Once a year I set about cleaning up my room, getting rid of what I consider clutter. I pick out old bits and pieces of stationery, files not used for months, and some e-waste too, and lay them aside. In the end I find that only 10% of the stuff has gone into the OUT tray and the rest goes back where it was.
Getting clutter out of your writing is, however, not an annual ritual but a continuing process. Clutter-free writing is clear writing. Some writers manage to ensure that even as they write, clutter does not get in. Some others finish writing and go back to their draft to locate and remove clutter.
The best known writing tips are found in the classic works of the Fowler brothers (King’s English) and Strunk and White (The Elements of Style). Some of their tips are now being challenged by writers who do not tolerate prescriptivism. In the opening chapter of King’s English, we find the famous precepts on the choice of words. These include: prefer the simple word to the complex, prefer the concrete word to the abstract, prefer the native English word to the Latinate word. Borrowed words such as “commence”, “evince”, “terminate” and “residence” can be replaced by the native words, “begin”, “show”, “end” and “house”.
Wordiness is the bane of good writing. Many words are unnecessarily burdened with tags that do not add to meaning. “Advance forward” is a simple example. My list of words like “added bonus”, “final outcome”, “clearly evident”, “future potential”, “revert back” and “end result” runs to four pages.
Certain redundant adverbs can be removed: Phrases such as “basically” (a notable culprit), “at this point in time”, “going forward” and “in actual fact” contribute little to meaning. These should be culled, and the rule should be “Don’t use two words where one will do.” The simple word “must” can replace a number of phrases such as “it is essential that”, “it is necessary that”, “it is important that”, “it becomes incumbent upon us that.”
There are two kinds of lapses in writing: turbidity and turgidity. Turbid means thick, muddy or cloudy. Your writing becomes turbid when you use inappropriate words and tangled structure.
Turgidity results when the writer tries to impress with pompous language rather than to convey meaning. Such writing makes liberal use of clichés and buzz words.
Pruning sentences is as important as dealing with the words you use. Some sentences are packed with fluff and flab, clause upon clause being added till the linkage between sentence elements gets obscured. The reader then has to search for the links.
A succession of long sentences can strain the reader’s attention and may need to be pruned. An average sentence length of 15 to 20 words will be appropriate. But feel free to introduce variety in sentence length. A short sentence in a paragraph of longer sentences can have a telling effect. Parallel construction is another device that makes sentences forceful and even memorable.
Almost every guidebook says, “Use the active voice rather than the passive voice.” The grammar check program on my computer advises me to replace almost every passive sentence. This should not be taken as a commandment. The passive construction has a place in writing, and helps you to lay emphasis on the action rather than the actor. After completing the first draft, you can go back to check if any passive sentence will be improved by the change.
There is another side to this approach. Writers are not just craftsmen, they are also artists. In the former role, they abide by the rules. As artists they take liberties with the rules.
You, as writers, should create your own distinctive style, a style that reflects your personality. Therein lies creativity.
V R Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column
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