“Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to ‘personalize’ the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest strength and the least clutter.”
Every so often, I dip into one of my classic books on writing style, just to refresh my creative juices and remind myself to pay attention to the basics. One of my old but trusted standbys is On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Billed as an “informal guide to writing nonfiction,” it’s filled with useful advice for fiction writers as well. I especially like the lean style and structure he uses, which is totally in keeping with his overarching message: simplify, simplify. He has chapters called “Simplicity,” “Clutter,” “Style,” “Words.”
In his fast-paced, five-page chapter “Clutter,” our boy Bill tackles with gusto the many ways in which we obscure our meaning by using unnecessary phrases or two-bit words when a one-bit word will do nicely. Clutter in writing isn’t just a sign of sloppiness or laziness, it also gets in the way of saying what we want to say: it acts as a “drag on energy and momentum.”
Zinsser gives plenty of examples of clutter in action. Here are a few we’d all do well to ponder and prune from our writing: 1) adding prepositions to verbs that don’t need any help: “face up to” instead of simply “face,” “free up” instead of “free;” 2) useless adjectives, such as “personal” in “a personal friend of mine;” 3) long-winded phrases, such as “at this point in time,” instead of “now;” 4) euphemisms that seek to gild the lily, for example, “depressed socioeconomic area,” instead of “slum;” 5) industry jargon, such as “potentialize” and “maximize,” 6) long-winded words that aren’t any clearer than short ones: “numerous” instead of “many” or “attempt” instead of “try.” Zinsser’s advice: All these offenders are “weeds that will smother what you write…Re-examine each sentence that you put on paper. Is every word doing new and useful work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy?” I’m going on clutter patrol, how about you?