Reading: Zinsser, “Clutter”

William Zinsser [b. 1922]

William Zinsser was born in New York City, graduated from Princeton University in 1944, and subsequently began a long association with the New York Herald Tribune as a writer, editor, and critic. Since, Zinsser has contributed to Life and The New Yorker, among other magazines. His experience teaching writing at Yale (1970–1979) led to the publication of On Writing Well in 1976, now a classic guide for nonfiction writers in its seventh edition. In On Writing Well, Zinsser recounts his own struggles to both master and impart on his students the writer’s “craft.” His other books include Writing to Learn (1988) and Writing about Your Life: A Journey into the Past (2004), a guide to memoir encouraging writers to focus on small, authentic moments and to be themselves in their writing. Zinsser’s most recent work includes Writing Places: The Life and Journey of a Writer and Teacher (2010).

In “Clutter,” excerpted from On Writing Well, Zinsser identifies how linguistic flourishes can often interfere with a writer’s clarity. Language, according to Zinsser, must serve a purpose: A writer cannot hold onto words simply because he or she thinks they are “beautiful.”


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. Consider what President Nixon’s aide John Dean accomplished in just one day of testimony on television during the Watergate hearings. The next day everyone in America was saying “at this point in time” instead of “now.”

Consider all the prepositions that are draped onto verbs that don’t need any help. 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. 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. Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll 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’s typical of hundreds of words that can be eliminated. The personal friend has come into the language to distinguish him or her from the business friend, thereby debasing both language and friendship. Someone’s feeling is that person’s personal feeling—that’s what “his” means. As for the personal physician, that’s the man or woman summoned to the dressing room of a stricken actress so she won’t have to be treated by the impersonal physician assigned to the theater. Someday I’d like to see that person identified as “her doctor.” Physicians are physicians, friends are friends. The rest is clutter.

Clutter is the laborious phrase that has pushed out the short word that means the same thing. Even before John Dean, people had stopped saying “now.” They were saying “currently” (“all our operators are currently assisting other customers”), or “at the present time,” 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 a form of the verb “to be” (“It is raining”). There’s no need to say, “At the present time we are experiencing precipitation.”

“Experiencing” is one of the worst clutterers. Even your dentist will ask if you are experiencing any pain. If he had his own kid in the chair 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’s the language of the flight attendant demonstrating the oxygen mask that will drop down if the plane should run out of air. “In the 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.

Clutter is the ponderous euphemism that turns a slum into a depressed socioeconomic area, garbage collectors into waste-disposal personnel and the town dump into the volume reduction unit. I think of Bill Mauldin’s cartoon of two hoboes riding a freight car. One of them says, “I started as a simple bum, but now I’m hard-core unemployed.” Clutter is political correctness gone amok. I saw an ad for a boys’ camp designed to provide “individual attention for the minimally exceptional.”

Clutter is the official language used by corporations to hide their mistakes. When the Digital Equipment Corporation eliminated 3,000 jobs its statement didn’t mention layoffs; those were “involuntary methodologies.” When an Air Force missile crashed, it “impacted with the ground prematurely.” When General Motors had a plant shutdown, that was a “volume-related production-schedule adjustment.” Companies that go belly-up have “a negative cash-flow position.”

Clutter is the language of the Pentagon calling an invasion a “reinforced protective reaction strike” and justifying its vast budgets on the need for “counterforce deterrence.” As George Orwell pointed out in “Politics and the English Language,” an essay written in 1946 but often cited during the wars in Cambodia, Vietnam and Iraq, “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 has come true in the recent decades of American military adventurism. It was during George W. Bush’s presidency that “civilian casualties” in Iraq became “collateral damage.”

Verbal camouflage reached new heights during General Alexander Haig’s tenure as President Reagan’s secretary of state. Before Haig, nobody had thought of saying “at this juncture of maturization” to mean “now.” He told the American people 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 harbor, his message was “leave it to Al,” though 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 throw dust in the eyes of the populace. But the list would be tedious. The point of raising it now is to serve notice that clutter is the enemy. Beware, then, of the long word that’s no better than the short word: “assistance” (help), “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 of all the slippery new fad words: paradigm and parameter, prioritize and potentialize. They are all weeds that will smother what you write. Don’t dialogue with someone you can talk to. Don’t interface with anybody.

Just as insidious are the word clusters with which we explain how we propose to go about our explaining: “I might add,” “It should be pointed out,” “It is interesting to note.” If you might add, add it. If it should be pointed out, point it out. If it is interesting to note, make it interesting; are we not all stupefied by what follows when someone says, “This will interest you”? Don’t inflate what needs no inflating: “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 my students at Yale found helpful. I would put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work. Often just one word 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”), or phrases like “in a sense,” which don’t mean anything. Sometimes my brackets surrounded an entire sentence—the one that essentially repeats what the previous sentence said, or that says something readers don’t need to know or can figure out for themselves. Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.

My reason for bracketing the students’ superfluous words, instead of crossing them out, was to avoid violating the students’ sacred prose. I wanted to leave the sentence intact for them to analyze. I was saying, “I may be wrong, but I think this can be deleted and the meaning won’t be affected. But you decide. Read the sentence without the bracketed material and see if it works.” In the early weeks of the term I handed back papers that were festooned 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. Reexamine each sentence 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.


William K. Zinsser. “Clutter” from Chapter 3 On Writing Well, Seventh (30th Anniversary) Edition by William K. Zinsser. Published by HarperCollins. Copyright © 1976, 1980, 1985, 1988, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2001, 2006 by William K. Zinsser. Reprinted by permission of the author.