To Write Better Papers, Kill Unnecessary Clutter

Pack rats fascinate me. I know people who have two or three storage units to house all their stuff. And that’s not counting garages, spare bedrooms, attics, and all their other nooks and crannies. They tell me that they’re holding onto everything “just in case.” You never know when that electronic potato peeler might come in handy. But, of course, when they really do need to find something, it’s almost impossible. They’ve got some good stuff, but it’s hidden in all the clutter.

Writers are amazing pack rats. (Students are too.) We’ve accumulated so many important sentences, paragraphs, footnotes, and research. We just don’t want to let go.

So, we end up with papers and books that feel like they’ve been stuffed full with all the accumulated debris an academic pack rat can find. There’s probably some good stuff in there. But who can tell? Who can find it?

So, today’s advice is: kill the clutter.

Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can. It is comprehensible when I write: “The man sat on the grass,” because it is clear and does not detain one’s attention. On the other hand, it is difficult to figure out and hard on the brain if I write: “The tall, narrow-chested man of medium height and with a red beard sat down on the green grass that had already been trampled down by the pedestrians, sat down silently, looking around timidly and fearfully.” The brain can’t grasp all that at once, and art must be grasped at once, instantaneously.  ~Anton Chekhov (HT AdviceToWriters)

This works in non-fiction writing as well. Unnecessary modifiers deaden prose; they numb the reader and make it difficult to figure out what you’re saying. Of course, adjectives usually aren’t the problem in academic writing. Even simple adverbs are too prosaic for us. We prefer to use entire clauses to muddy our writing.

Here’s an exercise for you.

  1. Take any paragraph from the last paper you wrote.
  2. Identify the main idea of the paragraph. (If it doesn’t have one, pick a different paragraph and remember that paragraphs should have a purpose.)
  3. See how much you can eliminate and still have the paragraph communicate that main idea. Make it a game. See how short you can make it and still deliver the purpose. This is the core of your paragraph and it’s what your reader needs to know. Anything that you add to this core has the potential to muddy the waters and make your reader miss the point of the paragraph.
  4. Go back to the original paragraph and look at the extra words/clauses one at a time. Ask yourself whether they really contribute anything. If you left them out, would the reader really miss anything important? If not, leave them out. If they’re not helping, they’re hurting. There is no middle ground here.

Now, I’m no minimalist.  Brevity can be bad. Short sentences get boring. Variety is good. This is choppy.

So, feel free to mix things up a bit. Just make sure than when you do, you have a reason for doing so.

It’s the beginning of another school year, so it’s time to clean house. Set your pack rat ways behind you and commit to using your language carefully, your words wisely, your prose purposefully. (How many adverbs should I cross out from that sentence?)

Kill the unnecessary clutter.

[This post is part of our Tips for the Th.M. series, offering suggestions on how to survive and thrive in a postgraduate program.]

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on September 14, 2011, in Th.M. Program, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Great advice. I’m not sure how many times I have asked my students to remove every word in their thesis that ends in “ly.” Adverbs are powerful, but only if used sparingly. (I couldn’t think of a better way to say this without the adverb. . . .)

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