4 Tips to Declutter Your Writing

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Reading sample chapters in proposals causes me to focus on every writing misstep. Too many missteps, and a potential client’s work is set aside.

When I prepare one of my client’s proposals to send to an editor, I’m also extra vigilant to cluttered writing.

Below are three writing mishaps that needlessly clutter up your writing rather than present your ideas in crisp, clear language.

Keep your eyes out for sentences that include:

There are/There is

These phrases often appear at the beginning of a sentence. Like a room filled with stacks of books on the floor, these phrases actually constitute a sentence’s needless clutter. Often such sentences can easily be rendered clutter free. Take this example:

There are several birds gathered on the telephone wire outside the farmhouse window.

Several birds gathered on the telephone wire outside the farmhouse window.

“There are” and “there is” force a sentence into using a passive verb. While passive verbs create a “quiet” feel to a sentence, they tend to suggest to the reader that taking a nap would be preferable to trudging any further through the hazy passage.

It is

Once again, “it is” tends to be the lead-in to sentences and sets those sentences up to being passive rather than active.

It is a blustery day, with leaves scurrying along as if in a rush to catch the subway.

The blustery day’s wind sent leaves scurrying along as if in a rush to catch the subway.

There’s something about…

The writer inserts this phrase to suggest leaning against a window to ponder life. But, in actuality, these words don’t add anything to a sentence.

There’s something about the aroma of coffee that snaps me awake in the morning.

The aroma of coffee snaps me awake in the morning.

Get

“Get” wins the prize for being the most generic of action verbs. You can get milk, get excited, get going, get it, etc. Whenever “get” pops up in your writing, sharpen your focus like a laser to locate a substitute. Your writing will be enlivened and clarified.

These sentences showcase how a more precise verb makes a world of difference.

As I was getting on the train, I got a sick feeling in my stomach and thought I might be getting the flu, but I think I just got nervous about the presentation I got to give to the board of administrators.

As I was boarding the train, I felt sick to my stomach and thought I might be coming down with the flu, but I think I just suffered from nervousness about the presentation I had volunteered to give to the board of administrators.

Lest you think you already know this…

So, you already know these decluttering tips? Hm-hm. And yet, these are the most common writing errors I encounter. By far. I find myself often telling a client whose proposal I’ve just decluttered, that she needs to keep an eye out for these four items of clutter.

I’ll generally hear this response, “I like to write ‘quiet.’ I think it fits my subject.” “It’s a style I’ve purposely chosen because it lends seriousness to my writing.” “Oh, I understand all about avoiding passive sentences, but sometimes passive works best.”

I, too, am a clutterer

There’s just something about these cluttering phrases that we find hard to resist. πŸ™‚ I now recall with reddened cheeks that, even as a seasoned writer, I would receive my manuscripts back from editors with my passive sentences overhauled and all my “gets” transformed into more specific word choices. At the time, I was a bit offended. After all, I knew the rules about avoiding cluttered, passive sentences or using that bland verb “get.” I was choosing to use that language to create a certain effect.

Looking back, I now realize that, nah, I simply was willing to live with the clutter rather than clean it up. Apparently I’m not alone in that decision.

What words or phrases tempt you to clutter up a perfectly good sentence?

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  1. Lynn Horton says:

    Great timing, Janet. I spent the afternoon de-cluttering a new manuscript, and actually did a master search for “there is” and “there are.” I’ll add “it is” tomorrow. Then I’ll sweep the document, looking for weak words (like your example of “getting” on the train versus “boarding” the train). I just keep whittling away . . .

  2. There is something about cluttered writing that gets me every time; it is like walking into a dank, musty room in which there are the languid ghosts of good chapters that might have been had the writer just arisen to get himself a good, bracing cup of coffee.

  3. “That” and “just” sneak into the corners of my writing, like the tiny spiders who leave gauzy webs in the corners of my house. Most of the time, I don’t even notice them, but when I see one, I suddenly find a dozen more.

  4. Angela Arndt says:

    I have several words and phrases that pop-up in my writing. In fact, β€œthat” is my bugaboo, another example of inexact writing for me.

