The 7 Secrets of Captivating Writers
“Persuasion is often more effectual than force.” — Aesop
You’ve fallen for it before:
You crack open a book in bed, just to unwind and relax after a long day…
And five hours later, at three in the morning, your eyes are still glued to the page, unable to look away.
Or you stumble across an article or web page advertising some fascinating new product or service you never knew you were missing…
And in five seconds flat you have your credit card out, ready to make a purchase.
Later, when you come back to yourself, you wonder in awe and amazement: How did those writers DO that?
How did they reach past the sea of distractions to grab your attention?
How did they convince you to invest your time, money, and energy in the story or product that they were offering?
How did they use mere words to captivate and seduce you?
Great writing — great communication, in any form, really — is all about persuasion.
The best writers persuade people to give them their attention and their time.
They persuade people to change their minds and their lives.
They persuade people to behave differently, to take action, to do something they haven’t done before.
It’s why we write, after all.
But not every writer is good at persuasion.
Persuasion is a skill that some writers intrinsically have more of than others, but that all writers can develop if they choose.
So how do great marketers, storytellers, novelists, and writers captivate their readers — readers just like you — and convince them to pay attention and change their minds?
They use these seven secret strategies…
1. Captivating Writers Know What You (Really) Want
Despite our great differences, at our core, human beings really all want the same basic things. You probably already know what they are if you really think about it.
The problem is, many writers don’t think about it.
In his book Cashvertising, copywriter Eric Drew Whitman lists out the basic “Life Force 8”—eight desires that ALL human beings want instinctively and desperately:
- To survive: enjoy and extend life
- To enjoy food and drink
- To be free of fear, pain, and danger
- To have companionship (sexual and otherwise)
- To live comfortably
- To be superior, win, keep up with the Joneses
- To care for and protect loved ones
- To be approved of, socially
If you, as a writer, can tap into one or more of these deep, unshakeable desires, then you’ve got your reader’s attention (and probably much more than that).
Great writers know that. Every time they write, whether it’s a story or an article or a book or a blog post, they are thinking about the things their readers really want, and designing their words to bring out and address those desires.
Of course, doing that effectively requires a great deal of practice, skill, and effort, but the key is to have the right objective in mind from the start:
Know what core desires you want to help your readers address before you begin, and you will have won half the battle right there.
2. Captivating Writers Use Two Magic Words, Generously
There are two words in the writer’s dictionary that stand head and shoulders above every other word in the lexicon.
They are so simple, most people overlook them.
But even when they go unnoticed, they wield a subtle power that irresistibly influences readers to pay attention and keep reading, because they speak to some of those deep impulses that we just talked about in the last section.
And I’ve already used both of them several times in this article, including in the sentences above.
What are they?
The words “you” and “because.”
Hey There, I’m Talking to You — Yes, You
Dale Carnegie (of How to Win Friends and Influence People fame) once wrote:
“Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
No doubt, you’ve experienced this before. You’re walking through a crowded room, or heading down a boring sidewalk, not paying attention to anyone or anything in particular, and then you hear it — your name.
You stop, turn, and address the person who called you… or you realize (if you have a popular name like mine) that they were talking to someone else, and you keep going.
Your name is meaningful to you because people use it when they want to talk to you, and you specifically.
But when you’re writing, you can’t really address each and every one of your readers by name.
Instead, you use the word “you.”
A lot of writers make the mistake of thinking that because they’re the ones coming up with ideas to write about, their writing is about them.
It’s not. It’s about your reader.
So if you want to reach your readers, you have to talk TO them, and ABOUT them…not about yourself.
And one key way to do that is to use the word “you,” which is like a placeholder for your reader’s actual name.
When you address your reader directly with the trigger word “you,” they feel like you’re really talking to them, like you are two friends having a casual conversation, rather than a lecturer talking down at a lowly student, or a sleazy marketer trying to sell a poor victim something they don’t want.
“You” is a word that implies familiarity and trust, two things you definitely want to have if you ever hope to persuade anyone of anything. It bridges the gap between you and your reader and helps open the door for them to accept what you are saying.
But it’s not the only trigger word.
Because we want to know why
Another powerful word is “because.” Why?
Because “because” is a barometer of your blog or book’s believability.
(Ha! Try saying that five times in a row fast!)
In other words, when readers are reading, the predominant question in their heads is: Why?
Why should I read this? Why will this help me? Why am I spending time scanning this article when I could be doing a million other things?
And you address those unspoken questions when you literally answer with the word: BECAUSE.
Humans are rational creatures. We like to know the reason for and meaning behind things. It’s how we’re created.
