Clean out the clutter

I’ll start this post with an excerpt from what I consider one of the best books on editing and writing, “On Writing Well,” by William Zinsser:

Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds—the writer is always slightly behind. New varieties sprout overnight, and by noon, they are part of American speech. Consider what President Nixon’s aide John Dean accomplished in just one day of testimony on television during the Watergate hearings. The next day, everyone in America was saying “at this point in time” instead of “now.”

Consider all the prepositions that are draped onto verbs that don’t need any help. 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” in a few minutes. A small detail, you may say—not worth bothering about.

It is worth bothering about. Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there. “Up” in “free up” shouldn’t be there. Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.

Here are some examples of unnecessary prepositions, redundant phrases and wordy expressions (special thanks to copy editors Bob Importico and Michael Dhar for contributing to this list):

Unnecessary prepositions

beat out → beat

start off → start

match up → match

head up → head

finish up → finish

Redundant phrases

laptop computer → laptop

share the same → share / have the same

both agree → agree

crammed close together → crammed

collide into each other → collide

tall skyscraper → skyscraper

deceptive lie → lie

insist adamantly → insist

dark, black outer shell → black shell

Wordy expressions

at the present time → now

in the near future → soon

has the ability to → can

look at very carefully → scrutinize

the fact that → the fact that

despite the fact that → although

comes equipped with → has / includes / comes with

make a choice → choose

experiencing pain → hurting

walk around aimlessly → wander / roam

less than great → mediocre / average

Keep it simple. This is especially important when numbers and comparisons are involved; if you make readers work too hard, they might give up and go somewhere else.


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