How to Cut the Waffle From Your Writing – and Grab Readers’ Attention

by Ali on June 15, 2011

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(Image from Flickr by Unhindered by Talent)

Have you ever read a book that was way too wordy? (For me, Stephen Covey’s otherwise excellent 7 Habits of Highly Effective People comes to mind…)

The content itself might have been good – but the substance ended up buried beneath a froth of unnecessary words. Perhaps you found it hard to stay focused, or you simply stopped reading.

When you write – especially if you’re writing online – it’s important to avoid waffle. At best, a vague and waffly piece won’t have a strong impact on the reader. At worst, you’ll not only lose readers, they’ll mentally note you down as a writer to avoid.

So, how do you go about cutting the waffle from your writing?

Step #1: Get Clear About the Topic

Whatever you’ve written – whether it’s a novel, an ebook or a blog post – you need to figure out what belongs and what doesn’t. Hopefully, some of this happened at the planning stage, but your ideas may have shifted while you wrote.

Have you included a chapter in your ebook that should really be a separate blog post? Does your novel have a scene which just doesn’t fit? Would your blog post be more powerful if you took out that long explanation in the middle and made it into a separate piece?

This isn’t about how good your writing is. You might have crafted a beautiful scene for your novel … but you may realise, when rewriting, that it simply isn’t going anywhere.

Do It:

  • Write down a one-sentence summary of your post/book/etc.
  • Skim through and ask yourself does this fit? for each major section

Step #2: Cut Out Any Paragraphs That Don’t Belong

Now you can start drilling down within each section or chapter. Look for paragraphs that don’t belong – especially anything that’s repetitive. If you’ve said the same thing twice, do you want that repetition for emphasis, or can you just cut it?

You’ll want to check for any waffly paragraphs:

  • At the start of your piece. Could your second paragraph make a more powerful opening?
  • In any particularly long sections or chapters. Do they need to be that long, or did you waffle?

Again, this isn’t about the quality of your writing. You might have opened your short story with five paragraphs of detailed description … but however wonderful the words, you may well decide that you need to cut straight to the action.

Do It:

  • Go through your work with a red pen and mark any paragraph that doesn’t belong, or that repeats information
  • Consider whether you want to cut these paragraphs (you can always save them in a separate document)

Step #3: Cut Unnecessary Words and Phrases

This is the stage that writers tend to think of first: cutting the flab from every sentence. (You could decide to do this as Step #1, but you’d end up wasting a lot of work if you later took out a whole, polished, chapter…)

Watch for phrases like:

  • It is my opinion that
  • I think
  • I believe
  • Some people consider
  • You may want to

Occasionally, you will need these. Often (especially in blogging) you can cut them entirely.

Check for words like:

  • Really
  • Just
  • Very
  • Quite

You can often cut these and make your sentences stronger. Yep, I know that you’d think really and very would provide emphasis – but they’re often a bit weak. “Very big” isn’t as powerful as “enormous” or “huge”.

Don’t get too zealous about cutting, though; your voice and style might need a few not-strictly-necessary words in order to come through fully.

Do It:

  • Print out a few paragraphs of your work, double spaced. Go through with a red pen and see how many words you can remove (while still keeping the meaning).
  • Run a search on your document for any phrases that you tend to over-use.

 

Sometimes, hesitancy in your writing can be a symptom of a lack of confidence. I’ll be tackling writerly confidence in my next post, so grab the RSS feed (or pop your email address in the box below) to make sure you don’t miss out:

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{ 3 trackbacks }

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June 17, 2011 at 11:10 pm
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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Steff Metal June 15, 2011 at 11:27 am

Great article, as always! I am guilty of using lots “filler” adverbs – really, totally, absolutely, etc. and I stack adjectives on top of adjectives. I tend to look over my blog posts myself, but I give all my fiction to my husband to read – he gives it back about a third of the words crossed out!
Steff Metal’s last blog post ..Announcing My New Ass-Kicking Writing Packages!

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Ali June 16, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Adjectives are sometimes a great stylistic thing … I’d hate to see you pare back the Steff Metal posts to the minimum possible!

My writing group are ruthless about unnecessary words, so they always help me cut things down. :-)

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Dean K Miller June 15, 2011 at 2:31 pm

I am amazed at how many of the above examples I can filter out on my second and third read throughs. Though I try to remain aware of them during my first draft, they still slip in. Thanks for the great reminders and advice.