Unanswered questions create serious psychological discomfort in all readers, which is why the word “because” is so persuasive.
So when you raise and answer questions in your writing, using the trigger word “because,” you will grab readers and keep them reading long after other less-skilled writers have totally lost them.
3. Captivating Writers Know How to Weave a Good Mystery
Harry Potter was a book series that took the world by storm, spawning not only seven official books and eight movies, but also amusement parks, movies, millions of products, a stage play, spinoff books and movies, and way too much bad fan-fiction.
But what made the series so darn popular?
Was it the magic? The world building? JK Rowling’s own background story?
Well, all of those things contributed to the series’ success, to be sure, but there’s a deeper, core reason:
The Harry Potter books are mystery stories.
Yes, there are fantastical creatures and fascinating characters and an intricately-fleshed-out magical world in the stories. But all of that is icing on the cake, decoration on the main underlying engine of the success of the Harry Potter series.
A mystery, you see, is arguably the most powerful story type in the literary world.
After all, we humans are all driven by curiosity, the desire to know: “What happens next?”
And as proof of that, some of the best-selling books in the world are mysteries:
Consider Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes, the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys book series, John Grisham and Edgar Allen Poe.
Agatha Christie, for instance, is the Guinness World Record holder of the title “Best Selling Novelist of All Time,” with three billion book sales in over 100 languages… and counting!
Would Christie have made such a splash in the literary world had she ignored mysteries and crafted cookbooks or dabbled in dramas instead?
Her success, and the success of so many other writers, including writers who are not explicitly mystery writers (like JK Rowling), comes from the fact that she is able to write creative, intriguing mystery stories that keep readers turning pages and begging for more.
But I can hear you asking:
What makes a good mystery?
Good question. All excellent mysteries have five basic components:
- An intriguing premise
- Relatable characters
- A red herring or two
- Thrilling cliffhangers
- And a satisfying conclusion
And these components can be woven into any form of writing that you do, whether you are writing mysteries proper, masterful blog articles, or money-making sales letters. Here’s how:
- You start by grabbing the reader’s attention with a pressing question or problem that they have and/or want to know the answer to.
- You build on that premise by introducing a character they can relate to — either an actual fictional character, in a story, or if you’re writing a blog post, then the “character” is your reader himself.
- You then throw in some answers that sound good but don’t work. If you’re writing nonfiction, this is where you talk about previous solutions that are not as effective as the one YOU’RE about to introduce.
- You structure your article or story with questions-and-incomplete-answers throughout the body of the piece, so that just when one section is ending, another intriguing problem pops up to encourage them to keep reading.
- And finally, you end with the kind of conclusion that leaves readers feeling satisfied and inspired. For fiction readers, this means that the bad guy is dead, the treasure is saved, the hero has changed for the better. For nonfiction, this means you paint a bright future to motivate your reader — the kind of future they will have when they take your advice.
These steps will look a little different depending on what kind of writing you are doing, but the core principles are the same.
Write a mystery, pique people’s curiosity, take them by the hand and lead them on an adventure, and they’ll never want to stop reading.
4. Captivating Writers Develop a Siren’s Voice
The great Romantic pianist and composer Frederic Chopin was known to urge his piano students to take singing lessons.
Why singing lessons?
Because Chopin wanted his students to be able to play with a “beautiful connected singing tone,” a tricky effect to create with a percussion instrument.
Singing, Chopin knew, would help his students better understand phrasing, ornamentation, and auditory beauty. It would help develop their “voice” as musicians so that their piano playing would come out graceful, smooth, and irresistible.
Writers, too, have voices that need to be developed, even though they are not creating music, per se.
Words have intrinsic auditory properties like rhythm and rhyme, alliteration and assonance. And captivating writers know how to use these features to weave a piece of writing that is not only fascinating to the mind, but a treat for the ears.
Though we don’t read out loud most of the time, every reader has a voice inside his or her head, narrating the words they see with their eyes.
When those words create pleasing auditory effects through assonance/dissonance, rhyme, meter, repetition, and more, it’s almost as if we can literally hear the hypnotic sounds with our natural ears.
How do you develop your own writer’s voice?
The most effective way to get a sense of the rhythm and beauty of language is to read poetry and study music.
One reason I personally have been able to write quickly and well is due to my decade-plus years of serious training in music.
I’ve studied and memorized hundreds of songs and pieces (with words and without), and learned several instruments, all of which help me get a natural feel for sound, rhythm, and voice.
Another helpful tip is to learn a foreign language so you can see the contrast between it and your writing language. You don’t have to become fluent in it, you just want to let it expand your mind some.
