When I ask people to describe their own writing, they often say (with an embarrassed expression) that it’s “flowery”. They don’t mean that it’s poetic or lyrical. They mean that they’re working extra hard to whip up emotion in the reader.
Here are two examples of writing that might be called “flowery”. The first is an ask from a theatre:
“We would be thrilled if you would consider joining our Top Tier Circle. Not only will the monetary value of your membership support this valuable work, but it provides you an opportunity unlike any other to get further involved with the theatre. You will have greater access to a number of performances from music to circus to theatre, and a chance to join our creative team for opening night parties and rehearsals. On top of these, receiving access to sold out tickets, entry to the stageside Top Tier Bar and queue jump will make every theatre experience extra special each time you come to a show.”
The second is from an overseas development charity. It’s part of a letter asking for matching funds:
“We would love for you to be involved in our Challenge by making a pledge of [amount]. Then you can watch as your pledge joins with leadership funding to match donations from the public, thereby inspiring new donors to support the chatity and making your pledge worth up to three times as much.
“Your support means so much to the charity and without supporters such as yourself we would not be able to continue this amazing work. This opportunity is so great and we would love for you to help us reach this goal.”
The first writer creates long sentences with elaborate clauses and lists. Here’s somebody who wants to be sure to include every benefit in one short paragraph. By the third sentence, the writer’s piled up so much that the reader disappears. The magic word “you” has vanished.
The second writer uses words that tell us how to feel, rather than giving us cause to feel something: words like “love,” “amazing,” “great.” We know this writer is heartfelt. We can also feel the desperation: we love you, we’re so wonderful, we need you. Please.
Unfortunately, many of us pull back from people who sound needy. If we’re independent spirits, we resent being told what to feel and do. The same holds true with charities. Readers can feel pressured by emotional insistence.
Writing’s a lot like gardening. We need to weed, prune, and stake. What would happen, for example, if the first writer cut down the sentences, then focussed a bit more on the reader’s experience? Here’s a second draft of the same paragraph:
“Join our Top Tier Circle today, and you’ll have instant priority booking to all our shows, from dazzling musicals to heart-rending drama. You can attend rehearsals and even get tickets for sold out shows. You’ll have exclusive access to the stageside Top Tier Bar and special invitations to private opening night parties, where you can talk to the creative teams about what goes into every performance. What better way to enjoy the theatre?”
You’ll notice this version is about 30 percent shorter. Nine times out of ten, rewriting means reducing. Cut, and you’ll have space for a couple of fresh adjectives, such as ‘dazzling’ and ‘heart-rending’, which are about the shows themselves, or the word ‘private’. Who doesn’t want to be asked to a private party with theatre stars? It’s a wonderful way to make donors feel special without telling them the experience will be special.
The second example starts promisingly. It’s all about the challenge. Although it could be edited a bit, the writer at least lets donors know what they can make happen. But if you’re aiming for a threefold leap in income, why not immediately say why? What does that extra money mean? For example, will more children go to school? Will more families get cleaner water? The writer wastes a golden opportunity, probably because he, or she, was nervous about the fundraising goal, and started adding pressure.
Next time you think your writing is “flowery,” take a quick check. Are you insisting that the reader must feel something? Are you writing about your charity as if it’s love-hungry? Like any good fundraiser, you’re probably worrying too much about the charity’s financial needs and internal processes. You’re not alone. It’s just time to do some summer weeding.