Are You Getting Off Track With
Your Readers?

image of an arrow going off track

I’ve been seeing something happen frequently among my fellow bloggers lately, but it’s most obvious to me when I receive offers to guest post on my blog.

Someone pitches me a great idea. Brilliant, in fact. An idea that interests me and one I feel will interest my readers as well. So I say yes. And the person writes the post and sends it to me. They’re excited, and I’m excited too.

The post begins well, and the opening is great. But as I read, something happens.

The writer makes a point that’s kind of tangentially related to the paragraph before, but not at all related to the point of the post as a whole.

The writer rides that tangent for a few paragraphs, then comes back on point.

All right, I’m back on track as a reader. Then . . . it goes off again.

You may not know you’ve gone off on a tangent

Even the very best writers go off on tangents without knowing it sometimes. But guest posts are really where you see tangents happening most often. And that’s because guest posts are where bloggers try to pull out their very best writing.

I know this from experience. When I guest post, I work hard to write a great post so that the blog owner offering me his platform (thank you, Brian) feels like he did the right thing by letting me in here.

Most of the guest posts submitted for my review have good grammar, a nice writing style, and a dash of humor.

They’re good. But no matter how good they are in all other respects, they very often still go off on tangents. And the writers appear to have no idea it happened.

The most likely culprit for tangents

I’m most likely to go off on tangents when I feel strongly about the topic I’m writing on. Passion is great in writing, but sometimes I have so much to say that I try to cram everything in there — whether or not it really fits.

For example, I recently wrote a post about something that angered me in the blogging community. The original post was about five pages long. In Arial 10. Single-spaced.

I asked a friend to look it over and point out all the places where I had gone off on angles that were unrelated to my original point.

She wound up taking three pages out of the article.

I had no idea those tangents weren’t related to the point, because I was so fired up and passionate about what I wanted to say that everything I had to say seemed relevant.

This meant that half the time, what I wrote didn’t really relate back to my original point at all. It took off in so many directions that the integrity of the argument was completely lost.

And it made the whole post very confusing to the reader, because no one could figure out the main thrust of what I wanted to say.

How to tell if you’ve gone off on a tangent

I highly recommend asking another person to read what you’ve written when you feel excited or strongly about a topic. You’re not asking them to edit your work; you’re asking them to see if you stayed on track.

Someone with fresh eyes and a fresh mind will be much better able to point out paragraphs that seem unrelated to your post. When they point them out to you, you have two options: take out the paragraph (and possibly save it as the start of another post), or re-write it so it refers back to your original point.

Then double-check with your reader to be sure you did that effectively.

If you’re editing your own work, play this little game: Look at your original topic, which is usually in the first paragraph or two of your post. For this article, my original topic is “are you going off on tangents?” The related points are “you may not know you’re doing it,” “what’s probably making you go off on tangents,” and “how to find and fix tangents.”

Check each paragraph. If every point relates back to the original topic and you can clearly see how you have linked the two, you’re golden.

If not, you’ve probably gone a little off-track. No problem — just rewrite your paragraph so it’s more on-point.

Or, realize that the point wasn’t related at all. It was just a tangent, because you were upset or excited. In this case, take it out and let it go.

What about you? Have you ever caught yourself going off track? What were you writing about at the time?

About the Author: For more great tangents that go wildly off topic but always help you get ahead in your freelance career, check out James’ blog at Men with Pens. Like to stay right on track? Click here to sign up for the Men with Pens RSS feed.

Print Friendly

Smarter is Better Solutions for Smarter Content Marketing

Here’s what we’ve got for you:

  • 15 high-impact ebooks on content marketing, SEO, email marketing, landing pages, keyword research, and more.
  • A 20-part Internet marketing course that lays out a comprehensive path for your own online strategy.
  • An organized reference guide to the “best of the best” of Copyblogger.com, and how it all profitably fits together.
Free Registration

Take The Conversation Further ...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Meet us over on Twitter or LinkedIn to join the conversation right now!

