Cut the preamble. The first couple sentences need to grab readers by the throat. No time to dilly-dally. Pull them in. I immediately stick readers in the middle of a dramatic situation. Below are examples of opening lines from three different posts.
Inside the lobby of a swanky downtown high-rise, several firefighters raced toward me in full battle gear.
The hotel manager was pounding on the door outside the Grand Ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel in Seattle. Inside were two sturdy production assistants barricading it shut.
We locked eyes. The next thing I knew, a determined account executive was rushing me from across the room like I had just set her tabby cat on fire. My desk was centrally located in a cubicle jungle at the agency, so this was about to be a very public execution.
The next sentence or two needs to add context and define what’s at stake.
We were under siege. They had ringed the entire set and were closing in – quick for their size, as big as cats and aggressive. We were surrounded by… insane, chocolate-loving squirrels.
The last sentence of the first paragraph is almost as important as the first sentence. Below are lines I’ve written for three different posts. Each comes at the end of the first paragraph. They pull readers through the story with mystery and tension.
I immediately regretted taking this call.
And the secret I had just learned terrified me.
There was a long pause.
The beginning of the second paragraph needs to pay off what you just set up, or complicate the situation even more. Below are examples of each.
Sure, it felt like Tom Sawyer was trying to hoodwink us into whitewashing a fence, but it gave Chris and Bob, the two floor directors, a chance to sit back and tell jokes.
I vaguely remembered playing baseball with our telephone and a bat. Yep. Parts of the phone were everywhere. I wandered into the living room, where the couch had been sawed in half with a chainsaw. I had no idea how that happened.
Develop the story with complications and setbacks. And then end the second paragraph the same way you ended the first, pulling readers through to the next paragraph. Here’s why. See how I just did that?
Readers want to skim. By the third paragraph, you need to give them facts or become very entertaining. If you don’t start putting meat on the bone, you’re going to lose ’em. Reveal a nugget of wisdom or a startling statistic, or escalate the drama. This is the perfect spot for a provocative statement. Below are examples of each of these techniques.
It’s one of the oldest writing structures in the book: comedic opposites. But it’s a little trickier than turning dogs and cats loose in a phone booth.
By the time I stopped tweeting as Scraps, the dog at the advertising agency, I was only able to eke out a mere 13,351 tweets over six years, which generated thousands of followers.
My band of turncoat interns had scurried away at the first sign of trouble, which allowed the manager to find his way into the ballroom through a different, unprotected door.
Agencies are asking production companies to create Super Bowl ads for free.
If you start a post with an anecdote (as I often do,) it’s time to wrap it up. You have one paragraph at the most. Allow me to explain.
No one wants to read your blog post. Your mother doesn’t want to read your blog post. Sorry, but it’s true. You need to shape your story to fit the modern attention span. Are you still with me? Excellent! Because now we’re getting to the good part.
You’ve used setups and payoffs, mystery, tension, drama and possibly humor – rewarding people for paying attention. Now they’re emotionally vested. Now, and only now, do you spring the trap.
Make your point. Tell readers the moral of the story. What does the anecdote mean? Writers call this putting a line under it. Here are a few examples.
Who’s right and who’s wrong? Well, it all depends on how you interpret the story. The same is true for data.
It takes very little to do certain things poorly. And it takes a lot more to do certain things well. The same is true for Facebook ads.
Some things are irreplaceable. Like talent.
As you make your point, everything pivots. It sets up the rest of the post, which ends with several paragraphs punctuated with subheads. And let me tell you, from here on out, it’s all uphill.
WHAT SUBHEADS DO TO A READER
Skimmers pause at subheads. These visual billboards are nothing more than glorified bullet points, followed by fact-laden Hot Pockets of snackable information.
HAVE FUN WITH THE SUBHEADS
But don’t sacrifice clarity for cleverness. Signal what information is contained in the section. At this point, readers are scanning for the information you promised in the headline. Make the information easy to index. No one wants to decode vague subheadings.
And with that, the fun has ended. They’re scanning for data. Do not disappoint.
STOP BEING CUTE; THE READER WANTS THE FACTS
At the pivot, you made a point. Now break your point into digestible pieces. Back it up with concrete examples, statistics, case studies, links and personal experiences.
Don’t worry about pulling readers through the story. There’s no more story. By now readers are jumping around more than fleas finding a warm spot on a bear’s hide. Bonus points if you can spin these sections into something witty or entertaining. But always be clear.
PRESENT ALL SIDES OF THE ARGUMENT
Some readers might not agree with your point. Hold up any holes in your argument. It demonstrates that you’re honest, you’re self-aware and you’ve considered other points of view.
LOTS OF WAYS TO SKIN THIS CAT
And if we’re being honest, sometimes I don’t always follow these rules. I’ll wander off like a dog without a leash, or bend the structure to fit the flow of the article. These are more rules of thumb than paint-by-numbers.
This post is about the structure I prefer to use. Keep in mind there’s a word soup of other recipes to choose from. Below are some structures I’ve abused in the past:
But here are a few items I try to pack into all of them. I like to make it personal and keep it conversational – all the while delivering substance.
BEFORE YOU LEAVE
Include a final thought or bonus information to wrap things up. It puts a nice bow on things. And who doesn’t like presents? Often, I’ll circle back to the opening anecdote. That’s called a button. Saving one last statistic is also a good way to end, especially if it’s contrary to the point you’re making. It’s like a cautionary tale.
Always include a relevant sentence about yourself, and contact info. It’s also a good time to ask readers to subscribe to your blog.
DOUBLE-CHECK YOUR HEADLINE
Why do good writers spend an insane amount of time coming up with a great headline? It’s critical to marketing your blog post. Many times, it’s the only thing people read.
So after you finish writing, double-check the headline. See if what you’re selling is what you wrote. Sometimes the emphasis of the post drifts while you’re crafting it. And you don’t want to be accused of link bait.
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Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike.
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