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5 Writing Tips to Eliminate Clutter from Your Prose

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Recently I finished reading the 30th anniversary edition of a book called On Writing Well by the legendary non-fiction writer William Zinsser.

This book kicked my ass.

In his signature punchy style, Zinsser explains why clutter is the #1 enemy for all writers, regardless of genre or medium.

“Clutter,” explains Zinsser, “is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”

I can’t agree more. Each “whilst” where “while” will do, every “conceptualisation” where “concept” will do, feels like a fork screeching on the chalkboard to me.

In a well-intentioned attempt to appear professional, we make our writing messy, imprecise, and longer than it needs to be. It never helps, and often hurts, because it provides a poor experience for our readers.

This problem is particularly widespread in academic writing. Articles and papers presenting relatively simple ideas do so in a (sometimes deliberately) opaque manner with run-on sentences and $10 words. Wouldn’t it be better to share your ideas so that more people can understand them?

If you’re extremely confident in the clarity of your writing, you likely shouldn’t be. Your writing shouldn’t be a presentation of how smart you are; it should be the clearest, tightest possible expression of your ideas.

That’s just what our goal should be: to make our writing as clear and easily accessible as possible. Because if our prose is full of adverbs, weasel and filler words, and $10 words, our readers are less likely to understand our true message.

Not a writer? Well, do you send emails? Do you write posts on Twitter? Every area of your life can benefit from learning a clearer, tighter writing style.

So without further ado, here are five tips and tricks adapted from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well to help you declutter your prose.

1. Strip Every Sentence to its Cleanest Components

But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what — these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.
On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

When you’re writing your first draft, the key factor is getting it down on paper. Perfect, tight prose should not be your primary goal at this stage.

When writing my book, it felt so good to get those first 90,000 words down. It was nowhere near finished, and required a lot of editing, but the block was there — all I needed was to chip away at this block over time until it clearly resembled the professional book that I wanted.

Chipping away at a piece of stone is the perfect analogy for the post-draft editing stage. We go through our untidy first draft, full of its mistakes, repeated words, and adverbs, and clean out all the clutter.

No sentence is above judgement. Each one must be scrutinised with the question “How do I express this in fewer words?” Often the answer is to get rid of the entire sentence — and you should welcome this, it’s one less sentence to edit in the next pass.

Editing takes a long time, and you should aim for multiple rounds, but it’s invaluable. Every time you convert a “really hot” into a “scorching,” and a “quite clever” into an “intelligent,” you make your prose both more expressive and easier to read.

This is how professional writers craft their books — not through flashes of profound genius but by doing the hard work of breaking every sentence down and replacing it with something more expressive.

2. Clear Thinking Becomes Clear Writing

How can the rest of us achieve such enviable freedom from clutter? The answer is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English. He may get away with it for a paragraph or two, but soon the reader will be lost, and there’s no sin so grave, for the reader will not easily be lured back.
On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

In my book I explain in great depth why the planning stage is critical to any great story. Most writers don’t fail due to a lack of writing ability, but due to a lack of a clear plan.

If you’ve spent months outlining your story, thinking deeply about the character conflicts and how each component moves, then you’ve made your drafting stage much easier.

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, involves a gruelling daily 1,667-word count challenge. I often tell NaNo writers that if they get clear on their plan before 1st of November, and create a clear roadmap, then the daily writing job becomes more mechanical.

It’s so much easier to write from a pre-existing story outline than it is to summon the immense creative energies required to come up with brand new ideas for 30 straight days.

The other key effect of doing this preparatory work is that you actually know what you’re writing about before you write.

If you’re riding by the seat of your pants — known as “Pantsing” in the NaNo community — your writing is bound to be muddled and unclear. That’s not going to create a fun experience for your readers.

Explicit plans, on the other hand, lead to bold, deliberate writing. Get serious about your outlines, your readers will thank you for it.

3. Ask Yourself “What Am I Trying to Say?”

Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery. The clear writer is someone clearheaded enough to see this stuff for what it is: fuzz.
On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

Yet another consequence of proper planning is that you can narrow down your message and interrogate your draft to check that it’s properly conveying that message.

