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.

12 Comments

  1. 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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