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.
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.
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
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.
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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