313 – Cutting Clutter
Behold, an introduction, a beginning if you will, that is the place where the paragraph starts and we shall, heretofore, lay out the topic. The topic is clutter, if you couldn’t guess. This week, we discuss the nature of clutter: what it is, how it works, why writers use it, and when it should be removed. We’re joined by special guest Ariel, meaning we now have three wordcraft editors on the podcast. How long can they go before they start editing each other’s sentences? You’ll have to listen and find out!
Generously transcribed by Diane. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Chris: Welcome to the show we call The Mythcreant Podcast or the Mythcreants podcast if you say it wrong. We’re about to get started soon, but due to the fact that you may need to know who is who I will introduce myself as Chris and with me is my co-host and fellow podcaster…
Chris: And he should know that joining us in this podcast is our very special guest who is not usually a host on this podcast: Ariel!
Ariel: Hi that’s me.
Chris: Ariel is a senior copy editor at Mythcreants and she has her own podcast called Edit Your Darlings. If you haven’t guessed, we’re going to talk about clutter. Did you enjoy my introduction?
Wes: I thought you were just really building it up. I felt such weary expectation of you, waiting for you to get to the point.
Chris: It’s like after waiting that long for an intro, it’s like, ‘okay, better be good’.
Wes (laughing): You probably could have thrown in a few extra ‘verys’ and ‘quites’, though.
Chris: Next time we’ll have you ‘de-edit’ (laugh) reverse edit where you add mistakes instead of taking them out. Okay. So first of all, what is clutter? Wes, do you want to give me a definition of clutter? You are the definition podcast host, as far as I’m concerned.
Wes: I like to think that clutter in writing is words that don’t add value. That definition has generally served me well, because some people are very attached to particular phrases and you can cut and query but there’s a lot of deleting, in editing…
Chris: …strike through tools, my favorite!
Wes: …but the goal is not to hack things apart and trim them down to nothing. We can always make a sentence more concise but, that might happen and actually take value away from the reader. We like to enjoy language and style and different writers have different styles. And so some of them are going to have more verbose statements, and I wouldn’t necessarily call that clutter if it’s providing value to the readers.
Ariel: Who doesn’t love a page-long paragraph.
Chris (laughing): Yeah. I know you love your long sentences, Ariel.
Wes: Punctuated well, that’s fine.
Ariel: Clutter is going to be the things that don’t add diction…they don’t add tension…they don’t add to the plot. They’re not adding to your setting. They’re just your filler words. They’re like ‘ums’ and ‘you knows’, but in your prose.
Wes: And those are a lot more forgivable when you’re talking. When you’re writing—this whole idea that “your writing needs to sound like how people talk”. No! It’s completely different. I’m sorry.
Chris: Even dialogue is significantly different from how people talk.
Wes: It is! People don’t get to sit and have a conversation that takes hours because they’re, you know, going through drafts in their brains trying to figure out how to get it perfect.
Ariel: Maybe YOU don’t…(laughter)
Chris: I tend to think of clutter as words and phrases that are just not bearing their weight. Like they add more in length than they offer in value; there’s a lot of subjectivity there. Sometimes it’s like, okay, this adds a little bit, but considering how many syllables this takes, it’s not adding enough. But there are some situations in which a sentence is just long and awkward and kind of hard to read where I will suggest cutting parts that do have meaning, but I think that, okay, this sentence reads so much smoother without them, I think this is a necessary sacrifice. But that wouldn’t usually be considered clutter. Usually clutter is what we call something that really just isn’t adding much in the way of meaning or other types of value to the sentence.
So, why is it bad in our Clutter 101 before we talk about our clutter pet peeves.
Ariel: It’s bad because it’s going to get in the way of your pacing. It’s going to give readers an opportunity to get bored and put the book down. When you have scenes where the character is just alone in a room getting dressed and nothing happens. We could all picture that every day of our lives, let’s get on with the action. Or meaningless dialogue with greetings from every single person in the room, just basically standing up and saying “hi…” (laughter). We can follow along with that, or we can just skip forward just a smidge to get to the good stuff. We don’t want the writing to become about mundane things.
