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Pro Tip 16: Play the Odds


Is odd better than even?


It’s not scientifically validated, but my experience is that writing in odd numbers, rather than even ones, creates more pleasing prose.


There’s something about hearing an odd set of items that appeals to the mental ear (Pro Tip 7). It’s about rhythm, resonance, and pace (Pro Tip 15). An odd number of items, examples, or points sounds better.


THREE EXAMPLES

Writers swear by the Rule of Three. Take a look at these sentences:


By Miguel Marquez for CNN: “Transportation, translation, and a trusted source of vaccine information have been among the barriers [to inoculation].”


Using a trio of words that start with “T” not only follows the Rule of Three, but the result is alliterative (Pro Tip 36).


By Elizabeth Siegel for Allure: “Glittery makeup is the stuff of weekend nights spent with friends and weekday mornings spent trying to look bright-eyed. It’s fun! It’s festive! It’s fraught.”


This reminds me of “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”


By Richard Toth for HuffPost: “A walk in the woods is restorative. A walk along the shore is restorative. A walk in a park, through a flower garden, beside a stream, beside a marshland is restorative.”


This is a twofer of threes.


MAGIC NUMBER

The Rule of Three applies to all types of things: ideas, information, inspiration. According to an intermediate grades lesson plan from the National Council of Teachers of English:


There’s something about our English language that lends itself to threes. Putting words and ideas in a group of three can add rhythm and cadence to the sound of the language and add inspiration and passion to the message. Benjamin Franklin once wrote, ‘Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.’ … A series of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses is known as a tricolon in literary parlance. In intermediate classrooms, we call it the Magic of Three.

ODD CHOICE

Three is a magic number, but I maintain that most often any odd number is more compelling, catchy, and convincing than an even one. In this book, why do I offer 41 Pro Tips rather than 40? Because it takes a split second longer to interpret, making it more memorable.


Yes, it’s a judgment call. To organize lists, writers or platforms often use even numbers such as 10, 50, or 100 to give them heft, importance, and tidiness. These are exceptions to the rule.


For proof of the power of the rule of odd numbers, look no further than Hollywood. Disney decided 101 Dalmatians was better than 100 or 102same with the Three Stooges, The Magnificent Seven, and Ocean’s Eleven.


When writing effectively, play the odds.


FOR EXAMPLE


Brian Clark, the founder of Copyblogger, explains the Rule of Three this way:


It all comes down to the way we humans process information. We have become proficient at pattern recognition by necessity, and three is the smallest number of elements required to create a pattern.

Clark notes that the Rule of Three has been used throughout history as a way to engage readers. He gives some examples:


  • Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

  • Blood, sweat, and tears

  • Location, location, location

  • Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

  • Mind, body, spirit

  • Sex, lies, and videotape

  • I came, I saw, I conquered.

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