When was the last time you finished reading a paragraph and then realized that you have no idea what it said?
This is one symptom of boring writing. Hopefully, you weren’t reading your own report. The easiest way to correct boring writing is to remove clutter. Clutter is any extra sentence, word, or syllable that doesn’t contribute to your main point. If your words aren’t helping you, they’re hurting you. Clutter bores your readers and makes you sound boring too.
Clutter burdens readers with lengthy and needless verbiage, while simplicity helps readers stay engaged in your message. Smooth writing drives readers into the next paragraph.
Clutter includes redundant language, superfluous detail, circuitous phrasing, and anything else that burdens the reading experience. Consider the following:
Boring: Elias came running quickly down the sidewalk.
Engaging: Elias sprinted down the sidewalk.
Complex verb tenses elongate sentences. Adverbs are a poor and lengthy substitute for vivid verbs.
Boring: First, you should begin by finding the screw and attaching part A to part B as shown in the diagram below.
Engaging: 1. Screw part A to part B.
In technical instructions, step markers like “first” make users read, while numbered lists orient users intuitively. Addressing users with “you”–and telling them what they “should” do–requires more space than a command does. Diagrams are obvious; don’t draw verbal maps.
Boring: The brand new smartphone not only displays augmented reality, but it also works without the need for any attached dongles.
Engaging: The new smartphone displays augmented reality without a dongle.
Artificially writing in the negative adds weight to your sentence while sounding like a hard sell. Redundant adverbs and adjectives make readers plod through words they don’t need. Phrases like “the need for” are as boring as they are removable.
Boring: Just be sure to treat customers with respect.
Engaging: Treat customers with respect.
The word “just” adds an extra word to your sentence to soften your message. It’s also folksy and overused. Infinitive verb constructions are bland and take longer to read than simple subject-verb phrasing.
Cluttered writing is boring writing. If you want to engage readers, you need to simplify.
As you reread your copy, find every chance to remove fluff. Ask yourself, “Is there a simpler way to say this?” and “Does this sentence still make sense if I remove this word?”
Whenever you’re trimming your writing, it’s critical to avoid falling in love with your first draft. Cutting out clutter hurts. Remember that flowery language is less important than engaging readers.
Twitter users are good at removing clutter. There’s no room for it in 140 characters. Fitting a complex message into a single tweet means being ruthless with your words. (Tweet this.) It helps to treat your boring writing the same way.
Just as people clear their physical throats with a little cough, writers sometimes clear their mental throats with a few irrelevant words or sentences before getting to the point. Even experienced writers tend to preface new thoughts with chitchat.
Throat clearing is the worst kind of clutter. It appears right at the beginning of articles or sections—critical moments when readers evaluate whether to keep reading your work. Boring throat clearing copy convinces your readers that you’re not worth reading. Fortunately, addressing throat clearing is easy.
First, write whatever comes naturally, even if you include some throat clearing banter at the start. Then, go back and reread everything. Look for introductory sentences that don’t add any value. Try rereading a paragraph beginning with the second sentence to see if the copy still works. If you’ve cleared your throat, then clear the sentence too.
Avoid Clutter in the First Place
Create an outline before you write. Organizing your thoughts first helps avoid throat clearing. It also helps you write concise, punchy copy rather than an effluent stream of consciousness.
Use a Style Guide
Company style guides instruct employees in best practices, such as beginning instructions with imperative verbs rather than ordinal numbers. Defining clutter across your company helps employees understand clutter and avoid it.