Chris: So that’s like clutter at a larger scale than I was thinking, but that’s completely right, because that doesn’t add value. Sometimes it is funny to look at the phone conversations that happen in movies. It’d be like, ‘those people just hung up without saying goodbye. That’s… weird’. But usually the audience doesn’t even notice. One thing about clutter besides the fact that it obviously, as Ariel said, it makes things longer and more boring, is a lot of it adds kind of a wishy-washy tone because so much of clutter words are people’s way of not standing behind what they’re saying—of adding little caveats. If you have a lot of clutter, often it has a tone issue as well.
Ariel: Those hedging terms…
Wes: Just say what you mean!
Chris: And honestly, if you’re writing a provocative blog post, even if you put in caveats, people will still get mad at you. Just speaking from personal experience…(laughing)..
Wes: If I’m writing a blog post, and then somewhere in my post, I say, ‘I’m of a mind that’, Ariel would strike that down, probably, as you should. I can’t stand things like that. Just say ‘I think’, I don’t need to say ‘I’m of a mind that’. It’s wasting time.
Ariel: I might allow it for voice. It’s got some flavor.
Wes: That’s a clutter that I consider awkward. It’s a lot of words that can be replaced by a single verb.
Chris: Yeah, I guess to me, it depends on what the overall tone and phrasing of the piece is. Certainly in most, for instance, blog posts, ‘I’m of a mind that’ would not fit in.
Wes: If fewer words can do the job, you should use fewer words, generally. And clutter is also wrong if what the clutter is, is wrong. We’ll get into the pet peeves but, for example, saying ‘exact same’, ‘same’ means ‘exact’. Or ‘free gift’. A ‘gift’ is ‘free’. Sometimes clutter is used to try to add emphasis to something that’s already defined as that, like ‘an advance warning’; all ‘warnings’ come ‘in advance’. Or ‘a closed fist’.
I’d love to see what, uh, an ‘open…fist’ is. They’re just wrong, but we say them for emphasis, but I think clutter is used kind of as an emphasis crutch sometimes. Oh, dang it! I just used some biased language right there, and I would like to direct you to the podcast from last week, especially my last comment about how some things are so ingrained that I don’t think about them on the fly.
A better way to say that is that sometimes clutter is used as a poor excuse for emphasis when actually the sentence can be better constructed and use more accurate words to convey what you mean. For example, you could say: ‘that is very bad’. Well, you could just say: ‘that is bad’ or maybe ‘that is horrible’ or ‘that is terrible’, or any other thing that the modifier ‘very’ is actually trying to upgrade ‘bad’ to. Just be more specific.
Chris: You’d be surprised, sometimes in writing, it actually is stronger if you take out the extra word, because shorter means more emphasis. So sometimes just saying ‘that is bad’ actually sounds stronger than saying ‘that is very bad’, just because when we pull out like a really short phrase like that and put it in its own sentence, it packs a stronger punch.
Yeah. One of the things that we get, again, with blogging is ‘you didn’t say this was just your opinion’. It’s like, well, it’s obviously my opinion. We’re not going to add a caveat saying: ‘It’s just my opinion…’
Ariel: … but you’re an authority on the matter, on all matters, Chris, all of them. (Wes laughs). You could, instead of saying ‘that is bad’, you could show it: their eyeball is out of their socket. That is bad, but you don’t need both.
Chris: This is such a common problem that we see in manuscripts.
Ariel: It’s a matter of showing and telling, instead of just showing or just telling. Telling has its own place. Maybe you just want to say that someone was hurt and not specifically how… their… eye…balls…(fades away)
Chris: Right, you don’t want to actually get into a graphic description of somebody’s eyeball being out of their socket. Thanks, Ariel! (Ariel laughs)
Wes: I’m curious if the showing and telling tendency is also a ‘speakingism’ that’s getting into the writing because, anecdotally, when I’m sharing stories or talking with other people and receiving stories and they describe something about, an eyeball falling out of the head or something. And then I’m quickly told how I should interpret that.
Maybe because my face is not registering the desired emotion of the speaker as fast as they would like. But this idea of like: “you’re in a story! You’re telling them this is happening, this is happening, this is happening! And you need to understand! Just in case you didn’t pay attention before, I must tell you how to feel!”
No, that’s okay. We’re reading at a slower pace and we can take it in.
Chris: Sometimes it strikes me as a lack of confidence with dialogue, for instance. If you do a good job making your line of dialogue expressive, a lot of times you don’t need to then add, ‘this person is bored’, afterwards, if you make them sound bored. To me—sometimes it feels like the writer is not confident.
