What Marie Kondo Can Teach Us About Decluttering Our Prose

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Marie Kondo

When “Tidying Up” aired early in January 2019 on Netflix, hordes of fans clamored for more of Marie Kondo’s animism when dealing with all their “stuff.” Kondo peddles the concept of perfect control over your things instead of letting your things control you. Writers, we can take a page out of Kondo’s book.

While you may or may not agree with her philosophy, Marie Kondo can teach writers a thing or two about not letting clutter rule your writing. Just as a tidy home is more pleasing, use the following KonMari-style suggestions to declutter your prose and offer your readers a joyful experience.

Get rid of those adverbs

Do you have a habit of adding adverbs to bolster less-than-powerful verbs, especially when writing your first draft? Never fear… learn from Marie Kondo and find the right action verbs that spark joy for you — and your readers.

Just as Marie asks her followers to touch each piece of clothing and think about whether it should be part of their lives, you should be looking at every adverb to make sure it’s essential. If not, thank the adverb for acting as a place-holder and replace it with a strong verb.

For example:

Shana ran quickly after her son as he neared the cliff’s edge.

Quick “thank you” to “ran quickly” for its help, and then search for a powerful verb:

Shana bolted after her son as he neared the cliff’s edge.

Annihilate redundancies

Perhaps a villain in your latest work-in-progress “opens up” a box he received via the postal service. (Do you really need the “up” here?) Or maybe someone is in “close proximity” to your main character. (Proximity implies closeness.) And last time we checked, all gifts are “free,” so you need not clutter your prose by saying “free gift.”

Declutter your phrases by looking for and annihilating redundancies. Consider rephrasing “I’ll meet you at 12 noon” with “I’ll meet you at noon.”

Pop your purple prose

Why write:

She gathered her wits about her, mentally shaking herself free of lingering doubts, squared her shoulders, and determined her next move would come from her power as an intelligent woman.

When you could say:

Shaking off her doubts, she knew her power lay in her intelligence.

Declutter your purple prose. What sounds good as you write may not serve your story well.

As attributed to several writers: “Kill your darlings.” If you admire your sentence because it sounds “literary,” you should probably rephrase it.

Steer clear of sticky sentences

He looked out the window of the home to see if he could find an escape route, but wasn’t able to locate a way out of the house that wouldn’t put him at risk of falling.

Wow, that’s a lot of sticky words. In fact, when run through ProWritingAid, it shows a Glue Index of 63.2%. You want to target 40% or fewer glue words in your manuscript.

What are glue words? They’re the 200+ most common words in the English language that offer nothing to your sentence’s meaning. Too many of them is a clear sign that your sentence probably wobbles around a lot while trying to make its point. When a sentence is flagged as sticky, consider rewriting to more succinctly express your meaning.

Glancing outside, he saw no clear escape route that wouldn’t end in a terrible fall.

This rewrite is much better at less than 40% glue words.

Prune passive verbs

Nothing stops your readers’ forward motion like a passive verb. They’re like, “Wait, what just happened and who did it?”

Meredith believed the slur was aimed at her by her rival Amy.

While passive verbs sometimes offer a striking juxtaposition to what you should say, in the above example, it’s too wishy-washy. Instead, try:

Amy, Meredith’s rival, aimed the slur directly at her.

If, on the other hand, you are trying not to point fingers, you write,

Mistakes were made by many.

That should be sufficiently vague for even the most diehard politician.

Cut out repeats

How many times in a sentence, paragraph, or page should you write a particular phrase or word? Not as often as you think. Readers will notice when you repeat a singular word or phrase, and it will rub them the wrong way.

The politician decided he would refrain from speaking in public because he believed politicians should only speak when imparting words of importance. In fact, he believed the less said, the better a politician’s standing with the media.

Good grief. We get the idea we’re reading about politicians already. You need not club us over the head.

Seriously, anyone can rephrase the above sentence and cut out the repeats, making it more palatable to readers. Editing tools can scan your entire document searching for areas with an abundance of repeated words or phrases.

Final thoughts

Thanks to Marie Kondo, decluttering is the latest craze, whether in your home or your writing. The above suggestions are just a few ways to parse your writing to its essential elements. Make sure every word sparks joy for your readers. If it doesn’t, thank it for its time and rewrite.

 

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Nah. Too many authors are scatting over their stories now. No committment to the integrity of the meaning within. The examples above are too staged but the point is there. However I am reading a Booker contestant who writes lines such as: the ghost appeared as if out of nowhere and the villagers, scared ran away. Then — if this is the new writing it is for early school kiddies. The ‘scared’ does not evoke what the word is supposed to mean. This is laziness. We have to go back to the Victorians who when read you can enjoy both their meaning, intent and creativity. Or Gibson’s ‘Decline & Fall…’ Novels are supposed to evoke atmosphere not run away from it or worse not even care. Brevity is excellent when practiced by journalists. What is proposed here is mere superficiality. A writer has to bring out more than just a pedestrian description. They have to resonate with the reader what is encapsulated within the mind of the actors. Words are there to be expanded upon. Not contracted to the point of mere superficiality reflecting the lack of the writing as a craft because in the end it is an art form and not merely a pastiche pretending to be one.

    • Thank you, Lutz Barz.
      I needed your input to help me understand what I am trying to do when clearing the debris from my sentences. Following the cut, cut and cut some more approach drained the life from my sentences. I was left with a dead body of work and no idea how to resuscitate it.

    • Excellent reposte. There has to be a balance between the two viewpoints. If there was an overly enthusiastic take-up to either of these views, then we either end up with dull prose or purple ones.

  2. I agree with your comments Lutz Barz. Thank You.
    I’d also like to suggest that BookBaby point out some of the worst grammatical errors writers make, particularly those without a professional editor.
    For example: “Her and I decided to go out to dinner instead.” OUCH! My grammar isn’t perfect but reading a sentence along these lines in a kindle book recently reminded me of my school teacher Mother. She taught me an easy test for sentences like that one. Take out ‘I’ and see if it sounds right. Clearly, “Her decided to go out . . .” is not correct and tells us the original sentence should read, “She and I decided to go out to dinner instead.” Obviously, grammatical blunders may be used to show a character’s lack of education or their background but in this instance it was clearly the author’s error. Grammar is a really big subject so perhaps you could refer us to a website that shows the most common errors?

  3. Great piece of advice! I have been reading and compiling thoughts about creative writing tools. A number of sources share with Marie Kondo’s view of decluttering our prose. I have seen the importance of trimming wordiness; the need to remove impotency from our sentences in order to invigorate prose language.

  4. I spent forty years of my life as an environmental scientist and shorty after I came to Canada I attended a report writing class by a lady from SFU. She strongly supported the idea of a clear concise summary which should not discuss more than seven items. However when I quit work I went to a writing group at the seniors center and the leader said, “there is an adage which says a picture is worth a thousand words, conversely a story is a picture in a thousand words. Paint pictures with words.” As an artist I believe one should distribute colors of the rainbow with shade, depth, shape and careful location. if one over declutters it becomes like a banana on a wall.

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