Content is a vague word that describes anything that fills up another thing. My closet’s content is clothes, camping gear, and art supplies; my mug’s content is tea. While the word content can refer to almost anything, that doesn’t mean that as long as something’s filled up, the content is doing its job.

In online marketing, it’s said that content is king. Not just any content can reign–only meaningful content wears the crown. Charlatans: beware.

Last month I discussed semantics and how semantic search will require more meaningful content. That’s always been the rule, but it will become more difficult to break the rule and get away with it. We’re already seeing a crackdown on unlawful link building with the recent Penguin update, which has put blog networks like BuildMyRank out of business and de-indexed sites with backlinks from spammy sources. Nobody should be surprised; useful content has always been the rule! Don’t go plant your seeds in dry, rocky soil and point fingers when a garden doesn’t bloom.

There are obvious content extremes (e.g. a useful, well-written and formatted how-to vs. a keyword-injected block of text produced by a lame piece of software). But the difference between good and bad isn’t always so clear.

Demystifying Fluff

Fluff. A five-lettered four-letter word. Spam’s slightly prettier cousin. The bane of all content. Fluff can turn otherwise good content sour.

Some editors feel that anything but nuts and bolts is fluff, while others differentiate between style and fluff. Some would say my whole intro is just a big piece of fluff.

It’s clear that fluff is debatable. Following are four types of fluff I run into as an editor:

The Amateur Poet

This fluff is made of excessive adjectives, adverbs, and other unnecessary descriptive language. It’s generic because it lacks innovation, instead mimicking what it thinks language should sound like. It’s forgettable. 

Example: Our highly experienced, rigorously trained, and expertly knowledgeable service technicians will fix your impaired air conditioning system with the utmost care and concern.

Tip: If something feels forced, rewind. Simplify your language while still conveying the message you want. If there must be an adjective, be sure it’s a good one. With time, you’ll feel comfortable with your own writing style.

Captain Obvious

This fluff loves to take up space with statements that serve no purpose. People were practically born knowing the things Captain Obvious says. It’s usually intentionally used as filler.

Example: It’s probably a good idea to pull over to the side of the road if you have a flat tire.
(Note: It’s not intended as sarcasm.)

Tip: Don’t treat your readers like fools. It would be better to come under word count than fill in space with obvious statements.

The Existential Nihilist

Like Captain Obvious, it’s pointless, but not just a sentence here or there–this fluff can take up whole pages. It doesn’t care because everything is meaningless, so why even try to contribute anything to the world?

Example: Many homeowners are looking for ways to make their home “pop.” When redecorating your home, it’s important to consider your color scheme, because you don’t want colors to clash. A simple way to give your home a new look is to repaint the walls. Be sure you remove large pieces of furniture first and use drop cloths to avoid getting paint on the floor. It’s also important to get rid of clutter, and keep your home clean.

On and on it goes. None of those sentences provide anything of value to a reader. This fluff had no research go into it whatsoever.

Tip: Take a break, you’re clearly not in the mood to write right now. Get motivated by doing some research online, and brainstorm interesting topics you want to write about. Pretend you’re an expert, and do your best to offer some useful information to the world (the Internet already has enough babble).

The Freshman Fifteener

This kind of fluff just has a little extra padding around an otherwise toned physique, but it shouldn’t be too hard to lose. With a quick edit, passive language becomes active, unnecessary words disappear, and the language tightens up.

Example: There are a number of ways to effectively lose weight and build muscle–some healthy, others not so much. One way is to increase cardiovascular exercise, and take in less calories.

Revised: By increasing cardiovascular exercise and consuming less calories, you can healthily lose weight and build muscle.

Tip: Editing is the key. Make sure your content is free of redundancies and words that could easily be cut. It’s okay to have some passive language, but where it can easily be converted to active, do it.

These are just a few fluffy personas. What’s the common theme? A writer will only produce fluff when not writing mindfully.

Quick Tips for Eliminating Fluff

Fluff can be intentional–Ugh, I don’t care to research this topic and I just want to reach the word count minimum–or unintentional–Oh, I didn’t realize I could have easily tightened up that paragraph! 

It’s okay if you included fluff–it happens to all of us. The important thing to remember is that writing is a craft that improves only with time and awareness of oneself.

  • Don’t just start; have a plan. No solid ideas or outline will leave you wandering aimlessly.
  • After coming up with an idea and/or outline, do the necessary research to fill your content with substance.
  • Don’t rush. Write every sentence with awareness and purpose.
  • Take a break. Step away from your completed work.
  • Come back and edit. With a fresh mind, you’ll catch nuggets of fluff to cut out.

What Isn’t Fluff?

There will always be someone to disagree with you about what exactly fluff is. The nuts-and-bolts editing mentality has its place (e.g. technical documents, news releases), but just because your writing isn’t  bare bones doesn’t mean it’s fluffy. The bits that establish tone and style, give contextual meaning, and communicate genuine ideas are not fluff. A piece of writing with only the facts and terse syntax will be dull and difficult to read.

If you honestly wrote with purpose and awareness, and every sentence matters to you, then you can stand by it. Ultimately, you should be able to genuinely answer WHY you wrote what you wrote–and the answer won’t be “to take up space.”

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