Why is My Writing So Boring?

We’ve heard the saying before: a strong voice is a must. But a common problem writers complain about is that their writing is dry and boring.

Many factors play a role in voice, but there are two that have the most impact. One is word choice, the other sentence structure. Yes, other issues can hurt voice (redundancies, handholding, telling and not showing, lack of conflict, too many unnecessary descriptions, undeveloped characters, boring subject matter, etc.), though usually, word choice and sentence structure are the big two on a line editing level.

Boring, dry (usually formulaic) writing arises when the writer uses too many vague, general words and doesn’t vary her sentences. Vague words in general (see what I did there?) don’t engage the reader, and unvaried sentences causes the writing to become predictable. And predictable writing is, well, boring. I already have a post about varied sentence structure, so this post will focus on word choice.

What Are Vague, General Words?
Vague words are weak words that lack a solid definition. They either have definitions that mention the lack of specificity or contain many definition entries that vary in meaning (slang not included). Strong words have one or two (three at the most) solid definitions that are similar to each other.

Examples with their definitions:

A.) Thing (I’m going to go buy some healthy things)
1 an object that one need not, cannot, or does not wish to give a specific name to
2 an inanimate material object as distinct from a living sentient being
3 an action, activity, event, thought, or utterance

B.) Apple (I’m going to go buy some apples)
1 the round fruit of a tree of the rose family, which typically has thin red or green skin and crisp flesh. Many varieties have been developed as dessert or cooking fruit or for making cider.

C.) Do (I did terribly on my exam)
1 [ trans. ] perform (an action, the precise nature of which is often unspecified)
2 [ trans. ] achieve or complete, in particular
3 [ intrans. ] act or behave in a specified way
4 [ intrans. ] be suitable or acceptable
5 [ trans. ] informal beat up; kill

D.) Fail (I failed my exam)
1 be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal
2 neglect to do something : [with infinitive ]
3 break down; cease to work well

The problem with these general words is that anybody can use them. A strong voice consists of strong, specific words that reflect the writer. Your voice should reflect you, not the general public.

Nouns and Verbs:
Your strongest words are your nouns and verbs, but when paragraph after paragraph is filled with weak nouns and verbs, the writing dries up like a dead plant. Do a Google search, and you’ll find plenty of websites that list vague words (even I have a top 5 vague words list).

Verbs tend to give writers more trouble than nouns. Normally, action verbs are more engaging words than linking verbs. Countless authors and editors will tell you to avoid the ‘to be’ verbs and filter words. Having linking verbs in your writing itself is not a bad thing; there are times to use them. A problem occurs when page after page contains more linking verbs than action.

Here are two examples. One is filled with linking verbs, the other action. Compare the two, and you’ll see how the action verbs give the writing more life.

Example with “to be” verbs:

It was morning when Jolene stepped into the forest. The sunlight and thick branches were above her, and wildflowers were by the trunks of the trees. There were many critters on the dirt road. This place was Jolene’s favorite spot whenever she wanted time alone.

Example with action verbs:

At morning, Jolene stepped into the forest. Sunlight shone down on thick branches, and wildflowers grew near the trunks of the trees. Critters scampered along the dirt road. Whenever Jolene wanted time alone, she came here.

Adjectives and Adverbs:
A sign of weak writing is when there are too many adjectives and adverbs. You may have heard to avoid using these words before from other authors and editors. While adjectives and adverbs are not bad themselves, the problem is when the writer uses weak nouns and verbs and tries to spice them up by adding adjectives and adverbs. Pretty adjectives and adverbs are not going to hide the fact that the nouns and verbs are weak.

Most nouns and verbs are strong enough words that they don’t need adjectives and adverbs, and sometimes adding these words will hurt your voice more than help. A common problem I see is when the adjective is actually redundant to the noun and the adverb is redundant to the verb.

Examples: big mountain, blue sea, soft whispers, loud shouting, pink flamingos, running quickly, whispering quietly, laughing happily, stomping nosily

Another problem with adjectives, many of them are subjective. What is nice, pretty, beautiful, ugly, tasty, etc. to you is not the same for another. And because they are subjective, they become vague and boring to the reader.

Example: What is a cute dog?

Is it this one?

Or this one?

(Answer: both of them)

The more specific and precise you are, the more vivid your writing will be. And to prove my point more, here are some more examples:

Vague: The weather is nice.
Specific: A breeze blows by.
Even more specific: A breeze brushes back my hair.

