- I had a professor at journalism school who every morning would write a paragraph from someone's homework on the white board for the whole class to see. More than half the time, it was from my homework. She called this the sludge report and what we do is as a class we try and make this paragraph half as long, removing what she called sludge words, words and phrases that took too long to say something or took longer than necessary. This stuck with me as a writer in my own self-editing process. 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.
In fact, we use this at my company Contently every week in our editorial meeting. We'll take someone's paragraph from something we published and as a group try and make it shorter, faster, more efficient and this way we're improving our writing skills over time. I want to show you what this looks like. Here's a paragraph from one of our real articles from a couple weeks ago. Now, in here there area lot of sludge phrases and words. It's 46 words long. How can we make it half as long? Well this first sentence, "The disparity is likely a result of the fact that "Twitter has become something of a media echo chamber." We don't need "a result of the fact that." We can just say because.
"Twitter has become something of a media echo chamber." We don't need "something of." It's become a media echo chamber. "Even as Twitter has faded a bit." We don't need "a bit," it's faded. "Compared to platforms "like Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest." We know they're platforms. "It'll be interesting to see "if the media can keep Twitter competitive." This one we could rephrase. "It will be interesting to see how Twitter competes." Now, we've changed this from 46 words to 29 words.
Well what if we wanted to make it even shorter? "The disparity is likely because "Twitter has become a media echo chamber." "It'll be interesting to see how Twitter," or it, "competes against other platforms." We've now said the same thing in exactly half the words, 23 words. You'll notice that I changed the word Twitter to it. It's the same thing, but it's shorter. George Orwell used to say, "Why use a long word when you can use a short word?" This is part of the idea of getting rid of sludge is using short words when you can.
You don't need to sound smart. You'll be smarter if you can get people through your writing faster. So try this yourself. Here's what I want you to do. The next time you're writing something, step back and look at it paragraph by paragraph and ask yourself how could I make this half as long. Using the sludge method, you can improve the quality of anything you write and let your audience focus on what matters, which is the story.
- The science of great stories
- The elements of effective storytelling
- Building relationships via storytelling
- Selling with storytelling
- Building and engaging audiences
- Using storytelling frameworks like the Ben Franklin method