“This doesn’t seem as light as the earlier chapters,” said my coaching client as she showed me the first draft of a chapter. She has a wise, witty voice that she captures well in her writing. But for this chapter, she wasn’t feeling the fun yet.
Being fun and light consistently is a challenge, especially when you’re writing about topics that aren’t inherently entertaining.
She’s not alone in craving a lighter tone. In a survey of over 250 writers about writing voice, nearly a third said that they wished their voice was “funnier or lighter.”
That’s my wish, too! So, how do we get there? How do we go from merely wishing to be funnier to actually making our readers smile, at least inwardly?
Here’s one idea that I share with her, and now you.
Delight in the details
You know the saying “the devil’s in the details?” Delight lives in the details as well.
Too often, we load up our writing with abstractions. Nonfiction and business writers struggle with abstractions, and even fiction writers can fall prey to over-generalizing. Too many abstract concepts lead to heavy, dull writing.
Our readers’ brains want to visualize or imagine something as they read. Details give them something to work with.
For example, you might write: They had dinner together last weekend.
Or this: They braved the Friday night crowd downtown to share a platter of tacos.
Which one is more interesting? Which one seems “lighter”?
Adding specific details magically makes abstraction-heavy writing lighter. And it’s easy enough to do in revision.
Your lens on the world
The details you choose show the reader something about how you view the world. They contribute to your writing voice.
Ellen Cassidy is a great example of a writer with a unique lens. I met her when researching Writing to Be Understood. She was working on a teaching guide for the logical reasoning section of the LSAT text. That book became The Loophole in LSAT Logical Reasoning.
That sounds dry as dust, right? But not on Ellen’s watch.
Rather than loading up with legal terminology, she created sample questions about pretzels that eat people, or microphones that drink coffee. Using crazy scenarios prevented people from relying on prior knowledge rather than sheer logic, and made the book more fun.
Details are a great place to express your personality or have fun.
Do try this at home
Lightness of tone doesn’t always arrive in the very first pass at something. Try taking this simple action when revising.
Look for any bland abstractions or dull verbs. (Having dinner. Going for a walk. Talking to customers.) See if you can add details, or replace the abstraction altogether.
This works in anything—a book chapter, a report, even an email. For example, you might send an email with: I met with a major customer this week.
Add the details to make it more interesting and memorable: I visited our customer Acme, which accounts for a whopping ten percent of our revenues.
Choose a detail that conveys the mood or tone you hope to set. (The word whopping above shifts the sentence toward lightness.)
Don’t go overboard—too many extraneous details will make your writing long-winded. A few well-placed specifics can make the work sing.
Want to Dive Deeper?
Here’s a related blog post: Writing in the Workplace: Abstract Concepts
Read about Ellen Cassidy in Writing to Be Understood.