Comments

  1. Ha! James, man, I totally feel you. Sometimes it seems like I can only write tangents. Yesterday’s post on Eminem was at least twice as long originally. I sent it to my partner who looked it over and emailed me back with, “Are you trying to be ironic because you were talking about how tight Eminem’s writing is.” Er… no, I wasn’t. Trim, trim, trim.

    Like you said, I was trying to showcase my best writing while discussing something I felt passionate about. Bad recipe.

    Long live editors.

  2. Very true.

    Whenever I catch myself going off on a tangent, I see it as a good thing, as it’s usually another post tucked inside the first one, and if I separate them I’ll have two for the price of one – or even a whole series…

    But it’s not so good if I don’t catch myself until it’s too late. ;-)

  3. Ah, yes, basic writing. Imagine that.

    List your main points out first as subheads and make sure they stick to the goal of the post. Then write your paragraphs. People go off on tangents because they often didn’t have much of a plan for the post in the first place.

  4. Thanks for this one, James! I’m hoping it’ll make my RSS reader a little easier to cope with.

    Like Michael, I find having a plan keeps my posts structure. Occasionally I write without one — and often discover enough material for two or three posts…

    As well as posts which wander off on tangents, posts which start out about one thing and end up being about something different are also a bit disorienting, for me. Sometimes bloggers do this for humourous effect, or to grab attention, but it needs a sure hand to make it work.

    If you’ve not read it already, I recommend “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath? One of the things they cover is having a single, clear, key point and sticking to it.

  5. Good post.

    I recognise this and do this myself sometimes as well, actually everyone does this. We always try to make great posts that we add unrelated information in a post that’s completly off track.

    I think having a good plan on what to write about wil solve this problem.

  6. I can’t tell you how many blog posts I’ve trashed for this very reason. And heaven only knows how many more I didn’t catch! Now I try to outline first to make sure the whole thing is cohesive, then write.

  7. I’ll admit that I often go off on tangents – I’m the hothead, writing furiously on something I feel strongly about… and then I sit back and think, “Wow. Brain splatter.”

    Once that’s out of the way, after I’ve splattered away and figured out the *main* message I want to get across, I break out an outline, write down three to five points, and stick with it.

    The rest of the tangents that fall to the side can either be their own posts or just venting. (S’good to vent!)

  8. I do my best to keep my posts under 500 words, which helps me focus on the topic I’m writing about. With only about four or five total paragraphs, it’s easier to reign myself in, so to speak.

  9. Hey James,

    After choosing the message you’re going to make with an article, write out a few key points and stick to that.

    Like Michael mentioned above in the comments, when you outline your article, it’s a lot harder to get off track.

    After choosing the main message, I write out the bullet points of the major points. Then, I structure out the article (a paragraph or section per major point), leaving a section for an analogy, personal story, and so forth.

    This way, all I’m doing is simply filling in the containers with words. I can’t have too large a container that goes off on a tangent because the size of it is already set. Even if I want to write something slightly-off-topic tangent-like, I simply add that section to the structure beforehand – I have it under control and it doesn’t compromise the message of the article.

    Writing out the main points, structuring the article, and then simply filling in the pre-determined sections with words has done wonders for me to keep my articles on-track and to-the-point (at least I’d like to think so – you be the judge).

    Best,
    Oleg

  10. Thoroughly Target Thoughtless Tangents That Trigger Tragic Train Track Turns.

    (Help. I’m stuck in a T Alliteration Tangent) ;)

  11. @Dan – You’d be amazed at how many people can travel to China and back on their tangents – all in less than 500 words ;) Don’t make the mistake of thinking shorter posts are immune!

  12. If you ever find yourself saying, “I remember one time at band camp…” then you are heading down tangent alley.

    Great reminder to all of us James to stay focused on the point we want to make. Thanks,

    Dean

  13. I blame tangents on the trend of “multi-tasking,” though it could be just a fundamental way of making meaning and reinforce Vygotsky’s language heirarchy theories, but no, maybe it is just those semantic lexicons but… then maybe it is just “brain splatter.”