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Ali June 16, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Cheers Dean, glad to help!

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Barbara McDowell Whitt June 15, 2011 at 4:27 pm

Your post on using unnecessary words is good. A phrase I see that frustrates me is “Little did I know…” The word “even” as in “Even the…” or He even …” is overused.

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Ali June 16, 2011 at 3:47 pm

I’m with you on “Little did I know…” It’s not so much that the phrase is unnecessary, but that it’s clichéd and requires a brief flash-forward, which doesn’t work in some narratives.

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Tony June 15, 2011 at 7:36 pm

Hi Ali, great post. I love your stuff. First time commenter. I just wanted to get your thoughts on bloggers (such as Steve Pavlina) who write 3000-7000 word posts.

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Ali June 16, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Cheers Tony!

I think very long posts work well for bloggers who’re writing about complex, weighty issues (e.g. Steve Pavlina on personal development or Ramit Sethi on personal finance). Bloggers who invariably write long posts are often also differentiating themselves based on readership: they’re deliberately saying “Hey, you folks are smarter than the average blog reader.”

I personally don’t think that blogging is the best form for anything longer than about 2,000 words: a well-formatted free ebook is probably an easier way to get across a really hefty piece of content.

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Cally Jackson June 15, 2011 at 11:12 pm

Right now, I’m trying to focus on that big picture edit of my (wait for it) 175K novel, but I constantly find myself zoning in on individual sentences or words. It takes discipline to focus on the big picture. I’m not sure I have enough of that discipline yet, but I’m working on it! :-)
Cally Jackson’s last blog post ..Raquel Byrnes in the HOT SEAT

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Ali June 16, 2011 at 3:51 pm

Wow, 175K — that’s a hefty stack of pages. I think you deserve a medal!

What I did after each successive draft of my (140K …) novel was to print a copy on Lulu. That made it much easier to read it as a reader and see the bigger picture (“this scene is basically a repeat of one three chapters earlier”, that kind of thing).

If you’ve got a Kindle or ereader, you could probably get the same effect by formatting the manuscript for that.

Good luck!

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Cally Jackson June 20, 2011 at 9:47 am

Thanks for the tip, Ali. I’ll give that a try! :-)
Cally Jackson’s last blog post ..Book review – The Ottoman Motel

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Archan Mehta June 16, 2011 at 6:05 am

Ali,

Thank You.

For me, Salman Rushdie is a “wordy” writer. If you don’t believe me, that’s fine, but just try to read “Midnight’s Children” and you’ll know what I mean. Rushdie has won many awards and honors, but he failed to grab my attention.

Rushdie’s problem is that he has no clue about the full stop at the end of the sentence. Consequently, his sentences tend to drag on and on and on. I do not like writing of this nature: it does not appeal to me. Just my humble opinion, by the way. I also like to read books that make sense! I don’t like preachy or being lectured to.

Over the years, I have come across several writers who annoy me. Some writers clearly lack any merit, but their works are published anyway. That is sad, unfortunate for the discerning reader. Cheers.

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Prime June 16, 2011 at 6:43 am

Hi Archan, I agree with you that Salman Rushdie is wordy writer but I do love reading some of his novels like Midnight’s Children. I stopped reading him though because he’s getting “wordier”
Prime’s last blog post ..On Postmodern Spirituality

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Ali June 16, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Agh, I completely agree with you, Archan, I found Salman Rushdie an irritating writer. I really didn’t like his antipathy to commas! What’s with all those run-together lists?

I know he’s one of the current literary greats … but I only finished “Midnight’s Children” because I had to for college. I can totally see that other people (Prime clearly!) might get on just fine with him, though. Personal taste counts for a lot when it comes to fiction.

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Archan Mehta June 18, 2011 at 11:22 am

Ali,

For me, Salman Rushdie is certainly not a “current literary great,” as you have put it. Yes, a lot of critics tend to think Rushdie produces masterpieces, but I want to keep his work at an arm’s length. You and I: it seems we have a different literary sensibility from what is considered “popular.” However, I would recommend the works of V.S. Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize for literature. I like Naipaul’s style: I hope you enjoy Naipaul’s work too.

Cheerio.

