Fight the Clutter: Concision and Flow

Chapter Four

Fight the Clutter: Concision and Flow

Clutter is the laborious phrase that has pushed out the short word that means the same thing.

William Zinsser

              In the previous chapter, I presented basics for writing clear sentences: use a high-imagery subject and an action verb. That’s a good start, but it is not enough. The subject and verb usually comprise no more than four or five words in the sentence. Now we turn to the rest of the sentence. We need to think about concision and creating a manageable flow in our sentences.

              Teachers at every level probably have scribbled, “Too wordy,” or “Be concise,” in the margins of student papers. Many students feel perplexed. After all, the teacher assigned a 1000-word paper, so words in heavy volumes must be a requirement, right? Not exactly. Not close, really. Let the ideas be the stars, not an abundance of long, mentally-taxing phrases, clauses, and sentences.

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With concision and flow, we clear the path for our readers.

              Unfortunately, in revising, we are frequently blind to our wordiness. Did we not write what we meant and write it as we understood it? We read our own syntax, and because it is innately connected to our thoughts, we know what it means. Plus, if we have obeyed rules for clarity, then the ideas are surely understandable. And yet, we sometimes plant ideas in a forest of unnecessary words that require readers to wield a mental machete. Most readers would rather not clear their own paths. We must recognize the brush and undergrowth we allow to encroach on our readers’ journeys.

Concision

In Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Williams and Colomb provide “Five Principles of Concision”:

  1. Delete words that mean little or nothing.
  2. Delete words that repeat the meaning of other words.
  3. Delete words implied by other words.
  4. Replace a phrase with a word.
  5. Change negatives to affirmatives. (101)

These principles serve as the best guides for cutting through dense language.

Mark Twain Vintage Author - Free photo on Pixabay
Mark Twain: A man who had no use for “very”

Meaningless words. Mark Twain advises: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

              Why write “very” anything? These is usually another, more specific word that will intensify the adjective that the “very” accompanies. Here are some examples:

              Very clean = immaculate                           Very pale =pallid

              Very fast = speedy                                      Very smart = intelligent

              Very small = diminutive                             Very careless = reckless

“Very,” though, is accompanied by other culprits. They include “basically,” “generally,” “practically,” “really,” and “actually” (Williams and Colomb 101). Generally, these words add basically nothing or These words add nothing. If we want produce really cluttered writing, we could practically use these words in every sentence or If we want to produce cluttered writing, we could use these words in every sentence. I am actually recommending that writers make a point to eliminate these words or I am recommending that writers make a point to eliminate these words.

Redundancies. First and foremost, I will suggest that you eliminate “first and foremost” from your vernacular. Not only is it a cliché, but we can do fine with either word without the other. There are plenty of others, too long a list to discuss and explain in its entirety. These redundancies can appear anywhere and everywhere. We can think about and consider other examples:

              each and every                                             plain and clear

              pick and choose                                           peace and quiet

              over and above                                            forever and ever

If you connect words, be sure that they each add a different dimension to the sentence’s meaning.

Implied words. If you have ever watched a football game, you have probably heard a commentator talk about “the quarterback position.” Guess what? Quarterback is, by definition, a position, and thus, the word “position” is superfluous. It is like saying that my living room rug is “green in color,” or that I learned from my “past history” or “past experience.” “Green” is a color; history and experiences are in the past. Similarly, I am being redundant when I give an “advance warning” that I will reject a writer’s free gift of more words. The anonymous stranger who reads your work will probably respond in the exact same way. I will make a future prediction, though: if you learn to spot and recognize unnecessary wordiness, your writing will improve.

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Super Bowl Champion and Hall of Famer Steve Young played quarterback. That was his position.

              Sometimes words can be deleted because the context of the sentence implies their meaning. For example: The object of the game is to compete with the other team and try to score more points before the final buzzer. “Object of the game” implies “winning.” If we “compete,” we do so with another team. “Compete,” also implies we are playing a “game,” and that we will “try.” When we “score,” we can assume “points” are involved. If we are discussing an entire game, then we know that we must play until “the final buzzer.” My revision: To win, we must score more than the competition. I reduced a 22-word sentence to nine words.

              Be alert: Writers might feel they face a difficult dilemma when they must decide where to cut words. Wait a minute, “dilemmas,” by nature, are “difficult,” and require that we “decide.” Writers might feel they face a dilemma when they must cut words. Overcome that feeling: reduce words.

Words and Phrases. Prepositional phrases hide actions and cause clutter. For example, we are in a discussion about the use of words. But better, we are discussing diction. Look for nominalizations (a term from chapter three) within prepositional phrases. We can usually turn these into verbs or adjectives and slice the preposition and an article (“the,” “a,” “an”). We might save three words in one sentence, perhaps only one or two in the next, but the extra words accumulate, obstructing the readers’ path. It is the work of the writer to articulate a set of ideas that are presented with accessibility for the reader. OR, Writers work to articulate ideas that readers can understand. In the event that you are engaged in revision, always ask a question, “How can I reduce the number of words?” OR, If you are revising, ask, “How can I use fewer words?”

