Who doesn’t want to eliminate boring writing, right? Today, freelance proofreader and editor Kelsey Bryant shares five actionable tips to level up your writing.
5 Tips to Eliminate Boring Writing
by Kelsey Bryant
When you read over your early drafts, do you ever think that something about your writing sounds off, even boring? If your content ought to be exciting but the way you tell it bores even you, never fear, self-editing can fix it! Today, we’ll look at five problem areas and how to tune them up.
1. Word Choice
Though it can get a bad rap, a thesaurus really is one of a writer’s most useful tools. Do you use the same basic verbs all the time? Walked, went, looked, smiled, so on and so forth? To eliminate boring writing, try the thesaurus (my favorites are Thesaurus.com and Merriam-Webster.com) and find more specific verbs that snap a clearer picture of what your characters are doing.
The same goes for other parts of speech. Well-chosen nouns, adjectives, and adverbs create more lucid and engaging writing. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
2. Sentence Structure
Do your sentences often follow similar patterns, such as the common subject–action sequence? For example:
- He grinned at me.
- She laughed like a donkey.
- They screamed and shut the door.
Or maybe you tend toward a slightly more sophisticated structure, such as starting with a subordinate/dependent clause: Refusing to look at me, she waltzed toward the door. Crossing my arms, I shouted, “Fine! Be that way.” Still not looking at me, she swept out the door and slammed it.
Perhaps their structures vary, but your sentences are the same general length—long and convoluted, short and to the point, or a happy medium of 10 or so words apiece.
➨Repeated Starting Words
Maybe you have a string of sentences that all start with the same adverb, such as then or apparently.
Basically, consecutive sentences that are too similar can create a stilted or lulling reading experience. Occasionally you may want repetitious sentences to make a special point (they can give a down-home or childlike feel to a passage), but usually, variety is the spice of good writing, just like life.
3. Passive Voice
Passive voice emphasizes the recipient of an action rather than the perpetrator. It’s less direct than active voice and thus can be wordier, weaker, and slower to read. It’s easy to spot if you look for the word there or the being verbs—mainly am, is, was, are, and were. Obviously, their presence doesn’t always signal passive voice. And obviously, passive voice isn’t an automatic no-no; it certainly has its uses. But if you’re on the hunt for it because you overuse it, these words are a good place to start your search. Some examples:
- There was a man standing at my window. Try: A man stood at my window.
- The officer was surrounded by ten gang members. Try: Ten gang members surrounded the officer.
4. Imperfect Tense
The imperfect verb tense is an action started in the past that continues in the present, often signaled by a being verb combined with a verb ending in -ing: He was shouting. Now, sometimes this tense in your writing accurately depicts what’s going on… an action that is continuously happening at the moment instead of happening once and being done: He was shouting when she came out. But check your usage; it’s all too easy to fall back on this phrasing when what gives the meaning and impact you desire is the simple past tense. Some examples:
- She was shopping all day. Try: She shopped all day.
- And so it is beginning. Try: And so it begins.
Related to this is a wordy phrase I often replace, if the context allows: is going to / was going to. It’s much snappier to say will or would. For example:
- I am going to go to the store today. Try: I will go to the store today.
Early drafts are notorious for clunky, wordy sentences. We aren’t entirely clear on what we’re trying to say, so we throw lots of words into the scene to explain it. But often, these words, phrases, and explanations aren’t necessary. I’m talking about…
Suddenly lightning struck. Often, the suddenness of the action you’re describing can speak for itself without the word suddenly added in. She ran quickly toward the gate. “Ran” implies “quickly.” If you’re not happy with just “ran,” use a more exact verb like sprinted or dashed. Evaluate all your adverbs to see if they truly contribute.
It was a warm, sultry, humid, cloudy day. This is a big one for me. I love adjectives; they’re my favorite words. But one, two, maybe three adjectives before a noun are all you really need. More than that, they cease to be meaningful. Decide which ones give the most necessary information and eliminate the rest, especially if they’re redundant, like sultry and humid in my example. Try: It was a warm, cloudy day.