    Well Done James. So do you send it back to the writer for revisions? You pull out your edit pen? Send your regrets to the blogger? Post it anyway and pray no one notices?

  14. @Dean, that is, unless you’re opening with a compelling and relevant story to hook your reader. :)

    Like Mark, I quite like going on tangents, it gives me seeds of new posts!

  15. I have the opposite problem. I tend to be anal about staying on track which makes for less spontaneity. Going off track can be helpful to shake up the writing a bit. A one-page tangent is a no-go, but one or two sentences can add color.

  16. really helpful advice. thanks. The way I minimize tangents is by keeping my posts short, only 5-6 paragraphs in length. Since it’s short, I have to keep checking back to see if I’m rambling too much. Keeping things short forces me to stay concise. Of course, it doesn’t always happen. I can “go off” with the best of them, but most of the time, brevity helps.

  17. and yes, I know that short doesn’t always keep me focused. But a few tangents on occasion isn’t always a bad thing.

  18. Were they insightful, intelligent, entertaining, surprising? Because holy cow, this post wasn’t. Talk about blogging as done by bean counters (“don’t forget folks, carry your one to the next column”).
    **yawn**

  19. When I re-read a post I’ve just written, I put my audience member’s hat on. Would I want to read this post on someone else’s blog? Does it get the message across? Little tangents can enhance a post, depending on the subject and your writing style, but big tangents get cut and pasted into an “ideas” file. It’s amazing how many spontaneous 2-part posts happen that way.

  20. I appreciate the advice that James gave today. It helps me to stay on track if I remember two things:

    1. What does the person “listening” to me want or need to hear?
    2. Am I communicating what they want or need, not what I want to express?

    If you have watched American Idol you know that one of the main points of entertainment is Simon’s criticism of performers. One of recurring themes of Simon’s criticism of amateur performers can be summarized as “Self-indulgent nonsense”. When I review a blog, a talk, a piece of writing I ask myself: “Is this what the other person needs to hear or am I indulging myself here like a karaoke singer?”

    Jim

  21. @James: Brain splatter. LOL, I think that will keep me smiling all day.

  22. @ Mary – I worked with my red-penned friend and the post became this one right here:

    http://menwithpens.ca/screw-community

    @ Marc – Sometimes, the main goal is to get the message across and teach, not to make people laugh. That “I want to be funny” is often one of the reasons people go off on tangents that have no place in posts.

  23. Thanks for another great post that I can reference with my students and teaching colleagues! Students do this without fail when they are writing about something passionate – and they appreciate hearing when professional writers make the same mistakes; it’s empowering to them. Keep up the great posts that apply to so many different things, but especially overall writing logic!

  24. Writing short helps keep things on target, but even starting with a short post, before you publish, try to take another 10-15% of words out.

  25. I always like to write up some kind of outline before I start – bullet points are my best friends, and I find that a plan helps keep me on track. If tangents tend to interfere, I write them down too, on a separate sheet of paper. Oftentimes, the very tangents that were annoying me turn out to be completely new posts or articles on their own!

  26. I make practice of *deleting* words, sentences, paragraph.

    Not saving them in an “idea file.”

    Not using them for future articles.

    Just deleting them completely.

    I’m full of words. More will come when I need them. Letting the wrong words hang around, taking up space, that’s just a bad idea. Believe in abundance.

  27. H James,

    I carefully read this article, and I don’t think you got off the point :)

    By the way, people send you just an idea to get their guest posting opportunity? I always send the completed work for the host’s review. There is a huge difference between an idea and the actual work of writing.

    Akemi

  28. @ Akemi – I much prefer getting a full post, so that I can read and see if it’s a good fit. Just an idea isn’t enough – it may be a great idea, but if the writer goes off on too many tangents, the message is lost.

  29. Dave “delete it” Doolin, right on. :)

    I used to save everything for future posts and guard them in my growing ‘drafts file.’

    These days I find it really liberating to chop out whole paragraphs of my drafts. It’s true, I never seem to run out of words. It’s all practice.

