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Clutter

Updated: Sep 11, 2022



Consider the opening lines of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables:

Halfway down a by-street of one of our New England towns stands a rusty wooden house, with seven acutely peaked gables, facing towards the various points of the compass, and a huge, clustered chimney in the midst. The street is Pyncheon Street; the house is the old Pyncheon house; and an elm tree, of wide circumference, rooted before the door, is familiar to every town-born child by the title of the Pyncheon Elm… The aspect of the venerable mansion has always affected me like a human countenance, bearing the traces not merely of outward storm and sunshine, but expressive also, of the long lapse of mortal life, and accompanying the vicissitudes that have passed within.


Now compare that to the first paragraph in Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler:


You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV…” Or, if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.


Which do you prefer?


Granted, they are vastly different stories. The House of the Seven Gables (1851) is a Gothic novel that follows the ancestral home of a prominent New England family, while Calvino’s work (1979) is a postmodernist frame story about a reader trying to read his book. They are both well-written, and the different writing styles and topics illuminate the periods in which they were written. But if we’re focusing on the ease and enjoyability of reading in today’s world, Calvino’s piece wins hands down.


Why?


The answer lies in my last post: Simplicity. Hawthorne’s sentences are long, convoluted, and full of big words and laborious phrases. (I skimmed a lot.) By contrast, Calvino’s sentences are balanced, punchy, and delightfully easy to read. I laughed aloud when I read the first page.


But how can you do the same? The answer might surprise you.


The best way to improve your writing is to read it out loud. Why? Because if you stumble over your own words, your readers will, too.

Reading your work aloud can help you identify numerous things:

  • Is each word doing new work?

  • Have you used the same word more than once?

  • Have you shared the same idea more than once?

  • Have you used any long words or phrases that could be shorter ones?

  • Are you using the active voice?


As you locate and attempt to fix these things, you simultaneously improve the rhythm and flow of your writing. After all, “writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it" (Zinsser).


Below are a few examples where removing a word or using simple language drastically improves the overall sentence without changing its meaning:

  • "He ran very fast" / "He ran fast."

  • “She faced up to the bully” / “She faced the bully.”

  • “My personal opinion” / “My opinion.”

  • “Are you experiencing pain?” / “Does it hurt?”

  • “We are currently anticipating precipitation” / “It may rain.”


And so on and so forth.


Often a writer may use an adverb (word ending in -ly) to try to sound more convincing. In On Writing, Stephen King gives this example:


Consider the sentence "He shut the door firmly." It's by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb), but ask yourself if "firmly" really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between "He closed the door" and "He slammed the door," and you’ll get no argument from me . . . but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose that came before "He closed the door firmly?" Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t "firmly" an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?


By combing through each sentence and reading your work out loud, Zinsser says you can cut most first drafts by 50 percent without losing any information or your voice. In fact, the more clutter you eliminate, the clearer your voice can shine through.


"Look for the clutter in your and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away... Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Are you hanging onto something useless just because you think it's beautiful?" — Zinsser

Simplify, simplify.

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