15 Steps to Write Like the Masters
How to keep readers hooked forever.
Hey folks 👋, I'm Kenneth Burke. #BurkeBits is where I share stories, data, and frameworks to help you become a better marketer. Subscribe for free to level-up.
I got into marketing because I wanted to be a writer—and because I was tired of cold calling for sales.
I hated reading and writing growing up. They were my worst subjects in school. My parents tried to bribe me to read, but I wouldn’t do it. Things started to change in college, almost by sheer force. I had to read hundreds of pages a week to keep up, and what do you know, I started to enjoy it.
Then I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.
I was hooked. No matter how tired I was, I always wanted to read the next paragraph.
What makes someone want to read the next paragraph? And how could I make that happen?
I became obsessed. I started blogging daily, trying to recreate it. I read a dozen books on how to write (and hundreds of other books). I got into content marketing, and email marketing, and copywriting.
I’ve essentially built a career trying to answer that stupid question: How do you make someone want to read the next paragraph?
And I found the answer.
Except, it’s not one answer. Or even a set formula.
It turns out the master writers all use a handful of tools to get you hooked and keep you there. Here are 15 of them.
1. Write sober, edit drunk.
Yes, this is the opposite of what you normally hear. The point is you need to simplify your writing so even readers who are barely paying attention (which is most of them) can understand you.
If you can still grasp and enjoy your work when drunk, chances are your readers can, too.
2. Tell readers you’ll tell them later.
If you want to keep someone hooked, tell them the thing they want is just around the corner. They only need to keep going a little bit further.
You see this in movies. (“How’d I end up here? It all started with…”)
You see this is presentations. (“Here’s what we’ll cover… we’ll get into that in a few minutes.”)
And you see this in blogs—I’ll do it in one of the later points.
Think of it like dangling a carrot in front of readers. Keep reading, and you just might get it!
3. Put the action first.
You’ll rarely see master writers publish a sentence like, “Because the economy has recently slowed down, it’s gotten tougher for B2B companies to close sales.”
Instead they’ll say, “Selling has gotten harder for B2B companies because the economy slowed down.”
The second example puts the action—the subject and verb—at the beginning rather than at the end. This usually simplifies, clarifies, and shortens your writing, so readers get through it faster and enjoy it more.
Take a look at this newsletter—almost every sentence does exactly that. And you’re still reading! Thank you, by the way.
4. Think beyond the hook.
You have to provide a hook that gets readers’ attention, but you can’t take that attention for granted. You have to fight to keep it.
This is a huge mindset shift for most of us. The other steps will give you more details to create the glue that makes readers stick around.
5. Use juxtaposition like salt.
People love contrasts. They make us stop, make us think, and even excite us. A few examples:
Long sentences followed by short ones
Refuting your last statement (you might think… but it’s not true)
Describing opposites (newly hired, recently fired)
Using a complex word in a paragraph of simple ones
Do this too much and readers will get exhausted, but a little makes your writing richer.
6. Cut this particular fluff.
The biggest difference between a master writer and a novice is their use of adjectives and adverbs.
Novices are thoroughly descriptive. Everything is grand, or terrible. They go over the top to make you feel something. Master writers just tell you what it is.
This is also the easiest step to implement: Review whatever you write, and delete the adjectives and adverbs. Your writing will instantly be easier to digest.
7. Don’t state the obvious.
Phrases like “as you know,” “obviously,” “of course,” and “as previously stated” are superfluous. If readers know, they know. You don’t need to tell them.
8. Practice, practice, and then… practice.
The best writers got 10,000 hours of writing in before they even got a serious opportunity—but you can get the same practice with a blog and an email account, or even just a social media profile.
Take every writing opportunity—every email, article, social media post, Slack message, and even text—to intentionally practice what you’re learning.
Analyze your work, and get a little better every time. How fast are people responding? How much engagement are you getting? How are people acting when they respond?
Do this daily.
9. Use alliteration, or one of these other tools.
You can and should use alliteration, make points in groups of 3, toss in an occasional rhyme, and create memorable taglines. The point is to intentionally include a few things that simply sound good. That are pleasant.
It brings the reader just enough joy to keep reading. And they’re fun to write.
10. Create headers for skimmers, paragraphs for readers.
You could be the world’s #1 writer, and people still won’t read every word you write. That’s okay.
They can still enjoy your work and get value from it, if you know how to work with it.
For instance, I know that since you’ve clicked on this newsletter, you just want to see what the 15 steps are. If 1 or 2 interest you, then you’ll read the descriptions.
I get that, and I’ve tried to make the headers interesting enough that you’ll want to read more (how am I doing?). You best believe the masters are doing the same thing.
11. Don’t repeat yourself.
12. Ignore half of the grammar rules.
The rules of grammar create a framework to communicate clearly through the written word. They are not law.
The masters use grammar rules selectively, like different paint brushes to create different effects on the canvas.
Some use commas sparingly. Some always use an em dash instead of a semicolon. All understand that grammar shapes how the story—or sales pitch—is received, and write accordingly.
The better you understand grammar, the more expert you become with tools to make the reader experience what you want them to experience.
13. Prioritize the human element.
People want to read from people. They want to feel what you feel, experience what you experience.
Good writing tells the facts. Great writing makes the reader feel like they’re sitting down with you for a fireside chat.
So show your emotion, tell your story, share your opinion. Communicate to the reader like a human, like an equal, and they’ll stay with you.
14. Find stories everywhere.
People connect better with stories, and all it takes to create a story is a character, an event, and a resolution.
That could be you struggling with something and learning how to overcome it. It could fit entirely in one sentence—I hated writing, then I read Blink, and now I’m a writer.
The best writers pull little stories into every point they make.
15. Have fun with it. Seriously!
I could give you a thousand little rules to follow to create something readers would enjoy. But would you enjoy it at that point?
The best writing—usually—is the writing that you would enjoy reading.
It sounds cheesy, and it took me years to realize this (I thought there was some formula to follow), but it’s true. So write about what you want, the way you want to. There’s almost definitely an audience for it.
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Have questions about this topic or something you’re working on? Ask away! I’m an open book and happy to help.