Again, maybe it’s a habit from speaking. Maybe it’s…they’ve read the same patterns in other works and it is just something that people have to be trained out of.
Ariel: I think that that’s why so many people are anti-adverb, because they see adverbs as clutter so often—often they are cluttered in there with the dialogue to try to explain something about the dialogue that’s often already conveyed to the reader—but if they had just chosen the correct word then they didn’t need the adverb. And so people take that as a ‘every adverb is bad’ sort of idea.
Chris: There’s also just sentences outside of dialogue. Where it’s like saying ‘very’, the adverb is used to try to change what the tone is that you can just use a better word.
For instance, you could say: ‘they walked slowly’ when you might want to say ‘they sauntered’ or something like that instead. And now obviously sauntered has other connotations, so that might not be the right word. That also happens a lot where we’re trying to modify things a little bit and there’s a stronger word. Just like, instead of saying ‘very bad’, you could say ‘horrible’.
Ariel: Yeah. There’s also something to be said for trying to avoid echos. And so that we’ll end up with clutter because like the word ‘saunter’, like that’s going to stand out pretty hard and I’m going to hear that echo 20 or 30 pages later if you’ve use it again but, ‘walked slowly’, I might just walk right past that one.
Chris: The big culprits that I see a lot in fiction are words like ‘suddenly’ and’ immediately’. And this is something that if you don’t understand well enough how narration works you might think that you need those words and that they’re adding value. The reason why they’re clutter words is because that’s a matter of pacing and expectations that you set in your narration. So to make something feel sudden you have to make it unexpected and then speed up the pace. If you just say, it’s sudden— say ‘it happens suddenly’— it doesn’t feel sudden to the reader. It almost has a melodramatic edge because you’re trying to puff up the narration to feel more dramatic than what you’re actually showing in the scene.
Wes: For a word that’s meant to convey surprise nowness. It sure has a lot of syllables.
Chris: There may be some cases where you’d want to narrate depending on what style and perspective you’re using: ‘And then several things happened all at once’. But usually you can just cut that kind of commentary and just make things feel like they’re happening at once. In some cases you may want that but, in many you don’t need it.
Another one that gets into the wishy-washy part is ‘seemed to’. I think this might happen a lot, particularly in things like fantasy when we’re trying to make something feel magical. A lot of times that ends up being clutter and a lot, when I see that it’s not necessary. Also, ‘begin to’, or ‘start to’ when it comes to character actions: ‘She started to scream’. Unfortunately, it’s always a ‘she’, that’s another thing: when we’re talking about bias language notice who was screaming, please, it’s almost always women. Instead. You would just say, ‘he screamed’.
Wes: Unless they were opening their mouth and were prevented.
Chris: ‘He started to scream and then she put her hand over his mouth and cut it off’. Not cut off his mouth, cut off his scream. Just to be clear, we’re not getting into graphic injury, that is bad.
Ariel: But you could simplify that to: ‘She cut off his scream’. And then you would know that he was about to scream, but then didn’t.
Chris: ‘She put her hand on his mouth, cutting off his scream’. Because you also have to communicate how she’s cutting off his scream; it might seem like she just murdered him… Anyway, let’s not edit, three editors in a podcast. (laughter) (musing): ‘how many editors does it take to edit the things that we say during a podcast’…Okay. Some examples. I have a couple of examples from works I’ve critiqued. This is one of my favorite from Sword of Shannara: “The unusual stillness that seemed to have captivated the entire Valley…”
Wes: Seemed to have, huh?
Chris: Instead of just “the stillness that captivated the Valley”, because ‘the Valley’ implies ‘entire’. You don’t even need ‘unusual’ because, in this context, it’s clear that it’s unusual. This character is paying attention to it, wouldn’t be remarking on it if it wasn’t unusual. ‘That seemed to have captivated’…this is what I was saying where there’s just no reason to say, ‘seem to’ here. Another one from City of Bones.This is another one of my favorites: “Long hair, nearly the precise color of black ink”.
The thing that gets me about this is that we’re adding the word ‘precise’. So we want to say it’s the precise color of black ink, but then we add ‘nearly’ because it’s not the precise color of black ink. Somebody is trying to add style but without substance. It has kind of a lyrical flow to it, but it says nothing.
