Monday, December 14, 2009

Editorial Tip of the Week: De-Clutter Your Writing

I know people who are pack rats, and I must admit a small tendency toward this unfortunate characteristic myself. I keep freshmen composition papers as humble reminders that I was a rampant comma abuser once. I keep sociology class notes even though I'm not a sociologist, because they may help me imagine a character someday. I keep jewelry from junior high even though the "silver" is tarnished, because I intend to polish it and wait for it to come back in style eventually. What if someday I miss these items and regret tossing them in a feverish need to clean out the closet? Clutter, clutter, clutter is all these items are. Writing gets cluttered as well, usually due to too many prepositions or prepositional phrases. These little words we think will make our sentence better are really just a nuisance to readers.

So when editing, feel free to toss out the unneeded ones; I guarantee nine and a half times out of ten, you won't miss them once they're gone. Chicago admits that prepositions can easily be overused and presents a ratio to consider when writing sentences: one preposition for every ten to fifteen words. If you find yourself overdoing it and keeping too many prepositions stuffed between your nouns and other parts of speech, here's how to re-evaluate and do some spring cleaning!

Start by cutting prepositional phrases that are just extra words. If a particular passage gives enough context, eliminating the prepositional phrases is often possible. "The most important ingredient in this recipe" can be cut down to "The most important ingredient," as long as the rest of your passage focuses on that recipe.

Here's another way to cut the prep: "A noun ending in ance, ence, ity, ment, sion, or tion, is often formed from a verb...These nouns are sometimes called "nominalizations" or "buried verbs," and they often require additional words, especially prepositions." So, when possible, use the verb form of a noun rather than adding prepositions. "During her performance of the concerto" is the same as "While she performed the concerto," but the reader isn't suffocated by prepositions.

Other times strong adverbs can replace a weaker prepositional phrase. See how "the cyclist pedaled with fury" is strengthened by adding an adverb: "the cyclist pedaled furiously." Possessive may serve this same purpose, especially when using of-phrases. "I was dismayed by the complexity of the street map" can become "The street map's complexity dismayed me."

Lastly, prepositions can almost always be limited by activity (as opposed to passivity)! Isn't that the truth? Now I'm really talking about using the active voice, which we already know is the higher road. But let's apply it to our clutter as well. Swing open that closet door, gather what you know is really junk, and throw it out! And then sit down to your writing and de-clutter each sentence with the same zeal.

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