5 ways to declutter your writing

Last week I was in Readings bookstore, with a $100 book voucher burning a hole in my pocket, when I spied a book called ‘On writing well: the classic guide to writing non fiction’ by William Zinsser. According to the cover ‘On writing well’ has sold more than a million copies, which piqued my curiosity (just as the publisher had intended). Since book vouchers are like academic candy – impossible not to spend instantly – I bought it straight away.

If you have been reading this blog for awhile you will know that I am a sucker for any book on writing. I thought I already owned everything worthy in the genre, but clearly not. The difference between Zinsser’s book and many others is that it deals with technicalities at the same time as being an inspiring call to action. Zinsser is all about the audience and how to make their reading experience more enjoyable without dumbing down your text – something all thesis writers must be interested in. I encourage you to go right out and buy this book if you don’t own it already. To convince you further here’s 5 ways to declutter your text based on some of Zinsser’s ideas:

1) Use brackets to diagnose ‘fuzz’ in your text

All writers (will have to) edit their prose, but (the) great writers edit (it) viciously, always trying to eliminate (words which are) ‘fuzz’ – (excess) words (which are not adding anything of value). Zinsser compares (the process of editing out) ‘fuzz’ to fighting weeds – you will always be slightly behind (because they creep in when you aren’t looking for them). One of my (pet hates) is (the word) ‘also’. (If you search and replace all instances (of this word) you will find you can live without it and your writing will improve (instantly). (Likewise the word)’very’.)

Let’s try that again:

All writers edit their prose, but great writers edit viciously. The point of editing is to eliminate ‘fuzz’, or excess words which don’t add value. Zinsser compares removing ‘fuzz’ to fighting weeds – you will always be slightly behind. Two examples of fuzz are ‘also’ and ‘very’. Work at keeping them out of your text and your writing will improve.

2) Pay attention to your adverbs and such

I’m a child of the 70’s, when, it seems, they gave up teaching grammar. I can’t explain what an adverb is, but I know one when I see it. Zinsser points out that “smile happily” doesn’t say much more than “smile” and that the tall in “tall skyscraper” is redundant. If you start to mentally put brackets around these words as you read you will start to see adverb abuse everywhere – which unfortunately makes reading trashy novels (very) irritating.

3) Get rid of qualifiers

Zinsser claims that qualifiers “weaken any sentence they inhabit”. Phrases like “in a sense”, “a bit”, “sort of” have no place in a thesis. Worse – they imply that you are apologetic or unsure of your ideas. This is not a  message you want to send to your examiners.

4) Strive for nuance

Grammar hurts my brain. It’s like trying to understand how I am walking as I walk and makes me dizzy. So I will make this next point without resorting to technical explanations. This advice comes out of Chapter 7 of Kamler and Thomson’s excellent book “Helping doctoral students to write”, but I think Zinsser would have approved. Consider the following sentences:

Inger argues that the words you use to describe the work of others is important
Inger asserts that the words you use to describe the work of others is important
Inger states that the words you use to describe the work of others is important
Inger outlines that the words you use to describe the work of others is important

There’s quite a difference between ‘argues’ and ‘asserts’. The first implies that Inger is making a case, the second implies that Inger is defending a position without necessarily providing any evidence for it. ‘Asserts’ adds a whiff of arrogance, but without over playing it (remember that academia is in a state of polite warfare). Likewise ‘stating’ something is different from ‘outlining’ it – the latter implies that some explanation is supplied which will help the reader understand what is being discussed.

Paying attention to the words you use to describe the work of others saves you the trouble of adding another sentence to explain to the reader what you think of the work. It’s the thesis writer’s equivalent of a nod and a wink to the reader. It’s hard work to remember all that nuance, so I keep a handy list of verbs on my wall.

5) Get comfortable with pruning the excess

It’s hard to write well on a subject if you don’t understand it clearly. Sometimes the only way to get to the idea is to write it out. It’s likely that you will generate far more text than you can, or should, use. It can be tempting to ‘dress up’ your writing to appear more intelligent. Resist the urge. The ideas and findings in a thesis are important; style is secondary. A simple and precise style is like painting your walls white – a backdrop against which your ideas can pop. It can be hard to do the necessary pruning, but remember that examiners are likely to view a thinner thesis as a sign that you are confident and in charge of your material.

Happy gardening thesis writers!

36 thoughts on “5 ways to declutter your writing

    • Hi Fred,You make a lot of great points about how to write beettr blog posts. I have found that one of the best strategies is to write usable content. If you can write a post that answers a specific question or solves a problem, readers are going to be more likely to share it as well as come back for more. It can be a little more of a process in coming up with these types of posts, but it will always be beneficial in the long run.HUG Charities recently posted..

  1. And adverb is a modifying word.
    An adjective is a describing word.
    A verb is a doing word.
    A noun is a naming word.

