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Have you ever felt the need to stifle a yawn after reading something you’ve written? “Oh boy,” you said to yourself. “That sure wasn’t very interesting….”
The German word for boredom is langeweile – lange meaning “long” and weile for “a while.” When you’re bored, time moves like a three-toed sloth — which is pretty slow, just 10 feet per minute. I’ve written before about how to keep yourself from getting bored while you’re writing.
But show your readers the same courtesy. Don’t let them get bored while they’re reading. Here’s how to save them from that fate.
Macro ways to avoid boredom
Tell enough stories: Some writers think their main job is to convey information. It’s as if they picture their readers’ heads as empty vessels —cargo ships waiting to be loaded with containers. And the writer’s job? Well, they’re the longshoremen who need to fill those vessels to the brim with fascinating facts. But guess what? Facts are boring.
If you want to capture your readers’ attention, lure them with stories. Most of us grew up hearing stories from our parents or grade school teachers; we told stories to our friends and we read them from books. Stories have characters and plot and tension. Stories engage us and we remember them far more readily than we ever remember boring old facts. (The best speakers in the world understand this principle and ply their speeches with stories. Look at the TED talks you’ve enjoyed most and count the number of stories in them. Hint: You’ll need more than one hand…)
Use enough figurative language: You may have hated high school English, but you probably smile when you read a particularly good simile or metaphor now. Here are some examples I recently appreciated:
- Her eyes were searching his face the way soap opera actors looked at each other in the seconds before commercial breaks.
- Mom’s voice had hardened, giving her the air of a pissed-off Elizabeth Taylor.
- I had devoted an entire day to interviewing people at Ascot, and had a notebook full of quotations, but it was like the lint that you peel out of the wire basket in a dryer. It did not add up to anything.
- Her sighs were so hard, and despairing, that they made the tinsel on the Christmas tree shimmer.
Good figurative language helps readers understand something that might otherwise have eluded them. As well, metaphors pack an emotional wallop. And that’s the very opposite of boring. (I track metaphors and similes in my own reading each week. You can have fast access to these posts here.)
Write to a friend: You’re never boring when you’re writing to a friend. That’s because you know exactly what will capture your friend’s interest and you make sure to focus on that topic, in a way your friend will find appealing. But you can use exactly the same trick when you’re writing for anonymous people. Just pretend you’re writing for one person only.
Make sure the person you pick is someone you know well. And choose a person who’s a good (general) match with your audience in terms of age, education, gender etc. Then imagine you’re writing the story or report to that one specific person. Pretend it’s an email (you can write in the body of an actual email if you like) and begin the writing with a salutation, “Dear XXX,” if it helps you. Just remove the salutation when you’re editing.
Be specific rather than general: Some otherwise interesting writers become boring, tedious ciphers because they feel obliged to be “general” enough to speak to a diverse audience. If they’re writing about “summer,” for example, they talk (generically) about high temperatures and ice cream cones, thinking that this is the best way to get more people to relate to them. This is always a mistake.
Instead, write about the annual holiday you always had on Lake Martin, Alabama. Yes, the Cherokee Bluffs are specific, but their very specificity will give life to your writing. Talk about those specific 750 miles of wooded shoreline and you’ll be better able to tap into many reader’s experiences of summer holidays. Swimming and boating, yes, but your experiences of swimming and boating are unique to you and their originality will help lift your writing to another level. Specificity is your friend, not your enemy.
Use your words for only what matters: Good writers know what to cut, not just what to put in. Don’t tell your readers more than they need to know — they don’t have the time for that. Get to the point.
Micro ways to avoid boredom
Use short sentences: I’ve long argued that most writers should aim at an average sentence length of 14 to 18 words. (I cut a bit of slack for academics. They should still stick to an average of less than 20.) Why? Long sentences are hard work to read. And unless you have the skill of a Dostoevsky, you’re unlikely to be able to handle long sentences effectively. One of the fastest ways to improve your writing is to reduce your sentence length. This doesn’t mean you should use NO long sentences, however. Instead, focus on your average. So, every long sentence should be balanced by some short ones. Use an online tool like Count Wordsmith to help you see how you’re doing. (This post has an average sentence length of 13.96 words.)
Don’t be long-winded: Some writers are boring because they use too many unnecessary words. Here’s an example I pulled from the website Write To Done:
In the morning he would shower, brush his teeth, shave, dress in a suitable business suit with shirt and tie, get down to the kitchen in time to have his coffee and then rush off to the station, but he’d frequently missed his train anyhow.
He washed his body, shaved his jaw, drank his coffee, and missed the seven-thirty-one.
(This is what John Cheever wrote in his celebrated story “The Country Husband”)
Avoid the passive voice: Passive voice relates to the way a sentence is structured. It’s not a tense; it’s a style in which the “actor” of the verb is hidden. My favourite example of the passive is the sentence “Mistakes were made.” Who made those mistakes? We don’t know!
Here are three examples of sentences in the passive:
- The entire stretch of highway was paved.
- A safety video will be watched every year.
- The whole suburb was destroyed.
And here they are again, as active. Aren’t they more pleasant to read this way?
- The crew paved the entire stretch of highway.
- The staff will watch a safety video every year.
- The forest fire destroyed the whole suburb.
Vary the way your sentences start: Some writers begin most of their sentences the same way. For example, they might almost always begin with the subject: Madison ran to the store. She bought a popsicle. She saw a friend there. She had a fun conversation. Do you see how boring and repetitive that sounds? Consider breaking the monotony by starting at least one of these sentences in a different way. For example, you could begin one of these sentences with a conjunction:
When Madison ran to the store, she saw a friend.
Or you could begin a sentence using a gerund, a word ending in -ing. For example,
Running to the store, Madison encountered a friend.
Working to begin your sentences in slightly different ways is an excellent strategy for making your writing less boring.
Improve your verbs: Some writers overuse what are called “state of being” verbs. Here is a list of them: Is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been, have, has, had, do, does, did, shall, will, should, would, may, might, must, can, could. I’m not saying never use these verbs. Instead, I’m suggesting you minimize them. Here’s an example:
- Determining when a student is a problem makes the teacher’s job more interesting.
- Determining when a student creates a problem makes the teacher’s job more interesting.
Search your document for state of being verbs and see how many you can replace. Once you’ve done that, look for adverbs, those words ending in -ly. They’re often a sign that you’ve taken a lazy approach to your verbs. If you can replace them, you’ll improve your writing. Some examples:
- She looked sternly at her classmate. versus
- She glared at her classmate.
- The mouse ran quickly through the forest. versus
- The mouse scampered through the forest.
- The politician listened secretly while the opposing side discussed their plans. versus
- The politician eavesdropped while the opposing side discussed their plans.
True, it’s a lot of work to make picky changes like this. But the payoff to your readers will be enormous. That’s because you’ll be making your writing infinitely less boring.