How to Reduce Clutter in Your Writing

by Patricia J.Parsons

In his book On Writing Well, an absolute must-read for anyone who writes, the estimable William Zinsser presents to us an entire chapter simply titled “clutter.” He begins by telling us that “…fighting clutter is like fighting weeds – the writer is always slightly behind.” This is probably truer these days than ever before as so many people seem to be writing and publishing books just because they can.

There are two ways that we clutter our writing. The first Zinsser describes as using a “laborious phrase which has pushed out the short word which means the same thing.” His example: “At the present time we are experiencing precipitation” rather than clearly stating: “It is raining.”

There is also another kind of clutter that is subtly different and has a different motivation on the part of the writer.

All you have to do is read the first chapter or two in so many poorly edited books to see that many newbie writers seem to have studied one too many writing manuals that exhorted them to “show not tell” to see that this is interpreted as meaning that adding as many descriptors as possible will accomplish this. It does not. All it does is clutter up the writing.

The question for all of us who write, then, is this: What do we do about all that clutter. Here are some approaches you might try.

  • The first thing you need to do is read your writing out loud. It is often surprising to hear that your prose sounds flowery and bloated. Hearing it rather than simply reading it helps.
  • Next, you have to be able to let go of any word or words you write. In 1914, writer Arthur Quiller-Couch gave a lecture at Oxford University in England called “On Style.” In it, he said the following:

“If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”[1]

The term “killing your darlings” has been variously attributed to William Faulkner and more recently Stephen King, among others, but Arthur seems to have said it first.

  • Take a 1000-word piece of your writing and edit it down to 500 words. This is an exercise I used to give my writing students when I was a university professor. It teaches you so much about your approach to writing and helps you to cultivate your style.
  • Avoid the trap of the word-count goal. This can push you to add unnecessary words and phrases.
  • Cut all weasel (or filler) words from your writing. A weasel word is one that is added to create the impression that what you’re writing is more eloquent or meaningful than it really is. All they do is add excess verbiage when the specific, well-chosen word is all you need. There is no need to create the impression of eloquence if eloquence is clear in your word choice. Examples of filler/weasel words to cut immediately: most, very, every, some suddenly, that, basically, literally (unless it’s important to truly indicate that something is literal), you see, you know, really, actually, seriously, clearly,   at the end of the day.

Marie Kondo’s approach to decluttering a house might just have an idea or we can all use for our writing. She asks the question: does it spark joy? Be honest when you answer. If not get rid of it.

A good resource: Twelve Ways to Cut Clutter From Your Writing.

[1] Forrest Wickman. Who really said ‘kill your darlings?’