    That should keep your grammar going for now. Not only did I do grammar in primary school they taught us a wonderful thing called derivation – so we knew the roots of words. Many years later, in my 30s, I was doing linguistics. I said to my lecturer: is there something going whoosh right by me or did I do this stuff (he was teaching how to analyse a sentence) in Grade 4. He said “You would have. The others haven’t.”

    Now isn’t that great. A lot of difference between the wages of a primary school teacher and a university lecturer. Wouldn’t it have been better to teach in the early years (wages cost less) and then those taught would have the use of these valuable tools for nearly all of their lives (how effective would that be.) Ah well, another instance of the more things are improved the less effective they are.

    • So nice to find someone else who learned grammar and cares about etymology. I may have been the last of my generation –in our school district at least– to learn how to diagram sentences. It was useful for deciphering Melville’s paragraph-long sentences in Moby Dick then. It has been helpful in structuring my own writing and invaluable in trying to make sense of today’s often chaotic communication styles.

      Bring back the grammar!

    • I’ll grant you a moment of pedantry if you’ll allow me a moment of quibbletry.* She didn’t actually say it is an adverb –notice the “…and such”– but rather that “Zinsser points out that…(it) is redundant.”

      *Yes, I made that word up… like ‘gallantry’ only not necessarily gallant. Or perhaps “quibblescence” has a better ring and more accurate meaning if “dictionary at ten paces” has commenced.

    • Surely you mean: “Then pedantic me has to point out that that comma should HAVE BEEN a colon in my PREVIOUS comment.” 🙂

      • @John Handley: No, Pedantic Me notes that it’s still there and it still should be a colon. I should have written a colon, and it should be a colon.

        That raises another thing that one can do to declutter one’s writing: look at your tenses. Students (and some academics) use the future when it’s not needed and not accurate.

        For example:
        ‘In this paper I will argue that…’
        By the time the reader is reading it, the paper exists and does what it does, so save a word and show more confidence in your achievement and write:
        ‘In this paper I argue that…’

        Or in some conditionals…for example I just read one from a student:
        ‘If the subjects did X, then they will also do Y’.
        Actually, they also _did_ Y.

        So, I recommend that my students (and I do this myself on my own writing) do a search for ‘will’ during the editing process and ask themselves: could I say the same thing without ‘will’?

        I also search my papers for the word ‘there’ after it was pointed out to me as a doctoral student that I wrote ‘there is/are’ a lot. It’s almost always unnecessary. As the post notes, there’s a lot of fluff in sentences, and I tend to find it mostly in the beginnings of sentences. My hypothesis: we write a lot of rubbish at the starts of sentences because we’re getting our brains into gear, planning the meaty part. That might mean that for some writers, trying not to write the fluff can stall the thinking process a bit. So, I recommend that my students just write-write-write, then edit-edit-edit.

  2. I believe it was Stephen King who once said “The adverb is not your friend”. That quote has stuck with me, and been a good friend to my own writing.

    Another point I keep in mind is to keep my sentences as simple as possible.

    I used to tell students: “every sentence should be a shining jewel on the black velvet of the paragraph”.

    • “every sentence should be a shining jewel on the black velvet of the paragraph”.

      “I like that!” exclaims she who loves black velvet and breaks for glitz yet finds it hard to keep sentences simple.

  3. A fortuitous article for those of us who are writing, Inger.

    Digestible thoughts, which make sense. I appreciate your sharing your list of verbs. It helps when you think…”Oh, God! I’ve used that two sentences ago, or whatever.

    I equate the editing of one’s writing to becoming like a poet, even though our qualitative writing tends to be prose. Poet in the sense, that we need to find a word or words which paint – without overstating the picture – in the mind of the reader. Better still the word/words trigger a response – whatever the text evokes, without telling the reader this is how you should feel…

  4. I am a child of the 50s when they did grammar. And even at this advanced age they let us do doctorates! Great article. As a professional author, I have been taught much of this by red editor’s marks all over my manuscripts.

    I could not agree more about adverbs. Primary teachers seem very keen to get kids to add them. When I teach primary extension classes, the kids tell me they have been told to add ‘describing words’ to nouns and verbs. Primary kids are also taught that they should not use ‘said’ as in ‘he said’ or ‘she said’. People exclaim, shout and even ejaculate ( I kid you not) but they never simply ‘say’. Every author I know who goes into schools is fighting this one.

    Knowing this stuff does not stop it creeping in. Could you please repeat this post every week for the next six months as I pull the thesis into shape?

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  6. This is very useful advice, thank you! I own On Writing Well too, but it’s been buried under all the other books I’ve been chewing through.

    I gave this article to a friend, and I wanted to share the following conversation:

    “Remember that academia is in a state of polite warfare.”

    “It’s so true. Academics just use subtle flourishes instead of guns.”

    “And with this parenthetical aside, good sir, I stab you in the kidney for your misogynist readings.”

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