  30. Great thought James.
    As you say the most difficult thing is to work out when you are going off on a tangent. For the free thinking person, life can almost be a complete tangent and that sometimes is the appeal in listening to that sort of person. You’re just not sure what might be coming next.
    However I completely agree when doing a guest post. The blog owner has asked you in for a specific purpose and if you honour them for giving you the spot by writing on the topic you’ve chosen or been asked to write on then chances are you’ll be asked back again to contribute.

  31. Nicole De Falco :

    The degree and length of tangents seem to be in direct proportion to the amount of passion inspiring the topic. As you mentioned, the amount of emotion invested in the post makes it that much harder to edit. I especially find it difficult to “let go” of a really good one-liner, zinger, or brilliantly poetic moment–no matter how far off topic it may be. I’ve learned to cut and paste these wonderous yet irrelevant thoughts into separate documents; saving them for a later post or the recycle bin once my heart rate has slowed to a more rational pace.

    Dan Smith: I have yet to get a post down to 500 words. However, in order to reign in my word count, I ask myself questions such as: Does this point relate to the rest of the post?, Does it add value?, and/or Have I said this already in other ways? The answers usually “force” me to delete or cut and paste to an alternate document (see point above).

    Great post James–someday I want to grow up to be a blogger just like you and the CopyBlogger team. You always trigger great conversations from a variety of sources!

    –Nicole

  32. Mary E. Ulrich :

    Nicole, I enjoyed your comments, bet we all have some terrific files filled with hot, emotional, knock-your-socks-off great one liners that will, and never should, see the light of day.

    “Someday I want to grow up to be a blogger “–I feel a country music song coming on….:)

  33. Hahaha… i am really guilty for this. We tend to go in tanget if we write spontaneous without any guidance (such as theme, topic, sub topic, etc). But yeah, i do not know if this tangent is bad before. I think it may richer our content.

  34. Fianlly, something I’m not that guilty of. I think.

  35. I had one post about pacing in serialized stories that took me weeks to write, because I kept going off on tangents in the introduction. At least twice, possibly three times, I realized that I had a complete thought in there that wasn’t quite what I was aiming for, but was still on-topic for the blog itself, so I spun the intro off into its own post!

    Eventually I did manage to finish the original article, but those tangents generated some interesting discussion on their own.

  36. This is a good reminder to us all.

    If I am writing a rant or something I am passionate about, the tangents start popping up like a really annoying game of whack-a-mole. I do try to stay focused with my points and connect their on and off-ramps as best as I can.

    It happens to everyone and like many others, I too like to take the fat I have cut away for future posts.

  37. @Dan, laughing. I don’t think there are any that I’m not guilty of.

  38. Sometimes going off on tangents works. It can be a style thing that adds to the flavor of the blog. My favorite posts and those of my readers tend to be those in which I just write.

  39. Yikes. Guilty as charged.

  40. Fortnuately I work as part of a Content Writing team so therefore we are always have the resource to check over each others writing. It’s an ideal set up because we can do exactly as you suggest and get it proof read.
    Such good tips though James, it’s so important to get the message across even if it means editing down and rewriting.

  41. I find writing (in hand) a draft or, at the very least, an outline helps me stick to the topic. However, I also like to think of several key questions that the readers might like answered by reading the content.

    By asking someone else (this is essential) if each paragraph adds value or contributes to answering those questions ensures you stay on track.

    Also, it’s already been mentioned but sometimes some of the best and interesting material comes from tangents.

  42. I feel you James. When I get fired up and really passionate which is virtually every post or every video I create, it’s very easy to go off on a tangent.

    What I like to do is use bullet points of the main ideas and things I want to talk about and then I usually have a few things or so on each one of those bullet points and follow that.

  43. I have never even considered that my posts were not focused. I usually have trouble with long pieces and I guess I just assumed that because my writing is brief that it will be focused. I think that when my writing comes easy (probably when I go off on tangents) that it is interesting because it will be spontaneous. I guess I should get some other opinions.
    My lesson from your post is that I need to get some feedback on my posts because I may not be able to make good judgements about focus.

