Clutter in text (and in life) doesn’t just mean extra or unnecessary stuff. Clutter is also stuff out of place and stuff that doesn’t fit right.
So you have a first draft. It feels great, doesn’t it? It just needs revising. You have the best intentions and set out to tighten the text and present the best version to your readers.
But you find clutter. Clutter in text (and in life) doesn’t just mean extra or unnecessary stuff. Clutter is also stuff out of place and stuff that doesn’t fit right. Jargon in a patient education leaflet is clutter. Imprecise terminology in a surgeon training manual is clutter. Erratic verb tenses create clutter with confusing time references. Disorderly class inclusion (jumping from some to all to many) creates clutter by disorienting the reader.
Mistake #1: You’re Not Focused on One Idea at a Time
As you start decluttering a passage, forking paths get the best of you. You start revising an issue, but the next issue catches your attention. So, you insert a note to come back to the first issue as the second one distracts you from your original decluttering.
Before you know it, you’ve spent most of your time jumping from passage to passage, adding something here and chopping something there, creating a bigger mess than the one you started with. Perhaps, you set off to get rid of weak verbs and notice nominalizations bloating the text. You switch to verbalizing nouns instead. Or, you were editing for gender neutrality, but verb tenses got in the way, and now you’re addressing time references instead of pronouns. You just spent valuable time without readable results.
Instead of trying to rid a passage of all its clutter, try focusing on one issue at a time. Don’t let yourself move on to the next issue until the one at hand is resolved.
To identify issues, you may want to review one or two paragraphs. Name all the issues you’re dealing with: it’s likely you’ll encounter them throughout your piece. Prioritize your list of issues and work through the text one issue at a time. You don’t need to know technical linguistics terms—though, over time, you may want to pick up a few to share ideas with others.
You may choose to tackle a substantial issue, like the order of information throughout the text. If you’re explaining a procedure, are all the steps in sequence? If you’re addressing an arguable issue, did you include a rebuttal? If you’re narrating a story, do your tenses make sense, or did you jump from past to present to future haphazardly?
The key is to split the text into issues and inspect one passage at a time so you have a specific focus. To get started, you can use my printable decluttering checklist, which will help you pick specific aspects of text and focus on one at a time.1
Mistake #2: You Keep Too Much Stuff
Again, you start off with the best intentions, but you end up talking yourself into keeping ideas or phrases you don’t really need in your piece. You think it sounds really good (or, that it makes you sound really good), or that your readers might need it to understand the background for your piece. Or perhaps you feel it’s a valuable piece of information even if it’s not completely within the scope of the piece.
The fact is, you don’t need to hold onto words or ideas that make you feel as if you’re not good enough. Your readers want to read your piece, and you do have valuable information for them. Embrace you inner rockstar. Take a deep breath and clear the text from pompous, irrelevant, and second-guessing ideas.
If something unnecessary for the piece is truly valuable to you because of its nifty wording, explanatory value for the point you’re making, or informational value for your readers in the future, by all means add it to your Rolodex of ideas. Just keep it out of this piece.
Be ruthless when it comes to getting rid of the extra stuff in your text. It pays off. Your readers will read effortlessly what you so laboriously created.
Mistake #3: You Dive in Without a Plan
Of course, you need a solid rationale for what to keep and what to let go. Like your closet, your text might contain pointless, ugly, or sentimental items that you shouldn’t be keeping. To make your selection, ask yourself these three questions about each idea, word, or phrase you’re considering:
- Does it have a purpose?
- Is it meaningfully beautiful?
- Am I using it as a security blanket or am I infatuated with it?
A particular item has a purpose if it moves your story forward and adds to the point of your piece. Beware of items that speak to the topic of your piece but deviate from your point. The point, or purpose, of your piece is a stance on the topic. To separate topic-related ideas from purpose-specific ones, ask yourself what you want your readers to get out of the piece.
Meaningful beauty adds style to your text without sacrificing clarity. You don’t want to be dry and boring, or your piece may go unread. But an overly adorned piece will suffer the same fate. Superfluous items, though possibly cute, accurate, or comforting, will also spin your text in the wrong direction. This doesn’t mean you’ll never meander. But if you offer a detour, have a reason for it.
Check out these passages about a mating hat that helped reproduce endangered peregrine falcons in captivity and save them from extinction. In the first passage, accurate and interesting yet completely tangential information clutters the text. All the text in italics is clutter. Also notice how redistributing the information by placing the peregrine falcon in the subject and topic position (with a passive voice sentence) makes the second paragraph clearer and smoother.
A ban on DDT saved the peregrine falcon from extinction. An Austrian chemist first synthesized DDT in 1874. DDT, or Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, was later used as an insecticide. Unfortunately, no one looked into the side effects that ultimately caused an environmental debacle. An ornithologist at Cornell University helped save the peregrine falcon as well. He invented a mating hat. You can confirm this story by googling it. Female falcons had become scarce. However, a few wistful males maintained a sort of sexual loitering ground. So, the ornithologist imagined, constructed, and then wore the mating hat. He then patrolled the loitering ground, singing like a bird
The peregrine falcon was brought back from the brink of extinction by a ban on DDT, but also by a peregrine falcon mating hat invented by an ornithologist at Cornell University. If you can’t buy this, Google it. Female falcons had grown dangerously scarce. A few wistful males nevertheless maintained a sort of sexual loitering ground. The hat was imagined, constructed, then forthrightly worn by the ornithologist as he patrolled this loitering ground, singing, Chee-up! Chee-up!2
In addition to your content plan, you can dive in with a schedule in mind, especially if you’re tackling a lengthy piece. You may assign an entire afternoon to go through every nook and cranny of your text (or any chunk of time that makes sense for your project). But, by the end of your first hour, you may find yourself exhausted, possibly with more clutter than when you started, feeling like you haven’t made any progress.
When you’re working on a long piece, make a timed date with your text. You may only get to tackle one issue, and that’s okay. Maybe you’ll choose to revise the imagery you used to explain something: Are your metaphors and analogies consistent, or did you jump from baseball to blackhole to ballroom throughout the piece? Or, you may choose to review your piece looking for reference mismatches or making sure all the names and dates are correct. Limiting your decluttering time will allow you to focus on a specific task.
Revising one issue at a time may seem like a small win, but it will give you the motivation to keep going. You’ll avoid burnout and look forward to your next text date.
I know your text is an organic whole, and issues overlap. Keep them apart as much as possible. Toward the end of your decluttering process you’ll get to fix any holes that your compartmentalized approach may have left behind. Approaching ideas in your piece in this way creates a mental shift that will have you decluttering like crazy!
- Marazzato, Romina “Editing for Clarity Checklist,” http://bit.ly/decluttering-checklist.
- Duncan, David J. “Cherish this Ectasy,” The Sun (July 2008), http://bit.ly/David-Duncan.
Romina Marazzato Sparano is a translator and educator specializing in medical localization and linguistics. She is currently pursuing research in linguistics, plain language, and U.S. Spanish. She has worked with Fortune 500 and top medical instruments companies. She has taught translation and localization courses and designed and chaired the Master of Arts in Translation/Localization Management Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. She volunteers in leadership roles in several professional organizations.Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.