Don’t Get Too Cute with Your Writing

Writing well often means resisting the urge to get too clever with your words. But determining whether you have written too cleverly can take some work.

What it is:

Excessive cleverness often takes the forms of puns, inside jokes, arcane references, unorthodox sentence or paragraph structure, alliteration, rhymes, or forced, teasing language. The yes/no-question lead is a good example of such a tease. Another tease might involve writing a seemingly enigmatic one-word sentence followed by a sentence that explains the preceding sentence. The late Dwayne Walls, a legend among writing coaches, was fond of telling the story of a reporter who wrote a lead along the lines of: “Rain. That’s what fell Tuesday on Podunk County after more than a month of drought.” The reporter’s editor promptly changed the lead to something more to-the-point—”Rain fell Tuesday on Podunk County after more than a month of drought.”

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Why it can be bad:

Writing that is too clever can draw the attention of readers to the author instead of to the subject. It can stop a reader in her tracks and force her to puzzle out the joke or the reference. It can delay the conveyance of critical information to the reader, who might get bored with all the cuteness and abandon the content before arriving at the key message or piece of news that it contains.

Why it’s difficult to spot:

It’s easy to fall in love with what we have written, especially when what we have written took some serious brainpower to produce—when we have been particularly clever. We know that cleverness can lead to beautiful things. But we often fail to remember that, just because something is the product of cleverness, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily beautiful or appropriate. As writers, we can become too pleased with ourselves. In the headiness of our cleverness, we can fail to pause and view the clever writing from the perspective of the reader. We resist tossing our clever writing into the trashcan. We cling to it—for right or wrong. And our justification for keeping the cute often is wrong.

When it comes to professional writing, in a preponderance of cases time-pressed readers require down-and-dirty news, the ugly truth, or just the plain-old facts. That’s not to say that cuteness can’t co-exist with clear writing (or enlightening writing or soul-stirring writing). It can. The trick is determining whether what you’ve written is too cute. To do that, you’ll want to seek a potentially humbling reality check from an editor, a colleague, or a friend.

Why we do it:

We sometimes step over the boundaries of cuteness in an effort to grab the reader’s attention, to establish our authority or credentials (to show how smart/clever we are), or to make a dull topic enjoyable. But as writers, we can do a better job of grabbing the reader’s attention, establishing our authority, and creating easily readable content by focusing on clear, tight, descriptive, explicative writing. Readers generally value meaningful, easy-to-consume content far more than they value clever writing stunts.

Don’t forget that boredom can play a big role in how we write. As writers, we can be passionate about writing, but we might not always be passionate about our subject. When we find the topic boring, we sometimes attempt to enliven it (for ourselves and for our readers) by writing more cleverly. That’s not always a bad thing—especially if you have good reason to believe that your readers will perceive the topic as boring, too—but when the cleverness becomes too clever or too cute, the plan can backfire. Excessively cute writing can repel or confuse the reader, not draw her in to a seemingly boring topic.

We writers also sometimes forget that the body of what we’re writing does not have to stand alone. Headlines, subheadlines, titles, photos, captions, and other short written or graphical elements often are part of the final content package, and these supporting features usually can stand up to extreme cleverness/cuteness better than the body copy. A cryptic headline that will make the reader scratch his head is OK if it also will compel him to dive in to the story to find out more. And a groan-inducing pun or some slick wordplay in a caption is generally a “one and done” proposition—a limited, contained blast of cuteness that might actually make the reader smile or that might drive a curious reader to the body copy. (And even if the reader is not amused by the caption, it generally won’t scare him off from the entirety of the content package—unless it’s a true stinker of a caption.) So consider saving the really cute and super-clever stuff for the headlines and other supporting elements.

We also might step over the boundaries of cuteness because we see that a few writers have gotten away with it quite well. Comedian Dennis Miller, for example, has made a living off of hypercleverness, delivering commentary and jokes wrapped in esoteric references. You might indeed be more entertaining than Dennis Miller, but unless you’re writing comedy, you probably should keep some of your cleverness in check when writing.

What you can do about it:

Consider your audience. That is, really consider your audience. In general, how old are your readers? Will that Taylor Swift reference that you’re dying to incorporate into your lead sentence be utterly lost on them? (Or what about the Laurel & Hardy reference you want to use?) Are they reading for leisure, or are they in a hurry to read? Are they friendly, sympathetic readers, or are they adversarial to your organization or your cause? Look at the content through their eyes, not through your own exceedingly clever eyes.

Take a writing break. Let your content get cold and then revisit it. Step away for an hour or more and then come back and look at what you have written—with fresh eyes. Revise, rewrite, redo. Zero in on the cute/clever elements and don’t be afraid to trash the pieces of your writing that readers might consider too cute.

Get an editor. Everyone needs an editor. Ask a co-worker, a supervisor, a potential reader, or a friend to serve as editor—to take a look at what you have written and to suggest ways you can improve its clarity or its readability. Request frankness, and expect some brutal honesty. But you don’t necessarily have to accept all of your editor’s suggestions. You can use the feedback as a way to find errors, quirks, omissions, and useless cuteness that you might have overlooked.

Copyright © 2013 by L. Scott Tillett, All rights reserved.

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