Book Editing: Unclutter Clutter

7 Sep

A few years back, when I was still at the paper, my colleague Clay and I would have important committee meetings about writing (aka standing around the newsroom talking). He once told me about an interview he did at the Blackland Research and Extension Center in Temple, one in which the researcher he was interviewing kept referring to the “vertical integration of moisture.” Clay had to back the researcher up and ask, “Do you mean rain?” Which basically was what the researcher meant by “vertical integration of moisture.”

Science and technology, as all fields, have terms specific to the field, without which those in the fields can’t communicate specific ideas or talk about specific equipment. Any healthcare professional, for instance, ought to know about blood-borne, airborne and contact pathogens, those potentially dangerous invisible things that pass disease to people through the blood, through the air, or through touch.

But when writing about science and technology, whether for a general audience or for students at any level, clarity has to be a priority. A general newspaper reader has to know that the “vertical integration of moisture” is rain, otherwise an article about research may be unclear; the reader will snooze rather than learn that research’s value. Students need to know pathogens are microscopic things like bacteria or viruses that cause disease, and such pathogens spread disease through the blood, the air or by touch, otherwise the student may get sick or cause others to get sick.

Clarity is one of the most important elements of writing and often impeding clarity is clutter, as William Zinsser notes in his classic book On Writing Well.

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

Since starting here, I’ve seen many instances of cluttered writing. Often clutter isn’t caused by writers inserting terms necessary to learning a particular subject; it appears when writers try to convey those terms or ideas to the reader. Complex and confusing sentences full of big, unnecessary words and strings of confusing prepositional phrases erupt on the page. Simple, clear sentences fade. Some of our textbook authors seem afraid of simplicity, as if under-inflated sentences didn’t sound important enough.

One recent text outlined a dress code for nursing program students with a policy that originally read: “Hair coloring must be natural in appearance.” I edited the sentence to read: “Hair color must appear natural.” The sentence has two fewer words, less clutter, and the meaning is clearer, the sentence vigorous in active voice.

But, it’s not just whole sentences that clutter clarity. I often find myself editing phrases that to the writer must’ve sounded “official” and more important than simpler phrases or words. Common phrases include “in order to” instead of “to” and “prior to” instead of “before”. Another common phrase is “including, but not limited to,” used when “including” works just fine, because “including” is only part of the whole.

As I’m editing, I wonder why writers feel the need to add to sentences such official sounding language. Surely it’s not to obscure meaning or confuse their reader? Sometimes I believe it’s a matter of the writer’s confidence, or the writer lacks confidence in the language. Or maybe William Zinsser is right: When it comes to writing, we have become sick with cluttered sentences, because our thoughts are just as tangled.


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