Real Life Examples
The following examples come from published books. I wrote the “vague” version so you can compare it to the real one, which is in the quote box. Compare the nouns and verbs. Compare the sentence structure. See how these authors use specific words and vary sentences to give their writing life.

Example 1:

“The ghost went forward. It had long black hair and only one eye. Disgusting, old skin was tightly and firmly holding onto the yellowish bone of the cheeks. The lower jaw was swinging loosely at a weird angle above the collar. The body was rigid. The arms weren’t moving around. Every now and then the figure shook slightly.”

“The ghost drifted steadily forward […] Long black hair flapped around the skull. Remnants of one eye showed in the left-hand orbit, but the other was a void. Curls of rotting skin clung to spars of bone of the cheeks, and the lower jaw dangled at a rakish angle above the collar. The body was rigid, the arms clamped to the sides as if tied there. […] every now and then the figure quivered, as if still dangled on the gibbet, buffeted by wind and rain.”

“Lockwood and Co: The Whispering Skull”, Chapter 1, Jonathan Stroud

Example 2:

“When they went near the cave’s entrance, Catarina took Luce’s hand, and they went up to the surface. A few enormous stars were brightly radiant in a small space in the clouds, and their lights were visible on the very jet black water. Caterina was so close to Luce, and because of that, Luce felt overwhelmed.”

“When they came near the cave’s entrance, Catarina caught Luce’s hand and guided her to the surface. They floated upright facing each other in a spot where the shore bent close around them. A few enormous stars flared through a gash in the clouds, and their light leaped in white sparks on the jet black water. Catarina’s gray eyes were so close to Luce’s that she felt like she was falling into a twisting, gleaning pool.”

“Lost Voices”, Chapter 5, Sarah Porter

Example 3:

“Ribbons drove the Dodge so fast that he hit a row of cars behind him, and sparks went up into the air. Because of his mask and the blood, Ribbons couldn’t see as his car rolled quickly toward the garage entrance, so he accidentally crashed through the ticket machine, which was empty. He then entered Pacific Avenue.”

“Ribbons burned rubber. The Dodge peeled out so quickly it slammed into the row of cars behind it and sent up a shower of sparks. Half blind from the mask and the blood, Ribbons shifted into Drive and barreled down the slope toward the garage entrance. There was no attendant in the booth this early, which was good because Ribbons couldn’t see where he was going. The beat-up Dodge crashed through the ticket machine, swiped the booth, and fishtailed onto Pacific Avenue.”

“Ghostman”, Prologue, Roger Hobbs

What’s The Best Way for Me to Improve My Voice?
I don’t have any new, groundbreaking advice that differs from any other writing blog. Want to improve your voice? Read and write. A lot.

Read so you can see how other authors string their sentences together. See what words these authors are choosing. You’ll build your vocabulary and find new words that you’ll love to use. Writing is a process of choices, so you have to know what your (word) choices are before you can use them. And reading is fun! Why would you not read?

Write a lot because, obviously, you’re a writer. The more you write, the better you’ll get at it.

If you’re a writer with a dry voice, ask yourself these questions as you read your writing:
-Am I using the best, solid word?
-Am I using the best noun?
-Do I have more action verbs than linking verbs?
-Am I using too many adjectives and adverbs? Do my nouns and verbs need these adjectives and adverbs?
-Am I varying my sentences?

How Varied Sentence Structure Can Spice Up Your Writing

I haven’t posted much about voice yet, but voice is one of the most crucial components to your novel. With so many writers trying to get their books published, if you don’t have voice, your book will go unnoticed.

There are many reasons why some writers lack voice. It could be their first novel. They’re forcing too hard to sound like someone else. For many new writers, I have found that their writing is vague and boring. It doesn’t pop. And this problem sometimes occurs because they don’t vary their sentence structure.

Varied Sentence Structure
Sentence structure is how you arrange your words, phrases, and clauses in a sentence. Writers who don’t vary their sentences repeat the same sentence subject, length, and type. This repetition bores the reader, and it weakens your voice.

Varied sentences give your writing life. It also reduces that repetition. Changing your sentence structure will keep the reader engaged and give rhythm to your writing. To understand varied sentence structure, we’re going to talk about sentence subject, length, and type.