  44. I don’t think going off on tangents is really a bad thing. Who knows if some readers like it because it adds more value to them?

  45. @Jack and @Luke, my take is that there are two kinds of tangents. One is a post that’s tangential to the blog as a whole. I’ve found those can be extremely useful, particularly if they’re handled carefully. They broaden and deepen the relationship. But a post that within itself keeps spinning off in a new direction is hard to understand and isn’t as likely to be shared with others. It’s just hard to grasp. That’s more of what James wrote with this one.

    Another sort of subtle point is that a post with one turn can be really intriguing and compelling. So you can start one place and end up somewhere else. Coming around full-circle works well too.

    But a post with too many turns just gets hard to follow.

  46. @ Sonia – Full circle is definitely nice. You start with one point, move off to something that seems unrelated and then bring it all around to tie it all together. Those are always fun.

  47. Good work! Congratulation from Poland.

  48. There’s so much to learn! But you make it fun and interesting. Thanks!

  49. Editing your own work? Write a simple description for each paragraph and see if they meld.

  50. Dear James:

    I can relate to this a lot. I understand that having somebody else read an article is a great way to get a second opinion on your thoughts and your structure and organization.

    The difficulty with that, however, is that it is hard hard to find people who are competent in proof reading the articles. If you give to your friend, you might not get the proper criticism; others might not care at all.

    What I started doing to make sure I am on track with all of my articles is just writing what comes to my mind without thinking if it has any relevance to anything.

    Once I do that, I get back to reviewing and reorganizing, looking for common themes and grouping the content together in the order that makes sense.

    Also, sometimes it is better to just break up the article into smaller pieces if you feel like there is too much to say.

    Best,
    Tomas

  51. Very interesting post. I’m going to have to check some of my posts to see how often I go off on a tangent.

  52. This is why an outline is so important before you even begin writing. You need to stay on track. Its kind of like my experience at the post office last week. I was waiting in line to buy a couple of stamps when a woman came up to me and asked if the red Honda parked out front was mine. I lied and said no because….whoops!

  53. I have to be more mindful.

  54. The problem I have most often is not the writer getting off track but that I can’t stay on track as a reader. LOL

  55. It’s easy to stray, but you’re right, it’s more important to stay true to your genre.

    I just discovered this site, and I’m psyched to have done so!

  56. I feel I am not getting sidetracked. (I HOPE)

  57. You said that Even the very best writers go off on tangents without knowing it sometimes. Wow that’s make me a wake…. I usually just doing writing without thingking about it. This article make me more mindful, thanks for sharing James.

  58. Great job of writing a relevant article about going off on tangents. That’s what too many cups of Java will do to any blogger. Also posts written after midnight can easily go off point.

    Write concisely, and write early in the day is my advice. Avoid too many sweets during the day, don’t forget your ADD medication, get enough rest and exercise would be good recommendations as well.

    Tangent writing is probably as much a result of bad habits as it is from altered state of mind. Oh, did I mention a messy desktop as well? That is probably a tangent I don’t want to take.

    Seriously the best advice is “keyword focus”. Without keyword stuffing, (anything over a 1% density feels spammy to me), keep a solid focus on your keywords and every paragraph should relate to the primary or secondary search keywords. How can you go wrong with that approach?

    Good Luck in all your web site promotion efforts.

  59. James, great post. Knowing your topic and related points is key. Having that second set of eyes is another critical piece to good, focused writing. Finally, I appreciated the point that tangents are often material for another post. That puts a positive spin on the whole message!

  60. This is something I need to digest. I am very passionate about my subject matter and sometimes it bites me in the ass.

    All I can say is thanks for having this blog, I have learned more here in three days ….than those who will renamed nameless taught me in a month.

  61. At times it happens so, that unknowingly we tends to get off track with our readers.I have experienced some such kind of thing once.Reading this post I actually got to realise that how and why it happened to me.

  62. I really appreciated reading this. I enjoy your insights into writing. The tangent thing ignited by a passion is so true. It happens to me in conversation as well. Thanks again.