Readers are aware of the boundaries in your writing, and they think about quitting reading at every one. What’s a boundary? The end of a paragraph, the end of a section, the “jump” from one page to another, the bottom of the screen where they have to scroll, etc.
How do you keep your readers reading? Well, obviously, by writing brilliantly. Frankly, I’m not brilliant, and maybe you’re not either, but here are some techniques we can use to lead our readers.
First, write with authority. At the beginning, readers size up the voice speaking to them from the text, and decide whether they trust it or not. They’re less interested in whether they like you or not. If they trust you as a reliable guide throughout the piece, they’re more likely to read all of it.
You create such authority at the top by telling readers immediately what the piece is about and why they should read it. You write as clearly as possible so your readers will think, “I understand this; I trust this voice.” To be extra clear, you write a little simpler just to ease readers in.
You maintain authority by this same assurance and clarity all the way through, but especially at the boundaries. If your readers think, “How did I get here,” or “Where are we going,” they’re about to bid you adios.
Readers who start wondering about the information also start thinking about leaving. So you supply what they need to know just before they need to know it. Otherwise, they feel stupid and depart.
In a longer piece, you put either a cliffhanger or a gold coin at major boundaries, such as a jump. A cliffhanger is a bit of suspense, named after a technique in early movie serials to get viewers to watch the next segment. The heroine clings to a branch over a thousand-foot drop. Can she hang on until the hero arrives?
Here’s a cliffhanger: “The finger pointed at her wasn’t a finger. It was a pistol.” Here’s another: “Margaret looked at her fiancé as the minister asked, ‘Do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?’ and thought, ‘Do I?’”
A gold coin can also keep readers moving. It’s an intriguing anecdote, a fascinating new character, a clever turn of phrase, a funny bit, etc. Gold coins refresh the readers, and make them predict that more gold coins lie ahead. Here’s one from here in Charlottesville about a fox that bit two students and stole a sweater. “There’s also no way to be sure that a fox that’s trapped in the area is the fox that was acting aggressive,” said Ed Clark, “unless it’s wearing the sweater.”
Guide your readers cleverly, and they will follow you to the bottom.
[Got any compelling techniques for leading your readers?]