9 Easy Tips That Will Improve Bland Writing
Just like food, your writing needs spice. Keep these tips in your cupboard to take your writing from bland to scrumptious.
About a year ago, I got interested in cooking. For most of my adult life, I’d been making things like spaghetti with sauce from a jar, macaroni and cheese complete with powdered “cheese,” and the occasional boxed meal (just add ground beef!). Sometimes, I went a little wild and threw some canned tuna into the mac and cheese, or added real frozen broccoli to the boxed meal. My family ate it. They didn’t know any better.
But then, spurred on by a retired chef I befriended, I decided to give cooking a try. Real cooking. I bought fresh veggies and meats. I practiced until I had the knife skills to slice, dice, and julienne. I learned that stovetop burners aren’t meant to be set to high heat unless you’re trying to boil something. (Who knew?) I learned that basic salt and pepper make everything delicious. Throw in some well-chosen herbs and spices, and I can elevate the taste of my food to a whole new level. The kind that makes another friend kiss the backs of his fingertips like a French chef in an old movie and declare my meals delectable.
Writing is a lot like cooking. You can string together bland, canned phrases and hope that readers who don’t know any better won’t mind, or you can pull some spicy new tricks off the shelf and make your content truly delish.
Before you can improve your cooking skills, you’ve got to learn a few basics. It’s the same with writing. Keep your text lean, use flavorful language, and express yourself confidently.
1 Begin with lean writing.
Flabby writing is unpalatable. Trim excess adverbs and use strong verbs or adjectives instead. (The comedian wasn’t very funny, she was hilarious.) Learn what a preposition is and how to streamline prepositional phrases. (The car didn’t come over the top of the hill, it crested the hill.) Slash extraneous words and phrases.
2 But don’t make it too lean.
Just as a cut of meat can be so lean that it’s dry and lacking flavor, writing that’s overly sanitized can sound sterile. Using an occasional adverb as a conscious style choice can make your writing sound more natural and conversational. Just don’t overdo it. Every adverb you use should have to justify its existence. If you can’t explain why you think it enhances your text, then out it goes.
3 Write with confidence.
Timid knife skills are dangerous when cooking. Timid language is a danger to writing.
Are you hedging your bets, using language that sounds unsure and wishy-washy? Eliminate phrases like you may want to, it’s possible that, and they can try, and weasel words like probably and sometimes.
You don’t have to give your readers an out clause unless you’re truly sure that what you’re suggesting might not work. And, in that case, ask yourself why you’re suggesting it in the first place.
4 Use powerful words and imagery . . .
If you use a lot of “to be” verbs (be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being) or other linking verbs (appear, feel, look, seem, remain, sound), search for opportunities to spice up your writing with livelier verb choices.
Rather than telling the reader that Alex felt anxious, paint a word picture. Help the reader see Alex and recognize the feelings Alex is experiencing. The example below uses strong verbs and the time-honored advice given to writers: show, don’t tell.
5 . . . but keep your language simple.
Yes, use colorful, expressive language. But no, don’t hunt through your thesaurus in search of exotic words no one’s going to recognize. Don’t use fancy words just for the sake of it.
Keep your audience in mind. I had a colleague years back who regularly used SAT words that sent even those of us with stellar vocabularies scrambling for our dictionaries. We wrote for the video game industry. The average gamer is plenty intelligent, but most don’t flock to read articles full of words like cynosure, excogitate, and perspicacious. What a sesquipedalian that guy was!
How to Find Your Writing Style
Now that you’ve got the basics of lean, expressive writing down, it’s time to add some serious flavor. To spice up your writing, find your style. Here are some ways to develop it.
6 Emulate other writers you admire.
Yes, you should develop your own voice. But a great way to start finding it is to write in the style of another writer you admire. Learn their language, techniques, and patterns. Then, start adapting that style to make it your own.
When I was a young, green fiction writer, I idolized Stephen King. (Who am I kidding? I still do.) I tried my best to write like him. I didn’t become a rich and famous Stephen King clone, but I did learn a thing or two about style. If there’s one thing I have to thank Mr. King for (in truth, there are many things) it’s the fact that I can write solid, authentic dialog.
7 Try creative formats.
I could’ve made this article into another dull treatise on how to write better. The Internet is full of them. Instead, I decided to use cooking as a metaphor for spicing up bland writing. You certainly don’t have to search for a gimmick for every article you write, but do try to change things up on the regular. Maybe your article on ways to learn a new language is better suited for a listicle. Writing up a history with lots of dates? Maybe it would work well as a timeline.
8 Be a storyteller.
Storytelling isn’t just for fiction. I’ve shared my experience with learning to cook and related it to liven up your writing. I offered an anecdote about a sesquipedalian (it means one who uses long words) games journalist. We relate better to writing that seems to come from a real person, and also writing that’s about real people. If your content reads like a textbook, consider whether adding an anecdote or story, or just revealing some of your own thoughts, would give your post flavor.
9 Be interested in what you write about.
Being interested in your topic is one of the best ways to make your writing sizzle. Even if you’re faced with a topic you find dull, odds are good you’ll be able to find some intriguing facts you didn’t know before you started researching. Once you’ve uncovered something fascinating, write about it in a way that says “Look at this cool new stuff I learned!” Explore what captures your interest, and your content will be less like a box of mac and cheese and more like a nourishing gourmet meal.