“Where’s he at?”…and Other Sentence Clutter

Man with Binoculars
“I can’t see him. Where is he at?”
photo credit: Boston Public Library via photopin cc

Have you agreed to stop hoarding and clean up your writing? In my previous post, I told you what to get rid of (These are actually just a start!):

  1. redundancy
  2. wordiness
  3. pretension
  4. circumlocution
  5. modifiers
  6. empty openers and phrases
  7. clichés
  8. passive verbs
  9. vague nouns
  10. noun forms of verbs

I had you look for redundancies such as “woke up out of sleep.” The George Carlin piece suggested “Duh!”s like “honest truth.” My all-time favorite duh! “Where’s he at?” 

Also, use verbs that show a character taking action (ride, opens, pushed, shakes, squinted), rather than simply being (am, was, did, seems, meant). Choose the most specific form of nouns (poodle, left field, sneer, Marsh Drive, betrayal), rather than general references (dog, area, gesture, street, situation). End your love affair with modifiers—adverbs (closely, delightedly, very, quickly) and vague adjectives (happy, beautiful, mean, good, best). These tips eliminate clutter in less obvious ways. Saying “she was happy” takes three words; saying “she beamed” takes two and creates a vivid image.

In his 1979 New York Times “On Language” columns, William Safire compiled humorous grammar rules that, while telling what to do, illustrate what not to do. These relate to cutting clutter:

  • Never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
  • Don’t string too many prepositional phrases together unless you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
  • Last, but not least, avoid clichés like the plague; they’re old hat; seek viable alternatives.
  • Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
  • Employ the vernacular.

The full list is here: http://rainbowmonkey9.deviantart.com

Take care of all the clutterbugs by studying and employing a spare writing style, a la Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, or Joan Didion. These authors use(d) short sentences with basic, straightforward structures; plain English with common vocabulary; action verbs and concrete nouns; and few modifiers.

Hemingway once said to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “I write one page of masterpiece to 99 pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

Here’s a sample of Hemingway’s minimalist style:  
“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”

    I’m getting as bored with dying as with everything else, he thought.
    “It’s a bore,” he said out loud.
    “What is, my dear?”
    “Anything you do too bloody long.”
    He looked at her face between him and the fire. She was leaning back in the chair and the firelight shone on her pleasantly lined face and he could see that she was sleepy. He heard the hyena make a noise just outside the range of the fire.
    “I’ve been writing,” he said, “but I got tired.”

“At the Dam”

The bronze sculptures at the dam itself evoke muscular citizens of a tomorrow that never came, sheaves of wheat clutched heavenward, thunderbolts defied. Winged Victories guard the flagpole. The flag whips in the canyon wind. An empty Pepsi-Cola can clatters across the terrazzo. The place is perfectly frozen in time.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

I was in bed when I heard the gate. I listened carefully. I didn’t hear anything else. But I heard that. I tried to wake Cliff. He was passed out. So I got up and went to the window. A big moon was laid over the mountains that went around the city. It was a white moon and covered with scars. Any damn fool could imagine a face there.

Get out there and change the world with your concise writing!