How to write about dull subjects (in an interesting way)

By Lorraine Forrest-Turner,

Of all the reasons people cite for attending my writing courses, ‘how to make dull subjects interesting’ comes pretty close to the top. In response, I smile understandingly and (politely) point out that there’s no such thing as dull subjects, only dull writing.

There is enough excellent writing in print, online and in broadcasting to prove this. People have written talks about biometrics, books about neutrinos, radio programmes about pensions and feature films about mathematics.

It’s never the product, service or policy that’s the problem; it’s the writer’s lack of understanding and/or enthusiasm. If the writer’s not ‘into’ the subject, how can the reader be?

So, how is it done? How do you write about ‘dull’ subjects?

Who says it’s dull?

First off, we need to abandon the idea that it’s the subject that’s dull.

A new government policy on the rights of walkers to use coastal paths at certain times of year, or the launch of a new compact generator for small garages might hold no interest to me and you, but to the coastal walkers of Great Britain and self-employed car mechanics, these subjects are fascinating.

I personally wrote content for a car paint company for 13 years and never run out of things to say. The more I learnt about the subject, the more interesting it became.

Rule number one is forget how you feel about the subject and consider the target audience. Why would it be of interest to them? What benefits does it bring? How does it affect their lives? (Of course, thinking about the target audience first is what all good copywriters do.)

Watch the shopping channel

The next step is to get enthused by the subject. Whether you like it or not.

If you’re in any doubt about the ability to get excited over something that doesn’t excite you personally, watch the shopping channel.

Not all night, of course. Unless you’re into that sort of thing. Just watch it for half an hour or so to see how the presenters talk endlessly about the virtues of cordless drills, magnifying mirrors or reproduction Victorian plates. How do they do it?

They study the product, learn exactly what it does and how it benefits the viewers, then, not content to just tell us it’s capable of drilling into concrete, they show us. 

Show; don’t tell

If you’ve ever studied how to write fiction, you’ll be familiar with another ancient rule – show; don’t tell.

Everyone loves a good story. If you can frame information into a narrative, your reader will follow your tale from beginning to end.

In his article There’s no dull subjects, only dull authors, Brian Adams from PH Creative talks about an article on manufacturing latex and neoprene gloves.

The subject could be dry, but he suggests reframing the story with a narrative that follows one pair of gloves from raw materials and blending to moulding and quality control, you communicate the same information in a lively way.

Ask the right questions

In How to Write Interesting Content for a “Boring” Topic, Pratik Dholakiya, co-founder of E2M, says that creating compelling content is all down to asking the right questions.

He gives a good example of how you can take the potentially mundane subject of coffee cups and shows how the classic ‘who, what, where, why, when and how’ questions can be used to dig deep and find a new angle.

He cites an article on Cracked.com called 4 Reasons Why Fair Trade Coffee Is a Scam that answers the simple question Is fair trade coffee really fair? The article has more than 240,000 views and 6,200 likes on Facebook.

Stop being lazy

The ‘secret’ to writing engaging content is hard work. If you’re a lazy writer and you rely on clichés, jargon and a list of features, you’ll bore yourself and your audience. But if you take time to study the subject and see it as endlessly fascinating, you’ll find a way of making your writing equally compelling.

Write compelling content

If you’re tasked with writing about ‘dull’ subjects for your organisation’s newsletter, emailer, magazine or blog post and want to make that content more compelling, you might want to sign up for the CIPR’s workshop Writing content for company media.

Lorraine Forrest-Turner is a freelance copywriter and communication skills trainer. Her next CIPR Writing Content for Company Media workshop takes place on 29 November 2019.