How to Write Better: 7 Simple Ways to Declutter Your Writing

How to Write Better: 7 Simple Ways to Declutter Your Writing

You know that feeling when you open up your closet and it’s so stuffed with clothes you don’t wear that you can’t find the ones you really like?

Or maybe your desk is piled with papers that need filing, and you waste all kinds of time looking for that one you need? Clutter adds stress and sucks up valuable time.

The same situation applies to writing. Unnecessary words and redundancies in a page or paragraph obscure its core meaning and interrupt its flow. The essence of your message is buried under all those excess words.

Once you’ve written the first draft of your novel or short story, it’s time to go back and look for cluttered sentences and paragraphs.

Ferret out words that don’t add to the meaning or imagery and are just hampering the fluid flow of ideas. Look for instances of overwriting or beating a point to death. Say it once — or twice, max — then move on. Otherwise you risk annoying your readers.

Ready to search out the clutter in your story?

1. Avoid little-word pile-ups and eliminate redundancies

Reveal the essence of your message by streamlining your words. Instead of “in spite of the fact that,” just say “although.” Instead of “in the vicinity of,” say “near.”

Replace “in the direction of,” with “to” or “toward.” Instead of “came in with,” say “met.” Instead of “during the time that,” say “while.” No need to say “located at” – just say “at.”

Before:

On their cross-country trip, they slept each night in the cheap motels located less than a mile’s drive from the interstate.

After:

On their cross-country trip, they slept each night in cheap motels just off the interstate.

Before:

The car drove slowly through the large complex heading in the direction of a secluded building at the back of the facility. It was located on the shore of the Mississippi River. The vehicle came to a stop next to the entrance to the building.

After:

The car drove slowly through the large complex toward a secluded building on the shore of the Mississippi River. It stopped next to the entrance.

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:

He moved his mouse pointer over to the other email that he had received.

After:

He clicked on the second email.

2. Don’t drown your readers in details

Leave out those tiny 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 vending 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 vending machine when a voice behind him broke into his thoughts.

In the first example, we have way too much detail. What else would he be punching the buttons with besides his finger? We also don’t need to know which finger he’s using or that it’s outstretched, since everybody does it pretty much the same. Minute details like these just clutter up your prose.

Before:

An angular snarl stuck to his face, the officer indicated with a hand gesture a door that was behind and off to the right of Jason. He swung his head around to look in the direction the officer was pointing.

After:

Snarling, the officer gestured to a door behind Jason. He turned to look behind him.

3. Take out empty, “filler” words

Words like “it was” and “there were” simply get in the way of your story without adding anything useful.

Before:

I headed down a rickety set of wooden steps to the basement. There was a dim light ahead in the hallway. To the right there were cardboard boxes stacked high. To the left, there was a closed door with a padlock. Suddenly, I heard muffled sounds. There was someone upstairs.

After:

I headed down a rickety set of wooden steps to the dimly lit basement. To the right, cardboard boxes were stacked high. To the left, I saw a closed door with a padlock. Suddenly, I heard muffled sounds. Someone was upstairs.

I could play around with this some more, but you get the picture.

4. Take out the word “that” wherever it’s not needed

Read the sentence out loud, and if it still makes sense without the “that,” remove it. This change smoothes out the sentence so it’s less clunky and flows better.

Before:

She said that you thought that it was too expensive and that you wanted to shop around.

After:

She said you thought it was too expensive and you wanted to shop around.

5. Delete words or phrases that unnecessarily reinforce what’s already been said

Cluttering your sentences with too many unnecessary words can get in the way of clear communication and confuse and subliminally irritate the reader. Go through your manuscript and see where you’ve cluttered up sentences and paragraphs with little words and phrases that aren’t needed and just impede the natural flow of ideas.

The phrases in italics are redundant here:

We passed an abandoned house that nobody lived in on a deserted street with no one around. The house was large in size and gray in color.

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.

6. Don’t tell after you’ve shown

For example:

She moped around the house, unable to concentrate on anything. She felt sad.

He paced nervously around the room, muttering to himself. He was agitated.

