Declutter Your Writing

"Clutter is the disease of American writing," William Zinsser said.

He means that much of our writing is bloated with fluff that adds nothing. He cites examples like, "We no longer head committees. We head them up. We don't face problems anymore. We face up to them when we can free up a few minutes” [emphasis added].

This is important, he says, because "Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn't be there."

As an editor, I must agree with Zinsser, though it pains the writer in me. Why do we writers add so much fluff?

Most fill their drafts with clutter because they're trying to hit a word count or sound unique. Clutter does add length, but it distracts the reader. And you don’t have to write more to find or strengthen your voice. Zinsser correctly notes, "Most first drafts can be cut by fifty percent without losing any information or losing the author's voice."

If your goal is to serve the reader, then cut the clutter, starting with these common culprits of cluttered writing:

  • "I believe," "I think," or "in my opinion." The reader assumes what you are writing is your belief, thought, or opinion. No need to state so unless it's necessary for clarity.

  • "Personal." If a hat is my personal favorite hat, I should just say it's my favorite hat. "My" is a personal pronoun. No need to make it "personal."

  • "At the moment," "at the present time," or "currently." These are all longer, more complicated ways of saying "now." Just say "now."

  • "Referred to as." You can say Sally is referred to as a doctor, or you can just say Sally is called a doctor. Use fewer words whenever possible.

  • "A bit," "sort of," or "kind of." These little qualifiers weaken sentences. Something is either like something or it is not.

  • “In what ways.” You can replace this with “how.”

  • "In a sense." This doesn't mean anything.

Here are some other ways to tidy up your prose:

Remove unnecessary redundancies. Look for sentences where you use more than one word that mean the same thing. For instance, let’s say you mention “various and sundry items.” “Various” and “sundry” are synonyms; there’s no need for both. There are times when it’s helpful to emphasize, like in Romans 3:12 where Paul writes, “no one does good, not even one.” “No one” obviously means the same thing as “not even one,” but in this case, it further drives Paul’s point home by anticipating the reader’s internal question (Wait, no one is good?).

Bible teachers and pastors, this is especially important when turning a sermon manuscript or teaching outline into an article or another written piece. Repetition is helpful in speaking but usually harmful in writing.

Stop telling after showing. Last week I explained the importance of showing your reader something versus telling them. If you’ve done the hard work of showing, don’t turn around and tell them too. For example, if you’ve just written, “Peter wept bitterly,” don’t then write, “He was heartbroken.”  

Write in the active voice. Active and passive voice will be topics for a later article, but for now, know that writing in the active voice is usually preferred and requires fewer words. For example, instead of saying, “a desire has grown to write from my own perspective” (passive voice), you could say, “I desire to write from my own perspective” (active voice). The second is shorter and clearer.

Read your writing out loud. When you read your words aloud, you’ll quickly hear where they are laborious. As you do this, ask yourself if each word carries its own weight or if it's relying on other words. Choose words that can do their own heavy lifting. 

Kill your darlings. William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Your darlings are those words or sentences you think are brilliant but add nothing to your prose. You must kill them all. As your edit your work, ask yourself if you're keeping something because it makes you look or feel smart. If this is the main goal of the sentence and it’s not serving the reader, kill it.

Ruthlessly eliminating clutter from your writing is tiring. "Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds—the writer is always slightly behind,” Zinsser wrote.

(But that's why we have editors.)

Grayson Pope (M.A., Christian Studies) is a husband and father of four and the Managing Web Editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He serves as a writer and editor with Prison Fellowship. For more of Grayson’s writing check out his website or follow him on Twitter.