You manage to go days, weeks, months, perhaps even years without noticing; when you walk into your room, you ignore the detritus that has become your ecosystem. These trinkets are important, you keep telling yourself; that’s why they have to stay on the shelves. These teddy bears and old birthday cards will surely come in handy one day.
And then, as startling as walking into a glass door, you look around and realize: where did all this stuff come from? Why am I still clinging onto these possessions when they’re just gathering dust?
In this way, you must also regard your words.
Recently, I took a good look around my room and had this revelation. This mentality, of course, can be put towards writing. When you look at a piece you’ve written years ago, do you cringe? I do, and I know why: on top of the inexperience, it’s because I’m using too many words to convey something that could have otherwise been shown simply.
In other words, the prose is cluttered with unnecessary words and telling. Yes, the dreaded “show, don’t tell” strikes again. You might think you need a lot of words, but really, you don’t.
Take this example:
John did not like potatoes. He had no idea why he did not like potatoes, but he just did, like a gut feeling telling you not to put your hand on the hot stove. It did not matter the form: fried, mashed, boiled, baked—not even the chip was spared from his dislike. He felt bad that he did not like potatoes, which became an inconvenience at several dinner parties where he had to explain why he could not partake in the main course, but nothing could sway him into liking the starchy vegetable.
This is rather wordy, and tells us quite a bit, but doesn’t really give us the sensory details we as readers look for, such as that the crunch of a potato chip makes him cringe.
With this in mind, look at the paragraph cross out as much as you can, and add some sensory detail. It could look something like this:
John’s grocery list never included potatoes. The sight of their dimpled form repulsed him; not even the humble chip was spared from his dislike. He became an inconvenience at several dinner parties, where even the smell of Martha’s famous garlic mashed potatoes churned his stomach.
This is much shorter, and gives the reader a better idea of John’s aversion.
Similarly, take a look at your prose—really look at it—and imagine what a peer or an editor might see. Will the sentence flow smoothly, or will you stumble over the words? Copy and paste a scene into another document and strike out as much as you possibly can; you’ll be surprised how crisp and clear the scene will become.
For bonus points, check to see if all these extra words are written in the course of explaining something. Take them out and replace them with something short and to-the-point, such as John’s churning stomach. Everyone has experienced a churning stomach; they will understand this reaction without you having to spell it out.
A de-cluttered story is a smoother, fresher story. It also wouldn’t hurt to clean your room once in a while.