The Power of Three

I recently read The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. The book tells the first-person story of Peekay, a young, white boy of British descent growing up in South Africa prior to and during WWII. Peekay learns about racism and self-respect, tribal lore and Christianity, and playing the piano and raising cacti, all while on a personal journey to become the world welterweight boxing champion. He develops his own personal philosophy, which he calls the “power of one,” to help him focus on his future goals, endure current hardships, and influence those around him.

threestooges“What does this have to do with writing?” you might be asking about now. Good question. We could summarize The Power of One as a book about purpose, strategy, and influence, and these are very important concepts in writing and editing.

Purpose is what you are trying to accomplish, i.e., your reason for writing. Strategy is how you go about accomplishing your purpose. Influence is the effect of your writing on your reader or target audience. Influence, or the ability to affect your reader in some way, should be the result of combining purpose with strategy. In writing, we call this Impact. While Peekay relies on the “power of one,” in writing we use the “power of three” as one strategy to create impact.

By “power of three,” we mean using series of three words, phrases, or ideas. For some examples, we used four series of three in the previous three paragraphs (e.g., … focus on his future goals, endure current hardships, and influence those around him). Using a series of three helps the reader understand what you are writing, helps him or her organize the information mentally, and creates a sense of urgency. Using a series of more than three becomes a bit cumbersome and less easy to understand or organize. Using a series of two ideas simply doesn’t have the same impact (unless you are providing two contrasting statements like we just did).

The reason is simple, but we won’t pretend we understand it. The brain seems to be hard-wired to group information in threes, but don’t ask us why that is. Editors at Precise Edit aren’t neurologists, but we understand readers. When you use that three-item group at the end of an argument or paragraph, you add additional weight to the ideas, and this creates impact. Placing the series at the end reveals your purpose in the paragraph, is an effective strategy for developing your ideas, and will influence your reader. By using “the power of three,” you demonstrate your own power, “the power of one.”

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