Tips For Writers By Michelle Russell Mmm, addictive writing. Like fantastic coffee or exquisite chocolate, it keeps readers perpetually coming back for more. Would you like to produce such work every time you write? Then you need to do more than just plunk words down on the page or screen. You must master the art of luring readers along the pathways that your words create for them. And one of the best ways to do this is to properly use that unsung hero of every piece of writing… The humble paragraph. Display Your Delectable Words Paragraphs are like shelves in the store—they provide the structure that displays the goodies, but they are easy to overlook. You don’t look at the shelves—you look at what’s on them. Similarly, you should think of your paragraphs as the almost invisible scaffolding that holds up your writing. After all, you don’t want your readers to stop and think, “My, what a well-constructed paragraph that was!” You want them so caught up in the story you’re telling that they flow seamlessly from one paragraph to the next. Let’s talk about how to create that flow. Structural Tips To ensure that your ideas are clear, you need to set up your paragraph “shelves” in a way that makes sense. What if the grocery store didn’t divide things into logical sections? You wouldn’t know whether to find the ketchup next to the lettuce or the cottage cheese! Similarly, you want your paragraphs to follow some sort of common-sense order, so that your readers can get exactly what they came for with a minimum of fuss. The three factors to achieving this are coherence, development and bridging. 1. Coherence This means that a paragraph should “hang together,” moving logically from point to point and making internal sense. Read this, for example: The conference was a blast! I was tired when I got home, but I’m still glad I went. I picked up a book by Jane Smith, who I’ve admired for ages, and she actually signed my copy. I learned a lot, too. It’s going to take me a while to go through my notes and see what I can apply. See how the thoughts bounce all over the place? Now compare it to this paragraph: Despite being tired when I got back from the conference, I had a blast there. I learned a lot, took lots of great notes that I can now apply to my situation, and I even met Jane Smith, a long-time idol of mine. (She even signed my copy of her book!) The second paragraph is more coherent because it starts with the main idea (I enjoyed the conference), and lists the reasons in parallel (learned, took notes, met). 2. Development Paragraph development means making sure that your paragraph’s main idea is fully fleshed out. You can do this in many ways: Chronological – Write about events in the order that they happen. Location – Describe elements ranging from smallest to largest or vice versa, “panning” from one area to another, etc. Example – Clarify what you mean by giving illustrations. Compare and contrast – Discuss how two or more things are the same or different from each other. Process steps – Give a sequential series of steps to achieve an outcome. Analysis – Discuss the different implications of the paragraph’s topic. 3. Bridging “Coherence” and “development” deal with the content within paragraphs, but “bridging” is a powerful technique for transitioning between them. Bridging means creating a flow from one paragraph to the next by linking their content. This creates a natural continuation that pulls your readers along from one paragraph to the next. You can do this in many ways. You can allude to something in one paragraph, then talk about it more fully in the next. (Just like I did in the first two paragraphs of this section.) You can repeat words to create a “carryover” effect. Can you ask a question at the end of a paragraph to create curiosity? Of course you can! (Then you answer it in the next one.) You can even create lists, where the attention naturally flows from one item to the next. Another way is to write one enormously long paragraph, and then go back and look for the places where you can break it up naturally. Be creative and have fun! Content Tips Now that we’ve talked about paragraph structure, let’s take a deeper dive into making sure their content is as clear and compelling as you can make it. 1. Use the active voice. In the active voice, the subject of a sentence does an action (the verb), often to a direct object—e.g., “The dog grabbed the stick.” In the passive voice, the word order is switched so that the direct object becomes the subject and is now acted upon—e.g., “The stick was grabbed by the dog.” Sometimes writers use the passive voice because they think it makes them sound more literary or intelligent, but it’s needlessly wordy: The kids were told by the teacher that they needed permission slips for the trip, but an exception was made for Gricelda. There’s nothing technically wrong with that sentence, but it feels distant. Disengaged. It also makes the reader work harder to understand what’s going on. But when you use the active voice: The teacher told the kids that they needed permission slips for the trip, but he made an exception for Gricelda. Now there’s more juice, more life. And it’s easier to grasp what’s going on. Sometimes the passive voice is appropriate: Dessert was delicious. The pears were poached in a rich currant-and-ginger sauce… And sometimes it’s used as a deliberate attempt to create distance: Think of the classic political statement, “Mistakes were made.” But in general, the passive voice leads to extra work and a feeling of disengagement. Neither should be inflicted upon your audience. Or, rather, you should not inflict either one upon your audience. See what I mean? 🙂 2. Focus on verbs and actions. When you focus on the action in your sentences, you add more zing to your paragraphs. Many writers think the way to jazz things up is through lots of description, but that often muddies them or—even worse—makes them sound comic: She lost herself in his gorgeous green eyes, which were the most eye-catchingly attractive eyes she’d ever seen, as he reached for her arm with a soft-but-slightly-roughened hand that made her skin shiver with delight when he made contact. You want your writing to be vivid, not overly flowery. And vividness is displayed through action. She gazed into his green eyes and shivered with delight when he touched her arm. So ditch all but the most crucial adjectives and adverbs, and give us those exciting verbs! 3. Default to short, simple, clear words. Similarly, you don’t want to obfuscate your intentions with overly palaverous prose, either. This makes you sound neither erudite nor alluring. Instead, make simplicity your mantra. Your readers will appreciate you for it. One fantastic technique for developing simplicity that cuts right to the chase is to write some poetry. Poems don’t have to adhere to any specific standards to be “good,” and you never have to share them if you don’t want to. But writing them will help you refine your focus and pare your paragraphs down to the essentials. 