Or How to Pull the Kicker Out of Your Ass
I won’t lie: My articles and blog posts tend to ramble. They are filled with humorous (to me) asides (see what I did there?) and I have no objection to going down a rabbit hole or two if I think they are interesting and add something to the topic. My weekly newsletter is an exercise in pulling together my cat-herd of thoughts on the strength of the second cup of coffee. And most weeks I do.
I have the benefit of not having an editor looking over my shoulder, an SEO metric to live up to, or a client who needs to “touch” a written piece so that they think they actually contributed, when in fact, they have just made it worse. (You know exactly who I’m talking about.)
But, I do have a responsibility to my readers and if they are going to stick with me for 800 or more words, I need to give them some sort of payoff or takeaway. Once I realized this, my writing improved exponentially. Or at least the feedback I received did, and really, who doesn’t like hearing that their writing made a difference to someone? That’s kind of why we write publicly.
If you’re writing for a client or editor, having a strong last paragraph, “the kicker” can save an otherwise solid but not sparkling article. With a strong ending, you can almost hear the reader say, “Aha! This is why she led us down that long, windy (and windy) path.”
More often than not, at least in my case, I was traversing trails like a demented rabbit and I finally figured out a way to tie all the threads together.
So how do you pull the kicker out of your butt?
Find the Point
First, go through each paragraph you’ve written and ask yourself what the point was of writing that particular piece of information. You may have anywhere from three to eight main points in a piece. Are they all necessary? Have you made the same or a similar point twice? Can you combine them?
For me, this first run-through sounds a lot like “What the f*ck am I trying to say here?” Sometimes I have no point. Then I ask, “Is this at least mildly amusing?” If not, it gets cut. (And frankly, I almost always find myself mildly amusing. I am easily entertained.) When you’re writing for someone else, almost all the mildly amusing stuff gets cut. Self-indulgence goes out the window when you’re writing for hire. If you’re lucky and have a client with a sense of humor, you can slide a few things in, but they still want their main message delivered with a minimum of distraction.
If you can’t find the point of a paragraph, if it doesn’t lead into another or give pertinent information, you need to move to Step Two: Cut.
Cut. No Matter How Much It Hurts
When you’re going through what you’ve written, see if there is anything so far off topic that it should be cut. Now, I hate to waste words and I tend to think that ALL my words are gold. (No one else does, but that’s life.) If I cut something from an article, I’m going to paste it onto a new page and maybe have the start of another article or I might be able to put it into something else. I may never re-use it, but I have painlessly cut content that needed to be cut. I lie to myself a lot and it works.
The truth is most first drafts of my articles and blog posts are really two (or more) blog posts. My mind loves to go shooting off and I try to jam too many ideas into one article. So many interesting, shiny things in this world! I have to realize that sometimes an interesting factoid is only interesting to me. I have learned to spot when I go down the wrong road and I am more than happy to copy and paste that section into a new document in the hopes that it will become its own post or article one day.
Most people on the internet are searching for specific information. Think about all those food blogs. You type in “easy chicken recipe” and you find something that looks like it will do. You get to the site and you have to scroll through paragraphs of BS about free-range chickens, how the blogger houses her personal chickens, cute pictures of her kid holding the chicken… All you want is how long you should cook the damn thing and at what temperature.
Some articles are a master’s thesis on a topic. The “ultimate guide” to anything is going to be a massive article so yes, at that point it is more about organizing all that info in a logical progression than cutting. That’s where subheads come in handy. You can do break-out quotes for those off-beat little factoids. Even with all that leeway, there will still be stuff worth cutting.
How Many Points are Enough? How Many are Too Many?
Is three a minimum? It is for me. I wrote comedy for a while and there’s a “rule of three” in comedy. There are three elements in a joke. The first two are normal and the third is the twist. In some instances, it’s the premise, the set-up, and the punchline. Other times it is three different characters, two who set the normalcy and the third gets the twist. (Three nuns die and go to heaven; a priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar.) Say it out loud and you get a cadence: Da dum, da dum, da dum. Comedy is rhythm. So is writing.
I overuse the rule of three in my writing. I know this. But it works. So, yes, three is a minimum for me in any article. It may be three methods, three steps, three examples, three whatever. My habit. It may not be yours. But go for a minimum of three elements. It will strengthen your writing as well as whatever case you are making.
How many is too many? I am not a big fan of 101 ways to do anything. I don’t need 101 ways. I need one or two that actually work. If you’re doing a listicle or one of those Bored Panda things designed to keep people on your page and increase read time, then yes, 50 Outrageous Acts by Mothers-In-Law at Weddings works well. But those articles don’t have a kicker. They’re not meant to. If you’ve got too many elements (that’s more a sense of feel than a number), you might mash two or more elements together with something similar and use a subhead for that element.
Find the Umbrella Idea
Once you’ve determined the point of each element of information, look for an umbrella to put them under. The umbrella is the overall cover that justifies having each element in the article.
Sometimes you can use a recap as your kicker. A quick summary of the steps along with the result that you get.
“Now that you know to find the point, cut until it hurts, and use your umbrella, your articles will stand out in the editorial slush pile.” (Okay, weak, but still a wrap up.)
You can also give next steps or a main takeaway. The kicker is meant to make the reader feel like they have not wasted their time reading the article. Remind them that they have learned something or give them something to do. If you’re really lucky, you can end on a clever saying or piece of advice. Sometimes the kicker is a version of “go forth and conquer” with the implication that the reader now has the tools to do so.
It’s not always easy to find the main thread to tie things together. That may be an indication that you have wandered off topic too many times. (Just me?) Or it could mean that your article had a lot of disparate pieces through no fault of your own. I do know that once I got in the habit of looking for a way to tie things together, to gather everything under an umbrella, the easier it became. Like everything else, finding the kicker becomes easier with practice. You can’t always pull it off (or pull it out), but if you intentionally set out to find the thread, your articles will have a higher level of completion and polish.
A final piece of advice: Even though you’ve managed to tie up your wandering words in a lovely package and given the reader a great takeaway, once you have the takeaway, you should go back through your article. It is now much easier to spot content that doesn’t fit. Again, save it in a new doc to perhaps use on a different day. Or trash it. You have more words in you, I promise.