Drafts of your manuscripts are bound to have clutter that obscures what you want to get across. That’s perfectly normal. But what exactly is “clutter” and how can you get rid of it?
When you are writing,1 you don’t want to slow yourself down by trying to write polished sentences and paragraphs. (I tend to get trapped in this and do not recommend it!)
In the writing stage, your main goal is to get everything you want to say down in words. It’s perfectly fine that the sentences aren’t beautiful or are disjointed.
When it’s all on the page, that’s the time to go back and edit. And one task you’ll probably have to do is to “cut the clutter.”
|[ In this article… ]|
Merriam Webster online dictionary defines “clutter” as:
…a crowded or confused mass or collection
In terms of writing, clutter refers to words and phrases that don’t serve any function. They are the “weeds”2 that get in the way of readers understanding your message.
(Some people say that clutter is used on purpose by government and corporations to hide information and evade responsibility.)
How to cut the clutter
Cutting the clutter means getting rid of what’s unnecessary to convey your point.
So how can you go about doing that? Here are three ways you can prune your writing to make your message clearer.
☑ Find the verb!
Often, academics like to make verbs into nouns. This is called nominalization. For example, you’d take verbs like “investigate” and “analyze” and change them into the nouns “investigation” and “analysis.”
Nominalization isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you use it too much, the text becomes wordier and murkier.
|As a noun (nominalized)||As a verb|
|We provide a review of…||We review…|
|The group conducted an analysis of…||The group analyzed…|
|It presents a comparison of…||It compares…|
|Note: The verbs are italicized.|
You can see in each case, you need fewer words when the action (“to review,” “to analyze,” “to compare”) is expressed as a verb.
Nominalization also makes the action a little less…well, active. And that makes your writing duller.3 When the action is the verb, the sentence becomes clearer (by being more direct) and stronger.
▶ What you can do
- Locate the action. If it’s in a noun form, then change it back to a verb and adjust the sentence.
☑ Cut repetition
Another way to clear some clutter is to get rid of instances where you say the same thing more than once. In particular, watch out for using redundant words.
For example, if you say “the round circle,” that’s redundant; a circle is round by definition. A few more examples:
(The words in italics can be cut.)
- depreciated in value
- general consensus
- final outcome
- join together
- mutual cooperation
Random House editor and author Benjamin Dreyer shares his excellent list of redundant pairs: “‘Close’ Proximity, ‘End’ Result, and More Redundant Words to Delete From Your Writing.”
▶ What you can do
- Look carefully at your word pairs and sentences and ask yourself if any say the same thing. (Check Benjamin Dreyer’s article.) If you find redundancies, cut out the extra word/sentence and reword as needed.
- If you have a pair of similar sentences because you wanted to express two subtly different ideas, try rewording to make the distinction clearer.
☑ Get rid of “throat-clearing”
Just as you clear your throat or inject an “umm” when you’re warming up to speak or pausing for a thought, so can you write fillers that don’t actually say anything.
- It is important to note that…
- I further point out that…
- An important aspect, which must not be overlooked, is that…
- It would appear to be the case that…
- It should be emphasized that…
Sometimes, even “there is/there are” can be unnecessary:
|There are many ways to explain this outcome.||We can explain this outcome in many ways.|
It’s perfectly normal that you use these phrases in the writing stage; they can help ease you into saying the important bits.
But look for them when you’re editing…and delete them. It will make your text tighter.
▶ What you can do
- Go through and underline/highlight/bracket phrases like the examples.
- See if your meaning is just as clear without those phrases (most of the time, it will be!) and delete mercilessly
See also more tips, such as using short words and short sentences.
For more examples and tips on how to cut clutter, try these resources.
- “Writing in the Sciences“: This Coursera course teaches how to become effective (scientific) writers. It’s geared towards scientists, but the concepts are applicable to any discipline. It’s brilliant and free (to audit). Units 1 to 3 especially are relevant for editing.
- William Strunk, Jr. 1920. Elements of Style. In particular, read Chapter III “Elementary Principles of Composition.” (This is the 1920 version that’s out of copyright. Project Gutenberg has ePub and Kindle versions for download.)
- Ernest Gowers. 1954. The Complete Plain Words. Written over 60 years ago, yet (sadly?) relevant today as ever. The examples he uses will keep you chuckling. (The book is in the public domain in Canada.)
- William Zinsser. 2006. On Writing Well: 30th Anniversary Edition. He has a chapter on “Clutter.” Also see the articles listed below, “5 ways to declutter your writing” and “William Zinsser’s top 10 tips on writing well” to get the highlights.
☘ Online resources
- Common Grammatical Errors: Wordiness: York University gives concise advice on how to avoid wordiness, including examples.
- Over the Limit: How to Reduce Your Research Paper’s Word Count: Clear and practical tips by scientific copyeditor Claire Bacon to reduce your word count.
- 5 Ways to Declutter Your Writing: The Thesis Whisperer (edited by Associate Professor Inger Mewburn, The Australian National University) shares five great tips inspired by William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.
- William Zinsser’s Top 10 Tips on Writing Well: As summarized by Arun Agrahri for The Writing Cooperative on Medium.
- 20 Clutter Words & Phrases to Avoid: A nice infographic from Writers Write on words and phrases you can easily cut from your writing.
If you would like to discuss whether we might be a good fit for your academic writing project, please get in touch (it’s entirely commitment-free!) via the contact form or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Note that the writing process starts with planning your document. I’ll talk about that separately!
- …as William Zinsser called them in On Writing Well
- In Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, Joseph M. Williams argues that it’s easier for a reader to follow your point when the verb matches the main action that you’re trying to convey.
- These are not in alphabetical order. The sources towards the top of each cluster are the ones I like best or find most relevant.