How to Shape up Your Flabby Writing in 5 Simple Steps

Carol Tice

The new year is finally here — a time when many people create resolutions about losing weight.

For freelance writers, it’s a good time to think about a different kind of weight-loss program: One to trim flab from your writing.

If you’re not getting visitors to your blog posts, or your query letters aren’t getting you gigs, it’s possible you could do better if you put your writing on a fitness program.

Because let’s face it — loads of people can write.

But not everyone can write tight, where each word is perfect and there’s no extra verbiage cluttering up the piece.

Great writing is always like that — every word in its place, and no extra fat.

Here are five tips for sculpting your writing into lean, effective prose that helps you earn more this year:

1. Shape up your headlines. Does your headline grab readers’ attention? If not, keep working on it. In my experience, most writers could stand to spend more time burnishing their headlines. Catchy headlines with key words for search engines are essential for success in the 21st century.

If you’re writing a query letter, be sure to include a strong proposed headline for your post. This will give the editor an immediate sense of the story angle you’re discussing, and also can signal that you understand the publication by delivering a headline in the publication’s own style.

Final tip on headlines: Write the headline first. The exercise will sharpen your focus and make your piece easier to write. That saves you time, results in better work, and enables you to crank more writing volume in the course of a year.

2. Get rid of that. And “very.” And boring past-tense verbs like “has been” and “going to.” Scour your piece for extraneous words and phrases that don’t add anything to the sentence, and trim them out.

3. Lose your loose ends. Does your writing tend to go off on tangents or include a lot of side points? Often, those lose the reader and disrupt the thread of your narrative. Snip those out and consider giving them an article or blog post of their own instead. The result will be a better shape for your current piece.

4. Get shorty. Especially for blog posts, be brief. Short sentences are great. If you wind on for four lines in a single sentence, you may lose some readers. Short paragraphs are great, too. Re-examine each sentence in your draft and think of how you can say it in a more concise way. With more articles moving online and wordcounts shrinking at print magazines, acquiring the habit of brevity will serve writers well in 2012.

5. Make your workout flow. Take a moment at the end of a draft and look at the final sentence of each paragraph, and the first paragraph of the next one. Do those flow well together? Does the final sentence of one graf lead directly and logically to the first sentence of the next? If not, whittle the sentences down and make them relate well. Any disconnect between one graf and the next gives the reader a reason to stop reading. Paragraphs should be knit together like a good sweater, with no dropped stitches. Improving your paragraph transitions often trims out excess words, too.

What exercises do you use to shape up your writing? Add to my list in the comments.

17 Comments

  1. betty jo

    Very helpful post Carol. I think this is my first visit to your blog and I can’t wait to read more.

    • Carol Tice

      Welcome aboard Betty Jo!

  2. Jim Syyap

    Here’s how I practice writing – write until your bones are dry, take a break, then edit.

  3. Krissy Brady, Writer

    Just love this post Carol–thanks so much! I use my ‘delete’ key so often deleting the word ‘that’ I’m surprised the button hasn’t completely faded, lol! Another thing I’m working on this year (thanks to Linda), is making my query letters more conversational. Until it was pointed out to me, I had no idea how stiff some of my sentences were sounding. So far, so good. 🙂

    • Carol Tice

      You’re not the only one with that problem — we’ve been helping loads of writers loosen up their writing style in the Den. An LOI is not a business letter like some of us learned to write in typing class — we’re an informal culture these days, and letters need to be relaxed and chatty. I think the more you can loosen it up, the more confident and professional you actually come off.

    • Krissy Brady, Writer

      I agree Carol, and it’s working well for me so far! It’s going to take a lot of practice, but I’m becoming more fluent with the process day by day. I love the Den! I’m hoping to visit tonight and do some catching up with everyone–I’ve been a query letter machine, and I’m so excited for what the new year will bring. xo

    • Carol Tice

      Be sure to let us know if you get some wins — LOVE hearing the success stories.

  4. Susan B. Bentley

    Hi Carol,
    Happy New Year! I love the idea of cutting the flab out of writing. My new tool for the year is MS OneNote – now stays on the side of my desktop so I can add blog ideas and do some free writing whenever I’m working and can then take the time to whittle down my ramblings for my weekly blog post. New Year resolution for me – less rambling (hopefully!).

  5. Brad Smith

    Great list Carol! I always have to remind myself of #2… and still fall victim from time to time. Touching on #1, I like to use Jon Morrow’s Headline Hacks guide -> http://headlinehacks.com/. It’s very, very helpful. 🙂

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