When you’re on a road trip, you usually know where you want to go. If you want to see Baltimore, you don’t drive toward Philadelphia, for instance. If multiple detours cause you to go toward Philadelphia, you’d course-correct until you were on the road back to Baltimore. And you’ll probably be a little irritated by the whole situation. That’s how your readers might feel if you go off on a tangent in an article. Tangents can make your article vague, frustrating and unhelpful.
What Is a Tangent?
A tangent is any idea that doesn’t support the main thesis of your article. If you’re writing an article called “4 Ways to Save Money on Your Winter Heating Bills” and start explaining how the sun is further away from the earth in the wintertime, you might be going off on a tangent.
A tangent is like that relative you see on holidays: full of stories that never go anywhere. You ask how their children are, and half an hour later they are telling you details about their visit to the podiatrist.
Why Are Tangents Bad?
Being a writer is similar to being a bus driver. Your job is to make sure the reader gets to their destination by taking the most direct route. Readers want articles that entertain them, solve their problems or give them the information they need to make choices. If your title promises to give them four design ideas for a small bathroom, that’s what they expect to get.
It is typically more common to go off on tangents when you know a lot about a subject. You may know everything there is to know about a ketogenic diet, but going off on a tangent about the proteins in cheese that act like opiates in the body—while interesting—will not help a reader who wants to know how to stick to their ketogenic diet when eating out.
Tangents are especially bad when you don’t realize when you’re on one. If you keep getting revision notes about irrelevant information, it may be time to have another writer take a look at your article and point out the tangents. Over time you’ll begin to recognize when you’re getting off track.
Now, tangents aren’t all bad. In some pieces, they can add personality. However, that’s only if the tangent is a short one, about a sentence or two. If your article is about weight loss and you find that one of the supplements helps people lose weight and improves their brain function too, mentioning that as an added bonus is not a bad idea. The trick is to avoid taking it too far. You don’t need to discuss how the chemicals in the supplement interact with your brain.
How Do You Avoid Tangents?
To best avoid tangents in your articles, you need to do two things: outlining and proofreading.
A brief outline, even if it’s a mental one, can help you steer clear of unnecessary information in your article. If you know your article is about unclogging a kitchen sink drain, for example, coming up with a few subheadings and main points gives you a framework to work with. It is harder to go on a tangent when you know what you plan to write about before you start writing.
When proofreading your articles–you are proofreading your articles, aren’t you?–ask yourself whether each sentence directly supports the main thesis of your article. The key is not whether the information is merely related, but whether it furthers your argument. If your article is about fabricating custom fuel tanks, you can easily admit that a sentence about a road trip to Miami on a motorcycle is irrelevant.
What Do You Do When You Find Tangents in Your Writing?
Of course, if you see that you’ve spent a paragraph talking about the Miami road trip, you may be reluctant to delete all of those words. So what do you do?
Instead of deleting those words forever, a smart idea is to save that tangent for a more suitable topic or a different article. While the Miami road trip is irrelevant to custom steel fabrication, it may be perfect for an article on motorcycle insurance or auto body repairs. Save that paragraph and use it later.
Finding tangents in your articles is a sign that you’re creative, and that’s a good thing. Just make sure that you consider the needs of your reader. Make your articles as clear and tangent-free as possible, so your reader finds exactly what they need.
A very interesting delivery that brings the otherwise boring discussion of tangents alive. Kai made me want to read the entire piece all the way to the end (which doesn’t always happen with work-related blog posts) and then read it through again to capture all the details. Good stuff!