Campaign to Cut the Clutter: Zinsser's Brackets

"Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing the author's voice"

(Gawrav Sinha/Getty Images)

We resume our long campaign to cut the clutter by turning to William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Zinsser calls clutter "the disease of American writing" but insists that it can be cured through careful revising and editing.

In the chapter on "Simplicity," Zinsser shows how he removed dozens of empty words and phrases from two manuscript pages of On Writing Well.

"With each rewrite," he says, "I try to make what I have written tighter, stronger and more precise, eliminating every element that's not doing useful work. Then I go over it once more, reading it aloud, and am always amazed at how much clutter can still be cut."

Next he offers advice on how to recognize and eliminate clutter:

Here's a device my students at Yale found helpful. I would put brackets around any component in a piece of writing that wasn't doing useful work. Often it was just one word that got bracketed: the unnecessary preposition appended to a verb ("order up"), or the adverb that carries the same meaning as the verb ("smile happily"), or the adjective that states a known fact ("tall skyscraper"). Often my brackets surrounded the little qualifiers that weaken any sentence they inhabit ("a bit," "sort of"), or phrases like "in a sense," which don't mean anything. Sometimes my brackets surrounded an entire sentence--the one that essentially repeats what the previous sentence said, or that says something readers don't need to know or can figure out for themselves. Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing the author's voice. . . .

In the early weeks of the term I handed back papers that were festooned with brackets. Entire paragraphs were bracketed. But soon the students learned to put mental brackets around their own clutter, and by the end of the term their papers were almost clean. Today many of those students are professional writers, and they tell me, "I still see your brackets--they're following me through life."

You can develop the same eye. Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it's beautiful?

Simplify, simplify.
(William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. HarperCollins, 2006)

As Zinsser makes clear, what we take out of our writing when we revise can be just as important as what we put in. So try bracketing the clutter in your own drafts--and then cut it [out].


Practice in Cutting the Clutter: