Simplicity by William Zinsser

Simplicity by William Zinsser

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

Who can understand the viscous language of everyday American commerce and enterprise: the business letter, the interoffice memo, the corporation report, the notice from the t bank explaining its latest “simplified” statement? What member of an insurance or medical l plan can decipher the brochure that tells him what his costs and benefits are? What father or i mother can put together a child’s toy-on Christmas Eve or any other eve-from the instructions on the box? Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who wakes us to announce that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable weather wouldn’t dream of saying that there’s a storm ahead and it may get bumpy. The sentence is too simple-there must be something wrong with it.

But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb which carries the same meaning that is already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves she reader unsure of who is doing what-these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur, ironically, in proportion to education and rank.

During the late 1960s the president of a major university wrote a letter to mollify the alumni after a spell of campus unrest. “You are probably aware,” he began, “that we have been experiencing very considerable potentially explosive expressions of dissatisfaction on issues only partially related.” He meant that the students had been hassling them about different things. I was far more upset by the president’s English than by the students’ potentially explosive expressions of dissatisfaction. I would have preferred the presidential approach oaken by Franklin D. Roosevelt when he tried to convert into English his own government’ memos, such as this blackout order of 1942:

“Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.”

“Tell them,” Roosevelt said, “that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows.”

Simplify, simplify. Thoreau said it, as we are so often reminded, and no American writer more consistently practiced what he preached. Open Walden to any page and you will find a man saying in a plain and orderly way what is on his mind:

“I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles space that intervene between a man and his fellows The really diligent student in of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert.”

How can the rest of us achieve such enviable freedom from clutter? The answer is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing: one can’t exist without the other. It is impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English. He may get away with it for a paragraph or two, but soon the reader will be lost, and there is no sin so grave, for he will not easily be lured back.

Who is this elusive creature the reader? He is a person with an attention span of about twenty seconds. He is assailed on every side by forces competing for his time: by newspapers and magazines, by television and radio and stereo, by his wife and children and pets, by his house and his yard and all the gadgets that he has bought to keep them spruce, and by that most potent of competitors, sleep. The man snoozing in his chair with an unfinished magazine open on his lap is a man who was being given too much unnecessary trouble by the writer.

It won’t do to say that the snoozing reader is too dumb or too lazy to keep pace with the train of thought. My sympathies are with him. If the reader is lost, it is generally because the writer has not been careful enough to keep him on the path.

This carelessness can take any number of forms. Perhaps a sentence is so excessively cluttered that the reader, hacking his way through the verbiage, simply doesn’t know what it means. Perhaps a sentence has been so shoddily constructed that the reader could read it in any of several ways. Perhaps the writer has switched pronouns in mid-sentence, or has switched tenses, so the reader loses track of who is talking or when the action took place. Perhaps Sentence B is not a logical sequel to Sentence A-the writer, in whose head the connection is clear, has not bothered to provide the missing link. Perhaps the writer has used an important word incorrectly by not taking the trouble to look it up. He may think that “sanguine” and “sanguinary” mean the same thing, but the difference is a bloody big one. The reader can only infer (speaking of big differences) what the writer is trying to imply.

Faced with these obstacles, the reader is at first a remarkably tenacious bird. He blames himself-he obviously missed something, and he goes back over the mystifying sentence, or over the whole paragraph, piecing it out like an ancient rule, making guesses and moving on. But he won’t do this for long. The writer is making him work too hard, and the reader will look for one who is better at his craft.

The writer must therefore constantly ask himself: What am I trying to say? Surprisingly often, he doesn’t know. Then he must look at what he has written and ask: Have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, it is because some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery. The clear writer is a person clear-headed enough to see this stuff for what it is: fuzz.

I don’t mean that some people are born clear-headed and are therefore natural writers, whereas others are naturally fuzzy and will never write well. Thinking clearly is a conscious act that the writer must force upon himself, just as if he were embarking on any other project that requires logic: adding up a laundry list or doing an algebra problem. Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people obviously think it does. The professional writer is forever being bearded by strangers who say that they’d like to “try a little writing sometime” when they retire from their real profession. Good writing takes self-discipline and, very often, self-knowledge.

