Decluttering Your Writing

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you’ve got stuff everywhere.

When my husband and I prepared the nursery for our baby, we cleaned out an entire room of “stuff”. We live in a three-bedroom suburban house – one bedroom for sleeping, one as a study and one as a room for “other stuff”, which we turned into the nursery.

Even thought it was a chore deciding what stuff to keep (and where to put it), and what to throw away, it was worth it. Afterwards, when the room was cleared, my mind also felt clearer.

The feeling I get from editing my writing is similar to how I felt when I’d thrown out a bunch of unnecessary clutter from our house – it’s easier to see what I have of value and what needs to go.

It’s natural for a writer to be verbose in early drafts. In a blog post called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up Your Writing for grammarly.com, writer Karen Hertzberg states: “We tend to ramble when we’re writing; it’s our brain’s way of finding just the right words. It’s fine to pour those words out into your first draft, but once the draft is finished, it’s time to start cleaning house.”

I found that a great way to ‘start cleaning house’ on my novel was changing the point of view from third person to first person. It was an exercise that made me realise how much redundant/ filler language I was using. For example:

  • A character nodding while also saying ‘Yeah’. By nodding, the ‘yeah’ is assumed.
  • The point of view character “watching” and “seeing” someone else perform an action rather than simply stating the action that is happening. (“I watched her pour the glass of water.” “Minnie poured the glass of water.”)
  • Lots of characters “looking at” each other when they speak to each other. Presumably they are looking at each other when they speak to each other, unless they are trying to avoid eye contact (in which case, this may be important to the story and should be mentioned).
  • Similarly, “he grinned at me”. When only two characters are in the scene, it’s enough to say “he grinned”.
  • Over-describing, such as “he sat down on the couch” instead of “he sat on the couch” or “he shrugged his shoulders” when “he shrugged” would suffice (as you can’t shrug any other body parts).
  • Using dialogue tags and then having the speaking character perform an action instead of closing the dialogue without a tag and then having the speaking character immediately perform the action.
  • I have a habit of overusing “began to” and “started to”, for example: “He started to unpack a box…” and “a rash began to appear…” rather than: “He unpacked a box” and “a rash appeared”.
  • I also overuse the word “was”, for example “who was holding …” as opposed to “who held…”
  • Goodbye to over-usage of “that” and “just” – both words that aren’t usually necessary.

Scene by scene, I’ve been cutting and pasting my work into the Hemingway Editor. This app tells you if you’re using too many adverbs when a better word would have more impact, when you’re using overly complicated words when a simpler word would suffice, and which sentences are hard to read or very hard to read. I found this a great way to see my writing from another point of view (even thought it’s the point of view of a machine – so you don’t have to take all of the suggestions on board!)

Removing excess “stuff” from the spare room made it easier to see the floor. Removing excess “stuff” from my manuscript, made it easier to see the story and where I may need to make more drastic cuts. This may include entire scenes, characters or subplots. Don’t despair that they’ll be gone forever. Just like you may store your winter clothes away under the bed for the summer, you can save these scenes and pieces of writing in a separate folder and refer back to them if and when you need them again.

But for now, I’m off to find somewhere to fit all the new stuff we’ve bought for the baby into the nursery…


5 thoughts on “Decluttering Your Writing

    1. Let me know if you decide to try the Hemingway Editor and what you think about it! Ha ha … originally everything in the nursery was so neat and tidy. Things were folded and placed in drawers, etc. Now everything is everywhere … and it’s only been 7 weeks …

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