Author   |    Speaker   |    Chief Content Officer

Many hold a notion that the ability to write, or write well, is a gift bestowed on a chosen few. Writing well is considered a kind of art, linked murkily to muse and mysticism.

That leaves us thinking there are two kinds of people: the writing haves—and the hapless, for whom writing well is a hopeless struggle, like trying to carve marble with a butter knife.

But I don’t believe that, and neither should you. The truth is this: we are all capable of producing good writing.

Or, at least, better writing.

And we all should be producing better writing. Because in our content- and social media-driven world: Everybody writes.

We are all capable of shedding mediocre writing to reveal something more inspired and reader-centric. The first step is to get into the right mindset.

Here are 13 writing tips (or writing rules) to help you get started.

13 Writing Rules

1. There is no one way to write—just as there is no one way to parent a child or roast a turkey.

2. Our words are our emissaries; they tell the world who we are.

3. Good writing isn’t just any tool. It’s the power tool you should be able to wield expertly, just as every respectable building contractor can use the skilsaw he keeps in his truck.

4. The key to being a better writer is to be a more productive one. More simply: the key to being a better writer is to write.

5. Writing well is part habit, part knowledge of some fundamental rules, and part giving a damn.

6. No one will ever complain that you’ve made things too simple to understand.

7. Assume the reader knows nothing, but don’t assume the reader is stupid.

8. Buzzwords and jargon are the chemical additives of writing.

9. The Ugly First Draft isn’t a pass you give yourself to produce substandard work. But it is a necessary part of the process of creating above-standard work.

10. The people you think of as good writers are often terrible writers on their first drafts.
But here’s their secret: They are excellent editors of their own work.

11. Editing is not just about fixing the grammar, it’s about fixing the clarity for your reader.

12. “You can’t rush art” is folly. You do have to rush your art. Otherwise, that art sits on its butt on the couch watching Netflix.

13. Deadlines are the WD-40 of writing. (h/t to Doug Kessler for this one.)

header photo credit: Amy Guth


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51 Responses to 13 Writing Rules

  1. Pingback: 13 Writing Rules | rédaction copywriting...

  2. Ronell Smith says:


    I’m excited to the nth degree about your new book. I think it places the emphasis back where it should be, on effective communication. I hear business owners, on a daily basis, say, “I’m not a writer,” as if that’s a sufficient excuse. It’s not.

    We all can and should write.

    From where I sit, it’s an imperative.

    Too many businesses are trusting their content to “mills,” many of which quickly turn out swill and call it mocha java. Sadly, business owners don’t recognize that they’ve been hustled until it’s too late.

    If we can condition them to think “Yes, I can write,” they develop a level of understanding of the content their business needs, their prospects engage with their content and learn about the former’s business, and we are forced to look at far less crappy content.

    So, yes, I’m a little bit excited about Everybody Writes.

    Oh, from one biz journalist to another, thanks for using “Writes” in the title 😀 (Not the biggest fan of the word content.)


  3. Pingback: 13 Writing Rules | Redaccion de contenidos web ...

  4. Doug Kessler says:

    Now THAT’s a great list.

    Love. “Assume the reader knows nothing, but don’t assume the reader is stupid.”

    Great distinction.
    You should write a book.
    On writing.

  5. Katybeth says:

    Number 12. I’ve watched a lot of Netflix lately. 😀 Looking forward to your book!

  6. #4, #9, #10 and #11 really hit home for me. Great list and agree with @Doug, you should definitely write a book!

  7. Sadie says:

    These are spot on, so simple but so true. Simply put, writing is like any other muscle and the more you train and flex it the stronger it gets over time. Editing is just as much as the writing process as the writing itself. Thanks for sharing these – I am going to bookmark it and reference often!

    • Ann Handley says:

      Thanks Sadie! That’s exactly it. In my experience people tend to discount the editing process…. but truly it’s the thing that separates us from the chimps. 😀

  8. Pingback: 13 reglas para redactar contenidos digitales - Making Contents

  9. Tim Washer says:

    my nemesis has been getting the ugly first draft down on paper. Your book is helping me.