And that makes it feel kind of empty. ‘Her long hair is black’ is basically what that says. If you wanted to say it was ‘inky black’ I feel like you could, maybe the word ‘ink’ would add something but, that’s not something I would usually say: ‘well for stylistic reasons’, just because it feels very empty.
A lot of times context will change whether a word is worth having. For instance, if you say ‘a black sky filled with stars’, maybe the word ‘black’ there is useful, depending if the sun was just setting and the sky is getting darker, or maybe a sky filled with stars implies the sky is black. And it’s really unnecessary to say the word ‘black’.
Ariel: I wonder if it’s more important to cut clutter in different mediums? Yes, Wes. I said medium.
Wes (protesting): I’m fine with ‘mediums’ (laughs).
Ariel (accusing): Are you?
Chris: …Because ‘media’ is often the plural of’ medium’. Isn’t it?
Wes: If there’s any kind of, like, ‘the plural should be this Latin form’, no, it’s English. It’s ‘octopuses’. You can say ‘octopi’ if you want. You can say that, it’s fine, but don’t get mad at me for saying octopuses. Because it’s English.
Ariel: What color is an octopus’s ink?
Wes: Black? Is this a trick question?
Ariel: Is it…inky black? (laughter)
Wes: Oh, I walked into that one.
Ariel: But I wonder if cutting clutter is more important to, say, a short story versus a novel or to a flash fiction versus a short story.
Chris: The quality of the wordcraft just gets more important the shorter the story is. So for instance: poetry. People will put tons and tons of effort into every exact word. Is that clutter Wes? Should I not have said exact there?
Wes: We’re speaking off the cuff, you guys it’s okay (laughter). But if you would’ve written that down I would have struck it.
Chris: Three editors in a podcast and suddenly they are editing each other’s sentences and it’s all downhill from there.
Wes: You know what is a fun way to cut clutter? Using punctuation effectively.
Three examples. I will give you the cluttered version first: ‘let’s face facts that this is the most corrupt galactic empire ever’. I suggest revision: ‘let’s face facts (colon) this is the most corrupt galactic empire’. Colons draw emphasis—’ever’ isn’t needed and ‘most’ can convey that. So I like colons. Somebody at one time said a colon is like putting a megaphone in your text saying, ‘Hey, what comes after this Is profound’ or loud or something.
Chris: I would say like a pointing finger or an arrow, pointing at what comes after it.
Wes: Semicolons draw the connections between the two, the colon is meant to have the second part kind of be amplified a little bit more. My next example has a semicolon in it: ‘The bandit apprentices had no choice because of how little money they had left’.
We could use a semicolon: ‘The bandit apprentices had no choice; they had little money left’. The semicolon is actually a great way to take out a ‘because’, because a ‘because’ is indicating a relationship between these two sentences. The semicolon can kind of cut that. You shouldn’t do it all the time, of course, but it can pick up the pace a little bit saying, ‘they had no choice; they had a little money left’ without that ‘because’ in the middle can kind of speed things up, which is nice.
My next one: ‘On the one hand Operation Space Ghost deals in justice. On the other hand, they deal in blood.’ We could revise this to: ‘On the one hand Operation Space Ghost deals in justice (semicolon); on the other (comma), blood’.
Ariel: I’m uncomfortable with that because that literally puts blood on their hand, not just ‘dealing in blood’, but literally on that hand, there is now ‘blood’.
Wes: This one is one where I wouldn’t probably make that edit. I would offer it up to the writer. The rules here suggest that if you have two independent clauses that are basically the exact same structure, you can introduce the second one with a semicolon with the introductory phrase (then) a comma (then) omit the part that is basically the same, and then just include the changed element. So instead of having to repeat myself to say ‘they deal in justice, they deal on blood’, I can just say ‘they deal in justice’ and then I can just trust that the reader will pick up that I’m using the same thing again, and just provide the new predicate at the end.
But, Ariel’s right. Maybe my example isn’t great, because: blood on hands (laughter). It’s more concise. Operation Space Ghost probably has blood all over themselves. If they’re out there dealing justice and blood.
