1. Sentences Frequently Start With “It”
Yes. Every single time you start your sentence with “it,” you immediately deflate the power of your writing.
First, the word “it” is an incredibly vague pronoun. Unless you have just identified to the reader the subject for which “it” is replacing, relying on this word can easily leave people having to assume what “it” references. And once you use this word back to back after referencing multiple subjects and nouns, you’ll thoroughly confuse readers on what “it” means.
Second, by starting with such a vague pronoun, you can also easily write sentences into passive voice. And passive voice — which omits your main subject and focuses your action on your direct object — also leads to creating clunky sentences.
“It was said that it was necessary to use it for completing the task on schedule and ahead of budget.”
Huh? Who said that? What part of this process was necessary to use it? What is “it” anyways? And boy was that vague, passive-voice sentence a drag to read!
If your writing prompts people to ask questions and add commentary when they’re reading, that also means they aren’t absorbing the info — and are probably bored or frustrated. And once they’re annoyed with reading, they’ll stop reading altogether.
2. Longwinded Sentences
No one likes listening to a chatterbox who never stops talking. And the same goes for when we’re reading.
Longwinded sentences are incredibly difficult to get through — even if you’re using correct punctuation to avoid creating a run-on. In fact, when reading, we can only hold about four facts in our working memories at a time (working memories are where we store short-term information). And since we should only stick to one main point per sentence, those longwinded statements often contain multiple points. Push these beasts side-by-side, and you now have gunky sentences gunking up your content.
When writing for clarity, we should always aim to use no more than 25 words per sentence — and 18 is even better. And while some esteemed novelists are well-known for their love of long sentences (looking at you, Hemmingway), very rarely do everyday content writers successfully get points across with 156-word sentences. (Yes, we actually edit sentences that long, regularly.)
3. Lists Embedded Within Sentences
Unless your list shares very simple nouns and contains no more than three items, we suggest never embedding lists within your sentence — and especially don’t do so within the middle of a paragraph.
Embedded lists are hard for our brain to get through. When processing new information, we look for ways to make that experience easier. We look for patterns. We categorize items. We scan.
So, when we create bulky lists within the middle of a paragraph, you’re not helping our brain’s desire to categorize items and easily process information. You’ve embedded details within the body of dense text — and instead, created a content environment where you’re clustering information together. You’ve not differentiated between the items.
Legal contracts are renowned for jamming lists within lists within lists. And guess who likes reading legalese, pretty much no one.
But, when you share lists, you effectively break up the information. You support scanned reading. You help us find patterns and categorize. You make the information easier to act on — which should be your content goal from the very start.
4. Topic Structure Is Out of Whack
An incredibly common flabby-writing flaw is not creating correct topic structure.
Hooking your audience with the answer to “Why?” within the first few sentences (and paragraphs) is essential to feeding our innate cultural need to know why I need to pay attention.
For this, we follow the inverted triangle.
Because our brains look for organizational flow, we become incredibly confused by content with bad topic structure.
- Are you giving supporting details before you’ve shared your main point?
- Is your call to action opening your content before readers even know what you’re talking about?
- Do you jump from idea to idea without creating sequential information flow?
Creating effective topic structure is a real thing — not just something that your high school English teacher geeked out about.
5. No Call to Action
Calls to action are essential for creating urgency and, well, action!
A savvy writer knows to always make sure that you reinforce what you want your audiences to do with the information by creating a clear call to action. This could be something as simple as encouraging readers to look for your next blog post. Or, perhaps you’re inviting them to submit pictures. Or, maybe you even want them to pick up the phone and call you.
Whatever you want your audience to do with the information, always make sure you clearly guide them to that purpose.
6. Jump Between Point of Views (POV)
Another common feature of flabby writing is using inconsistent points of view (POV). As a refresher, POVs are the voice you use to create a narrative. The three most common POVs are First Person, Second Person and Third Person.
|First Person||Includes yourself as the narrator speaking directly to your audience||I, me, mine, ours, us, we, you, your|
|Second Person||Treats the audience as the main person and omits the author’s voice||You, your|
|Third Person||Author and audience are not part of the voice, and instead references other people.||he, she, it, him, her, they, them|
Once you choose a POV, you need to stick to that narrative in order to create a consistent voice. Since this writing feature is essential to how your audiences will experience the information, flip-flopping from one POV to another will only confuse readers.
And these days, especially with online writing, first-person POV rules content.
7. Telling Not Showing
The “show don’t tell” approach to writing is one everyone should own — and it’s a skill and writing rule that the best writers embrace.
Yet, too often — and especially with business content — content will talk at audiences rather than showing them.
For example, here’s a “tell” sentence:
Tell – He turned his head to look at the sky and noticed it was blue, right as a bird flew past him.
And here’s that sentence rewritten to “show”:
Show – He could nearly feel the breeze on his neck from a bird flying by while he admired the crisp blue sky above.
Here’s another example:
Tell – We are a trustworthy team that always puts our clients first.
Show – As our client, your needs and concerns always come first.
Which sentence felt more alive? Had more action? Drew you in?
“Show” sentences explain the world you’re creating for readers, rather than telling then about. As an audience, we want to be drawn in to reading and let our imagination embrace the experience.
Slimming your writing without losing its power takes practice and focus. By following these 7 tips, you’ll say bye-bye to flab and hello to effective content with just the right meat and bones.