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 guide you.

  1. 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?
  2. If something is not noticed by the viewpoint character, or is not important, don't put it in.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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 ways.
  6. 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 thought.

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, actually.

Here are some of the problems in the scene I created:

  1. 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'.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.
  6. 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

 

The Busy Writer's One-Hour Plot

The Busy Writer's One-Hour Character

Book of Checklists

The Busy Writer's Self-Editing Toolbox

The Busy Writer's KickStart Program

Write a Book Fast