              There are other prepositions that have sprung up into our language. Excuse me, I meant, “Other prepositions have sprung into our language.” Here are some poor usages to look out for (or, better, “to recognize”):

              continue on, advance forward, add up, write down, rise up, all of, each of, close up (or down)

Many of these derive from writing as if we were speaking informally. We can do so in freewriting and in our rough drafts; we revise, though, to eliminate informalities, to show that we care about our work and about the readers’ time. If we fail to take our writing seriously, why would a reader?

Negatives to Positives. This idea is less about being optimistic and more about saving words and avoiding confusion. Readers will find the latter especially true if we have more than one negative in a sentence. We cannot fail to recognize when a reader might not be able to understand. OR, We must recognize when readers might misunderstand. We need to be creative to replace what we are initially negating. Here are some examples:

              not stop = proceed                      not continue = discontinue

              not omit = include                       not obfuscate = clarify or be clear

              not surrender = defend              not neglect = tend or mind

              not remain = advance                 not give = keep

Be alert for opportunities to reduce your wordiness and increase your readability by replacing a negative with a positive.

              For more comprehensive lists and discussions on concision, I recommend Williams’s Style and these websites: G. Kim Blank, University of Victoria and University of North Carolina Writing Center.

Flow

              By enhancing clarity and concision, we make a good start towards creating a positive flow. The next step is to think about placement. Specifically, we want to follow two principles: Place subjects and verbs close and towards the front of the sentence; Start with familiar information and place new information towards the back of the sentence. These can be accomplished while maintaining syntactical diversity (i.e., using different sentence structures) and presenting complex ideas. We want our flow to bolster the readers’ retention of our ideas, not insult their intelligence through repetitive structures and overtly simple language.

Subjects and Verbs. Think of each sentence as a new episode of your favorite television show. You want to know about your favorite characters: where are they? what are they doing? why and how are they doing this? who is with them? In writing, you have created these characters through your thesis statement (and introduction), topic sentences, and high-imagery words used as sentence subjects. They have been established as important in the readers’ minds. The readers can use these characters as a foundation.

              Readers become disoriented, and eventually tired, if they must work too hard to find these characters. What causes them to work more than they should? Long introductory phrases and clauses. Here is an example:

              After an unexpected and decisive victory in 1588 in a battle with the Spanish Armada, the British gained naval superiority that aided their exploration of the New World.

I used fifteen words before reaching “the British;” that is too many words and too much information without a complete thought. I have just asked the reader to retain ideas about the nature of a victory (“unexpected” and “decisive”), the year in which it occurred (“1588”), and the losing side (“the Spanish Armada”). Maybe I can use a sentence like this once without losing the reader; imagine I made the reader perform mental gymnastics every third or fourth sentence, balancing chunks of information against anticipating a main idea. Here is a better version of the sentence: In 1588, the British gained naval superiority and advanced their exploration of the New World after an unexpected and decisive victory against the Spanish Armada. (A side note: It is a good idea to place dates at the beginning of sentences; we want important, new information at the end, and placing a date in the middle can disrupt the flow).

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Avoid forcing readers into mental gymnastics.

              Furthermore, readers need to be free from long subjects. What’s a long subject? Here are two examples:

              The Senator who had been re-elected in a landslide despite a sloppy campaign and a scandalous business deal felt fortunate to return to Washington.

              Running a sloppy campaign while enduring criticism for a scandalous business deal still resulted in a landslide victory for the Senator, who felt fortunate to return to Washington.

The subjects in both sentences contain important information, but the writer has presented those ideas a.) in too subordinate of a role (think of your TV show glossing over the death of a main character in a 30-second scene) and b.) in a way that distracts from the sentences’ purported main idea: the Senator felt fortunate to return to Washington. Revision: The Senator felt fortunate to return to Washington since he ran a sloppy campaign and had been involved in a scandalous business deal. When organizing information, ask, “What is the complete thought that comprises my main idea?” Make that an independent clause. Then place other information so that it does not interrupt or distract from that main idea.

              As such, readers prefer digesting what the character/subject is doing soon after identifying the subject. If we place too much information between the subject and verb, then we are again burdening the reader with subordinate information before reaching our main point. To return to our television show analogy, we are inserting a scene that unnecessarily delays the advancing plot. Here is an example:

              The Cherokee, because of numerous broken treaties and despite promises for provisions and safe passage to Oklahoma, endured the hardships of “The Trail of Tears.”

