Writing 101: Kill Clutter

The fastest way to improve your writing is to eliminate clutter. Read over your essay and bracket everything unnecessary [or redundant], just as I’ve done in this sentence. Sometimes you’ll bracket individual words or short phrases. Look for tacked-on infinitives (“I hope [to begin] to address”), adverbs that carry the same meaning as their verbs (“I [hurriedly] ran”) and timid qualifiers (“It was [a bit] like,” “[In a sense,] I was”). Other times, you’ll bracket sentences or whole paragraphs that explain what doesn’t need to be explained.

I prefer brackets to strike-throughs because brackets feel less final. You can decide later whether to delete the bracketed words.

Note that this lesson owes a lot to the chapter “Clutter” in William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.

Exercise: Bracketing Words

Add brackets to these sentences, then click “Our edit.”

1.

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Our edit

“To utilize societal and institutional tools” is definitely unnecessary. Depending on the context, you may want to keep “entrenched patterns of.”

2.

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Our edit

3.

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Our edit

“Quickly” actually contradicts the verb “shuffled.” If you wanted to convey the speed with which you moved, you could change the verb: “I hurried into the board room.”

4.

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Our edit

You could also rephrase this one to make it more firm and specific: “I realized that I wanted to be a lawyer when I was twenty-six.”

5.

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Our edit

This sentence would also benefit from more specificity: “The documentary inspired me so much I began to cry, and I realized that I wanted to help change mandatory minimum sentencing laws.”

6.

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Our edit

This whole sentence could be rephrased: “I appreciate how these languages connect the concepts of human rights and law, for I’m interested in the law as a tool to protect human rights.”

Exercise: Pruning Paragraphs

These two paragraphs come at the beginning of an essay. Try combining them into one short paragraph. Cut, rearrange, and add transitional phrases as necessary.

Our Edit

Words that can usually be eliminated

  • Truly (“I truly believe”)
  • Noticeable / noticeably (“That noticeably improved”)
  • Personal (“She was my personal guide”)
  • Unique (“It was a unique chance”)
  • The “ever” in “first-ever” (“I helped to start the first-ever yodeling slam at Haverford College.”)

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