Ann Handley is waging war on “barfy content.”

Handley is the chief content officer for MarketingProfs, a firm that helps train other marketers in basically every aspect of their jobs, including creating content.

So when it comes to bad content, Handley has no problem telling it like it is, because in her mind, there’s enough out there already– and the last thing anyone needs is low-grade stuff.

“We’re all fighting to get the attention of our customers,” said Handley, speaking from Mesh Marketing, a conference held in Toronto on Thursday. She added that thanks to social media and just the sheer amount of content available online, it’s become harder to compete for audiences’ attention.

So how can marketers possibly try to stand out? One important factor is producing content that’s actually good, Handley said. In her book, Everybody Writes, she lists a slew of tips on what marketers can do to craft better content, sharing some of them during her presentation at Mesh Marketing.

One piece of advice is to write solid headlines that will actually get people intrigued. “15 Things Cats Can Wear to Look Good” is not that engaging. But something like, “This Cat Hat Catapulted Mr. Fox to Feline Today’s Best-Dressed List” is a lot more arresting.

She also recommends keeping posts short and sweet. While she hesitates to put hard number to the word-count of a piece, she said most people have no interest in reading posts that are too wordy.

And then of course, writers should always use strong, concise language. Long, non-descript sentences are unappealing to read. But short, declarative ones, when paired with strong, polarizing opinions, will hook people and get them to keep reading.

However, her most important formula for producing content is this: “useful x empathetic x inspired.” In Handley’s mind, the best content is designed to serve readers. If they find it handy and relatable, and it galvanizes them into doing better work, then it’s doing its job, she said.

Serving readers is a big part of Handley’s philosophy in creating content, one that harkens back to her days in journalism. A former freelance reporter for the Boston Globe, Handley amassed her fair share of experience in writing and reporting, and when she made her move into content marketing, she brought her journalistic chops with her. She said she feels content marketers can learn a lot from how journalists see their roles.

“One of the tenets from my journalism school days is this: no one has to read this … My professors were always telling me, yes, you technically get a paycheque from the newspaper, magazine, or publication. But ultimately, you are serving the reader,” said Handley in an interview. “The most important thing marketers can learn from journalists is to make the story always about the person.”

She added that’s a lesson a lot of marketers struggle with, as they’d rather write about their brands, instead of things their readers care about.

The other key thing to remember is that today, pretty much everybody today is a writer, whether they’re drafting white papers, blog posts, and feature pieces, or simply writing emails to their boss or colleagues, Handley said.

“Not everyone is going to go out and be a Hemingway, Michael Chabon, Joan Didion or whoever your favourite author is,” she said, adding that’s one thing she hammers home in her book. Yet that doesn’t mean people should settle for poor writing.

“[I wanted] to challenge marketers to just get better at it, to place more importance on the words that we’re using,” she said. “We’re all capable of writing more effectively, more efficiently, with more focus on the person we’re trying to reach.”

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