Yes, we want readers grasp the information that separates the subject and verb (by 15 words), but we have placed that information at a point when the readers are still anticipating a complete thought. Give them the closure of a complete thought, and they will better understand the importance of the information: The Cherokee endured the hardships of “The Trail of Tears” because of numerous broken treaties and despite promises for provisions and safe passage to Oklahoma. Here, the reader finds what happened and then reads why it happened. In the previous version, the what was divided by the why.

              Bottom line: Readers prefer subjects towards the beginning of the sentence. They want the main verb(s) to be close to that subject.

              Old Information to New Information

              The second part of flow involves the sentence’s role in developing and connecting ideas. We want the reader to grasp and retain an idea. We want that idea to lead to more ideas. In accomplishing this, we need to recognize that the brain has two primary memory centers: the pre-frontal lobe (short-term memory) and the hippocampus (long-term memory). Readers initially retain ideas in the pre-frontal cortex. Familiar ideas will stay here as memories and can be recalled or acted upon immediately. For those ideas to become memories, they must also be processed by the hippocampus. Here, the brain takes new ideas and processes them, makes sense of them, before transmitting them back to the pre-frontal lobe. Each time new data enters the brain, we compare it to existing data to make it “fit.” We need time and repetition (depending on the complexity or unfamiliarity of the ideas) to do this.

Consider, too, that these ideas include sensory perceptions. With reading, that means sight. We must see the print and decode it in the pre-frontal lobe. At the same time, our other senses are also working. In other words, when we read, we focus on the text, but we are also receiving information outside the text. As writers, we are competing for attention. We need to avoid habits that cause unnecessary distractions. We should cultivate habits that facilitate the readers’ thinking process.

We should start sentences with information that is familiar to readers. If we have identified our main high imagery characters and made them subjects, we have made a good start. If we place these and accompanying old information at the beginning of sentences, we improve on that start. Suppose I am writing about events leading to the

The Legacy of John Brown | Ella Baker Center
John Brown wants you to write concisely and with good flow.
image courtesy EllaBakerCenter.org

American Civil War. Here is a paragraph that highlights two examples of fear and violence:

              While separated by overarching political differences, the Northerners and Southerners were also affected by violent events that increased tensions on a more personal level. Preston Brooks was a Democrat and Pro-Slavery U.S. Representative from South Carolina. An abolitionist Senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner was nearly killed when Brooks beat him with a cane. Animosity between the two regions increased after this event. Journalists in Northern cities expressed their concerns about the South. It was 1856 when this occurred. John Brown was a figure who provoked fear and anger in Southerners. In 1859, slaves were freed and given firearms by Brown. A raid was made on Harpers Ferry, but forces under Robert E. Lee subdued the violence and Brown was hanged. People like Emerson and Thoreau saw him as a martyr. Fanaticism was revealed in these two events.

If the readers know about these events already, they are less likely to be lost (of course, they probably have no need to read this summary). If the readers are unfamiliar with the Brooks-Sumner Affair and John Brown’s raid, then this is a confusing paragraph. Why? Because new information appears before they have had a chance to process old information; it appears before they can connect it with old information. The third sentence jumps immediately from an introduction of Preston Brooks to an introduction of Charles Sumner. As a reader, I am still digesting the information about Brooks but am now being force-fed the idea of an abolitionist from Massachusetts. The next sentence is a little better since we could anticipate “animosity” after the beating. Suddenly, though, I must think about journalists and then the year. John Brown is completely new. How is he related to Brooks and Sumner and journalists? While I am reconciling that he inflamed the passions of Southerners, I now must shift to thinking about slaves. Each sentence begins with unfamiliar information. The paragraph is a mess. There is no cohesion, no flow.

              If I were to rewrite the paragraph, I would want to introduce Brooks and Sumner and Brown in the topic sentence. I would proceed with the date and the summary of the Brooks-Sumner affair. Next, I would connect the aftermath of the Brooks-Sumner affair to my introduction of John Brown. Here is my revision:

              The political tension that divided North and South turned to violence and fear in the form of the Brooks-Sumner Affair and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. In 1856, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane, nearly killing him. Brooks’s actions against the abolitionist Sumner sparked outrage among Northern journalists who expressed their anger towards the South. Three years after the Brooks-Sumner affair, John Brown instilled fear and rancor in Southerners. Brown and his sons, fanatical abolitionists, freed and armed slaves, an event that terrified slave owners. Brown was eventually subdued and hanged at Harpers Ferry, becoming a martyr in the eyes of men like Emerson and Thoreau. These events and their aftermaths highlight the increasing enmity between the two regions

In a further revision, I might want to cut or further develop the roles of Emerson and Thoreau. Regardless, the paragraph possesses an enhanced flow simply because I started each sentence with familiar information.

              With strong sentences, we can build to meaningful paragraphs and, overall, to effective writing. To write strong sentences, we need to embrace the concepts of clarity, concision, and flow.

Work Cited

Williams, Joseph M. and Gregory G. Colomb. Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 10th Ed., Longman, 2010.

©Hunter M. Brimi 2020

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