    Thanks for this list to add to my weasel words

  5. Lori Benton says:

    That, just, to him, to her, to them. To name a few more.

  6. Toni Wilbarger says:

    Doc Hensley edited one of my novels a few years ago, and he cured me of this (and a few other things)!

  7. Oh, Janet. Adding your own struggle to resist the insistent pull of the passive voice makes your advice so much stronger and relatable. I love this! Thank you so much.

  8. I needed this today, Janet. I’ve just joined in on a marvelous crit group. I printed out my next chapter to read to the group. So today, I’ll be reworking my first line of chapter five: “It wasn’t a bad day for a funeral.” If anyone elects to help me out, I will not be offended. πŸ™‚ Writing is so fun though. I love stretching my ability … come on, Shelli. πŸ™‚

  9. Janet, this post made me smile. Words that clutter my writing include (but are not limited to): that, just, back, down, up.
    *There are more, I’m certain. Thanks for sharing your 4 tips for decluttering my writing. I’m on the look out for them in my writing now.

  10. Is ‘The’ at the beginning of a sentence in the same category?
    I’ve been editing a manuscript I wrote in 2014. Cluttered sentences throughout make editing it a time consuming task. What this proves to me is my progress as a writer. Yay!

  11. So excited to actually feel I could grab some time to read the Books and Such blog! Wow, perfect for me in so many ways. I am busy decluttering our home and office–early spring cleaning before I head back to my sister’s to be there for her fifth and final surgery on her left hip. I have been thete most of my time thus far in 2018. BUT, thank God, minus c-diff, not good to have I faction in the gut, she is now strong, off antibiotics and heading for March 28th when her new hip prosthesis will be put in. Then six weeks of healing and I will be home other than our monthly visits back and forth.

    I find that decluttering in life as in writing allows me to see the real deal, what’s most important, and what I need in order to get where I’m supposed to be going. Decluttering frees me up to walk without tripping over baskets of Christmas lights waiting to be put away, brown grocery bags assigned for trash, recycle, and shred, or the piles of wash that spill over into the office area on wash day. Clutter free living and writing allow me to get to where I have to go in the best way possible.

    Now, I am not saying I am clutter free in my writing at all. “That” and “just” are the words scattered about,;although, I realize it’s something I need to be on top of, I do try to catch as many as I can. Got to admit though, sometime those words seem to sound so good.

    Well, I better get home from this quick Caribou stop. So nice to have stopped in and read the post. Thanks Janet. I need to check on the other words you mentioned. Andrew, your entry made me smile. Prayers for you and Barb.

    I will try to stop by more often, now home to gathering tax info and papers.

    Blessings,
    Betsy

    • Janet Grant says:

      Elizabeth Bohan, I’m so happy to hear from you. Thanks for the update on you and your sister, and the good report of how she’s progressing.
      Yup, clutter at home and on the paper has the same effect: We have a hard time maneuvering around it.

  12. E McD says:

    Oh, this is useful, thank you! I’ve bookmarked this for when I (eventually) get back to editing my manuscript. There are words I know I have problems with (“as” and “but” come immediately to mind), but it’s good to know what some of the other common ones are. On a related note, reading out loud was a good way for me to discover repetitive words that were cluttering up the page.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I’m pleased to hear the list is helpful to you. You’re right that reading one’s work aloud is a great way to discover places readers not only might stumble over phrasing but also with repetition.

  13. Peggy Booher says:

    Janet,
    Thanks for this reminder. “There is”, “There are”, “was”, “just”, “but” are some of the words which clutter my writing. I am more on the lookout for them now. Recently I finished an excellent online video writing course. The instructor spent some time on passive words, passive sentences.

  14. I have started a 4×5 card by my work area that I write down words I noticed as repetitive, unnecessary, or a pet word to search for during edits. I probably have over 20 so far. πŸ˜… but they will be gone by the end, hopefully.

  15. Josh Kelley says:

    Thanks Janet! I’m adding these to my list of words to find (hooray for ctrl+F!) when I work on the final draft.