Here are 11 ways to draw in your reader and keep them hooked. Each one of these ways takes time to master, so do expect to do quite a bit of sculpting and playing with words until you get it perfect.
1. Use strong, visual verbs to set the scene.
Some writers suggest that your verbs should outnumber your adjectives in each paragraph.
For example, note the verb usage in this opening by Bisantz Raymond as quoted in her piece “Give Your Writing the Midas Touch”:
It’s 1pm in Niagara Falls, New York. Darlene Petro tucks in her son, turns on the TV, and sinks into her favourite chair.
The music swells, a Galanos-clad villain plots against her arch-rival, then swoops magnificently down a circular staircase….
2. Create unusual and evocative descriptions.
One memorable phrase will paint a picture better than a whole paragraph.
“She sat in her rickshaw like a moulting hawk.”
(H.E. Bates, The Jacaranda Tree)
“He replaced his pipe between his teeth like a missing section of his own anatomy.”
(Ian McEwan. The Cement Garden)
Mickey (the baby) would start with a bagpipe wheeze and climb the scales from there.
(Penny Alexander. A Lullaby for Mickey Marshmallow. Sexy Shorts for Lovers)
3. It’s a well-known saying that “details draw the reader in; generalizations keep them out”.
However, a good writer knows just how much detail to use.
Consider the following passage from the Mail & Guardian (taken from Francois Nel’s Writing for the Media in South Africa):
First draft: As the dying sun filters through the rising smog of evening coal fires, the mood of bustling relaxation is reminiscent of a seaside promenade; kids playing soccer, girls and boys idling in flirtatious banter, women leaning over neighbourhood fences and their men exchanging profundities on street corners. Until 7.08 pm.
Former guerilla commander Michael Malunga says: “Look, they’ve all gone.” And sure enough they have…. Because this is Sebokeng and it is killing time.
The opening paragraph is too wordy, filled with useless information that slows the reader down.
Second, edited draft: The dying highveld sun filters through the smog of evening coal fires. The mood is light: kids play soccer, boys and girls banter and flirt, women lean over fences and men chat on street corners. Until 7.08 pm.
Former Guerilla commander Michael Malunga says: “Look, they’ve all gone.” And sure enough they have…. Because this is Sebokeng, and after sundown is killing time.
4. Conjure up immediacy in your writing by using tangible, concrete nouns and adjectives.
For example, Winston Churchill’s Second World War rallying cry was: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” That’s become a common saying: “Blood, sweat and tears”. Notice that the word “toil” was omitted by the man on the street, because, unlike blood, sweat and tears, we can’t feel or see “toil”.
Similarly, compare these two drafts of the same piece (Bizantz Raymond, The Buffalo News)
First draft: My dad was very talented, and convinced all of us that we had ability. We learned to paint before we learned to groom ourselves.
Second draft: My dad was talented and convinced us we were, too. We learned to paint before we learned to brush our teeth.
5. Develop the knack of evoking the reader’s emotions.
If a reader feels emotionally involved in a piece of writing, they are more likely to finish reading it. For example, a piece on Christmas and divorced parents (Bizantz Raymond, USA Today) reads as follows:
In the year since Marianne and Tom’s divorce, the three children hadn’t seen much of their father. For that reason, Marianne invited Tom for dinner.
In the candlelight the children’s eyes sparkled with questions: Would their parents get back together? Would they be a family again?
At 6 pm Tom passed out his presents, and left. The kids went to their rooms. Marianne broke down and cried.
The elements in this introduction: the sparkling eyes, the tears, and the children’s return to their rooms portrays the emotional pain of divorce more graphically than would statistics, or a dull explanation of pain post-divorce.
6. Vary your sentence lengths.
Sentences that are too long slow the reader down, generating a “bump” that could be off-putting.
Short sentences create a rapid, lively pace, and work well for describing action. Longer sentences are calming, and good for explanations and factual presentations.
Aim for a good mix of lengths.
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7. Avoid clichés.
These include phrases like “heart shattered into a million pieces”, “roaring engines”, “electrified crowds”, “horror crash”, “bigger and better than ever”, “gravel-like voice”, “tall, dark and handsome”, “at the end of the day”, “heaps of charm”, and so on.
8. Be concentrated and concise.
Short sentences can be effective.
9. Use simple words that don’t clog the sentences.
Simple words can be very powerful. In the same vein, keep your sentences simple, because writing that is over-written interrupts the reader’s process.
10. There must be a logical flow from one sentence to the next
…and one paragraph to the next. It sounds obvious, but this is actually one of the more difficult aspects of learning to write well. Read more about logical flow here.
11. Enticing writing keeps the reader wanting more.
The reader must feel compelled to read further and be satisfied by the outcome.
Avoid over-explaining, “telling” the reader too many details, or bogging the reader down with endless facts. Your aim is to keep the reader reading, whether it is a scientific article or a fun blog post.
You can also create tension in your writing using devices like cliffhangers, a dramatic and exciting ending that leaves the reader or audience in suspense and anxious not to miss the next instalment. Use cliffhangers at the end of crucial paragraphs, or sections, to lure the reader on.