Ariel: One of the small tweaks that I make with punctuation that removes just a teeny bit of clutter is the difference between ‘and then’, and ‘(comma) then’. I play with conjunctions a lot, technically the Chicago Manual of Style—at least the last time I read it through—didn’t really allow for that. They specified that you need ‘and then’, but it’s an exception that I add to most style sheets, I’ll be perfectly honest. Just taking out the ‘and’ and putting a comma in takes out a lot, a lot of repetition of the word. And you’ll be surprised, if you hit control F in your document and search for the word ‘and’ it’s in there millions of times. And most of the time you could just float right past it. But every now and then there’ll be a sentence that has like six of them and a couple of ‘then’s’. So, just take out one or two and add in a comma. It’s fine. It’s great.
Wes: I always edit based off of…no, I’m sorry….it’s ‘based on’ and I will fight you on this!
Ariel: Based off of what?
Wes: Based on the truth, you guys (laughter).
Ariel: What truth are you basing this off of?
Wes: Correct style and Merriam Webster. And the origin of that expression is from a ‘foundation’ where you base things on a ‘foundation of truth’. So how do you base something off of something else?
Ariel: Like you base jump off of a cliff…
Wes: You base jump off, but that’s ‘base jumping’.
Ariel: You could just take it out and put a comma in.
Wes: I know you totally could (laughter).
Chris: we also say ‘rip off’.
Wes: When you say ‘based off of’ that’s unnecessary, because ‘based on’ is shorter and conveys exactly the same thing.
Chris: I agree with you that it is shorter and more concise and therefore superior. I just don’t know that it’s more accurate.
Ariel: My pet peeve—I have been learning to embrace it over the years. I used to, every single time, take it out. And then I had some authors push back and educate me on why they do it. It’s phrases like ‘there are’, and ‘this is’, and ‘here are’ instead of, you know, just getting to the point.
Chris: Now you know why Mythcreants blog posts never start with those phrases in the intro anymore.
Ariel: That’s not true. They do sometimes. And it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s fine.
Wes: Is it? (laughter).
Ariel: Those phrases are everywhere. We use them all the time. And now I’m starting to understand that it’s the author’s way of really subtly changing the emphasis in a sentence, because if I don’t think that it’s what they intended to do I’ll probably suggest changing it, but most of the time they are trying to take the emphasis off of whatever it is and say that that thing exists.
Wes: It’s the same thing when people say you should never write a passive sentence, it’s like…
Chris: …there are definitely reasons to use passive sentences.
Wes: You’re choosing the subjects appropriately.
Chris: I will say that sometimes, again, your point is that something exists. So just saying: ‘there are reasons to do blank’, You’re saying those reasons exist. Other times in our intros, blog posts, we’re just trying to find a transition statement to then discuss the post itself, which there has been an unusual amount of discussion about how we talk about our blog posts, about the meta language of blog posts. And so sometimes we (say) like: ‘here I will outline…’, or ‘here I outline..’. Now we usually say ‘let’s’ as a kind of a more active way of talking about our material: ‘Let’s cover this’, or ‘let’s cover that’.
Wes: You know, when you say “I will do this”, it’s technically already done because a published piece of writing stands outside of space and time. You shouldn’t assume somebody is going to walk temporally through it. They could skip ahead. And there’s no doubt, either, ‘will’ only means that something’s about 90% certain.
Chris: Saying ‘let’s cover…’ whatever the material is certainly sounds more inviting—active— than say ‘here we cover’. I do think in many cases, when you’re saying, ‘there are’.’ here are’, ‘here is’, can usually be revised to be something better.
One of my pet peeves that I run into specifically in nonfiction is ’you should know that’, ‘I think that’, ‘remember that’— sometimes ‘remember that’ is a good thing to say because it’s changing the emphasis to being conscious about something—but usually you can just say the statement without prefacing with ‘you should know that’, or ‘I think that’. You could cross that entire phrase out.
Ariel: How do you feel about ‘obviously’?
Chris: ‘Obviously’ is such a tone difference. So I would say that it is actually changing the content because it’s changing the tone of the sentence. In most cases, maybe not in all cases. But if somebody was using it all the time, that would definitely be a bad sign.
Okay. I think we’re out of time. In fact, we might even have to cut some clutter from this episode. Before we go, I’d like to thank a few of our patrons: Kathy Ferguson, a professor of political theory and Star Trek, Ayman Jaber, an urban fantasy writer and connoisseur of Marvel, and Denita Rambo who email@example.com. Thanks for listening. We’ll talk to you next week!