De-clutter Your Writing

Like many others, I’ve picked up some bad writing habits over the years. Overwriting is my worst habit, putting more words on the page than readers need in order to understand what I’m writing about.

The sentences above are a bad example of circumlocution (I had to look this one up — it means using many words to express an idea that could be expressed using few). I could have written, “My worst habit is overwriting,” and ended there. And using the word circumlocution shows that I fail to use simple words, another bad habit.

I don’t fight my bad writing habits during the first draft of any article — I just try to get the basic idea down no matter how many words it takes or how involved the words are. I don’t limit the writing in any way. But for second and succeeding drafts, I work hard to make the writing lean and clean. That means cutting the clutter.

Some years ago when I was a staff writer and general flunky with a business newspaper, I was asked to make deep cuts in a long article submitted by a freelancer. Just by taking out every unneeded word and phrase, I was able to whittle the piece down by over 500 words. The gist of the article remained the same and the writer’s style came across very well despite the cuts. With fewer words, it was a much better article.

That chore taught me the value of removing unneeded words, phrases and sentences (and sometimes whole paragraphs) from my own writing. I’m sure I don’t always succeed as much as I should, but the goal of cutting the clutter always remains the same.

Cutting the clutter means heeding the words of William Strunk, Jr., in The Elements of Style:

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Now that’s clutter-free writing.

Please leave a comment.

©2007 by Laverne Daley. All rights reserved.
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