call written words on the internet. And words on the internet all exist to sell something—a product, a service, an opinion, a person—whether the author knows it or not. If you know your words are really tools, you’ll be able to use them more effectively. This is the book I picked, from among many copywriters claiming to explain how to make money online, that I think will actually have something interesting to say about writing in the context of the internet.

Genre: non-fiction (writing)
Date started / date finished:  13-Feb-17 to 23-Feb-17
Length: 275 pages
ISBN: 9781118905555 (hardcover)
Originally published in: 2014
Amazon link: Everybody Writes