How to Break Free from “Fluffy” Writing

When teaching my high school students how to write for radio, a common problem surfaces. Many students struggle to break free of that “high school essay” writing style which asserts more is more. Use fluff to fill space! Dance around the subject to downplay lack of confidence! Meet that page requirement! Write 3,000 words without… really… saying… anything. And so on. I’m sure you remember your slap-dash essays.

In the afternoon every day after school lets out we come down to the radio station and we sit down to edit papers that we wrote so that we can practice how we should speak on the radio so that people can listen and they can understand what point is it that we are trying to get across to them.

There are roughly 60 words in that sentence. Do you understand what I said? Most likely you get the gist. Is there a way to express it more simply? Absolutely.

Here’s how to tighten your writing.

To begin: Tackle the topic with pre-writing strategies like webs, word-association, or mad scribbles on a napkin. Get it all out there. Riff about your ideas in a journal. Think about it in the car or on a walk. Use these musings to create an outline. Outlines serve to visualize the final structure of a piece.

  • Topic: How a haircut helped shape my identity as an individual.
  • Specific example: my current non-traditional haircut
    • Detail: pixie cut
    • Why did I cut my hair off? What is it like to be a girl with short hair?
    • Anecdote: Talk about the experience of shaving my head for the first time.
  • Specific example: my previous traditional haircut
    • Detail: boring hair coincided with a lack of self-confidence
    • Why did I feel this way?
    • Anecdote: Hiding behind long hair, the day that I put my hair in a ponytail for the first time at school and people didn’t recognize my bare face.
  • Specific example: Hair experiments
    • Detail: Dying it black, experimenting with pin curls.
    • What did I learn about myself? How do I feel now?
    • Anecdote: My hairstylist called me “bold” and “brave” as she buzzed my hair down last month. A look that says “fearless” helps me feel fearless.

This is a hypothetical essay topic I took 30-seconds to slap together. Notice how specific details link back to the topic. This guidance alone could easily net a solid first draft. When writing outlines, remember: it is better to take an in-depth, narrow view than to speak broadly on a subject. Keep it tight. Narrowly focus on what you want to express.

Now, for the first draft. Putting pen to page or fingers to keys is a daunting task for many writers. It is an unwelcome foe that gnaws at your mind as the deadline approaches. For this reason, I am a strong supporter of the sloppy copy. I call it word vomit: spend fifteen, twenty minutes busting out everything that comes to mind about your subject without concern for grammar or flow.  From there, delete what is irrelevant and order the remaining paragraphs to roughly resemble the outline.

Fantastic! A first draft. Now time to edit. All writing is improved with a critical eye and a willingness to re-write. Consider each line individually. Highlight what you like, underline what you don’t like.

Write down two sentences that sum up your writing. What is this about? What is most interesting? If you can’t sum it up, you don’t know what you are trying to say. Return to pre-writing strategies and word vomit to nail your argument.

My hairstyle evolved as my self-confidence evolved. Shaving my head was the turning point in embracing my individuality.

Resist the temptation to save the juicy bits for the end. No reader will slog through 1,000 words of introspective musings in which the author waxes poetic about self-confidence and individuality without a shiny hook to capture their attention. Toss your hook up high! Hell, use it as an opening line!

“What? A girl who shaved her head? I simply must keep reading!” the reader thinks.

One of the best essays I’ve ever read began with the line, “There comes a time in every boy’s life when he must put on a dress.”

How could you not keep reading? The essay was about a male friend’s experience in a school theater production of Chicago in which he donned feminine clothes and sang in falsetto for the duration of the play. He nailed the performance and nailed the college essay reflecting on his experience.

Fine-tune your edits. Simplify each sentence and consider its place in the context of the piece.

How can I simplify what I’ve written? Delete unnecessary words.

Have I said this before? Take it out.

Does this sound funny here? Stick it somewhere else.

Am I straying? Discard what is irrelevant or off-topic.

Does what I’ve written show or tell? Don’t tell me the dog was sad. Give me examples of why the dog was sad. Is his bowl empty? Did he have a violent encounter with a squirrel? Rely on your stellar examples/details/anecdotes to show me the action.

Finally, don’t be afraid to chop up your story. You can comb for word choice and sentence variation but strive for more. My editor at the Amherst Wire shreds my stories to sawdust, but in doing so my writing is re-focused and re-built stronger than before. We play around with sentence structure, paragraph order/flow and consider alternate angles to the piece. Ask a friend to help rip apart your writing. It is all part of the process!

Here are examples I created to explain the basics of chopping up writing samples. These examples are pulled from page 7 of an in-depth “Essay Writing Boot Camp” paper I wrote this week to tackle personal essays.

EDITING EXAMPLE: In the afternoon at 3:00 p.m. after school I come home from school on the school bus where I meet my hard-working 45-year-old single mother who greets me with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at the bus stop every day of the week.

What is wrong here? Is there a simpler way this could be said?

EDITING EXAMPLE REVISED: Every day after school I meet my mom at the bus stop. She greets me with a peanut butter jelly sandwich and a smile despite the stress of her day.

This is quite different from the original sentence. Don’t be afraid to chop it up! Each sentence expresses a similar idea, but notice the difference in length.When writing for radio, seconds count.

EDITING EXAMPLE: The small tiny white dog in the window of the corner barbershop on the corner of the street was wagging his tail as Chelsea was looking at him and thinking about how she would like to have such a nice small dog to take home to her younger brother who always said he wanted a white dog with a tail like that.

EDITING EXAMPLE REVISED: The pint-sized dog wagged his tail at Chelsea through the window of the corner barbershop. Chelsea gazed at his furry white body and remembered how her brother wrote a letter to Santa this morning begging for a puppy.

There are many ways these sentences might be edited, depending on what the author wants to emphasize. Get in the habit of using multiple drafts. Editing creates a stronger product and it is in editing where the writer gives their story its backbone.



Does this help? Let me know!


Until next time,



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