Are you a hoarder? Maybe not in your home, but what about in your writing? Is it so cluttered with verbiage—wordiness, circumlocution, redundancy, modifiers, empty openers and phrases, pretension, clichés—that your readers stumble and rummage through it?
It’s time to purge. Even if you’re a creative writer.
If your writing is non-fiction or business, of course you want it to be clear and direct. But flowery embellishments and long, tangled descriptions don’t work now in creative writing, either. Maybe during the Victorian era that was the style, but today’s creative writing is clear and direct. All writers, then, need to use the “power” skill of writing concisely.
Don’t just take it from me. Here’s what the pros have to say:
- “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” –Thomas Jefferson
- “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” –Mark Twain
- “I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” –Truman Capote
- “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” –Dr. Seuss
English professors everywhere preach the virtues of clean writing to students who fill their sentences with extra words to add to their page count.
In On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser says, “Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing the author’s voice.” To help his Yale students learn to cut sentence clutter, he “put brackets around any component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work.” At the beginning of the semester, students’ papers were “festooned with brackets.” By the end, well, you can guess.
What clutter did Zinsser bracket?
See my third sentence, above. Also—
- Avoid passive verbs
- Avoid vague nouns (area, manner, situation, thing, type)
- Avoid noun forms of verbs (say “he presented,” not “he did a presentation”)
Consider the difference between the sentences in these pairs:
A. This morning at 7:00 a.m., Louise woke up out of sleep to hear her alarm ring, but the alarm was shut off by her, and she drifted back to a sleeping state.
A. Louise awoke this morning at 7:00 but shut off the alarm and drifted back to sleep.
B. At this moment in time, students who are matriculating through college should be empowered to make the choice whether to drink alcohol.
B. College students should have the right to choose whether to drink alcohol.
C. Getting prostate exams has resulted in cancer-detection for many men.
C. Prostate exams have detected cancer in many men.
Finally, just for fun! Can you spot the redundancies in this excerpt from George Carlin’s “Count the Superfluous Redundant Pleonastic Tautologies”?
My fellow countrymen, I speak to you as coequals, knowing you are deserving of the honest truth. And let me warn you in advance, my subject matter concerns a serious crisis caused by an event in my past history: the execution-style killing of a security guard on a delivery truck. At that particular point in time, I found myself in a deep depression, making mental errors which seemed as though they might threaten my future plans. I am not over-exaggerating.
Have fun festooning!