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What is Fluff in Writing and How to Fix It

What is Fluff in Writing and How to Fix It

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I value your time. That’s the promise that good writers make to their readers. It’s the message that underlies clear, focused content and helps you establish a relationship with your audience. I value your time. I respect your intelligence. I will hold your interest. Fluff betrays that promise. Fluff in writing is anything that doesn’t add value to a piece. It includes wordy phrases, empty clichés or generalities, and needless repetition or digression. It annoys search engines as well as readers and doesn’t belong in your content.

Let’s de-fluff your writing. Here’s how to recognize fluff and some strategies to fix or avoid it.

What Is Content Fluff?

Good writing is full but not bloated. It develops its topic but communicates its points clearly and efficiently.

In contrast, fluff in writing gets in the way of the author’s message. Another word for it is content “filler” because it fills up space without saying anything new.

Example:

  • If the mission of this article is to answer the question “what is a fluff sentence,” then it is important to define the meaning of “fluff” fully and completely.

That sentence has 29 words that contribute absolutely nothing to this article — except serving as an example of a fluff sentence. Why is it so bad?

  1. You already know the subject of the article.
  2. Its claim is self-evident.
  3. The phrasing is awkward and bulky.
  4. “Fully” and “completely” mean the same thing.

Any one of these four points would make the sentence fluffy.

Why Readers Don’t Like Fluff

Think about what frustrates you when you’re reading a blog or researching a topic. Your readers don’t enjoy those things either. They want a smooth reading experience and clean, clear writing.

Fluff also delays answers. As much as 80% of online searches have “informational search intent.” In other words, many readers visit your website because they have questions. If you fail to answer them, they’ll go elsewhere.

Obvious fluff can even seem disrespectful, giving the impression that you care more about the length of the piece than its reader. Remember those students who played with the margins of a paper or inflated their word count with filler content? The teachers noticed, and they were a little insulted that the offenders thought they wouldn’t.

Why Search Engines Don’t Like Fluff

It turns out that Google doesn’t like fluff either, and unnecessary filler gets in the way of search engine optimization (SEO).

Many people believe that more is better when it comes to content. But streamlining descriptions and cutting fluff often has a positive effect on SEO.

In addition, Google considers bounce rate. When readers abandon your site, Google devalues your content. The search engine assumes that it’s fluffy even if it does have the right keywords.

How to Avoid Fluff in Writing

These seven tips lead to stronger writing with a minimum of useless filler. Put them into practice for dynamic, crisp writing that keeps readers engaged.

1. Focus on Concise Writing

Avoid wordy sentences and expressions. Don’t begin an article about soundproofing your basement with a history of architecture. Don’t begin a blog post on Facebook advertising with three paragraphs about the importance of traditional TV commercials.

Your piece should immediately establish its subject and fulfill any promises you made in the title. What’s your main point? Let the reader know what they can expect from the rest of the article.

As you read over your introduction, ask yourself whether you’re starting in the right place. Is your introduction too broad, too long, too off-topic? Meaningful content is direct and to the point.

2. Stay Focused

Once you’ve identified your subject, stick to it. That history of the modern basement doesn’t belong in the middle of your soundproofing piece either.

Different genres have their own conventions and create their expectations for the reader. If you’re writing a literary essay, a memoir, or a humor piece, you can adopt a more digressive style. But most writing for the internet is either informational or persuasive. Stay on topic.

3. Be Precise

Good writing is precise as well as focused. Cut wordy expressions and avoid unnecessary details or fluff stories.

What is a fluff statement? A fluff statement is a line that doesn’t develop the story, argument, or topic. Often, it’s a claim that is so broad or vague that it’s functionally meaningless.

Example:

  • Many people believe that content marketing is important.

Not exactly a bold argument. It’s fluff content that means little. Here are two ways to improve it:

  • Over 82% of marketers currently invest in content marketing, and that number continues to grow.
  • Unlike paid search ads, content marketing continues to pay off after the initial investment.

The first sentence locates and quantifies the “many people” who endorse content marketing. The second sentence takes ownership of the opinion and sets it up to expand in a particular direction.

4. Write for Your Audience

First of all, who is your audience? Is this a highly technical white paper for a select group of industry insiders? If so, a certain amount of jargon is appropriate and even unavoidable. When used correctly, jargon is precise vocabulary that acts as shorthand between fellow professionals.

However, when misapplied in papers for general audiences, jargon becomes fluffy. Sometimes, it’s simply unnecessary. Jargon requires explanation, and there’s a more ordinary term that would work just fine.

Other times jargon is a smokescreen for content that either doesn’t make sense or doesn’t say anything. For example,

  • As a writer, I employ syntax and diction to communicate.

“Syntax” and “diction” belong to literary or journalistic jargon. These words aren’t as obscure as the shorthand of some other professions. The bigger problem is that the sentence is empty. “Syntax” is a more elevated way of saying “sentence structure,” and diction means “word choice.”

So it essentially means, “As a writer, I use sentences and words.” Most do.

5. Position Yourself Within a Conversation

Part of knowing your audience is knowing what they already know. What context do they need? What do they already have? How familiar or foreign is this material, and at what level are you engaging the subject?

In other words, don’t rehash the basics unless you need to.

Think of yourself as jumping into an ongoing conversation. Maybe you want to correct a popular misconception or dig into a subtopic. Maybe you’re pausing to provide an overview for newcomers to the conversation.

