How to Add Color and Richness to Your Writing … Without Making Us Want to Barf

Your job as a writer is to make your subjects clear and interesting.

Assuming you aren’t working on the next Waiting for Godot, you’ll work to make sure your meaning is clear and easy to grasp.

And assuming you aren’t editing Wikipedia, you’ll work to make it lively and fresh.

But sometimes, well-meaning attempts to give your writing life end up producing writing that’s silly, trivial, cluttered, or condescending.

Lively writing is wonderful. Paragraph after paragraph of neon-rainbow unicorn vomit (with glitter) is less wonderful.

Even if you like sparkle (I do), you just need a little. Too much glitter always looks cheap.

So let’s look at how to make your writing colorful and interesting … without making your audience sick to their stomachs.

The most important thing

Before we start, I want to be completely clear:

I don’t get to dictate what works for your audience.

I can show you some common pitfalls, but if your audience adores something I don’t like — their vote is the one that counts.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at some of the contributors to unicorn vomit.

A warm and personal voice is good

Nearly any content (including B2B) benefits from a warm, individual voice.

If you think about your professional life, you know that it’s possible to be absolutely professional and still be warm and likable. That’s the tone you’re after. No matter what kind of content you create, your audience is made of individual human beings.

I like to think about having a coffee (or a glass of wine) with a friend and offering my explanation of the topic I’m writing about. I’ll include conversational asides as they make sense … but I’ll often go back and delete about half of them.

Kindergarten cheerfulness is not so good

Things get ugly when we cross the line into Dora the Explorer territory.

Forced, candy-colored cheerfulness will make your content look repetitive, lightweight, and grating. Please remember that your audience is made of adults.

If you’re a member of Team Relentless Cheer, you might benefit from the following:

  • Stick to one exclamation point per article. Zero would also be fine.
  • A few conversational asides in your article are fine, but if you love them, follow my lead and cut at least half.
  • Avoid at all costs the terms Buddy, Ninja, Rockstar, and BFF.
  • Positivity is great, but reality is even better. Write about problems, too.
  • Don’t tell me it’s “awesome,” “epic,” or “amazeballs.” Show me why.
  • Probably you and I should both pare down our attachment to emojis

Our gentleman content creators sometimes suffer from a variant of this: Gary Vee syndrome.

If your content is an endless stream of ALL CAPS, exclamation points, bossy but earnest pronouncements, and addressing your audience as My Friends, please remember that there is one Gary Vee. And it is not you.

Web clichés that should die in a fire

We already talked about Ninja, Rockstar, and BFF.

Let’s add the tossed alphabet salad of BTW, TFW, TBH, AFAIK, and WTF.

We’re all citizens of this world wide web. It’s part of our identity, particularly for content creators. And our tribe has a distinct language. A language made up by people too lazy to spell things.

One or two make your content feel conversational. Too many and my eyelids start to flutter from TL;DR.

(By the way, if you’re not sure what some of these mean … LMGTFY.)

Richness and color are good

So much content looks like it’s actively trying to win a World’s Dullest Website competition.

There are plenty of facts out there, even if we leave out the “alternative” kind. There’s no shortage of sites for basic instructions, stripped-down numbers, and raw information. We’re all a few seconds away from knowing how long the gestation period of the American Crocodile is.

You can’t compete with Wikipedia and you shouldn’t try. Focus on where you can compete — with an original human voice, using the power of your point of view.

Don’t just tell us what the numbers are … tell us why they matter.

Don’t just analyze … make it vivid.

Use texture, storytelling, slang, analogy, metaphor, nuance, and connotation to sculpt a three-dimensional understanding of your topic.

Sensory language helps create vivid impressions. Think about smells, tastes, and colors.

“Loaded” language carries firepower. Calling something pallid or bleached carries a different connotation than the generic light-colored.

Make sure your nouns and verbs are working hard. Sensory, specific, and concrete language gives writing flavor.

Don’t say The deliciously-scented intricate purple flower. Say The lilac.

Goop is not so good

If you’d like to improve your writing and spend a delightful half-hour at the same time, I encourage you to take a look at the winners of the 2016 Bulwer-Lytton contest. I present just one particularly appealing example:

“After his seventh shot of Jack Daniels, Billy reflected that only a certain kind of man, a Roman Catholic priest, born under the sign of Gemini, whose loved one had been run down by a bus full of inebriated Lazio supporters on a glorious Sunday morning in early April outside a provincial church whose bells were ringing Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in B minor, would be able to truly understand the abyss of despair in which he was drowning.”

– Neil T. Godden, Nouméa, New Caledonia

Trying to make your writing vivid by pouring on a thick layer of verbal goop will only make it indigestible.

Make sure all of your adjectives and adverbs need to be there. You don’t have to declare war on them, but you should give each one a good stink-eye to make sure it’s pulling its weight.

Fancy Nancy word choice

Do you always have a penchant for doing things, instead of just liking them?

Do you think canapés taste better than snacks and prefer traveling in a vehicle to a car?

You may be suffering from Fancy Nancyism.

Just like glitter — a little can add sparkle. I love unusual and interesting words, too. But too many and you start to look silly.

When writing in English, keep most of your word choices to the plain, straightforward Anglo-Saxon.

  • House is better than residence.
  • Smell is better than odor. When appropriate, stink is even better.
  • Eat is better than partake.

One advantage is that when you do choose a word that’s a bit … luminous, it will stand out.

Vulnerability is good …

Perfect people are boring. And annoying. Most of us are a little fed up with the glossy, the over-curated, and the Instagram-perfect.

If you want to make a connection with an audience, go ahead and talk about problems. If you have insecurities, open up about them. (If you don’t have any insecurities, maybe you should.)

No one becomes an authority without stepping in some stinky stuff. Talk about that. Get real about the whole path that led you to where you are, not just the prettiest views along the way.

Train wrecks are not so good

When do we cross the line from vulnerable leader to oversharing whack job?

I’d argue it’s when you cease to come across as someone your audience can rely on.

Are you a freelancer who goes on and on about how you can’t meet your deadlines? Get a Freedom account, block your access to Facebook, and fix the problem. Clients don’t need another flaky freelancer.

Are you a therapist who flies off the handle over trivia and seems to lurch from one disaster to another? That’s work to save for your therapist. Your clients need to know you can help them with their problems.

It’s a bit like parenting. It’s good to let our kids know that we made mistakes, too … but if they start feeling like they need to parent us, we need to remember which one is the adult.

Your audience isn’t your support group. You’re there to help them, not the other way around.

Of course, seek out a real support group for the tough days. Everyone goes through tough times. Share your troubles with the right people.

How about you?

What are your favorite ways to bring some color into your writing?

Got a little Fancy Nancy or Dora the Explorer going on in your content? You’re among friends here — let us know in the comments. :)

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