One Sure Way to Turn Dull Writing into Interesting Prose

    turn dull writing into interesting prose - cat yawning

    Chapter 3 of The Art of Readable Writing by Rudolf Flesch has the following title: The Importance of Being Trivial.  Back in the 40s and 50s, Flesch was hailed as the guru of clear, direct writing. His advice remains powerful and relevant today.

    When Flesch recommended being “trivial,” he meant you should use details to energize your writing. That requires researching your subject and sharing specifics with your reader to create vivid mental images.

    I can illustrate this simple idea with the following two descriptions.

    Version 1:
    I drove from Virginia to Ohio. In no hurry, I took the back roads to enjoy the scenery. Along the way, I saw a bunch of those old Mail Pouch barns. You see barns anytime you pass through rural areas, but the Mail Pouch barns are famous.

    They started as ordinary barns, but painters transformed them into advertisements. They offered to paint the whole barn if the farmer agreed to an advertisement on the side. Few farmers could resist. At one point there were Mail Pouch barns along many roads in several states.

    Version 2:
    I drove my old Ford F-10 from Roanoke, Virginia to Chillocothe, Ohio. In no hurry, I avoided the busy interstate and took the back roads to enjoy the colorful Fall leaves. Along the way, I saw at least 20 of those old Mail Pouch barns. You see barns anytime you pass through rural areas, but many of the Mail Pouch barns are listed as National Historic Landmarks.

    They started as ordinary barns, but from 1890 to 1992 painters working for the West Virginia Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco company transformed them into roadside advertisements. “Mr. Farmer,” they would say, “If you let me paint a Mail Pouch advertisement on the side of your barn, I’ll paint the rest of your barn for free.” Few farmers could resist. At one point there were 20,000 Mail Pouch barns along the roads across 22 states urging drivers to “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco.”

    Can you see the difference? Both versions describe the same topic, but the first is lifeless while the second uses details to create mental images. The writer doesn’t just drive, he drives an old Ford F-10. He doesn’t merely want to enjoy the scenery, he wants to enjoy the colorful Fall leaves. In the second paragraph, there is a bit of dialogue that dramatizes the conversation between the painter and the farmer.

    Turn Dull Writing into Interesting Prose

    To be lively and engaging, you must do more than tell your reader about something, you must show what you see, use specific names, share interesting facts. These seemingly trivial details turn dull writing into interesting and readable prose.

     

    Image courtesy of Pixabay

    About the author

      Dean Rieck

      Dean Rieck is a leading copywriter who has worked with more than 200 clients in the U.S. and abroad. For more copywriting tips, sign up for Dean’s FREE direct response newsletter or visit Direct Creative

    • I’m with Chris. I’d like to see a version 1.5 that blends the two. V1 could use some more detail, but I think v2 is cluttered.

    • Too true. Sometimes those extra details provide that extra something, just to make the mouth water.

    • Omar says:

      I might try this

    • How interesting, I thought that this is a big problem for me. I tend to do just what you are advising here.

      I find that I do give way too many details and that the posts I plan and draft are way too long. My problem is that I did procrastinate with launching my new post and I have different posts that I need to cut in parts. My uncertainty is also caused because English is not my native language, but I choose to write my blog in English because that’s the most read language on the internet. (At least that’s what I guess).

      My husband is the opposite of how me, he seems to be able to say things in so much less words than I need to. I guess that’s also what unconsciously I try to copy.
      But that is just not me.

      Although I know that you have to let your content be as long as you need to communicate to the reader what you want to communicate; I prefer to keep blog posts as short as possible.

    • Flory says:

      Interesting post. I like the details of the second version, but I agree that it is too wordy.

      Should “Fall” be capitalized? I thought seasons do not get capped unless they are at the beginning of a sentence.

    • Okay, here goes! Keeping in mind Ellyn’s point that the context is important. As I look at the versions more, I think the first read more as fiction to me, which made the second seem overly wordy. I like the stuff about the Mail Pouch company, so my version ends up still with much of that, making it seem more like a travel article to me. (Maybe removing the last sentence works better as fiction for me.) 🙂

      I drove from Roanoke, Virginia to Chillocothe, Ohio, taking the back roads, enjoying the Fall leaves. Along the way I saw a bunch of those old Mail Pouch barns. These started as ordinary barns, but over the past century the West Virginia Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco company transformed them into roadside advertisements, enticing farmers with the proposition, “If you let us paint a Mail Pouch advertisement on the side of your barn, we’ll paint the rest of your barn for free!” At one time there were 20,000 Mail Pouch barns along the roads in 22 states, urging drivers to “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco.”

    • Hi Ellyn, Scott, Chad – what about rewriting the para for us? Let’s have version 3, 4 and 5!

    • Ellyn Carter says:

      It’s the distinction between details that enrich and details that clutter, I suppose. The first is uninteresting, the second is better– but it has perhaps too much. It could be pared down a bit. It also depends on the context. If these were from a non-fiction travel story it would make sense. From fiction, however, I think it might just be a bit out of place.

      In Dan Brown’s books for instance, he has a bit of a habit of adding details that are totally unnecessary and awkward. Details are great– when they work.

    • I’m with Chris. I’d like to see a version 1.5 that blends the two. V1 could use some more detail, but I think v2 is cluttered.

    • Chad says:

      Chris…really?

      The second version is WAY better in my opinion. Not even close.

    • Iapetus999 says:

      Touché , Dean!
      In Middle Tennessee, you still see barns painted with “See Rock City” which is still in operation. Nice image. 🙂

    • ChrisB says:

      I actually like the first version better. The second seems … unnecessarily wordy.

    • Dean Rieck says:

      IAPETUS999,
      In that area of the country, roadkill is part of the cuisine. Relax and enjoy.

    • Iapetus999 says:

      I always like these examples of how to liven up flat exposition.

      The problem is, in almost all these types of examples, is that they increase the word count, which means something somewhere will need to be cut.

      You might want to consider cutting both paragraphs completely…since I wonder how this lovely driving description really moves the story forward. I mean…if he was distracted by these wonderful barns and hit a deer…then I’d understand.

    • Inspiring example Dean. I especially like the snippet of dialogue to really zing the passage to life.

    • You caught my interest here as I have actually driven from Roanoke (Wytheville, actually, but close enough) to Chillicothe. It’s a brutal drive if you’re in a hurry, all mountains and curves and slow moving farm traffic. God help you if it’s raining, or worse, snowing.


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