Cutting the Clutter

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

I’m going to try to keep this post short …. but we’ll see how that goes. I’ve always been known to write overly long stories, poems, articles, etc. There is always so much to say and never enough space.

The English language is full of phrases that refer to the abbreviation of longer stories: “To make a long story short,” “In short,” “It’s a long story, I don’t want to get into it.” These phrases all seem to suggest that shorter is better. When it comes to writing, it depends. Sometimes, just cutting out single words or phrases from a story can chop down the piece by a couple hundred words. Adjectives are usually the first to fall prey to an editor’s red pen.

 I learned this quickly after writing phrases such as “firmly rooted”. If something is rooted, a writing coach recently reminded me, it is already firmly planted. Firmly is just plain old redundant. Or, better yet, “firmly is redundant.” After critiquing your own work, you start to get good at cutting away the clutter …

Jon Franklin talks about unwanted clutter in an American Journalism Review article dated 1993. The article is old, but I reference it because it is interesting to see how the basic principles of writing still hold true in today’s world of reporting/writing.  

One of the beauties of writing is that when so much else seems to change, the essentials of writing remain the same. The demands for certain types of writing can vary from time to time, though. Franklin alludes to this in his article when he noted 14 years ago that there seemed to be a resurgence in narrative journalism:

“The basic problem is that ours is a trendy business, given to wild pendulum swings. This year’s truth is next year’s fallacy, and if the industry’s attention span can be calculated by the periodic rediscovery of the killer bees story, then it’s about 12 to 15 years. And that is about how long it’s been since narrative journalism was practiced in most American newsrooms. Double that and you’re back to about 1970, which was the last time American journalism discovered that the strength of the print industry was making sense of the world.”

If only Franklin knew what would be considered the “strengths” of today’s newsrooms: video, audio, anything multimedia, shorter articles that get to the point. Narrative journalism still holds a special place in the heart of journalism, but the key lies in knowing that longer doesn’t mean wordier.

And here I go again … another long, but hopefully not too wordy, post.

What suggestions do you have for cutting away the clutter?