© 2020 - Erin Lebacqz Consulting - Sacramento, CA


What the Fluff?

Professionalize your writing by cutting out fluff words.

There are many ways to write a sentence, and when you are doing it in a way that isn’t effective or concise, your sentences, like this one, can turn out to be way too full of fluff, and thus hard to read, not really all that appropriate for business writing, and downright irritating.

What the fluff was that?

How about: Clear writers avoid fluff in their writing. There: wasn’t that last one easier?

At the start of every writing workshop, I ask each new group of employees what they want to learn. The most popular answer? Cutting the fluff. People writing at work know they need to be more concise, but they don’t know how. “I want to get to the point in my writing,” they say. Or, “I need to stop using so many fluff words.”

My answer? I tell them they’re clear speakers, and they can be clear writers too – once they learn some “fluff-reduction” strategies.

And it matters: most estimates suggest we spend between one-quarter and one-third of our workdays just going through email. Imagine if people didn't write so fluffily! By reducing extra, fluff words, could we cut that time down to 20%? 15%? 10%?

Do we dare to dream?

So what the fluff is “fluff”? Fluff usually results from three unfortunate writing trends that most of us have grown into over the years: (1) reliance on the verb “to be,” (2) confusing sentence order, (3) a boatload of prepositions, and (4) vague word choice. And the worst part? We’ve become so accustomed to fluffy writing, we don’t even notice ourselves doing it: these trends have manifested into bad old habits.

Here's what to do to start breaking them.

Stop using the verb “to be.” We all grow up following instructions to complete sentences like “The dinosaur is awesome,” or “I am a dinosaur enthusiast,” or “There are many reasons dinosaurs are so great.” These sentence constructions describe characters and lead to chatter and fluff. Nixing the “to be” verb in all its forms – is, are, am, was, were, etc. – can reduce fluff immediately!

So what can you do instead? If we’d been taught to make the dinosaur take action, instead of describing the dinosaur in our writing, we’d perhaps have developed better habits.

Tell us what’s happening instead of what the dinosaur is: “The dinosaur eats homework for midnight snacks.” Eats is a verb one can imagine happening. Is … well… isn’t.

At work, when we’re supporting someone’s idea, we don’t need to prolong things with a wordy introduction like “There are many reasons I support the team’s new idea to leverage our knowledge about SEO analytics.” Instead, start with a noun and then immediately make the action happen.

You’ve got a few choices of nouns here: I, team, idea, or even the concept of leveraging. Choose one to be your main character and show what they’re doing:

  • “I support the team’s idea.”

  • “The team’s plan to leverage SEO analytic knowledge should increase revenues.”

Clear writers find a verb that shows something real happening, instead of defaulting to is, are, was, were, had been, will be.

Rearrange Your Sentences.

Sentence order can also lead to confusion, and most of us tend towards putting our words in an order that creates fluff. The following examples show how messy sentence construction can obscure meaning:

  • It is unfortunate how people who buy homes for the first time may have to deal with stresses about their loans and about moving, all at the same time.

  • The advice we received from our partner organization was helpful in theory, but it didn’t give us any specific ideas.

What can we do instead? Start (right away!) with the subject and verb (immediately!) – or the “who” and the “what” – and your sentences will tighten up. By starting with the “who” and “what,” we can revise the previous sentences to say:

  • First-time homebuyers can face stress about moving and obtaining a loan.

  • Our partner organization’s advice was theoretically helpful, but didn’t provide any specifics.

Try to avoid Prepositions.

Prepositions connect one noun to another (or to other information) by showing the relationship between them. Take a look at your cat or your laptop. Where is it? Answers to this question reveal prepositions. Your cat or laptop might be:

  • On the table

  • Under the table

  • Beyond the table

  • Behind the table (OK, I think we get it about the table.)

  • In a box

  • Outside of a box

  • Near a box

  • By the box (Um, enough boxes.)

But how can we reduce prepositions without losing the relationships between the cat or laptop, and the table or box? Or even the cat in the bathtub?

Again, start with the “who” and “what,” and integrate the location as you go:

  • The cat on the table ate only the good parts of my dinner.

  • The laptop in the box includes new features.

  • The cat on the edge of the bathtub looks unhappy.

Be specific, not vague.Saying “There are many things that are important about this” doesn’t really say anything at all, does it?! Let’s look at all the vague, generalized words here: many, things, important, this.

If you’re prompted to ask “Which one?” or “In what way?” when you look at a noun you’ve written, your noun is probably too vague. So, which things? In what way is it important?

A classic example is the overuse of “people.” Somebody might say, “Many people were there.” Well, which ones?

Try to be specific by answering that question: winter-time walkers, young couples, first-time homebuyers, cat-lovers, new parents, binge-watchers, college graduates, cookie enthusiasts.

Following the above strategies can immediately reduce fluff words and increase concision and directness in writing, resulting in more professional prose.

How do you find out more about cutting the fluff? Visit On the Job Global’s store for downloadable guides on cutting the fluff, and guides on other strategies for writing, communicating, and leading better at work.