Cut the Clutter - and Win Readers!
by Marg McAlister
Most of us hate housework.
Nevertheless, even the most hopeless slobs amongst us would agree that we love having a clean, organised house.
It looks more inviting. It's easy to find what you want, when you want it. If only it didn't take so much time to
get it that way!
If you're lucky enough to have a cleaner, then you've solved the problem. It's someone else's job to clean up
and get rid of the dust and the mess. Most of us don't have that luxury. If we want a clean and clutter-free
environment, we have to work to get it that way.
It's exactly the same when it comes to writing. If you want a fresh, clutter-free piece of text - you have to
clean it up yourself. Readers don't like to be surrounded by clutter any more than you do.
What Is "Clutter"?
"Clutter" in writing may be described as anything that clogs up the channel between the writer's imagination and
the reader's experience. If you have a hard time identifying what is clutter and what isn't, use these points to
- Be guided by the viewpoint character's thoughts, emotions and reactions. Climb inside the skin of the
viewpoint character. What does he/she feel? Think? Decide? When something happens, what would this
character's logical reaction be?
- If something is not noticed by the viewpoint character, or is not important, don't put it in.
- Don't over-explain. Remember that we all come to any novel with a host of experiences behind us.
Readers and authors share many common experiences. For example: mention the word 'vomit' and that is quite
enough for most readers to fill in the gaps. They don't need you to go into detail about the smell,
texture, colour and so on.
- Avoid the temptation to personify inanimate objects. If you attribute human characteristics or emotions
to anything from a mailbox to a rock, it (a) distracts the reader, focusing his/her attention on something
that is not important and (b) reduces the impact of the human character's emotions. (In a fantasy novel, of
course, you may have all sorts of strange objects or creatures that take on human characteristics.)
- Avoid repetition. This means repeated words or phrases (often repeated because the writer is too lazy
to find an alternative) and repeated ideas. You don't need to explain the same thing three different
- Avoid words that will be unfamiliar to most readers. Don't take the high road and decide that it's your
job to improve your readers' vocabularies. Most of them won't thank you for it. They don't want to put down
the book and go find a dictionary. One unfamiliar word isn't a problem; a book full of them annoys the
reader intensely. Do you want to annoy your readers? I hope not.
An Example Of A Scene Filled With Clutter
Gasping for air, Marcy raced through the dark green forest, not daring to look behind her in her state
of raw panic. Tripping on a protruding root she half-fell, but recovered quickly and maintained her
reckless headlong course through the knotted vines and lashing branches that were taking evil swipes at her
as she ran. She had to get away from her pursuers.
"Ouch!" she yelped as yet another branch attacked her, the 'thwack' of its savage assault echoing
through the half-light. Almost falling again she managed to recover, grabbing on to a handy nearby swinging
vine to save herself. Wishing she had never set out on this trip, she decided to stop to catch her breath.
Taking the opportunity to look around, she suddenly saw a strange plant, its leaves an odd mottled purple
that was at odds with all the greenery that surrounded it on every side. What a strange plant, she
Going over to take a closer look, she was intrigued by the way the plant seemed to be in a space of its
own. No other plants grew close in the dim light of the forest; this one was entirely by itself.
What's Wrong With The Above Scene?
Plenty! I'm amazed you've persevered this far. (It made me nauseous just having to write it.) Okay, I've
exaggerated the problems in the above excerpt somewhat to make my point - but I've seen worse. Much worse,
Here are some of the problems in the scene I created:
- Over-explaining; repetition. We are shown that Marcy is in a state of panic by the way she's racing
through the forest 'not daring to look behind her'. It's not necessary to add 'in her state of raw panic' or
even 'her reckless headlong course'. Ditto for the words 'strange' and 'plant' - look for the instances of
repetition. The fact that a vine is 'handy' implies that it is nearby, and it's in the nature of vines to swing
- so we don't need the words 'nearby' or 'swinging'.
- Trees are just trees; vines are just vines. Marcy is getting caught up in them because she's running
blindly to get away from her pursuer(s). Unless she's in some kind of enchanted forest, the trees could not be
taking 'evil' swipes, and they are not 'attacking' her in some 'savage assault'. The writer should be showing
Marcy's fear through her thoughts and reactions, rather than attempting to generate suspense through giving the
trees human attributes.
- Marcy's main aim is to escape her pursuers. Put yourself in Marcy's place. If you were running from
someone or something, what would be your main concern? (a) to get away and (b) to make sure they were nowhere
close if you had to stop. If you had to stop to catch your breath, is it likely you would suddenly forget your
pursuers to look more closely at a strange plant? Of course not. You'd listen for sounds of pursuit and decide
whether you needed to keep going or hide.
- Make sure your characters act logically. Anything else is clutter. (In this case, if the strange
plant is important to the plot, think of a more convincing way to bring it into the story rather than plonking
it right in Marcy's path and having her 'suddenly' notice it.)
- Avoid long sentences with lots of detail when you are trying to create the impression of haste and
fear. For example: "Tripping on a protruding root she half-fell, but recovered quickly, maintaining her
reckless headlong course through the knotted vines and lashing branches that were taking evil swipes at her as
she ran." Do we feel Marcy's terror? Can we feel the burning of her lungs as she runs, gasping for air? Can we
feel the pain as she falls? No, no and no. The writer is telling, not showing. In this sentence, the main
character seems somewhat removed from what is happening to her. We're reading about her rather than looking
through her eyes.
- There's an over-reliance on the '...ing' construction. This is one of the main culprits in making a
passage of text slow-paced and repetitive. In the example above we have sentences starting with "gasping";
"tripping"; "wishing" and "taking" - not to mention the other "ing" words that pepper the text: "protruding",
"maintaining", "lashing", "echoing", "falling", "taking", and "swinging". Check all your work to make sure
you're not showing symptoms of the "ing" disease!
These are just a few of the things that can clutter your writing and make it hard for the reader to struggle
through. Cut the clutter - and keep your readers turning pages.
(c) copyright Marg McAlister