Many writers, for instance, can’t stand to throw anything away. Their sentences are littered with words that mean essentially the same thing and with phrases which make a point that is implicit in what they have already said. When students give me these littered sentences I beg them to select from the surfeit of words the few that most precisely fit what they want to say. Choose one, I plead, from among the three almost identical adjectives. Get rid of the unnecessary adverbs. Eliminate “in a funny sort of way” and other such qualifiers they do no useful work.

The students look stricken-I am taking all their wonderful words away. I am only taking their superfluous words away, leaving what is organic and strong

“But,” one of my worst offenders confessed, “I never can get rid of anything-you should see my room.” (I didn’t take him up on the offer.) “I have two lamps where I only need one, hut I can’t decide which one I like better, so l keep them both.” He went on to enumerate his duplicated or unnecessary objects, and over the weeks ahead I went on throwing away his duplicated and unnecessary words. By the end of the term-a term that he found acutely painful — his sentences were clean.

“I’ve had to change my whole approach to writing,” he told me. “Now I have to think before I start every sentence and I have to think about every word.” The very idea amazed him. Whether his room also looked better I never found out.

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time. or the third. Keep thinking and rewriting until you say what you want to say.


by William Zinsser

Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds—the writer is always slightly behind. New varieties sprout overnight, and by noon they are part of American speech. John Dean holds the record. In just one day of testimony on TV during the Watergate hearings he raised the clutter quotient by 400 percent. The next day everyone in America was saying “at this point in time” instead of “now”.

Consider all the prepositions that are routinely draped onto verbs that don’t need any help. Head up. Free up. Face up to. We no longer head committees. We head them up. We don’t face problems anymore. We face up to them when we can free up a few minutes. A small detail, you may say—not worth bothering about. It is worth bothering about. The game is won or lost on hundreds of small details. Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there. “Up” in “free up” shouldn’t be there. Can we picture anything being freed up? The writer of clean English must examine every word that he puts on paper. He will find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.

Take the adjective “personal,” as in “a personal friend of mine,” “his personal feeling” or “her personal physician.” It is typical of the words that can be eliminated nine times out of ten. The personal friend has come into the language to distinguish him from the business friend, thereby debasing not only language but friendship. Someone’s feeling is his personal feeling—that’s what “his” means. As for the personal physician, he is that man summoned to the dressing room of a stricken actress so that she won’t have to be treated by the impersonal physician assigned to the theater. Someday I’d like to see him identified as “her doctor”. Physicians are physicians, friends are friends. The rest is clutter.

Clutter is the laborious phrase which has pushed out the short word that means the same thing. These locutions are a drag on energy and momentum. Even before John Dean gave us “at this point in time,” people had stopped saying “now.” They were saying “at the present time,” or “currently,” or “presently” (which means “soon”). Yet the idea can always be expressed by “now” to mean the immediate moment (“now I can see him”), or by “today” to mean the historical present (“Today prices are high”), or simply by the verb “to be” (“It is raining”). There is no need to say, “At the present time we are experiencing precipitation.”

Speaking of which, we are experiencing considerable difficulty getting that word out of the language now that it has lumbered in. Even your dentist will ask if you are experiencing any pain. If he were asking one of his own children he would say, “Does it hurt?” He would, in short, be himself. By using a more pompous phrase in his professional role he not only sounds more important; he blunts the painful edge of truth. It is the language of the airline stewardess demonstrating the oxygen mask that will drop down if the plane should somehow run out of air. “In the extremely unlikely possibility that the aircraft should experience such an eventuality,” she begins—a phrase so oxygen-depriving in itself that we are prepared for any disaster, and even gasping death shall lose its sting. As for her request to “kindly extinguish all smoking materials,” I often wonder what materials are smoking. Maybe she thinks my coat and tie are on fire.

Clutter is the ponderous euphemism that turns a slum into a depressed socioeconomic area, a salesman into a marketing representative and garbage collectors into waste disposal personnel. In New Canaan, Connecticut, the incinerator is now the “volume reduction unit”. I think of Bill Mauldin’s cartoon showing two hoboes riding a freight train. One of them says, “I started as a simple bum, but now I’m hard-core unemployed.”

Clutter is the official language used by the American corporation—in its news release and its annual report—to hide its mistakes. When a big company recently announced that it was “decentralizing its organizational structure into major profit-centered businesses” and that “corporate staff services will be realigned under two senior vice-presidents” it meant that it had had a lousy year.

