There’s a ton of advice out there telling writers to remove the fluff from their prose, but what does “fluffy writing” mean? When you are learning how to write better, being told to cut filler can seem intimidating—and vague.
In this piece, we will broadly cover how to avoid fluff, and then provide some detailed tips on how to scour your sentences and excise fluff writing at the sentence level.
What is fluff in writing?
We define fluff writing as any part of a piece that is off-topic, adds unnecessarily to the word count, makes the piece harder to understand, or bores readers. Remove these extraneous phrases in order to catch your readers’ limited attention with sharp, engaging prose.
How to avoid fluff in writing
1. Make a plan, write, and edit: in that order
The best kind of fluff writing is fluff you never wrote at all.
Articles can easily get bogged down in unnecessary details that stray far from your main point. Avoid tangents--or writing filler until you figure out what you want to say--by making an outline. You can find dozens of tools on the web to help you.
Once you begin writing, you can waste hours trying to write perfectly crisp sentences on the first try. Tip: don’t. Your first draft can be full of wordy sentences; the important thing is to finish it.
Edit only once your first draft is complete. If you have time, take a break from the piece and come back later with fresh eyes. It’s much easier to cut out the fluff when you have a finished draft and a little perspective.
2. Be specific
Blog post introductions are especially guilty of offering meaningless generalities: “In a stressful world, resilience has become a hot topic.” “Everyone enjoys a holiday treat.”
Vague, generalized statements are a sure way to lose your readers or potential buyers. If they aren’t learning clear, unique information that is relevant to them, visitors will bounce.
Create meaningful content by thoroughly addressing the subject in the title and introduction. Include well-researched evidence that is relevant in context. Address your specific audience; you can’t appeal to everyone.
Remember, if you are bored writing a paragraph, chances are it will bore your audience, too.
3. Exchange passive voice for active voice
The difference between active and passive voice can be difficult to parse, but there are plenty of great resources online if you want to learn more. In simplest terms, you can recognize passive voice when you notice the bland verb “to be” or “to have” taking center stage in a sentence.
Passive voice: The ball was rolling.
Active voice: The ball rolled.
Passive voice can be useful for explanations, especially in technical writing about programs or services. However, you’d be surprised to find how often these topics can benefit from active voice.
To clean up passive voice, check for these verbs, especially as the second or third word in a sentence:
Is, was, are, were, and phrases including “be”
Has, have, had, has been, have been
Remove these boring words and replace them with unique verbs and you’ll be on the way to more flavorful writing. This reduces word count while boosting the novelty of the sentence.
Hint: a stronger verb is often hiding in your sentence already in the form of a noun or adjective.
Change: The program is designed to catalog your folders.
To: The program catalogs your folders.
Change: The program has a scanner to check your computer for viruses.
To: The program scans your computer for viruses.
Change: They lack an appreciation for these nuances and are therefore limited in their effectiveness.
To: Their lack of appreciation for these nuances limits their effectiveness.
4. Power your sentences with verbs.
In order to describe your subjects with visual language, you were likely taught to use adjectives and adverbs. These can be effective, but they can also raise your word count quite a bit.
Chop your word count and drive reader engagement by focusing your sentences around action verbs. Understanding the power of verbs can transform your writing style; one choice verb does the work of two or three weaker words.
Change: She quickly ran to the door.
To: She sprinted for the door.
Change: A strong verb is the best way to chop your word count.
To: Chop your word count by focusing your sentences around action verbs.
5. Cut out the cliches
Keep your language varied and avoid common idioms, cliches, and dead metaphors. Phrases like “best-kept secret” and “above and beyond” spring to mind easily because we’ve heard them so often, but they can add to your word count and bore your readers.
Change: An understanding of and appreciation for your friends’ and relatives’ positions can show the way to changing the tide.
To: Genuinely trying to understand your loved ones’ positions can help spark a change.
