Tools of the Trade

A Trail in an Enchanted Forest: Leaving Gold Coins for Your Reader

Reading Roy Peter Clark’s brilliantly practical Writing Tools and stumbled upon a writing strategy I adore:

Writing Tool #23: “Place gold coins along the path: Reward the reader with high points, especially in the middle.”

The question that torments every writer: how do we compel our readers to keep reading?  Famed editor of the Wall Street Journal Barney Kilgore put it plainly: “The easiest thing for the reader to do is to quit reading.”  Clark argues we can only keep our reader engaged if we leave him a trail of metaphorical “gold coins.”  A gold coin is any bit of information that rewards the reader; it can be a startling image, an interesting fact, a clever twist of words: anything that seduces him to continue.  

The writers I most admire know how to strategically place such gold coins.  In fact, they scatter little pleasures almost everywhere.  At the level of the essay, they’ll begin with a strong hook, a question, say, and will end with a satisfying answer to that question.  This “echoing the introduction” is a technique widely used by both novelists and screenwriters because it provides the audience with a satisfying sense of having come full circle, of having come to some sort of resolution.  At the smaller level of the sentence, adept writers delight their readers a variety of ways: a witty parenthetical comment, a subversion of expectations, a refreshing turn of phrase.  Every sentence, every word, mesmerizes or entices, amuses or entertains.  

Perhaps that’s what John Trimble meant by “politeness”: the best writers consider their readers’ limited schedules.  Like us, the reader could be doing a million and one other things: chatting with friends, binge-watching a marathon, baking a pie.  But, for whatever reason, he chose our words as a brief respite- we must be courteous hosts and respect his time.

The problem with most writers is they don’t realize there are innumerable things competing for their reader’s attention.  Most often, they save their shiniest bits of gold for the beginning and end.  The result?  They completely disregard the middle.  This is troubling considering the middle contains the bulk of your information: if you don’t leave bits of breadcrumbs for your reader, he’ll surely starve.  So instead of reserve your most hilarious quote or dramatic bit of dialogue for your hook, find a place for it amongst your most dense, challenging paragraphs.  Rather than desert the trail, your reader will follow you deeper and deeper into the enchanted forest, I promise.

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