I’ve been blogging for about four years and writing on this platform for over a year. I’ve read countless books on writing and taken a ton of courses.
The action that has had the greatest impact on my writing is…writing. It’s true. Write every day for one year, and it will be the best writing course you will ever take, and it’s free.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
1. To frame the structure, write the lead
I take a lot of notes. Carrying a notebook and jotting down what inspires is part of the job of writer.
For one story, I had so many notes, thoughts on the topic, newspaper links that backed me up, which I wanted to incorporate that I was lost — lost in content. Overwhelmed with information.
One way to start when you have too much to say is to write the lead; it will give you an indicator on how to write the structure of a piece, you’ll start to see a pattern that makes sense. Stop everything, stop looking at your notes and search for a good beginning. Writing a great lead can illuminate the piece for you, allowing you to see it conceptually in its various parts, where you can then assign the material you’ve gathered.
Focus on the lead.
The lead needs to be good. Look at any lead in any major newspaper in the world, and you’ll get the idea. Journalists are trained to write great leads that suck you in and make you want to read on to learn how the story turns out. The lead’s purpose is to keep you reading the next paragraph, hook you in, so you want to stay and not click away.
2. What is a good lead?
Don’t be cute in your lead. Take it seriously. You want to deliver the goods that you promised in the lead. Be serious about the topic you’re writing to convey to your audience that you have confidence in the material.
According to writer and professor John McPhee, author of “Draft no. 4, “a lead should not be cheap, flashy, meretricious, blaring.”
3. Blind leads are cheap
What is a blind lead? A blind lead is when you intentionally withhold the name of the person or topic you’re writing about and wait to reveal it after a paragraph or two. This is considered clickbait, and your audience will feel mistreated and annoyed.
All leads should be sound and deliver what they promised in the body of the text. John McPhee describes the lead and the headline well, “the lead — like the title — should be a flashlight that shines down into the story. A lead is a promise. It promises that the piece of writing is going to be like this.”
A lead is absolute to what follows.
4. Use emotion
When writers advise to write with feeling or emotion, they really mean tell a good story.
Story grabs the reader. Your personal story or experience gives you authority. It makes you more relatable to the reader when you share part of yourself, what happened to you, your perspective, your experience, how you changed, and what you learned.
People read to learn something, tell them what it is through the story.
This doesn’t mean you have to emotionally unload, or overshare, rant, and make the reader uncomfortable. But if you show vulnerability (something that happened to you and what you learned from the experience) for the sake of teaching, it will resonate. Readers will respond. That is what you want, engagement. Or for the reader to take action — engage, comment, share.
A story about a bad break up or losing all your money in the stock market, these are things people relate to because every single one of us has had heartbreak, and we all have to deal with money, whether we want to or not.
5. Write a great headline
Write a good one. It is the most important part of the story. Full stop. It is a little story in few words that describes what the reader is in for, like a great ad for your work. Make it intriguing. Take time on to write a good headline, one you would click on.
6. The body counts
The body should raise questions for the reader and answer them before you get to the conclusion.
One way to get the reader to stay is to intrigue them along the way with questions you raise. This is also called an open-loop. You have to close the loop for the reader, so they finish your piece satisfied with the answers you provide.
Think of the body of your article as one interesting sentence after the next.
There are three ways to proceed after the lead or in the lead (the start of an article) that will make the reader stay.
- Interrupt yourself
- Drop hints
- Agitate the problem
Share an anecdote or story and then interrupt yourself, not finishing the story until the end. Come back to tie up the story toward the end of the article.
I drop hints at the beginning of my stories about when my marriage started falling apart. I start the article off with an anecdote about the ugly separation from my ex, not revealing — until the end — whether we we made it, which is called foreshadowing. The title implies we’re still married. Not until you start reading are you hoping we are divorced, but you want to know.
Agitate the problem
Make the reader uncomfortable with the problem before you provide a solution toward the end of the post.
Make them uneasy with statistics, anecdotes, and rhetorical questions and problems. Then give the answer.
You are creating a question mark in the reader’s mind propelling them to keep reading because they want to “close the loop.”
As humans, we want to “close the loop” of a problem that was presented.
7. Have authority when you write
Have confidence in writing.
You have to be bold to write. Your reader will smell it when you aren’t. It is an act of ego to write. That doesn’t mean you have to come across as a know it all, it takes humility to write and takes confidence at once. Show your humility while also writing confidently.
You gain an audience through your authority and the trust you build with them. If you make a promise or a claim, follow through on that. Back up your ideas with reliable sources; this bolsters your authority. Your readers start to trust you, and that’s how you turn readers into fans.
As a writer, your job is to be curious, learn, read, read, read, and curate content into a clear and concise piece of writing. You aren’t splitting the atom. You are writing something interesting through your eyes, your perspective, giving readers a taste of your personality to grasp on to and hopefully say, “Hey, I like this writer.” Teach them something or entertain them. A combination of the two is best. Make the person on the other side of the screen say, “I can relate,” or “that was helpful.” Both are optimal.
8. Formatting matters
Good formatting is essential no matter what anyone tells you.
Reading on a phone or tablet is how most readers — even older readers — read content. No matter how good your prose, most people will not read long blocks of texts. Make your formatting part of your craft. Don’t over format either, which can slow the reader down and make them go somewhere else. Leave space. A picture is also part of the story.
I still read actual books more than blog posts or online news. I don’t like staring at a small (or large) screen so much so that no matter how well written something is, if there is no white space between large blocks of text on a screen, I won’t read it.
9. The conclusion
You need to sum things up for the reader. Even if that summation is a sentence or two. It is human nature to want to finish something, leaving the reader with a sense of completion.
Reiterate the main message in the body, which is usually laid out in a good lead. What was this all for? Did you answer the questions for the reader and deliver on the promise of the title?
Those are the most important questions to answer as the writer. If you clicked on your post, would you be happy with what you read in relation to the title and the lead?