Varying Subjects:
The first sign that a writer doesn’t vary his/her sentences is when the subject of each sentence is the same. People who write in first person easily fall victim to this, repeating “I”—the same subject– over and over again.

Here’s an example:

“Alex opened his door and stepped outside. He felt a nice breeze and walked over to downtown. He wasn’t sure if he should go to the bakery or the burger joint first. He then noticed that he was short on cash.”

In every one of those sentence, he (Alex) was the subject. There’s no variety. The way to fix this is to alternate your subjects. You’ll have to stretch your creative muscle, but to be able to change subjects will help you craft your voice and spice up your writing.

“Alex opened his door and stepped outside. A nice breeze brushed against him. It was a perfect day to go downtown, and with the weather warm, he walked all the way there. Outside the bakery and the burger joint, a strong odor of cookies and fries filled his nose. Where should he go first? Digging into his pocket, he searched for cash, but there was only a couple of quarters.”

In the new example, we alternated subjects. The text is now more interesting. If you’re really struggling to alternate subjects, using a dependent clause before the subject (such as “Digging into his pocket”) can help.

Varying Sentence Lengths:
I have found that writers who lack voice overuse short sentences while writers who have a forced voice overuse long sentences.

Short sentences give emphasis, but when overused, the reader can’t digest what is supposed to be important. The writing also feels rushed, and the flow feels choppy. Long sentences can reveal a lot of information, but when there are too many, the reader becomes too overwhelmed. They struggle to understand what you’re trying to convey.

Here’s an example of too many short sentences:

“On his kayak, Frank paddled through the ocean. The water was calm. It was perfect for kayaking. Wanting to soak up the sun, he decided to rest. He set his oar over his lap. The waves lightly pushed the kayak.”

Here’s an example of too many long sentences:

“On his kayak, Frank paddled through the ocean, which had the calmest waves that were perfect for kayaking, and because these waves were so nice and because he wanted to soak up the sun, he decided to rest, setting his oar over his lap and letting the waves lightly push the kayak.”

That paragraph was actually just one sentence, and I’m sure the next sentence would’ve been just as wordy. Because that sentence was so long, we’re overwhelmed with information, and we’re not sure what to digest.

Now let’s see what happens when we alternate lengths:

“On his kayak, Frank paddled through the ocean. The water was calm– perfect. Wanting to soak up the sun, he decided to rest, so he set his oar over his lap and let the waves lightly push the kayak.”

Because the sentence lengths were mixed, the paragraph flows better, and it’s much easier and more engaging to read.

Varying Sentence Types:
When you’re using the same sentence type over again, the reader is going to notice or at least feel something’s off.

Spotting repetitive sentence type is hard to catch. You have to know the different types before you can really notice it. There are four types of sentences.

Simple sentence: An independent clause.
Ex: I love dogs.

Complex sentence: A sentence that contains both an independent and dependent clause.
Ex: Because Jim is allergic to cats, he adopted a dog.

Compound sentence: A sentence that contains at least two independent clauses joined together by a conjunction.
Ex: I have two dogs, and their names are Titus and Caspian.

Compound-Complex sentence: A sentence that contains at least two independent clauses AND a dependent clause.
Ex: Before adopting Buddy and Spot, Yuki purchased some dog toys, and his dogs loved them.

Writers who don’t know the different kinds of sentences can accidentally overuse a particular type. Sometimes, when a writer overuses a particular type, s/he tends to overuse a particular sentence length too. Writers who overuse short sentences usually use too many simple sentences while writers who overuse long sentences usually use too many compound-complex sentences.

Let’s look at an example with too many complex sentences:

“Straightening her skirt, Bella entered her office. Seeing a large stack of papers on her desk, she sighed. Because tax season was coming up, there was more work for her to do. Even though she liked to work, the stress was becoming unbearable.”

There’s a weird flow to this. Using a variety of sentence types will eliminate that weird flow, and sometimes all you have to do is make a few adjustments. Let’s try this again:

“Straightening her skirt, Bella entered her office. A large stack of papers was on her desk, and she sighed. Tax season was coming up. More work was coming toward her way. Even though she liked work, the stress was becoming unbearable.”

Last Thoughts:
If you’re someone who struggles to vary your sentences, you’ll have to stretch your creative muscle and practice. Varying your sentence structure will spice up your writing and make it more interesting.