5 Tips for Getting the Lead Out of Your Stiff Prose

Carol Tice

Have you wondered why you can’t get more articles published in good-paying publications?

It could be your writing.

I know — none of us wants to think we’re a bad writer. But something may be off in the tone or style of how you are crafting your story that is making editors take a pass.

It could be that you’re not matching the tone of the publication.

Or it could be a more general issue. Like that robot over there on the right, your writing could be a little stiff. It’s just not flowing in an appealing way, like you need it to do to keep readers interested.

I’ve been reviewing scads of story idea pitches recently for 4-Week Journalism School…and it’s reminded me that writing a fascinating article isn’t so easy.

That’s why most writers fail at it.

The good news is, tonal problems can be corrected. With a little practice, you can fix this.

Watching your tone

You may have a great article idea, but when you sit down to write, you get a little nervous. And then your style goes all wooden and dull.

It comes off like a stiff business letter or a dreary school paper.

Next thing you know, your article or query letter has all the intrigue and appeal of reading the phone book. The words are just laying there.

How can you get the lead out and create a livelier piece that hooks editors and readers alike? Here are five tips:

  1. Use contractions. My J-School co-teacher Linda Formichelli is always telling writers this one. It’s amazing how much more interesting and approachable an article seems when you say “She’s got a bakery that’ll make whatever you like” instead of “She has a bakery that will make whatever you like.” The latter is stiff and feels too formal.
  2. Be conversational. Most publications today want articles that are written in a friendly, conversational style. Avoid jargon wherever possible and speak in plain English. Using a five-dollar word when a short, simple word would do comes off pretentious and intimidating. To check if you’ve got the hang of conversational tone, read your piece out loud. If it flows when spoken, you’re probably doing well.
  3. Be more concise. Long sentences full of semicolons that go on for a half-dozen lines are intimidating for readers. Particularly online, these sentences make readers give up and leave. Remember, editors don’t want the first 500 words you think of — they want the best, most concise, fact-filled, interest-packed words you’ve got. Review your draft and trim out any words, phrases, or sentences that don’t add anything to the story, or substitute shorter language.
  4. Avoid being verbs. Passive verbs make your writing snoozy and uninvolving. So turn sentences like, “I had been thinking about walking to the store” into “I thought about walking to the store.”
  5. Use anecdotes and quotes. The first paragraph is critical, in either an article or a query. Most articles that pay well involve talking to sources, both experts and “real people” who might be experiencing or doing the thing you’re writing about. Don’t be lazy — go out and find them. After you talk to them, you’ll probably have an interesting anecdote you can use to open your story. Starting with someone talking (besides you) can help draw readers into your topic quickly.

Tell you a secret — I make all these mistakes in my first drafts, all the time. You fix these tone problems in the rewrite and editing phase.

That’s the time to buff and smooth out your writing until it shines. And anybody can do that.

What have you done to get better as a writer?
 Tell us in the comments below.


  1. Amandah

    This post brought me back to my first freelance writing client. They asked me to use contractions in my blog posts to make the posts less stiff. My first thought was, “What would my 9th grade English teacher think?” My second thought was, “What would my college professors think about think this?” Luckily, I got over the fear of using contractions and use them with ease. Please don’t tell my English teachers. 🙂

  2. Terri H

    I love the photo you chose for this post. At first, I was thinking what does a robot have to do with this. And then as I continued reading, it became crystal clear! I love how you chose a photo that was relevant but not too obvious!

    • Carol Tice

      I have a lot of fun picking my photos, Terri — glad you enjoyed that one! Nobody ever let me play photo editor in my 12 years as a staff writer, and I rather delight in getting to do it now on my own little blog kingdom.

      I do sometimes choose photos that make you think about the connection, which I think is fun…would love to hear what others think.

  3. Priscilla Biju

    Good advice! I thought the exact same way as Amandah, and over the past month, you’re the 3rd experienced resource who’s said more or less the same thing (ha! just noticed I used 2 contractions, I’m definitely catching on!). Definitely going to fix my web content by next week, thanks for the article, Carole! (For the free eBook, if you don’t have a kindle reader, what are the other options? I have an iPad.)

    • Terri H

      I don’t remember what it’s called, but you can actually download a free ebook reader to your computer or Ipad. Poke around on amazon and you should find it.

    • Carol Tice

      As mentioned in the previous post’s long thread about this, you can download the Kindle reader for your PC or Mac and read it that way. Probably good to have anyway, with the rise of the many Kindle-only free ebooks.

  4. J. Delancy

    Carol, you have hit the nail on the head, on the sides and up the back. Sometimes, my posts come out so wooden, even I can’t stand them. If I’d let myself enjoy writing the first draft, then worry about editing, instead of trying to write and edit at the same time, I”d be more relaxed and the post would reflect that fact.

    Another good one.

    • Carol Tice

      That’s a great point, J — I really don’t worry about this stuff or think about it when I’m writing. I’m just spitting it out. Then there’s a second round where you sculpt it and squeeze out all the flab and loosen up the stiff joints.

  5. Anita

    “Be more concise” is great advice.

    I’ve done some test development and have found that writing 200-word passages has forced me to write leaner prose. Even when I’ve written a piece that seems concise, I usually find that I can trim it down some more. And the end product is always the better for it.

    I think Stephen King has said that a good rule of thumb is to trim your first draft by about ten percent. I’ve read a fair amount of writing that could have benefited from such editing.

    • Carol Tice

      I’m one of those writers who came to love Twitter, because of the discipline of conciseness it instills, Anita!

      At one point I had to write a whole bunch of 100-word top-level summaries of different topics for a legal website, and that was a great exercise as well.

      When I’m editing guest posts here on the blog, I rarely find I can’t trim some fat using the rules above.

      And if you can, you want to. You owe it to the reader to make it a pleasant read for them.

  6. Sarah L. Webb

    So many new writers think they can’t use contractions because grade school and college English teachers might smack their hand with a ruler if they did. But articles are not the same as dull, objective, research papers. But what teachers should tell students, as I’ve learned to do, is that different types of writing have different sets of rules. Some rules simply can’t be applied across the board.

    • Carol Tice

      A lot of people have that English teacher stuck in their heads, or an idea of how businesses talked in 1961 or so.

      But we’re an increasingly casual society and business language has become more and more casual, too. Take a look at Mailchimp’s site if you want a great example of what’s happening now. Or as they often say in emails, “Eeep!” Could you imagine a business writing that to customers even 20 years ago?

      It’s important to understand how conversational copy is becoming so you can win, both at query letters and at writing for businesses. And using contractions is really just the least of it…but a good starting point.


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