February 5, 2013
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 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.
"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.