Lecture 7: How to Get Rid of Clutter

Clutter is hard to avoid, especially in first and intermediate drafts when we are trying to work out what we want to say and how to say it. As I mentioned, Zinsser, one of the most ardent and articulate enemies of word clutter, illustrates how hard it is to cut out superfluous words by printing pages from the fourth or fifth drafts of his On Writing Well with editing markups. Even a preeminent writer such as Zinsser found superfluous words in an advanced draft of his book. The moral of the story is that weeding out word clutter is a difficult task.

The first thing we must do, Zinsser says, “is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing: one can’t exist without the other.”

The importance of an efficient process

To avoid having to resort to pseudo-language because you have nothing to say, be sure to have something to say. This seems obvious. But I have witnessed several projects ending in disaster because they attempted to produce content without having a clear idea of what they wanted to say. Many businesses and professionals start writing without first planning what they want to say and doing enough research to support their premise or proposition. If they get stuck, they may call in a writer or editor to perform “word magic” to package their vague ideas into a cogent, engaging report or social media posting.

There is no easy way to weed out word clutter. It takes time and the discipline of being critical of your own work, even cutting out words or phrases that you are attached to, but which get in the way of your message.

Try to take a break from your writing to gain distance from it. Return with a fresh mind as if you were another person, and editor, hired to make your document as clear and concise as possible. Leave yourself plenty of time for editing, especially on important projects where the rewards for making a good impression are worth the effort

Having an efficient process is essential. I discuss writing process in detail in “Master the Essential Business Writing Skills in Six Weeks.”

Checklists for editing

In grading students’ papers at Yale, Zinsser would put brackets around every word “that wasn’t doing useful work.” Among the pitfalls to be on the alert for are the following:

·        shoddy wording that leaves a sentence with more than one possible meaning

·        a sentence that does not logically follow from the previous sentence

·        sentences that could be cut without sacrificing meaning

·        words the writer has not used before, and may be misusing

I suggest that you make a checklist on a single sheet of paper or in a document on your computer and keep it next to you as you write. Include in your list the items Zinsser suggests as well as the types of word clutter we have discussed in this section.

Reading analytically

Reading the work of others closely to see how they succeed or fail in expressing their ideas is a good way of learning how to write. It makes you look at writing more analytically. Keep your eye out for clutter. Make a list of examples you find.