In both instances, the second sentence can and should be deleted.

7. Condense any long-winded dialogue

In real life, people don’t usually speak in lengthy, complete sentences or uninterrupted monologues. Read your dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds natural, not like a rehearsed speech.

[bctt tweet=””Read your dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds natural,” says @JodieRennerEd“]

Break up any blocks of one person speaking at length by rewriting them in questions and answers or a lively debate, with plenty of tension and attitude. Try using lots of incomplete sentences and one- or two-word answers, or even silences.

How would your characters actually speak in real life? Think about their personalities and character traits. For example, men, especially blue-collar men, tend to be terser and more to-the-point than women.

Looking for more ways to declutter your writing? In my editor’s guide to writing compelling stories, Fire up Your Fiction, I offer lots of concrete tips with examples for streamlining your writing for a smoother flow and pacing. Also, check out the post on tightening your copy.

How do you streamline your writing?

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61 comments

  • Jodie Renner says:

    Thanks for hosting my tips for streamlining your writing here on The WriteLife. I’m honored to have the opportunity to guest-post on this excellent blog!

  • Marcy McKay says:

    Great tips, Jodie. I TRY to do everything you suggest. The only thing I would is add is that WHEN POSSIBLE, read your work ALOUD to SOMEONE ELSE. I’m in a weekly writing group with four other, amazing. We bring enough copies of our work for everyone to read along and I don’t know what it is — I can read my writing one hundred times out loud to myself and still not hear what I do with read-through aloud to my group. It sharpens my ear + they always catch things I never would. Thank you!

  • tom combs says:

    This is an amazingly on-target article. Applying these guidelines markedly improves any story’s readability and flow.
    Brilliant and useful!
    Thank-you!

  • D.F. Barrett says:

    Great blog. In the past, I learned that de-cluttering my writing was necessary in advertising and non-fiction. Now I know it’s vital in creating smooth, fast-flowing fiction as well.
    Thank you!

    • Jodie Renner says:

      Thanks, D.F. Yes, decluttering and removing those extra words is essential for any written form, including blogs and magazine articles, and certainly fiction, to make the message shine through! Glad you found my tips helpful!

  • Robin Botie says:

    Thank you for this. I love being reminded of how to clean up my work. These items and examples are good ones. Cheers!

    • Jodie Renner says:

      Glad my examples were clear, Robin! People always seem to enjoy seeing the contrast between the “before” and the “after” passages. Kind of like the do-overs we see in magazines! LOL

  • Kevin says:

    This article is great! You show AND tell by sharing your advice then reinforcing with clear examples. Thanks!

  • Lisa Turner says:

    Thank you. I love this advice – it’s so simple and practical and gives me specific things to focus on. Now….to use it! Much appreciated.

  • Jodie Renner says:

    Thanks, Lisa. This article is mostly excerpted from my book, Fire up Your Fiction, which is also full of writing tips with examples.

  • Pat Roa-Perez says:

    Thanks, Jodie, for sharing. I’m adding this to my “craft toolbox.” So timely…exactly what I’m working on now…keeping it simple. Love the examples!

    A strategy I use is “pretending” I’m talking to someone. First, I write as it flows out. Next, I “pretend” and write again. And finally, I compare and edit.

    Again, thank you so much for sharing your expertise!

    • Jodie Renner says:

      Thanks, Pat. I love your idea of pretending you’re talking to someone. Good one! And I’m glad you found my tips and examples helpful for your WIP.

  • Mandy Eve-Barnett says:

    Great tips – worth sharing on my re-blog Wednesday feature. Thanks

  • Renee Swope says:

    Great writing tips and excellent examples Jodi! I loved reading your post.

  • Dee Kincade says:

    I wanted to thank you for “Tips on How to Declutter Your Writing”.
    It was very informative and the examples were helpful. I would like to
    share your Tips at my next writers’ group Info. Session.

    Thanks again,

    Dee

  • Joe Perrone Jr says:

    Hmmm…I must be an author!

  • Jordan McCollum says:

    Great tips! I’ve found that the more you work on these in the process of editing, the easier it is to avoid them when you get back to drafting. (But nobody’s perfect, of course!)

