3–30–3: Three Rules of Engaging Writing
You have just seconds to engage readers online. Here’s how to use the time well.
First words in stories and paragraphs are vital to grabbing and retaining reader interest. So is a story’s entire first sentence, as well as the first few paragraphs. Get these things right and you might find people reading your stories instead of frantically hitting the back button.
Hype is not the goal. These rules are about respecting readers’ time and intelligence, getting some good stuff up high, and providing a brief summary and hint of things to come. These rules have worked well for me and many writers whose work I’ve edited for more than three decades.
Rules are meant to be broken, of course, and these won’t work for every genre, every story, every situation, or every writer. But if you’re hastily spitting out a news story, leisurely cooking up a feature, or stuck on just about any type of non-fiction article or writing project, these rules (suggestions, if you prefer) will always prove useful.
3 seconds to engage
Some older web-derived data indicates you’ve got the typical reader’s initial attention for about 15 seconds. Not even close! How frequently do you hit the back button before even finishing the first sentence of an online article? I’ve put many novels back on the bookstore shelf in less than 15 seconds.
Readers are subconsciously pondering whether to stay with an article three seconds into the first paragraph, whilst distractions abound. They might be watching TV while they read, or pacing the sidelines of a kid’s soccer game. If you’re lucky, they’re sitting on the toilet. Regardless, the smartphones they read with offer endless distractions.
So you’ve got about 12 words to make a first impression, assuming an average reading speed of 250 words per minute. Consider these two ledes — each with 12 words — pulled from two different websites writing about the same discovery:
Scientists at the University of Virginia led by renowned biologist Elizabeth Dawkins …
Bonobos that speak and write perfect English were discovered in the mountains …
The first is a snoozer, right? Nobody has time for that. The second one isn’t half bad, probably supports the headline, is not hyped (considering the amazingness of the discovery!) and pretty clearly compels the reader onward. Interestingly, the first one is poised to have an active verb, whereas the primary construction of second one is passive, breaking some other rule that’s useful when it’s useful.
There are simple tactics for getting the engaging stuff to the front of a story or a paragraph, beyond just breaking rules. For starters, simply think about what is the most important word or thought in the story. Can you start the story with it? It was no accident that the article you are reading now started with “First words…” I initially had “hype” at the end of the first sentence in the second graph, but chose to bring it to the front. The third graph starts with a word, and a phrase, meant to engage those who might question my premise. There’s no trickery up there, no baiting, just clear and purposeful word placement to highlight the story’s important points.
Other tactics for pushing the good stuff to the front:
Conclusions before process
News/findings/actions before institutions/people
Thoughts before the reasoning behind the thoughts
Quotes before the person quoted
There are probably several other reasonable ways to start the story about Elizabeth Dawkins’s discovery, but you can’t go wrong leading off with “Bonobos that speak…”
30 words to set the hook
Even the engaged reader is easily bored, disillusioned or distracted. Meandering writing will cause these symptoms. Extraneous information, for sure. Typos, yep. I’ve probably lost more than half of you already, evidence suggests — even though the rest of you have been compelled to stick with me. And so, for the rest of you, this equally important second rule, alluded to clearly in the subhead above, involves explaining early on, clearly and concisely, what the story is about, why it’s being written, and offering hints of what’s to come.
This tactic has a name, and once you grasp how to do it, it’s really easy to employ in every single story you write.
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