The rule of three adds a sense of poetry and rhythm to your writing, making your content more pleasurable to read. But how do you harness the power of three?
This article covers:
Examples of the rule of three in Apple’s web copy
Is three really a magic number?
Examples of the power of three in headlines
Repetition and the rule of three
An element of surprise
Extra examples of the power of three
The rule of three in writing
Uneasiness has crept up.
Heather Fields has been a freelance copywriter for several years.
Her clients seem happy; and she knows her content is engaging, persuasive, and mostly free from grammar mistakes.
But she also senses something is missing.
A little “je-ne-sais-quoi.”
Does her writing lack flair? A sense of poetry? Is the rhythm out of sync?
On a lazy Sunday afternoon, Heather browses the web, thinking about buying a new MacBook. Or should she go for a Windows laptop?
She opens the Apple website.
And there she notices it …
The rule of three in Apple’s copy
Apple’s copywriters know how to harness the power of three:
Thin. Light. Powerful.
Ready. Set. Done.
Which makes it reliable, durable, and quiet.
Is that the magic power of three? Is that what’s been missing in Heather’s work?
Paying closer attention, she sees groups of three phrases on almost every Apple web page:
And with Apple Pay, you can unlock an entire world of online shopping that’s fast, convenient, and secure.
iPad mini 4 runs iOS 9, the most intuitive, advanced and secure mobile operating system in the world.
Which means everything you do — playing games, surﬁng the web, enjoying photos and videos — becomes more personal, immediate, and immersive.
Is three a magic number?
Copyblogger founder Brian Clark explains the power of three by referring to the three-act story structure and to the Three Little Pigs, the Three Blind Mice, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the Three Musketeers, the Three Wise Men, and the Three Stooges.
It’s no accident that the number three is pervasive throughout some of our greatest stories, fairy tales, and myths.
~ Brian Clark
If you’ve joined a photography or drawing course, you may have come across the rule of thirds, too.
To create balanced pictures, don’t put a key feature in the middle. Divide your canvas in three equal horizontal and three equal vertical slices, and put your key feature on one of the cross sections, like this:
Three seems magical, right?
But what about the number two? Why do we have two arms, two legs, two ears, and two eyes? Isn’t two the smallest number required for creating symmetry?
And symmetry is related to beauty. Isn’t that magic?
As the New York Times reports, research has suggested that three arguments may be more persuasive than two or four. But the scientific proof for the persuasive power of three remains hazy.
Trios may or may not be more persuasive, but they can create a sense of poetry and rhythm, making our content more pleasurable to read and adding stress to a statement.
Pay attention to good writing, and you see threes popping up everywhere.
Examples of the power of three in headlines
Three adjectives, verbs or nouns can add extra power to your headlines:
- A Brief Guide to Fixing Your Old, Neglected, and Broken Content
- How to Stay Healthy, Happy and Combative in Impossible Political Times
- 37 Tips for Writing Emails That Get Opened, Read, and Clicked
- How to Run Your First Webinar (with No Skills, No Stress and No Budget)
Alliteration can add extra flair:
- The Underused Writing Trick That Makes You More Powerful, Popular and Persuasive
- 53 Freelancing Mistakes That Are Costing You Clients, Cash, and Credibility
And when you use a three act story for your blog post, you can also use the same three acts for your headline. For example:
- On Dying, Mothers, and Fighting for Your Ideas
- The Snowboard, the Subdural Hematoma, and the Secret of Life
Repetition and the rule of three
You may have heard repetition in writing is bad.
But that’s only true for accidental repetition.
When used with care, repetition can add stress and a pleasant sense of rhythm. For instance, note how the phrase “we can’t” is repeated three times:
As writers, our toolbox may seem limited. We can’t shout. We can’t use body language. We can’t even bang on a table to add weight to a message.
Following the rule of three religiously, however, becomes monotone and dull. So, use trios in moderation.
In the following fragment, for instance, the phrase “How often” is repeated twice and then the phrase “Life is too short” is repeated thrice:
How often do we read content that surprises and delights?
How often are we really inspired by a blog post?
Life is too short for monotone voices. Life is too short for wishy-washy writing. Life is too short to regurgitate ideas without adding value.
It’s time to have fun, infuse your content with your personality, and dazzle your readers with your words.
Add an element of surprise
In all the examples so far, the 3 phrases seemed to form a logical trio such as powerful, popular, and persuasive; and old, neglected, and broken.
When you break your reader’s expectation of what’s coming next, you add an element of fun and surprise to your writing.
Here’s an example from Grace Dent’s memoir Hungry:
Dinner consisted of three stainless-steel terrines of mushy, lukewarm, delicious chips sat close to warm jugs of lumpy, powder-based gravy.
Mushy and lukewarm both have negative associations, so you’d expect a third negative word to turn up, but no. Dent breaks the expectation by introducing the word delicious. The abrupt change from negative to positive shakes expectations and makes readers pay attention.
Here’s another example from the same book; note that sketty means spaghetti:
Dad’s sketty is always, always delicious. Comforting, sweet and gloriously stodgy, because Dad boiled the pasta for at least thirty to forty minutes too long.
Gloriously stodgy is not a phrase you’d expect to come after comforting and sweet, right?
Veni. Vidi. Vici.
I came. I saw. I conquered. ~ Julius Caesar
The number three is the smallest number to create a pattern; and patterns please our minds.
So go ahead.
Use the magic of three in your content.
Add a dash of flair. A sprinkle of rhythm. And a dollop of poetic beauty.
Your readers will hippety-hop through your content, with a smile on their face.
Extra examples of the rule of three
From Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep:
Shaved, dressed and lightly breakfasted I was at the Hall of Justice in less than an hour.
He was a medium-sized blondish man with stiff white eyebrows, calm eyes and well-kept teeth.
The man was long-legged, long-waisted, high-shouldered and he had dark brown eyes in a brown expressionless face that had learned to control its expressions long ago.
From Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely:
It was a long narrow room, not very clean, not very bright, not very cheerful.
From E.B. White’s Here is New York:
The city has never been so uncomfortable, so crowded, so tense.
From Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World:
As Leila’s brain fought on, she remembered the taste of soil – dry, chalky, bitter.
From Kyo Maclear’s Birds Art Life Death:
A lull can be soothing, tranquilizing, and even restorative. It can be a time to retune and replenish. A lull can suggest a state of peaceful hovering, a prolonged mental daydream, a weightless interval.
From John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process:
A piece of writing has to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there. You do that by building what you hope is an unarguable structure. Beginning, middle, end.