“Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon…Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t think of saying it may rain. The sentence is too simple- there must be something wrong with it. But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what- these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank” (Zinsser 6-7).
Reading the seminal guide to writing non-fiction, On Writing Well, and am enjoying it. Zinsser’s prose is simple and unadorned (not to mention has stood the test of ages).
“Clutter,” Zinsser so astutely observes, “is the disease of American writing.” Who knows where it starts-the classroom, the university lecture hall, the meeting room-but wherever it begins, we learn from a young age that to be smart, we must sound smart. We believe that lengthy, elaborate sentences and obscure words lend our writing an air of authority when all they do is make us sound pretentious. We are insecure with ourselves, we are unsure of what it is we have to say and- rather than examine our thinking-we disguise our ignorance with pretty, meaningless frill: we add two adjectives where one would suffice, we use prepositions and modifying clauses to delay reaching the main idea.
The sloppy writer will try to dodge the point because he has no idea what the point is. The capable writer knows that words must be the slaves to his ideas and will mercilessly cut any needless phrases. But what qualifies a phrase as unnecessary? Any word that is not contributing to your meaning is unnecessary and can be cut. Think of writing as a delicate machine: each component must fulfill its function for the machine to work seamlessly as a whole.
As a writer, the revising/editing process is often the most challenging. How can you approach your writing objectively when you’ve labored over the keyboard for days-even months-putting one word against another? How can you have the strength to cut? As Stephen King would say, “Kill your darlings. Kill, kill your darlings.” Deleting pages, paragraphs, even a measly sentence can feel like a twisted form of filicide-I mean, you’ve worked for days bringing all these beautiful thoughts to paper and now- in the flash of a millisecond- you’re going to erase them? How could you?-but a good writer must be critical and exacting towards his own work.
This is difficult, considering we are typically very invested in what we create. But somewhere down the line, we must sweep away the emotional debris and take a rational assessment of the quality of our writing. Is it sharp? Is it clean? Is it honest? Do we communicate what it is we have to say in a way that is passionate, interesting and entertaining? Or do we find ourselves falling asleep? Good prose blisters off the page; in the words of Kafka, a good book should “bite and sting” you. So, however painful, we must wave goodbye to any impressive sentence that is not fulfilling its part.
But how can you reach that peak of objectivity where you can discerningly and astutely evaluate your own work? Give yourself time. Clearly distinguish the creative process from the critical. And allow yourself to write wildly and freely without consequences; then bring in the Critic to do his work.