Tuesday, September 22, 2009


For a while they were everywhere on TV; those programs showing you how to de-clutter your life. They were full of helpful hints on letting go and moving on and organizational solutions for the stuff deemed worthy enough to stick around. Clutter - friend or foe?

After being brought up to believe that I was the world's messiest beast, I discovered a while ago that I'm actually quite neat. I like clean surfaces. I like everything to have a place. However, stuff accumulates at a frightening pace. When we first moved into this house many, many years ago we actually had to buy furniture in order to fill some of the rooms. Trust me, this is not the case now. I can go through the house and think "Where did this all come from? How did we end up with this much stuff?" Cleaning out feels good. Things that were vital 10 years ago simply aren't anymore - the children are older, the hobby has been left behind, and what is that thing sitting in the corner?

Writing can have clutter as well, although people are divided on defining it! It could be too many flowery phrases or descriptions of settings that go on for pages or a hair by hair description of a hairstyle or colour. I am certainly guilty of cluttery writing, but I do try to go through it and clean it up. It's hard. Just like getting rid of that ugly chair you've had for forever (but have fond memories of ), you remember how long it took you to write that particular paragraph or chapter. Then there's that phrase that you're so proud of, but in the cold light of editing realize that it doesn't do anything. It doesn't add to the plot or characters. It's just a nice phrase. I toss it.

My litmus test in editing is honestly answering the question:

"Does this sentence/paragraph/section add to the story? Would the story be the worse if it were gone?"

The answer decides its fate. I'm not advocating writing a book that's as sterile as an operating room, but cluttery writing gets in the way of your story. Filling in the details is wonderful and absolutely necessary. Overfilling leads to clutter.

What's your opinion? Is this a worry for you? Or are you able to write cleanly?


  1. Right now I'm in the process of adding clutter. I tend to write far too bare bones. I map my plot out and just follow it I don't slow down to let the reader get a look around-that's my biggest problem. This is why getting past 30,000 words even with a compolicated plot has been difficult.

    For short stories I occassionally get attached to a lovely phrase that I know must go but can't really bear to part wiht. What I do is cut it our and save it elsewhere and hope it will come in handy in the future. It's easier like that.

  2. Lauri; We suffer from the same affliction! I save phrases as well but I write them down in a notebook. Thanks so much for dropping by! I love your blog.

  3. Blogger is really acting up today, isn't it? It ate my comment. Here 'tis again--I like to include funny scenes that don't propel my plots. Then I'm so sad when I have to edit them out, later! I have a huge collection of funny scenes that I'd love to have a spot for...

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Elizabeth; I hear you! Both about blogger and about the funny scenes. I try desperately to insert some comedy into my plots, it can't all be sturm and drang! I admit I fight to keep it. In my opinion it makes all the characters seem a bit more human.

  5. If I could go into my basement, highlight a bunch of unwanted garbage, then hit the delete key, my house would be a lot cleaner.

    Wait, what? We're talking about writing? Never mind.

  6. One big difference between book clutter and house clutter is that house clutter takes up lots of room and spills out of closets and drawers - but manuscript clutter can be snipped and stored in a file that takes up very little room and is search-able and retrievable. Throw away house clutter. Save book/manuscript clutter.

    Straight From Hel

  7. My writing clutter rides a seesaw. First draft is pretty lean. The clutter there is threads that end up not going anywhere. Second draft is when I go shopping and end up with lots of clutter everywhere. By third draft I'm ready to see what needs to stay and what gets cut. You're so right about how hard it is to kill your darlings.

  8. I have house clutter (books and papers everywhere) as well as dirty windows and an untidy flower bed. My writing, on the other hand, is getting almost too lean. I do like Alan's delete key for housecleaning idea. A robot like Wall-E (or whatever the little guy's name was) would help.

  9. I'm a clutter girl all-around...lots lots lots. I get attached to things and can't part... I'm not terribly descriptive on scene or observation so much as I love dialog and am loathe to jump to far in time, even if nothing is going to matter for months. Guess that is how i got an 800 page book (now 600). I may need therapy.

  10. Alan; Figure out how to invent a delete key for house clutter and I foresee riches that would make J.K. Rowling envious!

    Helen; It is a good idea to keep the cut-aways. I just find I never use them and am only keeping on to them out of guilt!

    Carol; What a lovely way to put it!

    Patricia; You're another one for the delete key for housekeeping! As I wrote to Alan, I think he's got a winner.

    To All; I'm encouraged by how many of you have trouble with a manuscript that's too lean after the first draft. It's also my problem. Nice to know I'm not alone!

  11. Hart; We must have been entering at the same time! I also love writing dialogue, but I discovered when I was editing my plays that I was using 12 words when 7 would have done. Severe editing ensued.

  12. Writing clutter can be a tough one to identify…can be. The tough stuff for me is descriptive exposition. How much is enough. Some readers like lots of detail to feel “grounded” in where they are and what the setting feels like. Other readers only need to know they’re in a hotel room, for example, and they’ll fill in the details based on experience. So, how do you write it for the person who wants more, or the reader who wants less. Tough call. I shoot for the middle…that way, no one is happy.

    Best Regards, Galen

    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  13. Galen; I find I write descriptions through the characters' eyes - what one sees and what one doesn't see. Someone might love the view through the window, another can't see anything but the thick layer of dust on the table.

  14. I tell my classes about my "leftovers" folder for every novel I write. I cut things from my manuscript and paste them in leftovers. If I don't miss it, then out it stays. 99.9% of the time I don't miss it.

    And if there's a bit of good writing somewhere in there, then I can pull it out and put it someplace else. Truth be told I almost never look at the folder to see all the bits I have trimmed away. But one of my students joked that my next novel could be called Leftovers and it would contain all those bits and pieces. :)

  15. Elisa; As you know, you can make a pretty tasty meal out of leftovers if you're Italian!

  16. The question is not as simple as one might assume. In general, I like your approach: cutting out anything that does add to the story. That's mainly how I do it, too.

    On the other hand, it can be tricky to cut out the deadwood and leave in enough description, etc. to make the story alive.

    But 99% of the time, when in doubt...cut!

  17. Jack; Something can add in many different ways - to the mood, the character, the humour. Those pieces stay. It's the bits I know I'll never miss that go. Also taking too many words to say something.

  18. My writing clutter is mostly single words and the dreaded dialogue tags. I tend to overuse "just", "seems", "felt like", "suddenly", "almost". They seem to multiply while I sleep :) Dialogue tags are also something I'm getting better at eliminating in my drafts. That way I don't have as much to edit out later on.

    Now my desk clutter is another matter entirely! :)

  19. Jemi; I hear you about that problem. My word is 'that'. As for desk clutter, don't get me started!

  20. As a reader, I love a bit of clutter. When every line advances the story, I find it a bit sterile. Would much rather read a book where the author goes off on these little side trips once in awhile.
    I know that is not exactly what publishers are looking for, but the never asked this reader what she wants to read.

  21. My Type-A personality took a hit when I had a baby, my house is a clutter-zone, but an organized clutter-zone :)
    My writing is full of stuff I need to edit out later. Key word, later - I plow through then go back.

  22. I'm like you--my writing is too lean. With my memoir, I had to go back in and find places to add description, metaphor, imagery, and still it is quite sparse in that department. It's why I'm so afraid of attempting fiction. It doesn't come naturally to me.

  23. Rayna; I understand your point. I don't like leading readers nowhere just for fun...but I will lead them down a path that turns into a big red herring!

    Carolyn; I so remember those days! My babies are teenagers and pre-teen, but the clutter continues.

    Karen; I so admire you for writing a memoir. I will NEVER attempt one.


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