In his classic text On Writing Well, William Zinsser said, “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”
When it comes to writing, clutter is anything that impedes the reader’s experience. The majority of that clutter is the result of the writer not knowing any better. It also can happen when, in an attempt to be clever or witty, the writer is hindering that experience.
The good news is there’s a simple solution. Don’t waste words.
Here are some tips to help you declutter your writing.
Reduce long clauses. Try to condense long clauses into shorter phrases.
- Before: The clown, who was in the center ring, was riding a tricycle.
- After: The clown in the center ring was riding a tricycle.
Reduce phrases. Similarly, try to reduce phrases to single words.
- Before: The man at the end of the line tried to pick up the package.
- After: The last man tried to pick up the package.
Stay away from empty openers. Stay away from starting a sentence with There is, There are and There were. There doesn’t add anything to your sentence.
- Before: There’s a surprise in every box of Cracker Jack.
- After: A surprise is in every box of Cracker Jack.
- Before: There are two security guards on duty.
- After: Two security guards are on duty.
Don’t abuse modifiers. Don’t overuse very, really, totally and other modifiers that don’t add anything to your sentence.
- Before: By the time she got home, Rose was very tired.
- After: By the time she got home Rose was exhausted.
- Before: She also was really famished.
- After: She also was famished.
Avoid repeating phrases that don’t add anything significant to your writing. They distract the reader from your ideas. Instead, replace them with precise words.
- Before: At this point in time, we should leave for the show.
- After: Now we should leave for the show.
Use the active voice. Whenever possible, make the subject of a sentence do something.
- Before: The grant proposals were reviewed by the faculty.
- After: The faculty reviewed the grant proposals.
Don’t be a show off. Don’t presume your readers will be impressed by big words or long phrases. Simple is best.
- Before: At this time, students who are matriculating through high school should be empowered to participate in the voting process.
- After: High school students should have the right to vote.
Delete empty phrases. Some of the most commonly used phrase have little meaning and should be deleted. For example: all things being equal, as far as I’m concerned, for the most part, in my opinion and what I’m trying to say.
- Before: All things being equal, what I am trying to say is that in my opinion all students should, in the final analysis, have the right to vote for all intents and purposes.
- After: All students should have the right to vote.
Give verbs a chance. Avoid using the noun form of verbs (otherwise known as “excessive nominalization”).
- Before: The presentation of the arguments by the prosecutor was compelling.
- After: The prosecutor presented compelling arguments.
Replace vague nouns. Substitute vague nouns (area, aspect, factor, something, way) with more specific words or get rid of them altogether.
- Before: After reading several things in the area of economics-type subjects, I decided to place myself in a situation where I might switch my major.
- After: After reading several economics books, I decided to switch my major.
What you take out of your writing is just as important as what you put in. Remember, less is more so choose your words carefully and you’ll cut the clutter.