Write your ABCs and 1-2-3’s to grab readers

I found myself reading an article all the way to the end this morning even though I really didn’t have time. I was drawn in by the format. The writer went through the alphabet offering words of advice for writers. A is for anecdotes, F is for focus, etc. And I just had to read all the way to Z. Alphabet articles get me every time.

Why?

1) They’re easy to read.

2) I’m curious what words the writer will connect with each letter

3) The letters act as mnemonic devices that help me remember what I read.

Letters and numbers can work for you, too. I’m going to talk about articles first, but hang in there, poets, fiction writers and essayists.

ABC articles are common, but numbered list articles are even more common: Ten hidden treasures on the Oregon coast, five reasons why your child should go to summer school, eight ways to get better orgasms, a baker’s dozen gluten-free cupcakes. Look at the front of any consumer magazine to see how popular list articles are.

These articles are rarely great art, but they are easy to write, easy to read, and they sell. If you offer an editor 10 ways to ___________, he or she knows exactly what you’re offering and where it will fit in the publication. Write an intro and a list of what your list will contain, a bio paragraph about yourself, and your query is done. When the editor says yes, fill in the list.

A few cautions about writing the list article:

1) If you start out with the alphabet, you have to use every letter, and if you go with numbers, you need to follow through with all of them.

2) Each item must have value, no cheating, no excuses like X is useless, nothing starts with X. Find something and make it good.

3) The pieces all need to fit together somehow. Think of those exam questions that ask which item doesn’t not fit in the list: apples, oranges, bananas, snickerdoodles.

Now, you writers of fiction, essays and poems, some of my favorite works are done with lists. You can get painfully corny with alphabet poems, which actually have a formal name, abecedarium, but some are truly works of art. Many great poems, essays and short stories have been written in numbered sections that draw the reader along and come together in a way that straight stanzas or paragraphs wouldn’t. Actually, how different is this from numbering chapters? They’re just much shorter, sometimes only a paragraph or even a line. Try it. It works.

There’s an annual A to Z blog challenge which I did last year. I was surprised at how easy it was to find ideas with the simple prompt of a letter of the alphabet. Try a list. Or make a list about why you’d rather not.

Some links to check out:

1) Poets.org offers an explanation of abecedarium poems and some great examples.

2) At Blue Sky, Big Dreams, a lesson and some examples.

3) New Yorker Short story “Permission to Enter” by Zadie Smith, example of short fiction told in numbers.

4) Also from the New Yorker: “A List of Reasons Why Our Brains Love Lists” by Maria Konnikova.

Now let’s go write. 1-2-3 GO!

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