Clutter is the language of the interoffice memo (“The trend to mosaic communication is reducing the meaningfulness of concern about whether or not demographic segments differ in their tolerance of periodicity”) and the language of computers (“Congruent command paradigms explicitly represent the semantic oppositions in the definitions of the commands to which they refer”).

Clutter is the language of the Pentagon throwing dust in the eyes of the populace by calling an invasion a “reinforced protective reaction strike” and by justifying its vast budgets on the need for “credible second-strike capability” and “counterforce deterrence”. How can we grasp such vaporous double-talk? As George Orwell pointed out in “Politics and the English Language,” an essay written in 1946 but cited frequently during the Vietnam and Cambodia years of Johnson and Nixon, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible…Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” Orwell’s warning that clutter is not just a nuisance but a deadly tool came true in America in the 1960s.

In fact, the art of verbal camouflage reached new heights of invention during General Alexander Haig’s tenure as Secretary of State in the Reagan administration. Before Haig nobody had ever thought of saying “at this juncture of maturization” to mean “now”. He told the American people that he saw “improved pluralization” in EI Salvador, that terrorism could be fought with “meaningful sanctionary teeth” and that intermediate nuclear missiles were “at the vortex of cruciality.” As for any worries that the public might have about such matters, his message—reduced to one-syllable words—was “leave it to Al.” What he actually said was, “We must push this to a lower decibel of public fixation. I don’t think there’s much of a learning curve to be achieved in this area of content.”

I could go on quoting examples from various fields—every profession has its growing arsenal of jargon to fire at the layman and hurl him back from its walls. But the list would be depressing and the lesson tedious. The point of raising it now is to serve notice that clutter is the enemy, whatever form it takes. It slows the reader and robs the writer of his personality, making him seem pretentious.

Beware, then, of the long word that is no better than the short word: “numerous” (many), “facilitate” (ease), “individual” (man or woman), “remainder” (rest), “initial” (first), “implement” (do), “sufficient” (enough), “attempt” (try), “referred to as” (called), and hundreds more. Beware, too, of all the slippery new fad words for which the language already has equivalents: overview and quantify, paradigm and parameter, infrastructure and interface, private sector and public sector, optimize and maximize, prioritize and potentialize. They are all weeds that will smother what you write.

Now are all the weeds so obvious. Just as insidious are the little growths of perfectly ordinary words with which we explain how we propose to go about our explaining, or which inflate a simple preposition or conjunction into a whole windy phrase.

“I might add,” “It should be pointed out,” “It is interesting to note that”—how many sentences begin with these dreary clauses announcing what the writer is going to do next? If you might add, add it. If it should be pointed out, point it out. If it is interesting to note, make it interesting. Being told that something is interesting is the surest way of tempting the reader to find it dull; are we not all stupefied by what follows when someone says, “This will interest you”? As for the inflated prepositions and conjunctions, they are the innumerable phrases like “with the possible exception of” (except), “due to the fact that” (because), “he totally lacked the ability to” (he couldn’t), “until such time as” (until), “for the purpose of” (for).

Is there any way to recognize clutter at a glance? Here’s a device I used at Yale that students found helpful. I would put brackets around any component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work. Often it was just one word that got bracketed: the unnecessary preposition appended to a verb (“order up”), or the adverb that carries the same meaning as the verb (“smile happily”), or the adjective that states a known fact (“tall skyscraper”). Often my brackets surrounded the little qualifiers that weaken any sentence they inhabit (“a bit”, “sort of”) of the announcement like “I’m tempted to say”. Sometimes my brackets surrounded an entire sentence—the one that essentially repeats what the previous sentence said, or that tells the reader something he doesn’t need to know or can figure out for himself. Most people’s first drafts can be cut by 50 percent—they’re swollen with words and phrases that do no new work whatever.

My reason for bracketing the extra words instead of crossing them out was to avoid violating the sentence. I wanted to leave it intact for the student to analyze. I was saying, “I may be wrong, but I think this can be deleted and the meaning won’t be affected at all. But you decide: read the sentence without the bracketed material and see if it works.” In the early weeks of the term I gave back papers that were infested with brackets. Entire paragraphs were bracketed. But soon the students learned to put mental brackets around their own clutter, and by the end of the term their papers were almost clean. Today many of those students are professional writers and they tell me, “I still see your brackets—they’re following me through life.”

You can develop the same eye. Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Re-examine each sentence that you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?

Simplify, simplify.

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