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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.]


Writing tip(s) of the day

At least once a week, I try to pass along any good writing tips or resources I’ve stumbled across on my various internet journeys. Today’s resource comes from an interview with Louis Markos, an editor at The Gospel Coalition website.

Answering the first question, Markos offers a number of authors that he thinks have a “beautiful and subtle prose” worth emulating. He’s particularly fond of Ray Bradbury and C. S. Lewis.

The latter part of the interview focuses on the differences between good and great sentences, as well as what it takes to craft a good argument.

How to Placate the Typography Gods

Here are some good tips for keeping an editor (or picky professor) happy with your writing projects. (HT 22 Words)



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Writing tip of the day: In defense of Strunk and White has an excellent article in defense of Strunk and White’s classic writing text, Elements of Style (read it on Scribd here). After surveying its influence and some key critiques, the author concludes:

Meanwhile, as far as everyday, non-literary writing goes, the book is tremendously useful, especially for writers who are just starting out. If you are still struggling to put your thoughts into words, then The Elements of Style is a godsend. Strunk and White take the same tack as E.L. Doctorow, who wrote that “writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Simple sentences get you where you want to go, one mile at a time. Haslett suggests, as an alternative, Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One; Fish, he explains, is a world-class literary critic, “a sentence connoisseur” who offers “a far richer introduction to the capacities of English language sentences.” But beginning writers often find simplicity more helpful than sinuosity.

Writing tip of the day – get past the “magic” of writing

In my own experience, nothing is harder for the developing writer than overcoming his anxiety that he is fooling himself and cheating or embarrassing his family and friends. To most people, even those who don’t read much, there is something special and vaguely magical about writing, and it is not easy for them to believe that someone they know—someone quite ordinary in many respects—can really do it.

…………………………………………………………………~John Gardner


Writing tip of the day: composition is a discipline

Composition is a discipline; it forces us to think. If you want to “get in touch with your feelings,” fine—talk to yourself; we all do. But, if you want to communicate with another thinking human being, get in touch with your thoughts. Put them in order; give them a purpose; use them to persuade, to instruct, to discover, to seduce. The secret way to do this is to write it down and then cut out the confusing parts.  ~William Safire


Tips for the ThM (roundup)

Here are all of the “Tips for the Th.M.” that I’ve posted so far. If anyone has suggestions for further posts, please let me know.

Thirteen theses on writing

Why do we write and what does it mean to do it well? Ben Myers’ thirteen theses on writing offers some thoughts toward answering questions like these. He certainly does not attempt a comprehensive answer (does such an answer exist?). But, he does offer some provocative thoughts in that direction.

You’ll want to read the whole post yourself, but here are some of my favorite pieces:

  • On Writing and the Fall: “Writing is for the fallen, for the soul cast out of paradise and lonely to return.”
  • On Kinds of Writing: “The difference between bad writing and mediocre writing is discipline. The difference between mediocre writing and good writing is editing. The difference between good writing and great writing is miracle.”
  • On Editing: “Good writers cull the overpopulated paragraphs of their work. Like a farmer protecting the livestock, the writer lovingly separates whatever is sickly and infirm – and then loads the gun.”
  • On Writing and Living: “To distinguish between writing and living betrays a deep misunderstanding not only of what it means to write but also of what it means to live.”
  • On Writing and Thinking: “Among scholars today, there is no error more pervasive than writerly Docetism….the belief that one can have clear thoughts regardless of the clarity of their expression, or that one first has an idea which is subsequently communicated through the neutral medium of prose. But between idea and form there is a mystical union of natures; to write well is to think well.”

How to write less badly

The Chronicle of Higher Education had a good article last week on the importance of writing well, or at least less badly, in graduate school. Michael C. Munger, the author, starts by arguing that writing is the single most important factor in separating good students from mediocre ones in graduate school.

Many of the graduate students who were stars in the classroom during the first two years—the people everyone admired and looked up to—suddenly aren’t so stellar anymore. And a few of the marginal students—the ones who didn’t care that much about pleasing the professors by reading every page of every assignment—are suddenly sending their own papers off to journals, getting published, and transforming themselves into professional scholars.The difference is not complicated. It’s writing.

I’m not as convinced that good writing is the only factor separating good and mediocre students, but it certainly is an important one. The good news is that you can always learn to write better. Indeed, Munger’s whole point is that grad students need to keep working on their writing skills.

To that end, he offers the following advice:

  1. Writing is an exercise. Practice a lot.
  2. Set goals based on output, not input. Set your goals based on word/page count, not time spent.
  3. Find a voice; don’t just “get published. I think this one needs to be more of a both/and. No one can afford to ignore the question of whether your work will get published, but that can’t be the only consideration.
  4. Give yourself time. You do not do your best work at the last minute. No one does.
  5. Everyone’s unwritten work is brilliant. The one who actually writes something is doing the real work; coming up with “brilliant” ideas is the easy part.
  6. Pick a puzzle. Find a question worth wrestling with.
  7. Write, then squeeze other things in. This one is by far the hardest part for me. I’m too easily distracted by other things that I need (want) to do.
  8. Not all of your thoughts are profound. I’m sure this is true for most people.
  9. Your most profound thoughts are often wrong. Also probably true for most people.
  10. Edit your work, over and over. Please.

His reflections on each of these points was far more helpful than mine. Check it out.