6. Check for redundancy
Redundancy can happen both at the sentence and the word level. Edit for filler content in the macro by carefully reading for sentences and even paragraphs that restate the same information. Double-check your introduction and conclusion to ensure you haven’t repeated yourself. If two sections of your outline sound similar, combine them.
On the sentence level, many writers tend to double up on their words, either to emphasize a point or to make sure specifics are clear. This can lead to wordy expressions like “trembling in rage and fury,” which are redundant or include unnecessary details.
During editing, look for variants on “adjective and adjective,” “verb or verb,” or “noun and noun” statements. Ask yourself if you really need both words. Most of the time, the extra nuance lost by deleting a word in these cases is negligible, while you reap major gains in readability and impact.
Change: Trying to pad your word count can dilute or devalue your writing.
To: Trying to pad your word count can devalue your writing.Alternatively, try replacing a redundant pair with a single, stronger word that encompasses both options.
Change: The story is all over the TV and the newspapers.
To: The story is all over the media.
Change: The idea of a cyberattack can leave us worried and frightened.
To: The idea of a cyberattack can leave us paranoid.Some pairs of words, including many commonly used phrases, are also redundant by nature and can be cut down without losing meaning.
Change: unnecessary filler
Change: safe haven
7. Ditch the parentheses.
By definition, parentheses do not belong in concise writing. Since they are intended to carry information that is inessential to a sentence, if you’re using parentheses correctly, you’re probably writing an aside that is not worth keeping in the article.
If you hesitate to cut information in parentheses because it adds meaningful content, then it shouldn’t be in parentheses--time to rewrite.
Change: The program organizes your information in vaults (a kind of secure digital folder).
To: The program organizes your information in vaults, secure digital folders.
8. Don’t be afraid of contractions
Someone once might have told you not to use contractions in formal writing. Let’s throw that advice out. Unless you are writing very formal prose, contractions are used in almost all scenarios because they make language more concise and accessible.
Possessive contractions can cut a phrase’s length by 40%. This won’t dramatically reduce your word count, but it will declutter your sentences and improve flow.
Change: the length of a phrase
To: a phrase’s length
9. Reduce wordy expressions
Many first drafts end up padded with lots of connector words, lengthy verb phrases, or conversational interjections. Distill these wordy sentences down to their essence with some help from the following examples.
If you find sentences full of small connector words, chances are you’ll be able to zap them. Many of these come in pairs; they often double as passive voice and include the verb “to be.”
Look for: that, that is, it is, what is, there is, to be
Change: the more likely it is that you’ll be able to remove some of the filler.
To: the more likely you’ll be able to remove some filler.
Change: Perhaps comfort is something that is to be found in the words of your loved ones.
To: Perhaps you could find comfort in the words of loved ones.
Qualifiers and adverbs of degree are often used as filler words; most sentences are more impactful without them.
Look for: Kind of, sort of, rather, quite, very, somewhat, just
Change: I often warn people that they will likely have a difficult time.
To: I warn people they might have a difficult time.
Some verbs are written in wordy phrases that aren’t necessary to their meaning. Many idioms also fall into this category.
Look for: two-word verbs that include a preposition, such as: with, up, out, off
Change: bought up
Change: put up with
Change: avoid going off onto tangents
To: avoid tangents
While the occasional conversational interjection can help the flow of a paragraph and create a casual voice, don’t overuse these phrases.
Look for: actually, in fact, so, basically, of course, exactly, only, really, simply
Change: How exactly are we to know if our goals have actually been achieved?
To: How can we be sure we’ve achieved our goals?
There are exceptions to every rule; sometimes you will find meaningful reasons to keep a cliche or use an extra connector word. Now that you have a detailed idea of what fluffy writing means, you’ll have the tools to choose your words wisely and write engaging prose that draws your visitors in and keeps them eager for the next sentence.
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With a PhD in Languages, Literature & Cultural Studies, Eloise has a long background in language teaching which she brings to her work as an editor. When not poring over the words of others, she’s working on her epic fantasy novel, kicking bags at the gym, or roaming the beaches, hills and forests with her dog.