Monday, May 21, 2012

Cut the Clutter and Streamline Your Writing, Part III

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker    

In Part I of this series, I gave some tips and examples for streamlining your writing to make your message more accessible and compelling. In Part II, we saw some specific examples of words and phrases to cut or reduce, to write more powerfully.

Here, we continue to explore ways to cut out the deadwood by avoiding repetitions and convoluted phrasing and going for clear, concise writing. Remember, it’s about direct communication and carrying your reader along with the story. Don’t muddle your message with a lot of extra words that just clutter up the sentence and hamper the free flow of ideas.

Avoid repetitions and redundancies in all their forms: two words meaning the same thing; saying something in five or six words when you can express it with one or two; and phrases or sentences that keep saying the same thing over and over in different ways.

Redundant Phrases. Avoid this kind of “repetitive redundancy”:

Repetitive phrase:                 Concise equivalent:

basic fundamentals                 fundamentals

honest truth                             truth

future plans                             plans

regular routine                         routine

past history                              history

final outcome                          outcome

extremely unique                     unique

repeat again                             repeat

totally unanimous                    unanimous

sudden impulse                       impulse

unexpected surprise                surprise

overused cliché                       cliché

What’s the problem? It’s obvious — the only kind of truth is honest truth, an impulse is sudden, repeat means to do something again, a surprise is by nature unexpected, and so on.

Cut out the deadwood, words that restate what is obvious by the rest of the sentence, words that just repeat what you’ve already said, words that are just adding clutter to your sentence. For example, the phrases in brackets are redundant here:

We passed an abandoned house [that nobody lived in] on a deserted street [with no one around].

At this [point in] time, [the truth is that] complaints are increasing [in number], but I don’t see that as a problem [to be solved].

Cluttering your sentences with too many unnecessary words can subliminally irritate your reader. Here a few examples of this “little word pile-up” tendency:

Instead of:                              Use:

in spite of the fact that            although

as a result of                            because

came in contact with                met

at this point in time                  now

during the time that                 while

he is a man who                        he

make use of                              use

with reference to                      about

Here are some examples, altered and disguised from my fiction editing, of trimming excess words:

Before: He was shooting off his mouth in the bar last night telling everybody that he was going to find the bastard that ratted on him.

After: He was shooting off his mouth in the bar last night about finding the bastard that ratted on him.

Before: Jennifer ran along the tunnel and up the stone steps to the walkway. She hesitated for only a moment at the top in order to jam the hand gun she was holding into her waistband and give her time to figure out where to run.

After: Jennifer ran along the tunnel and up the stone steps to the walkway. At the top, she stopped to jam the gun into her waistband and figure out where to run.

Finally, avoid convoluted phrasing and leave out unnecessary little details that just serve to distract the reader, who wonders for an instant why they’re there and if they’re significant:

Before: He had arrived at the coffee machine and was punching the buttons on its front with an outstretched index finger when a voice from behind him broke him away from his thoughts.

After: He was punching the buttons on the coffee machine when a voice behind him broke into his thoughts.

In the first example, we have way too much minute detail. What else would he be punching the buttons with besides his finger? And we don’t need to know which finger or that it’s outstretched. Everybody does it pretty much the same. Avoid having minute details like this that just clutter up your prose.

Before: The officer was indicating with a hand gesture a door that was behind and off to the right of McKay. Angular snarl stuck to his face, he swung his head around to look in the direction the other officer was pointing.

After: The officer gestured to a door behind McKay. Snarling, he turned to look behind him.

Before: “Bastards. Why am I always the last to know?” Pivoting, the detective walked in the direction of the station's front desk with a purposeful, nearly aggressive, gait.  He shoved himself bodily through the swinging door and locked eye contact with the uniformed officer on reception duty.
After: “Bastards. Why am I always the last to know?” Pivoting, the detective marched toward the front desk. He slammed through the swinging door and glared at the officer on reception duty.

Copyright © Jodie Renner, May 2012

Also, see my article entitled “Clear, Concise, Powerful Nonfiction Writing.”

Next: Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE), and One Plus One Equals One-Half

 Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at,, her blog,, and on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Your advice is terrific as always! This is why all writers need editors.

  2. Great advice, Jodie. No wonder your clients are so happy with you!

  3. The problem with clutter--at least for me--is that it's hard to see when it's in my own house. I'm always amazed by how editors can trim down what I already thought was lean. It's a skill i admire. Just wish I had more of it myself.

    Good post, Jodie.

  4. Thanks for your comments, LJ, Peg and Drew! Andrew, that's very common - pretty much universal, I think. I can cut so far on my articles, then I really need (although I don't often get) another set of eyes to smooth things out a little more. But it's a fine line - I once had someone slash one of my articles so badly that she cut all the "voice" and "attitude" and personality, and basically sucked the life out of the piece! What was left almost sounded like a telegram. That would be the editor from hell!

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  6. This is a great article, it's really easy to fall into these traps. Great post! I write mysteries for Penguin and I just discovered your site. Love it!

  7. Thanks for your kind words, Mary! I'm glad you find my craft articles helpful!


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