Are you struggling to write clearly – those extra words, sentences, and punctuation marks that serve no purpose other than to take up space? Getting rid of clutter will strengthen your writing and make it more coherent for readers. Knowing what to look for, though, is key.
Below are five steps to help you get started:
#1 Remove unnecessary modifiers
If you’ve grown accustomed to using lots of adjectives, you’re not alone. Although adjectives are essential parts of speech, they are often overused. Many adjectives can be eliminated without altering the meaning of the text. A “dark, gloomy sky,” for example, needs only one adjective, “dark” or “gloomy”; using both adjectives is redundant and unnecessary.
While you’re checking for unnecessary adjectives, look for useless adverbs, too, like “completely” in “filled completely” and “quietly” in “whispered quietly.” In both examples, the adverb repeats what the verb implies and serves no purpose. Other common adverbs that can clutter up writing include “really,” “very,” “truly,” “extremely,” “usually,” and “surely.”
#2 Minimize verbs and “to be” verb phrases
Too many verbs in a sentence can also add clutter. For example, “The child continued to scream for the next hour” can be shortened to “The child screamed for the next hour.” The second sentence contains just one verb (“screamed”) versus two verbs (“continued” and “to scream”) in the first sentence. Often, one verb does the same job as two and makes a sentence tighter and easier to read.
Another way that too many verbs can clutter up writing is when forms of “to be” are used with other verbs, like in the sentence “She was thinking about her friend.” This sentence can be condensed to “She thought about her friend,” which is cleaner and crisper than the original sentence. Check all sentences that contain “to be” verbs and see if some of those verbs can be eliminated without changing the meaning of the sentence.
#3 Cut and clean up sentences
Sometimes, whole sentences or even paragraphs can be removed. This is especially true for sentences that offer irrelevant information or restate what’s already been said. Recognizing an extraneous or repetitive sentence can be tricky, but here’s a good rule of thumb: If a sentence doesn’t add value for the reader, it probably doesn’t need to be there.
Sentences that contain information set off by parentheses or em dashes may also need some cleaning up. Ask yourself if the extra information is required. Although secondary thoughts can strengthen a sentence, they often make it longer and disrupt the writing flow. Other ways to clean up sentences include removing unnecessary dialogue tags and shortening lengthy clauses to one or two words.
#4 Use the active voice whenever possible
While both active voice and passive voice have a place in writing, using the active voice can help keep words to a minimum and provide clarity. Consider the sentence, “The vase was broken by the toddler,” written in the passive voice. Now consider this rewrite in the active voice: “The toddler broke the vase.” It’s simpler, less wordy, and more effective.
Of course, the passive voice may be necessary when the one doing the action is unknown, as in “The proposal was written in haste.” It’s okay to use the passive voice for situations like this, but too much of the passive voice weakens and clutters up writing – and puts readers to sleep. For strong, clean writing, stick with the active voice whenever possible.
#5 Write clearly by going light on commas
Although punctuation helps facilitate reading, punctuation that’s overused or used incorrectly can do just the opposite. Commas especially can clutter up a page and make the writing choppy. Unfortunately, many writers use commas incorrectly or in excess. A good way to avoid this practice is to first brush up on basic grammar.
Many rules exist for the proper use of commas. For example, they’re necessary for dividing lists and separating independent clauses but shouldn’t be used with restrictive clauses or terms of identity, such as “the artist Picasso.” However, whether or not to use commas is sometimes a judgment call. A comma after a short introductory phrase, as in “In September, she’ll begin classes,” is both acceptable and unnecessary. Bottom line? If a sentence makes sense without the comma, get rid of it.
To write clearly, one must first recognize clutter and decide to eliminate it. Follow the steps listed above, and you’ll be on your way to write clearly.