  10. Ramin says:

    Looking forward to the book! 🙂

  11. Dan Shure says:

    Great list! I also find having a rough structure in mind helps 🙂 I’ve tried writing posts where I had no idea where they were going, or what my goals were. Torture. Then, the ones with a solid outline and I know the topic inside and out usually come out the best.

    I also can emphasize the power of writing for your “boring” business stuff. I recently posted my first job description to hire and got complements on how interesting and exciting it sounded. I just added my personal touch, and made it unexpected so it stands out among other job descriptions – which may in turn attract better candidates, which will make my business better. I hope.. 😉

  12. Dear Ann:
    Love the list…it cries out for wall-sized poster treatment. Equal parts informative, entertaining, and concise.

    I especially appreciated Point 5, with the words “…and give a dam.”

    I’ve never seen the point expressed so beautifully…a great preview of your new book.

    Best wishes, Roger

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  16. Howard Koor says:

    Love this “list.”

    Practical, insightful, and humorous.

    Thank you.

  17. Great points Ann. Do you think mediocrity is self imposed or something we get labeled by our peers. I know I get writing “stage fright” when I’m working on a new post when I start to worry about what others think, but I guess I need to remember #10.

    • Ann Handley says:

      Exactly, Josh. As Stephen King says, “Write with the door closed. Edit with the door open.”

      I think some amount of stage fright is inherent in writing — and I think it’s necessary, because it implies an audience-centric point-of-view. The key is to not be paralyzed by it, but to use it to consider the reader’s perspective: Is this useful to them? What is this giving them? Is it enjoyable? And so on.

  18. Wonderful advice! I especially like numbers 6-8, they speak to some of my pet peeves in business writing.

    I’m surprised you didn’t include the main piece of advice I always give when the subject of writing better comes up: read. Read often, read outside of your industry, and read good writers.

  19. Pingback: Rush Your Art (your Writing! - Stefanie Frank)

  20. Hi Ann,
    Thanks for the great tips. I agree with you: writing is an art that needs to be polished through practice.
    #11 resonates with me. By reading books on writing, I learned that being clear is not always about adding words, but using fewer but more accurate words.

  21. Shelia says:

    Love this Ann! I especially love #6. Headed over to Amazon right now to to get the book.

  22. Pingback: Ep #23: Creating Compelling Content with Ann Handley - Roger Dooley

  23. Vivian Ramirez says:

    Great and Simple list. Reading through this list and getting to #11 made me realize how afraid I am at editing my own work. I often think that editing my own work will make me want to re-write the whole piece over again. I will now more than every take the editing process more seriously and face my own work.

  24. Molly says:

    This is a great list. As a college student, I feel as if we get caught up on what our requirements might be for a paper, when we should simply be focusing on getting our message across. I have never been a “good” writer by any means, but I believe it’s because I am scared to write and be criticized – by myself or others.

  25. Hey Ann

    Your writing educates, engages, entertains, encourages and empowers – (hey, I LOVE alliteration 😛 ) – thank you so much! #HUGS


  26. Jack Vincent says:

    Ann, I especially love the points about clarity. As a journalism student way back when at Syracuse, one of my profs was obsessive about it. He said he aspired to write with “simplicity, clarity and elegance.”

    My personal takeaway from that, years later, is that the third one we should set for real style — in my case, I go for “edgy.” But without simplicity and clarity, our third one will never shine.

    Simplicity and clarity are the forerunners of a style that we can achieve after that.

    Now on to your Point 4. Time to be productive. Thanks!

  27. Pingback: 13 Writing Rules | Content Marketing |

  28. Cindy says:

    As a former PR student, who is constantly working on improving her writing, I found this very useful! I wish teachers could make it a little bit more clear on strategies to become a better writer, like you did here.

    I am very excited to read your new book!

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  36. Thanks For Sharing This Useful Information. Just exactly about the things now I’m seeking out. Now I can write free hand English.

  37. Pingback: Plain English does not mean “dumbing down” | Digital communications team blog

  38. I totally agree with this point: “Editing is not just about fixing the grammar, it’s about fixing the clarity for your reader.” After finishing your paper it’s necessary to reread your paper at least twice to make sure your paper is mistake-free and understandable for everyone.

  39. Pingback: Simple is Better: How plain language benefits your content |

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