Whatever your aim, acknowledge the conversation and engage it as you develop your article. Your writing will be more focused and compelling as a result.

6. Trim the Fat, and Avoid Fluff Words

Lean, strong writing requires you to prune your prose. Here are some common, fluffy culprits. Watch out for them in your work.

Passive Voice

In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is not the agent of action. Instead, the subject is the person or thing affected or achieved by the action.

Example:

  • Passive: “A Modest Proposal” was written in 1729 by Jonathan Swift.
  • Active: Jonathan Swift wrote, “A Modest Proposal” in 1729.

You can use the passive voice when you don’t know the agent or when you want to emphasize the recipient or outcome. You could also use it to emphasize a person’s lack of agency.

Otherwise, you should default to the active voice. It’s more efficient and dynamic. It also forces you to identify the agent of the action and assign clear responsibility.

Redundancies

Redundancies are sets of words that say the same thing more than once. They often take one of two forms.

Redundant Phrases

Redundant phrases happen when you add a modifier to another word that already implies the modifier as part of its definition. Grammarist maintains a growing list of common redundancies, including:

  • Actual fact
  • Added bonus
  • Close proximity
  • Combine together
  • Few in number
  • Final result
  • Free gift
  • Future plans
  • Mental attitude
  • Past/prior experience/history
  • Return back
Redundant Lists

Another common source of redundancy is lists of modifiers with similar meanings.

Example:

  • Each and every time I leave the house, I anxiously anticipate my return with dread and foreboding.

“Each” and “every” mean the same thing. “Anxiously,” “with dread,” and “with foreboding” are also similar. Instead, try:

  • Every time I leave the house, I dread my return.

Not only is this sentence stripped of repetition, but it also replaces modifiers with an evocative verb that contains them.

Prepositional Phrase Pileups

Your reader shouldn’t need a map to navigate your sentence. It’s possible to get so invested in precision that you overwhelm the reader with minutiae or unnecessary clarifications.

When editing after you write your first draft for your eyes alone, you may discover that fluff has infiltrated your writing despite your best intentions to limit wordy constructions in your prose.

Or… while editing, you may discover fluff.

Unnecessary Modifiers

Which leads to the next source of fluff. Modifiers — adjectives and adverbs — often pad sentences without enriching them. Adverbs are especially nefarious. In the words of Stephen King,

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

There’s a place for adjectives and adverbs in your writing, but the impulse to use one sometimes indicates that you should choose a stronger verb or noun instead. At other times, they’re  clutter — extra words you can cut.

For example, qualifiers are very rarely necessary. Qualifiers are words that enhance or limit another word. In this paragraph, “very” qualifies “rarely” and could be cut.

Introductory Phrases

You should get to the point in your sentence as well as in your larger piece. While transition words are necessary at some points, introductory phrases often add a preface that delays or even compromises your point.

Eliminate the sentence opener “It is…” It is interesting that the phrase “it is interesting that” adds nothing to a sentence.

The phrase “it is interesting that” adds nothing to a sentence.

Fluff Words to Avoid in Your Content

Keep an eye out for these imprecise or flabby words. Many of these relate to the rules established above. These forty phrases should be cut or replaced more often than not.

Fluffy words to avoid:

  1. A lot
  2. Actually
  3. Anyway
  4. As a matter of fact
  5. At the present time
  6. Basically
  7. Completely
  8. Definitely
  9. Despite the fact that
  10. During the course of
  11. Extremely
  12. Interestingly
  13. Importantly
  14. In order to
  15. In the event that
  16. In the instance of
  17. In the near future
  18. In this day and age
  19. In most cases
  20. It is…that…
  21. Just
  22. Kind of
  23. Literally
  24. A period of…
  25. Possibly
  26. Probably
  27. Practically
  28. Really
  29. Somewhat
  30. Sort of
  31. Stuff
  32. The case that
  33. The fact that
  34. The matter of
  35. The reason why is
  36. There is/are…
  37. To a large extent
  38. Truly
  39. Very
  40. Virtually

7. Edit

Writing is hard. Writing well is harder. Writing perfectly is impossible.

Don’t let these tips get between you and your writing. An overcritical eye can paralyze a content writer, particularly in the early stages of the writing process.

Free yourself to make both discoveries and mistakes. You may find an unexpected angle or insight that takes the piece to the next level, or you might need to delete words, sentences, or paragraphs. That’s okay.

It’s much easier to fix fluff in writing than to completely avoid it from the outset. Edit your work, reading it aloud to help you identify wordy phrases.

No one ever has to know what the first draft looked like. That’s your business. They can mind their own.

Say More With Less Fluff Writing

Some things should be fluffy. Stuffed animals. Cotton candy. Summer clouds.

Your writing doesn’t make the list. Streamline your writing to create more effective copy. Start strong by diving right into your subject. After you get to the point, stay there. Develop your theme rather than going off on tangents.

Know your audience, their comfort level with jargon, and their familiarity with your topic. Remember to write to them and for them.

Once you’ve got a draft, edit. Then edit again. Look out for common signs of fluff writing, and cut or replace what you can.

Make your audience feel that you value their time. After all, if you want your audience to respect you and your authority or position, the best way to start is by respecting them.

Need help developing and executing your content strategy? Compose.ly has you covered.
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