4. Lead with your conclusion. This advice doesn’t apply to every writing style—you wouldn’t want to spoil the big reveal at the end of the paragraph in a suspenseful story, for instance. But in both descriptive and persuasive writing, you want to make it easy for your audience to follow along. And often the best way to do that is to prime them in advance with your takeaway points. In this paragraph, the author (me!) does nothing to help the reader understand where she is going: The colors mixed and blended across the paper in a way that pleased Henry. He had always loved art class, and loved to paint with watercolors. It earned him a comfortable living once he got into some galleries. Art class had always been his favorite time of the week. He gained more control of the paint over time, too. He painted for himself now, though he hadn’t always. In contrast: Painting had always been Henry’s solace. As a child, art class was always his favorite time of the week. He loved to watch the watercolors mix and blend across the surface of the paper, and as he practiced, he gained more control of his chosen medium. He’d exhibited for many years and in many galleries, earning a comfortable living. Now he simply painted for himself, reveling in the beauty of the soft colors. In the paragraph above, I start with the main thing I want you to know—that painting has been important to Henry all his life. I then fill in the details—in this case, chronologically. If you stack up these “mini-conclusions” at the start of enough of your paragraphs, over time this will force your thinking—and your writing—to become clearer. 5. Don’t be lazy—look for the perfect word. Another great way for disciplining your thinking and learning to write well is to look for the “Goldilocks” word—the one that is just right for the situation. English has so many amazing words, it’s a shame not to give fair play to more of them. Every writer should own a decent thesaurus—and use it. If you don’t have a physical one, try online. Scan your draft for wishy-washy, ho-hum, don’t-really-say-much words, and see if you can replace them with something more precise and flavorful. Is it a “tree,” or a “pin oak”? Is it “great,” or “uplifting”? (Maybe even “transcendent”?) But be aware of nuance. Was the CEO’s decision “admirable” or “praiseworthy?” There’s a difference. Take the time to use a dictionary if you’re not sure exactly what a word means. As an experienced writer and editor, I look up far more words now than I ever did in school! You don’t have to go on a rampage with this. (Remember what I said about simplicity?) Sometimes “tree” is exactly what you need. But your paragraphs will sparkle if you liven them up with words that evoke precise ideas and images. 6. Vary your sentence lengths. Some writers plod along diligently. They write very clear sentences. These don’t contrast much, though. Every one is about the same length. And it gets monotonous pretty quickly. Just like the sentences in this paragraph. On the other hand, writers of excellent paragraphs know enough to change things up from time to time. Some sentences are short. Others are long. (Even fragmentary.) The whole point is to vary their lengths so that the reader stays engaged the whole time. Like in this paragraph. See (and feel) the difference? 7. Avoid being overly clever. You know what happens when a joke falls flat? Everyone is embarrassed. No one will quite meet the eye of the would-be jokester, and there is an uncomfortable silence. Don’t put your readers in that position. So unless you’re someone like Allie Brosh or David Sedaris, chances are that if you try too hard to be witty, you’ll… well, be trying too hard. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t develop your signature writing voice. And if it turns out to be comedic or clever, then more power to you. But your voice is something that develops naturally. Through lots of practice. And it is what it is. Trust that if you write straightforwardly and honestly, your voice will be powerful whether or not it’s “witty.” It will be YOU. And that’s what counts. Visual Tips It’s easy to think that the content of your paragraphs is the only thing that matters. After all, people read because they are interested in what you’re saying, right? But if you forget about the purely visual aspect of your paragraphs, you might be making things more difficult for them. Nowhere are these visual concerns more important than when you write online, where people tend to skim. Here are a few tips to make sure you keep your online readers’ attention: 1. Use short paragraphs. There’s a feeling you get when you’re confronted by a seemingly endless wall of words, and it’s not a nice one. So do your readers a favor, and break up long paragraphs into short—even bite-sized—ones. They can be as short as a single sentence. Or a fragment. Or a single word. Really. This has the visual effect of giving your writing “breathing room.” Your readers’ reactions may be conscious or unconscious, but either way, when they see plenty of white space, they will feel relieved—and much more likely to keep reading. 2. Don’t indent your paragraphs. Instead, make them “flush left” and use spaces between them. Of course, if you’re writing a traditional book and submitting a manuscript to a publisher, you’ll want to follow their submission guidelines. But in general—and especially for online writing—flush-left paragraphs with spaces between are easier to read. 3. Consider using bulleted or numbered lists where appropriate. This handy technique is often overlooked by writers. For instance, I could tell you that the benefits of using lists include visual appeal, greater readability, clearer thinking, and ease of comprehension. Or I could tell you that the benefits of using lists include: visual appeal greater readability clearer thinking ease of comprehension 4. Consider overall readability. It’s good practice to look at your words from the standpoint of a prospective reader. If you came across your own writing, would it appear visually inviting enough to dive in and start reading? If not, what could you do to make it more so? Larger text? A different typeface? Headlines in a contrasting color? Look at other similar websites, books or articles (or whatever format you’re writing in) that are aimed at your audience for examples of visual appeal, and then do what they do. Entice Your Readers with Every Paragraph As a writer, the responsibility for making your work easy and pleasurable to read is yours. But so is the power. In this world of overwhelm, you have the ability to coax your readers into paying attention to what you say. It may take some practice (anything worth doing always does), but with these handy tips, you can transform your words into addictively readable paragraphs that your readers will savor. And you will entice them to come back for more. Which of the tips above will you pick today to make your paragraphs more addictive? Let me know in the comments!