Sometimes we take our language for granted because we use it every day. But when you study another language, you start to see aspects of your own language that you never noticed before… aspects you can then feature in your next piece of writing.
So pick up a language, or two or three — I recommend choosing one that’s similar to your mother tongue (eg: Spanish, German, French), and another that is very dissimilar (eg: Chinese, Japanese, Arabic). That will give you a full range of references to learn from.
Finally, if you really want to develop your writer’s voice, take the time to read out loud — your own work, and others’ writing as well.
Let your ears hear the way captivating poets and lyricists, novelists, and copywriters use words, and over time, you will absorb these lessons and they will become a part of you — a tool you can use to become a captivating writer yourself.
5. Captivating Writers Repeat the Important Stuff
Let’s face it.
People are forgetful.
We misplace our car keys, ask people to repeat their names five seconds after we’ve heard it, and blank out when asked to recall the last meal we ate.
This is true for your readers, too.
People who read your articles are not going to remember more than half of it after an hour. They’re too busy, too distracted, too forgetful.
So as a writer, if you want your reader to remember something, to change their thinking about something, to do something, you have to repeat it.
Over and over again.
So when you write: Use the same words, and/or express the same idea in different words.
Tell readers what important lessons you’re going to teach them, teach it to them, and then remind them that they have just been taught something important.
Repeat the core ideas at the beginning and the end of your article (the scientific name for this strategy is called the “primacy and recency effect” — people tend to remember the first and last items more than the ones in the middle).
The more you focus on one or two core ideas and really drill it into your readers’ psyche via repetition, the more likely you are to make an impact on readers and convince them to act.
And when readers act, they will find out that your advice is sound, and that you are a writer worth following.
6. Captivating Writers Empathize
Teddy Roosevelt once said:
“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
In other words, readers generally don’t give a hoot about you or your writing unless they can tell that you genuinely care about them.
So first, you have to care about your readers. And second, you have to show them that you care.
By doing your research.
Captivating writers take the time to get to know their readers. They read and answer comments, study other writers in their niche, and ask readers what they are struggling with.
Then they take the time to think up a truly helpful solution, which they then translate into writing that can change lives.
And that’s just the big picture.
On a smaller level, you can empathize with your readers and show them that you’re listening in every piece of writing. How do you do that?
By describing the problems they face, in their own words. Describe their issue in such vivid detail that they feel like you are reading their minds. Make them feel understood.
Readers who feel understood are far more open to your message.
So when you prove to them that you get them, by describing their thoughts and feelings, their fears and desires, in the words they themselves use, you’ve grabbed the key to your reader’s ears… and their hearts.
7. Captivating Writers Help People
Okay, okay. Technically, it is possible for a writer to develop his or her skills of persuasion to the point where they can sell just about anything to just about anybody, regardless of whether the ideas or products they are persuading people to buy are actually good for them.
But that is not going to last.
People wise up sooner or later, and then avoid these writers like the plague.
There’s a reason why used car salesmen and certain lawyers have such bad reputations: They’ve earned it. (And in the worst way possible.)
You don’t want to be one of those people.
If you want to be a truly captivating writer, use your powers for good. Tell the truth. Promote helpful ideas. Sell things that you would want to have sold to you.
Don’t give in to the temptation to lie or fudge things just to make a quick buck or win some fame. Writers who have done so have literally wrecked their reputations and their careers.
Learning the art of persuasion is not just about figuring out how to get readers to do what you want. It’s about figuring out how to get readers to do what’s good for them.
If you learn to become not only a captivating writer, but a caring writer, one whose focus is on improving people’s lives, your readers will sense your deeper purpose and reward you with not only their time and attention, but true loyalty and appreciation.
In the end, whether you’re a story writer, copy writer, song writer, or article writer, the end goal is the same: to reach your full potential in life, and to help others reach theirs.
It’s Your Turn, Now — Go Captivate Some Readers!
Congratulations, you’ve made it through this article on captivating with writing.
And now you are more knowledgeable than some 90% of online writers about what it really takes to be a captivating writer.
Don’t let the ball stop here.
Apply what you learned. In your next story or article, look for ways to weave in the two trigger words, set up a riveting mystery journey, address your readers’ deepest desires and solve their most pressing problems.
It will be tricky, at first. But the more you practice, the more you will improve.
You will become a brilliant communicator, writing compelling articles that persuade people to take action.
You will grow your readership, almost as if by magic.
You will make a real impact on readers’ lives.
And before you know it, you will be the one smiling like the Mona Lisa as readers gush about how they couldn’t put your book down, how your article revolutionized their thinking, and how they are now your fans for life.