I will thank the Lord with all my heart as I meet with his godly people. How amazing are the deeds of the Lord! All who delight in him should ponder them. Psalm 111:1-2 NLT

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Writing Clutter

Remember last fall when your husband’s parents called to say they were coming for a visit the third week of April and you thought April seemed like a million years away?  Surprise, it’s April!

I’ve spent the past several weeks trying desperately to de-clutter my home in preparation for the arrival of my in-laws on Monday. In all fairness, they are very easy going people and have never judged my house keeping skills, but I think they appreciated that they could find their bed.  

Like everyone, I want my house to be clean and neat. I don’t want excess; less is more and I want more. Or less. More or less. Whatever, my problem is that I love stuff. A lot. And I am sentimental. So I keep everything. I have the sweater I was wearing when my husband proposed. I have every scrap of paper on which my children created scribbled masterpieces. I have birthday cards, anniversary cards, and pamphlets/maps/postcards from trips I have taken with my family. And BOOKS? So. Many. Books.

It is possible I am a hoarder. I’ve seen the show, and while my house was not television-worthy, it was well on its way.  So, when my husband’s parents told us they were coming, I thought it was the perfect time to purge.  You know, like in Ecclesiastes 3, where it says there is a time to keep and a time to throw away. 
Honestly, it especially felt good to get rid of clothes. My family of four seems to have significant trouble with our laundry, so we donated a significant portion of our clothing. Not only did it clean out our closets and drawers (and laundry room and garage), but it provided for others and it felt good. I know I feel like I function better with less “stuff” piled up everywhere.

Last night my mother-in-law and I were discussing the never-ending battle against clutter in our homes and it got me thinking about my writing. I know it is much easier for me to concentrate on writing when I have a neatly organized workspace, but I was actually thinking about the clutter within my writing. I know I am guilty of padding my writing with a lot of extra flowery wording in an attempt to sound literary and important. I cram words into sentences the way I cram laundry into laundry baskets; at some point they get heavy and overstuffed and in the end, you can’t really make sense of any of it.

 William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, says that "clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon." Ouch!  Get me vaccinated!

Luckily there are a few things we can do to de-clutter our writing. First and foremost, we must make every word count. Tell your story in the fewest words necessary. Also, we can work on shortening clauses and phrases, and avoiding redundancies. Furthermore, resist the temptation to use the words “very,” “really,” and “totally.” You know there is a better way to write that sentence, so do it! The same thing is true of wasting time writing with a bunch of vague words. Get out your thesaurus, and find that perfect, specific word. Finally, don’t open your sentences with phrases like “there is…” or “there are…” Just cut to the chase already!

William Zinsser also says that "fighting clutter is like fighting weeds--the writer is always slightly behind."  For me it’s more like fighting my laundry.

~Heidi Larson Geis


  1. What a great analogy! I can so relate to keeping everything. I had to come to grips with that four years ago when I moved from a very large house to a two bedroom apartment. Talk about a time to throw away! Ouch. But after four years in 900 square feet, I've learned a little about the importance of keeping a space cleared. I throw out a lot more than I used to. I still get that twinge of "but I can use that" at times.

    I've been struggling with how to edit my finished book. The more I try to go through and change it, the more frustrated I become. So I've decided to put it aside and write it again from beginning to end, decluttering as I go. Thanks for the post!

  2. Heidi, Only you can write about clutter and make me laugh at the same time. Usually clutter makes me grouchy--and I've been feeling cranky all week, so the laughter was so, so appreciated! (Especially by my family!)
    Good practical points at the end too about how to declutter our writing.
    And now . . .I must do laundry.

  3. Have you been peeping in my closets, Heidi???? How did you know I've set a date to take EVERYTHING out, lay it all on the bed(s) and keep only what I've worn in the past year?
    A friend told me once that people who live in clutter are very well adjusted, and that I am very well adjusted. lol

    Just like with my closets, I'm going through my WIP and taking out every scene that doesn't have conflict, every just, or And, and But (almost every one)looking at my thats and words like felt, or sounded like...

    Great post, Heidi!

