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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.