A Guide to Decluttering Your Writing, or The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

by Molly Rookwood

Published at 2019-07-17

When I first considered this blog post, I had a brilliant idea. I’d compare it to Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up! I’d call it “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up Your Writing”! How clever!


As I learned by turning to Google, Grammarly already has a blog post with that exact title. And The Writing Cooperative has a similar post by Teresa Ingalls, titled “De-clutter Your Writing Like You Tidy Your House.”


The comparison might not be as original as I’d hoped, but it’s a popular comparison for a reason. Self-editing can feel overwhelming, and breaking it down into smaller tasks, Marie Kondo-style, makes the endeavour manageable.



Make Every Word Count

Marie Kondo’s big selling point is that everything you own should “spark joy.” In editing, we use the same concept.


Every word in your writing should be necessary. If this prompts the question “How do I know if a word is necessary?” try taking it out. If removing the word changes the meaning of the sentence, then it was necessary. If the sentence is the same (or better) without it, toss it.



No Empty Words

The first chapter of Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief of Random House, is titled “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Your Prose).” (Clearly we’re all on the same wavelength about this.) The chapter begins:


Here’s your first challenge:


Go a week without writing






in fact


Dreyer goes on to condemn “just” (as in “merely”), “so,” “pretty,” “of course,” “surely,” “that said,” and “actually.” He writes, “If you can last a week without writing any of what I’ve come to think of as the Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers…you will be a considerably better writer than you were at the beginning.”


Why do these words come under such fire? Because they are empty words. They mean nothing and add nothing. Consider the sentence “She was very strong.” Remove the word “very,” and “She was strong” has the same meaning. Or, if you need to emphasize this character’s above-average strength, find a more powerful word. Write instead, “She was mighty,” or “She was athletic,” or “Her muscles rippled as she hoisted the weight above her head.” Each of these options, including simply “She was strong,” makes for a cleaner and more evocative sentence than the original.



The War on Adverbs

In most cases, you can easily remove the words listed above with no meaningful change to your sentence. Many of my pet-peeve words are adverbs that attempt to add to a sentence but fail to do so. A few words that I’d add to Dreyer’s list are:







Even if you are not a grammar-enthusiast, you’ll recognize that each of these words ends in “-ly.” This is the tell-tale sign that a word is an adverb. There are other adverbs—“very” is perhaps the most popular adverb, despite the lack of “-ly”— but you can usually spot an adverb through the “-ly” on the end. Adverbs modify the verbs that they accompany; in the previous sentence, “usually” modifies “spot” to show that it is not always the case.


Adverbs come under fire when they fail to add anything to a sentence. The four adverbs that I listed above are spectacularly (another adverb, here modifying “are”) empty. No sentence needs the word “interestingly” to make it clear that what follows is of interest. Either your sentence is interesting, or it isn’t. The addition of “interestingly” won’t change that.


The editorial war on adverbs exists because there is almost always a better way to make your point. If you need to write “she said sarcastically,” your character’s sarcasm isn’t clear enough. When editing, use your word processor’s search function for each of the words listed above and try to remove it.


Rather than writing “The sun shone brightly,” write “The sun dazzled.” Rather than “He smiled proudly,” write “He beamed.” is your friend: Why write “very strong” when “mighty” exists?



Using Active Verbs for Decluttering

While writing or editing, look for places where several words can be replaced by one or two. To begin, search for “is able to” and replace it with “can.” Another example (which many of us struggle with when making requests or writing emails) is “Could you possibly,” which we can replace with a simple “Please.”


A great way to cut unnecessary words is to use active voice as much as possible. From the paragraph above, writing “Ally can” instead of “Ally is able to” turns passive voice into active voice. The sentence “Ellie was helped by Henry to climb the tree” is wordy and weak, but by putting it in active voice we get “Henry helped Ellie climb the tree.” By using active voice in this example, we cut three words and focus on the person doing the action rather than on the person receiving it. The sentence is cleaner, shorter, and more direct.


Passive voice can be sneaky. While writing, look for “is” and “by,” as these often indicate passive voice. Look for places where someone receives an action and try to shift the focus to the person performing the action instead.



Repetitive Adjectives

In the pursuit of descriptive writing, many writers rely heavily on adjectives. I have no problem with adjectives (or adverbs, despite the earlier section) if used productively. A foible of many writers, however, is to heap their prose with adjectives when actions could convey meaning instead. From my earlier example, “She was very strong and powerful” doesn’t tell your reader much. “Her muscles rippled as she hoisted the weight above her head,” however, conveys an image and shows the character’s strength without using a single adjective.


Look for places where you can replace adjectives with verbs, and especially places where you use two adjectives that mean the same thing. Never write that something is “easy and simple,” or that someone was “happy and joyful.” See if you can dispose of these adjectives entirely, but if you can’t, at least stick to one.



In Summary

Editing, like house-tidying, is a process of removing what is unneeded to make the essential elements shine. When editing, look for empty words. Look for adverbs that don’t add meaning. Look for passive voice where active could be used. Look for lazy or repetitive adjectives and replace them with action.


Decluttering your writing is challenging. It will force you to take apart your favourite sentences to banish passive voice and strengthen descriptions. Effective writing requires it, however, and decluttering your writing will make you a better writer in everything you write.



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