Cut the Clutter

For thirty-five years I’ve been recommending William Zinsser’s On Writing Wel. It is the essential book on the craft, especially for new writers. Zinsser zeroes in on all the myths, bad habits and misunderstandings people have when they start writing.

His chapter on

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clutter is worth the price of the book. “Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds–the writer is always slightly behind” (p. 13). Consider the adjective personal. It keeps popping up, as in “my personal opinion.” What possible difference in meaning is there between that and “my opinion”? If you’ve got my” in the phrase, personal is redundant. (Maybe it’s there to distinguish it from “my impersonal opinion.”)

Why do people insist on writing, “I have another point to make,” or “Let me give an example”? Just give us the darn example, please! Cut the clutter, ruthlessly.

Yes, I know why people write like that. They are taking time to gather their thoughts, get a running start on an idea before they jump. Fair enough. Just clean up your mess afterward so readers don’t have to wade through your half-formed prose.

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“Clutter is the ponderous euphemism that turns a slum into a depressed socioeconomic area, garbage collectors into waste disposal personnel and the town dump into the volume reduction unit” (p. 13). Jargon and hackneyed phrases are the bane of every profession. We can drown in scalable, vertical ecosystems that take us to the next level, crisiswise.

So this word to the wise: After you write, Zinsserize.


Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

5 thoughts on “Cut the Clutter”

  1. Thank you dear for always cleaning out the clutter not only in my writing but my speaking too…actually in my life!

  2. Andy, would you believe that two hours ago it crossed my mind that I might do well to pull this book off the shelf and review some chapters? True. The white and turquoise spine caught my eye, and now your blog has caught my attention.

    I love to Zinsserize (Thank you for the encouragement). My weakness might be too much Zinsserizing. What would you, as an editor, say to such a writer in your stable?

  3. Jadell, too much Zinsserizing? That’s hard to imagine. I suppose it is possible it could become a bit wooden in style–but, Zinsser to the rescue, he handles that question too very nicely in the very next chapter, creatively entitled, “Style.”

  4. I’ve just re-read the chapter on style – exactly what I needed. Thanks for helping, Andy!

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