If you’re writing non-fiction, then each chapter and sub-section should concentrate on a given topic, and you can interrogate each sentence and paragraph accordingly.

Fiction writers have a harder job on this front. What constitutes a clear message? In this case, we need to see the story as a river flowing from start to end. Any clutter will act like a dam in the river’s path.

The best stories move with a relentlessly deliberate — albeit not necessarily fast — pace. Just look at great films like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight or Stephen King’s Misery. They seem to move fast only because each writer was clear on what the story needed to accomplish, and therefore got rid of anything not serving that movement.

All great writing is penned with a purpose. You don’t have to get it right first time, but a long, thorough planning stage is once again critical.

4. Put Brackets around Every Component Not Pulling Its Own Weight

Is there any way to recognize clutter at a glance? Here’s a device my students at Yale found helpful. I would put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work. Often just one word got bracketed: the unnecessary preposition appended to a verb (“order up”), or the adverb that carries the same meaning as the verb (“smile happily”), or the adjective that states a known fact (“tall skyscraper”).
On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

Nowadays, we mostly write and edit on our computers. Word processors and specialist manuscript-writing packages come with intuitive tools for selecting, finding, and replacing words as we see fit.

Every editing phase always needs at least one hard copy review round. Yes, it takes up precious paper, but seeing your words printed out gives you a fresh perspective. This makes it much easier to identify pesky errors and style issues you hadn’t seen before.

Zinsser recommends circling offending words or sections, but really this is up to the writer. I like to underline with a pencil, sometimes a highlighter, but really the vital part is the physical interaction with the draft — no amount of staring at an LCD screen can replace this.

Another editing technique I write about in my book is to read your manuscript out loud. If it doesn’t sound right, you’ll know it instantly, and you can make the appropriate edits.

Be as creative as you can be during the countless rounds of edits — the goal is to expose your work from as many different perspectives as possible. Trusted third-parties should read your work, and you should always hire an independent professional copy-editor.

5. Be Yourself

Trying to add style is like adding a toupee. At first glance the formerly bald man looks young and even handsome. But at second glance — and with a toupee there’s always a second glance — he doesn’t look quite right. The problem is not that he doesn’t look well groomed; he does, and we can only admire the wigmaker’s skill. The point is that he doesn’t look like himself. This is the problem of writers who set out deliberately to garnish their prose. You lose whatever it is that makes you unique. The reader will notice if you are putting on airs. Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself.
On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

The best writers express themselves through a strong “voice.” This concept of “voice” is especially difficult to understand because it’s so hard to define. But for me, it’s the degree of clarity that the writer is able to express their thoughts and concepts through to words on paper.

(James Scott Bell actually explored this in greater detail in his brilliant book VOICE, which I highly recommend you check out.)

Expressive writing feels like the author is communicating with me through the book or article. It has that elusive flow to it, the quality that our writing can only have once we’ve successfully decluttered every sentence.

So how do we achieve this in our writing? That’s a question writers have been asking themselves since the printed word became popularised.

Zinsser says the best route to flowing, expressive writing is to relax and not try to make their writing “look professional.” A manufactured sentence never reads well.

If you’ve spent enough time thinking about your subject or story, then your subconscious will have done a lot of the work for you.

That might sounds crazy, but it’s something we’ve all experienced when writing our best work. The sentences seem to appear almost from nowhere. How does this happen? Really it’s our subconscious emitting the words from our (ideally) deep understanding of the subject at play.

When you let your writing show your true self, it’s impossible to create cluttered prose. When the concepts are that clear in your mind and flowing like an open faucet — actually no, like a cascading flood — each sentence effortlessly flows into the next.

That is the height of expressive, easily readable prose, and it’s our ultimate goal as writers. The only way to achieve it is through a lot of writing practise and plenty of research.

If this feels like some far-off goal, then understand this: Good writing is never a function of some innate talent — the best professional writers aren’t the most naturally gifted, but the ones who read the most widely and do the most work practising their craft.

Perfect, uncluttered prose is yours and yours alone. Never forget that.

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Posted on: 17th November, 2018

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