    • Jodie Renner says:

      Yes, I find that, too, Jordan. And if I leave an article or chapter for a while, then go back to it later, I find more ways to streamline it for a smoother, more direct flow of ideas. And as mentioned above, reading it aloud really helps!

  • henya says:

    Great job, Jodie ….as always. I learn so much from you. I’ve been reading your blogs and your book. Helps a great deal.

  • Amy McNew says:

    Thank you! These will definitely come in handy!

  • Nahuel F.A. says:

    Great tips. I personally have tons of trouble with the “don’t tell after you’ve shown” part. I think it has to do with laking confidence in what you write, you don’t believe in it enough to let it stand by itself, it needs to be explained. It’s definitely what I’m working on the most right now. Thanks!

    • Jodie Renner says:

      Yes, that’s a tough one, Nahuel! I see that a lot in the fiction manuscripts I edit. In fact, some of my authors (no names mentioned) go on and on for a long paragraph or two saying the same thing over and over in different ways. Once or twice is enough – otherwise you risk having the reader feeling patronized and saying, “Yeah, I got it the first two times!” Readers want to be an active part of the reading and discovery process, piecing things together as they go along.

  • Suzi says:

    This was a well laid out article and love the before and after examples. Thank you!

    • Jodie Renner says:

      Thanks for commenting, Suzi! That seems to be one of the features of my books that readers love the most – the before-and-after examples! 🙂

  • julie says:

    I receive newsletters from many ‘writing’ sites and I am always impressed with the quality of advice that I find on ‘The Write Life’. Each post I receive in my inbox; has something I can use, and as I’m only just setting up my freelance business, your site is invaluable to me…..thank you. 🙂

    • Jodie Renner says:

      Yes, this is an excellent blog, isn’t it, Julie. Bloggers here offer invaluable tips for writers and aspiring authors every single day. Kudos to The Write Life, and thank for having me as a guest!

    • Heather van der Hoop says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Julie — and best of luck launching your freelance business!

      Heather
      TWL Assistant Editor

  • Sujan Bhattacharyya says:

    Hi, i m sujan from India (Shillong — born, raised, education, 1st job –> Bombay — s/w programmer, copywriter/visualizer, fulltime journalist [editing] in national-level broadsheets for about 12 yrs, etc –> Calcutta — relocated to start my own “creative” shop [writing-design]).

    Not a great writer yet as i have lost the early touch working mostly on the copy desk. Neverthless, have full confidence based on robust grammatical foundation.

    Jodie’s tips seem to be extremely helpful, and so are others’ that followed in “replies’.

    Sorry to say: my website, in terms of both content n layout, isn’t yet ready. Concede i suffer from a lack of site devlopment skills (trying to develop myself despite time constraint and not being web-savvy). Request handsome suggestions/advice from you expert guys. Of course, i welcome your tips on my writing all the while.

  • Alice Grimes says:

    Jodie,
    Great article-I am sharing this in our writers’ guild newsletter. Thank you for sharing.

    • Jodie Renner says:

      Thanks, Alice! I hope you’ll also mention the book these tips and examples came from – Fire up Your Fiction – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Stories.

      Thanks again for sharing! And keep on writing!

  • Shannon Trindade says:

    Jodie, I love these tips! So helpful to writers – I will be sharing! Thanks 🙂

  • Desiree says:

    Great tips! Gonna bookmark this post.

  • Wendy Macdonald says:

    Thank you, Jodie, for the wonderful writing tips. I’ve just purchased your book, Fire Up Your Fiction, for my Kindle. It’s perfecting timing since I’m busy editing my first novel.

    Blessings ~ Wendy ❀

    • Jodie Renner says:

      Thanks, Wendy. Hope you enjoy my book! And if you find it useful for your writing, I’d love it if you could post a brief review of it on Amazon. Good luck with your novel! 🙂

      • Wendy Macdonald says:

        I’m loving your book, Jodie. It’s helping me understand the why behind the writing rules. Thank you. ❀ It’s a keeper up there with Bird by Bird.

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