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Ali June 20, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Thanks — haven’t read any of Naipaul’s novels. And was recently rather put off him by this article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jun/02/vs-naipaul-jane-austen-women-writers

Still, given your recommendation, I’ll keep him on my “to read” list for now…

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Archan Mehta June 21, 2011 at 11:02 am

Ali,

That particular interview has made headlines all over the world. I was quite sure it would put you off, since you are both a woman and a writer. Naipaul’s remarks would doubtless infuriate a lot of feminists as well.

Then again, the Oxford-educated Naipaul does not pull any punches. Naipaul has been controversial ever since he decided to pick up his pen at 22 and has pursued no other profession save for writing.

Regardless of whether you agree with his views (or not), I would sincerely recommed the works of Naipaul.
He has a sophisticated style of writing and is considered today to be “the greatest living writer in the English language.” He handles the language with finesse; with an unmatched elegance and style. Just my humble opinion, by the way. You should read his entire works. Naipaul is one of a kind. Hope you enjoy! Cheers.

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Prime June 16, 2011 at 6:41 am

Oh, I’m guilty of using all these -ly verbs (really, frankly, etc). But I always watch out for them, cut them and keep my writing tight.

That said, as a copy editor, I have to spend a lot of my time cutting out these useless words.
Prime’s last blog post ..On Postmodern Spirituality

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Gene Lempp June 16, 2011 at 10:41 am

Great article! A weight-loss pill for our writing.
Gene Lempp’s last blog post ..Tunnel of the Dead

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Flo June 18, 2011 at 1:38 am

Hi Ali,

Great pointers to checking for unnecessary phrases (flab) in my writing. I tend to do this a lot because I write the way I speak for easy flow. I also thought these make the essay more fun to read.

*Hello, first time here. Saw this on Kristi’s Fetching Friday
Flo’s last blog post ..If Your Website is a Book- will it be on the NYT Bestsellers List

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Ali June 20, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Welcome, Flo! Nice to have you here. :-)

I think it’s possible to go too far when cutting words out — you’re right that they can help the flow and make things more fun to read!

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Dr. Bob Clarke June 18, 2011 at 2:00 am

Hi Ali,

I think you wrote this post directly to me. I like how I write, but I am definitely too wordy. I love the tip about printing out a paragraph or two double spaced and taking a red pen to it. That’s a great tip and I’ll try it on my next piece.

Great post, Ali. Thanks!

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Ali June 20, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Cheers Bob, glad to help! :-)

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Gabrielle June 18, 2011 at 4:10 am

I love your posts, Ali! They’re always full of great tips and advice on writing. I’m guilty as charged with unnecessary words in my writing. So much so that my writing professor brought it up in response to every submission this semester. It takes practice to cut out the words. Your post makes a great checklist to use. Thank you!
Gabrielle’s last blog post ..The Top 5- Link Jive – Change

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Ali June 20, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Thanks Gabrielle! It does indeed take practice … though it gets easier over time (like pretty much every aspect of writing :-))

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farouk June 18, 2011 at 10:10 am

that was very informative as usual Ali
running out of ideas is the only threat in this case i think
sometimes people stuff more paragraphs because they dont find what to say
you rock as usual :)

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Ali June 20, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Thanks Farouk! And good point about running out of ideas — that is definitely a cause of waffling (especially in the blogosphere, I think…!)

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Thea Easterby June 21, 2011 at 10:41 am

Hi Ali
Interesting post.
I totally agree with that short list of words to cut out. I hacked a few of them out of today’s blog post. I tend to use the word just far too much in my drafts. Hopefully, I take all of them out before I hit publish.
Come to think of it, I use all of those words too much in my initial drafts, so thanks for reminding me to stay on top of these.
Cheers
Thea
Thea Easterby’s last blog post ..How to Break Out of a Victim Mentality – Part 2

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Matt HOuldsworth June 24, 2011 at 3:37 pm

This is definitely something i need to start to do, I tend to write how I speak, some might say that much of it is waffle… I like to think it is friendly chatter, but I agree readers don’t what that, they want to get right to the point, concisely and clearly.

I hope I can learn from some of your points, very useful. I know MS Word has a revisions feature in it, I wonder if that would be the way to go, then you can make edits to your work, while retaining the content you are editing out in case you want to pull it back.

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Ali June 24, 2011 at 6:33 pm

That could well work, Matt, especially if you’re making a lot of minor edits. I’ll quite often save several drafts of a document so that I can always go back to a previous version if necessary!

I think friendly chatter *can* be good (and, in some cases, almost essential) — but there’s a fine line between chatter and waffle. ;-)

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