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Your Old-School and New-School Writing Lessons Are Both Outdated

Back in grade school, most of us are programmed to write the five-paragraph essay for some reason that still escapes me today.

As its name so blatantly states, the five-paragraph essay is comprised of five paragraphs. No more; no less. It’s five or nothin’, babycakes. And this is how it always goes…

  1. First Paragraph: Start off with a catchy hook and end with a thesis statement, the latter of which consists of a logical argument that goes something like 1 + 2 = 3 because of A, B and C.

  2. Second Paragraph: Restate argument A, explain it and support it.

  3. Third Paragraph: Restate argument B, explain it and support it.

  4. Fourth Paragraph: Restate argument C, explain it and support it.

  5. Fifth Paragraph: Restate arguments A, B and C, and pretty much reiterate everything else you’ve already said while you’re at it.

If that sounds boring and maybe not as persuasive as it could be, that’s because it is. As an introduction to logic and writing, I suppose I can see its use. But to push it all the way through middle school and then high school is educationally detrimental.

Students who decide to go on to college are then bound to receive a very rude awakening, where all of a sudden, they’re expected to write “like adults.” Yet they’re given little to no guidance on how to do it.

Working at my alma mater’s Writing Center, I encountered so many confused little freshmen who just couldn’t understand why their professors refused to give them a grade until they restructured their whole entire essays.

It was really rather tragic.

Of course, most of us in the corporate realm somehow survived our college-level re-educations, so we did somehow learn that almost nobody in the white-collar world bothers with the five-paragraph essay. But that doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes fall into the same basic formulaic trap.

Which, once again, comes across as boring.

Whether we’re writing a stock analysis, a news report or a business email, we need to remember how data-overwhelmed our recipients are these days. Thanks to ever-present online connections, we’ve got 24-7 access to news stories, emails, Twitter updates, Facebook statuses and so much more. As a result, most readers feel as if they’ve seen it all already.

They’re demanding to be informed or entertained, yet too jaded to appreciate most of what’s thrown their way.

Why do you think celebrity behavior keeps getting more and more extravagant, and political reporting has gotten more and more divisive? It’s because the perpetrators know that nobody will pay them attention otherwise.

So how do you compete in the midst of all that?

I’d love to give you a formula, but that would defeat the whole purpose of my non-five-paragraph argument here. Plus, it wouldn’t be helpful. Or accurate. Or profitable.

But here are some writing lessons to try applying:

  • Include a catchy image. Readers though they’re supposed to be, chances are high that your audience will be attracted to a pretty picture or two before they notice whatever headline you’ve written.

  • When you are writing your headline, make it intriguing. Don’t just state a fact. Ask a question or tease a point. Whatever you do, don’t give it all away – not unless “it” is such a big deal that it sells itself.

  • Start off with a bang! Most readers don’t get more than a few paragraphs into the piece, especially if it’s a news article or opinion blog. So the first sentence is exceptionally important in motivating people to care enough to keep taking your writing in.

  • Vary your paragraph lengths, making some of them a few lines long and some of them a single statement. This is visually appealing and emotionally stimulating. If it’s all block paragraphs as we’re taught to utilize in grade school and even in college, it’s going to fall flat.

Finally, always, always know your audience. Understand their catchwords and concerns. Show them that you understand them, that you care about them, and that you’ve got their back.

After that, feel free to break some rules and test some limits! It’s a whole new school of thought when it comes to writing, with lessons that just keep advancing.

Class is now in session, so make sure to keep up!

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