How to Be a Better Writer – Cut Out the Sludge

October 12, 2016

There’s an epidemic in business writing today – sludge.

When a salesperson works with someone in marketing, it’s described as “leveraging a cross-functional resource”. Words like “kinda” and “basically” are regularly used in professional emails. “About Us” sections often include nothingburger sentences like “a worldwide leader in providing digital platform technology solutions that overcome today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.”

LinkedIn Influencer Shane Snow, who is also the cofounder and Chief Creative Officer of Contently, has seen enough. Snow actively works to cut out sludge – i.e. vague or unneeded words – from all of Contently’s content, leaving in only what’s necessary to make the point.

“Every time I write something, I look at it paragraph-by-paragraph and ask how could I make this point shorter and where are these sludge words,” Snow said in his LinkedIn Learning course on storytelling.

An example of Snow cutting out sludge

Each week Snow will find a paragraph from an actual Contently article and assign it to his staff. Their mission – to get the same point across it in half the amount of words.

In his LinkedIn Learning course, Snow gave an example of this 46-word paragraph published in a Contently article:

“The disparity is likely a result of the fact that Twitter has become something of a media echo chamber. Even as Twitter has faded a bit compared to platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, it’ll be interesting to see if the media can keep Twitter competitive.”

Snow then took out the hacksaw and chopped out the sledge. His result was a 23-word paragraph – exactly half the length – that said the same thing:

“The disparity is likely because Twitter has become a media echo chamber. It’ll be interesting to see how it competes against other platforms.”

A far more effective paragraph, thanks to the removal of the sludge.

So why is sludge so prominent?

The main reason sludge exists is because of a misguided attempt by people to try to sound smart. So they add extra or longer words, which has the opposite effect.

“You don't need to sound smart,” Snow said in his course. “You'll be smarter if you can get people through your writing faster.” 

To cut down on the sludge in your writing, Snow recommends looking over everything you write and seeing what words you can take out or shorten. By doing this, “you can improve the quality of anything you write and let your audience focus on what matters, which is the story,” Snow said.

Want to become a better writer? Watch Snow’s free LinkedIn Learning course on storytelling.