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7 Ideas on How to Simplify Your Writing and Get Rid of the Clutter

In his famous book On Writing Well, William Zinsser asserts, "Clutter is the illness of American writing." We are a civilization choked with superfluous words, circular constructs, pretentious flourishes, and worthless jargon.

Pen Nib

We may remove clutter (at least in our own writing) by adhering to a basic rule: do not waste words. When rewriting and editing, we should attempt to eliminate all imprecise, repetitive, and pompous wording.

In other words, eliminate superfluous material, be brief, and get to the point!

1. Reduce Extended Clauses

When editing, try to reduce long clauses to shorter phrases:

Wordy: The clown who was in the centre ring was riding a tricycle.

Revised: The clown in the centre ring was riding a tricycle.

2. Minimize Phrases

Likewise, try to reduce phrases to single words:

Wordy: The clown at the end of the line tried to sweep up the spotlight. Revised: The last clown tried to sweep up the spotlight.

3. Avoid Empty Openers

Avoid There is, There are, and There were as sentence openers when There adds nothing to the meaning of a sentence:

Wordy: There is a prize in every box of Quacko cereal. Revised: A prize is in every box of Quacko cereal.

Wordy: There are two security guards at the gate. Revised: Two security guards stand at the gate.

4. Don't Overwork Modifiers

Do not overwork very, really, totally, and other modifiers that add little or nothing to the meaning of a sentence.

Wordy: By the time she got home, Merdine was very tired. Revised: By the time she got home, Merdine was exhausted.

Wordy: She was also really hungry. Revised: She was also hungry [or famished].

5. Avoid Redundancies

Replace redundant expressions (phrases that use more words than necessary to make a point) with precise words. Check out this list of common redundancies, and remember: needless words are those that add nothing (or nothing significant) to the meaning of our writing. They bore the reader and distract us from our ideas. So cut them out!

Wordy: At this point in time, we should edit our work. Revised: Now we should edit our work.

6. Don't Bury Key Words

If you tuck your keywords or ideas in the middle of a sentence, the reader may overlook them. To emphasize keywords, place them at the beginning or (better yet) at the end of the sentence.

7. Use Active Verbs and Voice

Don't overwork the passive voice or forms of the verb "to be." Instead, use dynamic verbs in the active voice. An example of passive voice: "Three chairs were placed to the left of the podium." Active voice, with a subject doing the action: "A student placed three chairs to the left of the podium." or Active voice, descriptive: "Three chairs stood to the left of the podium."

Practice Cutting the Clutter

Now, let's put this advice to work. The sentences below contain unnecessary words. Without eliminating any essential information, revise each sentence to make it more concise. When you're done, compare your revisions with the shortened sentences below them.

  1. In the cellar, there are four wooden-type crates with nothing in them that might perhaps be used by us for storing paint cans inside.

  2. This morning at 6:30 a.m., I woke up out of sleep to hear my alarm go off, but the alarm was turned off by me, and I returned back to a sleeping state.

  3. The reason that Merdine was not able to be in attendance at the hockey game was that she had jury duty.

  4. Omar and I returned back to the hometown where we both grew up to attend a reunion of the people that we went to high school with ten years ago in the past.

  5. Melba has designed a very unique kind of shirt that is made out of a polyester type of material that never creases into wrinkles when it rains and the shirt gets wet.

  6. She used her money to purchase a large-type desk made of mahogany wood that is dark brown in colour and handsome to look at.

  7. In view of the fact that it was raining down, orders were given that the game is cancelled.

  8. At that point in time when Marie was a teenager the basic fundamentals of how to dance were first learned by her.

  9. Some sort of identification that would show how old we were was requested of us by the man that collects tickets from people at the movie theatre.

  10. There is a possibility that one of the causes of so many teenagers running away from home is the fact that many of them have indifferent parents who don't really care about them.

Here are edited versions of the above sentences:

  1. We could store the paint cans in the four wooden crates in the cellar.

  2. I awoke this morning at 6:30 but then turned off the alarm and went back to sleep.

  3. Because she had jury duty, Merdine was not at the hockey game.

  4. Omar and I returned to our hometown to attend our ten-year high school reunion.

  5. Melba has designed a polyester shirt that never creases when wet.

  6. She purchased a large, handsome-looking mahogany desk.

  7. The game was cancelled because of rain.

  8. Marie learned how to dance when she was a teenager.

  9. The ticket collector at the movie theatre asked us for identification.

  10. Perhaps one reason that so many teenagers run away from home is that their parents don't care about them.