Tool #20 Choose the Number of Elements with a Purpose in Mind

Updated: Jan 13

"One, two, three, or four: each sends a secret message to the reader." - Roy Peter Clark

This week's post hones in on the theme of Tool #18 and Tool #19: pay attention to the words you choose and how you will organize them. In his book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark tells us to focus on the length of the elements within your sentences. He points out familiar patterns in well-known phrases that frame the context of the sentence. 

What's in an Element?

In today's post, I am going to explain why content writers should be self-conscious about the number of examples or elements in their sentences or paragraphs. If they choose more than one, then they must also decide on how to order these elements in the sentences and paragraphs. Why do this? Because consumers also tend to compartmentalize their shopping experiences. People want what is familiar. Give them what they want, and they will give you what you want, and that's business. 

The Language of Numbers 

Clark breaks this Tool up into four different parts: The Language of One, then Two, then Three, then Four or more. In Language one, he starts with a straightforward sentence: "That girl is smart." While we don't have any other information, for example, what makes this girl so intelligent, we will get there. Our focus, however, is on the language of "one." 

If we were to add to this sentence, as Clark does, we are now changing the context to mean something more than just an absolute fact (or opinion, don't get caught up in the language of definitives.) "That girl is smart and sweet." We have altered the perspective of the girl, but the reader must acknowledge both of this girl's attributes.

Now, what happens when we add a third fact? "That girl is smart, sweet, and determined. Do you feel as if we have a more well-rounded understanding of who this girl is? Even without specific examples, we can glean more about her and what she intends to do.

Finally, we close with four or more facts. When we do this, we create a sense if endlessness. There are an infinite amount of possibilities when we choose four or more parts of our sentence. In essence, Clark tells us to use four or more when you "list, inventory, compile and expand."

Next time you write a paragraph, keep this order in mind and see where it takes you. You may be surprised by the results. I tested it out on a post I wrote for a client. What do you think? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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Clark, R. P. (2008). Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. Columbus, GA: Little, Brown.

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