  4. Clutter makes me go craaaazzzzyyy...but, I will say this: I'm steadily getting less clutter-phobic as I realize I have to let some things go in order to fit in the writing time I want...which translates into a slow drain on my cleaning skills. But I love your practical notes on de-cluttering writing. Like Pat noted, getting rid of scenes without conflict totally helps! Woops, I just used one of your no-no words - "totally." :)

  5. Heidi, what a great post! I tend to find paper cluttering my home--things I know I need to deal with sometime. When I have time. "Stuff" clutter shuts down my brain, so I guess I'm not very well adjusted, because I don't do well in clutter! :)
    I appreciate your insights about clutter in my writing. I'm going to consider those "no-no" words and the other thoughts you shared. Thanks so much! And, happy de-cluttering!
    P.S. You may know this but check out FlyLady for help with de-cluttering--she's great. :)

  6. Great post and tips. I tend to be a clutter-free bug. It drives me nuts, except my closet. It's a nightmare. :)

  7. Wonderful and effective transition, Heidi. Well-done! Makes me see that overwriting is clutter, too, and streamlining is housecleaning!
    Bless this visiting time, and please tell us how your mom is doing.
    (From the time my granddtr., Brittney, was 4, she called my home The Topliff Museum--I wonder if . . .?

  8. Christine~

    I cannot even imagine trying to move our house into 900 square feet!! It would take me YEARS to make that happen. I can completely relate to the "but I can use that" mentality! I am terrible. Even as we were trying to get rid of clothing, I would hold up perfectly good shirts in the "donate" box and ask its owner why it was being donated. I like the shirt, and there's nothing wrong with it, so why are we getting rid of it? "Because. I don't like it, so I don't wear it." The men in my life get it.

    Because I struggle with my weight, I am particularly guilty of keeping clothing that doesn't fit me yet. I have this idea that it will fit someday, so I hang on to it. In truth, if I ever lose that much weight, I'm going to want all new clothes, right?! My hubby told me if I ever lose that much weight he will buy me all new clothes. If that doesn't motivate me, I don't know what will!!

    Keep me posted on your re-write progress!

  9. Sigh. Guess this means I have some cleaning to attend to - on the page and in my house! ;-)

  10. Beth~

    I'm so glad I could help you laugh away the crankies! I'm never sure if my humor transfers into my writing.

    I am sighing along with you at the thought of doing laundry. I think our washer and dryer have been running constantly for two weeks!

  11. Pat~

    I promise you, I haven't been peeping! I've been so busy cleaning out my own closets! Based on your criteria, I am EXTREMELY well adjusted!! I've dealt with laundry, but I still have mounds of papers and books to sort and purge. Once I dig out my desk and finish cleaning my room (so that it is the oasis Oprah says it is supposed to be)I will have no more excuses for not writing. Once I write, THEN I can de-clutter, lol!

  12. Melissa~

    I'm glad you are putting your writing before cleaning. I think we just have to prioritize (see "Priority Check," lol) and for me, especially with my limitations, cleaning has come in last for a long time. That's why I appreciated getting company so I had an excuse to put it first for a change. We had a lot of help from some wonderful friends, and I feel like we might be able to maintain it.

    And, I think it is totally okay to use the word totally when writing conversationally. I do it a LOT!! =)

  13. Jeanne~

    Don't feel bad about clutter shutting down your brain. I have been seeing a neuro-psychologist to help me with some of the issues I have as a result of my brain injury. She told me that I needed to clear as much clutter out of my environment as possible because environmental clutter creates brain clutter. I literally cannot "think straight" when I am surrounded by piles of stuff. I think that is why I've struggled to write lately. Like I told Pat, I am hoping a clear desk will help me think clearly enough to write again!

    And thanks for the tip about Flylady! I've tried to do it before, but we were so buried, it seemed impossible. I know she says "baby steps," but it was just too overwhelming. I already have control journals printed off for my boys for use after Grandma and Grandpa leave. I think we are in a good place to implement Flylady...not completely done, so we can use her system to finish, but enough of a start that we can actually make headway. I highly recommend her system to anyone trying to get a handle on their clutter. Now if we could just find a Flylady.com for writer's clutter! =)

  14. Jessica~

    I think everyone, even those who are clutter-free bugs, has issues with their closets! My mom's house is immaculate, but even her closets need occasional tending. Maybe it's that whole closed door thing...out of sight, out of mind?

  15. Delores~

    Yes! Editing is housecleaning. No, wait. If I compare it to housecleaning, I won't want to do it!! ;)

    My mom is doing great! The mass is benign, and she is recovering nicely from the surgery to remove it. Thanks for asking. By the way, my husband calls the towels we reserve for company "museum towels."

  16. Ava~

    I hope you won't resent me for making you feel like you needed to clean!! Good luck with both!

  17. Sometimes de-cluttering is just so hard. Something we procrastinate about. I like using lots of words to sound important too.

  18. Managed to declutter 3 chapters today. Yeah!

  19. Faye~

    It is SO hard! I love words as much as I love books, so I obviously want to use as many as possible! And don't even get me started on procrastination!! That's a subject for a whole other blog!! =)

  20. Christine~

    You GO girl!!! That's awesome...keep up the good work!