Want to make your short-form writing more compelling?

Then take a lesson from Mohammad Ali and Lyndon Johnson.

They use a technique that author Roy Peter Clark calls the "one-two punch" to make writing stickier--to catch readers' attention and stays in their minds.

In his book, How to Write Short, Clark explains how it works: "The author takes two elements of language and rubs them together for effect. Even in the shortest of texts, there has to be a little rub. No rub means no friction. No friction means no spark."

The classic one-two punch is exemplified by--of course--legendary boxer Muhammad Ali with this self-description: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."

Clark describes why the expression is so appealing: "This compound sentence (made up of two equally important main clauses) balances like a seesaw on the pivot of the comma and gains extra strength from its parallel structure, equal syntactical units to express meaning of equal weight. The mirror images go like this: imperative verb, preposition article noun. Even with all this, the two halves aren't precisely equal. The difference between butterfly and bee--the first word long and lyrical, the second short and sharp--creates both rhythm and contrast."

Too much explanation? Then just remember three words to understand the one-two punch:

Provide, then surprise.

The first punch is a statement that establishes the situation. It's context to give you the starting point.

Then comes the second punch. This is where the unexpected part comes in that surprises and, if successful, makes you a bit breathless.

Here's comedian Henny Youngman: "I take my wife everywhere, but she always finds her way home."

British novelist Kingsley Amis: "If you can't annoy somebody, there is little point in writing."

And President Lyndon Johnson: "While you're saving your face, you're losing your ass."

The best one-two punch can be captured in a sentence. But there's a longer version that works well, too.

In two books that compile tweets, The World According to Twitter, by David Pogue, and Twitter Wit, edited by Nick Douglas, you can see the one-two punch in action on social media:

  • Discovered today that Costco sells caskets. For $799 my bachelor pad just got a bit more interesting. (@snc)
  • The baby just saw me naked. Now she knows where she got her thighs. (@AuntMarvel)

Need to write something short and snappy? Try the one-two punch.