These phrases—in order to, on account of, one particular time, it seems to be, etc., can often be eliminated or replaced with shorter phrases. For example:
- She hurried forward in order to stop him. Try: She hurried forward to stop him.
- On account of the rain, we’ll postpone. Try: Because of the rain, we’ll postpone.
➨Indirect wording (i.e., hemming and hawing)
If you’ve got words that take up space but don’t say anything important, trim them until your sentences are clearer and more direct. For example:
- It seems necessary to us to suspend your account. Try: We need to suspend your account.
- I don’t know whether I’m going to be able to take care of that plant or not. Try: I don’t know whether I can care for that plant.
Clutter shows up in our writing in too many other ways to list, but one sure way to identify it is to read aloud and ask ourselves, “Am I saying this in the clearest, best way possible?” Does it make your tongue feel clumsy? If so, take another look and edit until it flows like water.
Of course, there are many other ways to transform boring prose into engaging prose, but these five areas give you an easy place to start your mission. In future articles, we’ll explore more ways to supercharge your writing style to keep your readers invested in your powerful story.
A Level-up Suggestion from Grant…
💡 BONUS TIP:
I use the ProWritingAid app to catch problems like those cited by Kelsey.
☞ The app flagged her examples for review! ☜
If you want to level up your writing before sharing with others, check out what ProWritingAid can do for you! Here’s my affiliate link where you’ll find the 20% discount offered to our Tame Your Book community. And if you want more details, here’s my ProWritingAid review.
Kelsey Bryant is the author of half a dozen books and an editor who’s passionate about helping other writers hone their craft and get ready to publish. When she’s not absorbed in the pages of a story, she’s living real life and pondering how to portray it in a book.
Find out more about her at her website, kelseybryantauthor.weebly.com.
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Your favorite ways to eliminate boring writing?
Not everyone feels comfortable posting comments, and I get that. Instead, they email me or use my contact page.
One subscriber asked, “How does ProWritingAid compare to other self-editing apps and online services?” I’ve tried several, and hands down, I love ProWritingAid and can’t imagine writing without the app. If you click on my affiliate link, you’ll see the 20% discount and a short video tour. BTW: You can do monthly, but with the discount, you get an annual subscription for about the cost of three months.
One writing habit that annoys me is the excessive use of “ing” words. Kelsey has touched on this in the second part (Sentence Structure) in the “Sophisticated” section. It’s shocking to see how many authors still overuse “ing” words. It’s one of the things I look for when I scan the first few pages as I decide whether to buy a book.
I share your frustration with the overuse of “ing” words. Like spice, a little goes a long way.
I like that comparison (like spice).
Great article, great tips! When I read my story aloud, it helps me hear the boring parts whether it’s because I’ve used the same sentence structure repeatedly or whatnot.
Great suggestions. I love the addition of ‘imperfect tense’. We often forget that when we’re cleaning up our writing.
Kelsey is a true pro at catching the imperfect tense. Since I’m often challenged by imperfect tense, I rely on ProWritingAid to flag the issue for a quick fix with the right-tensed active verb.
I’ve had a friend call me on the sentence structure part and that revelation really helped strengthen my writing when it came to action and fast-paced sequences especially. I think I’m generally okay with the following three (more or less) but… that clutter section. haha I have no doubt that is most likely my weakest area. On my next read through whatever I happen to go back to edit / revise, I’ll definitely need to pay special attention to that bit. There are a great many fun words but I have to remind myself I don’t need to use all of them in one sentence all the time. haha
Thanks for sharing these writing tips though! Quite useful to review and reflect upon. ^_^
It’s amazing how each revelation hits home, changing the way we think and write. I’ve learned so much from Kelsey Bryant, an accomplished freelance editor.