Use brackets to remove clutter and make your writing clearer

by Cheo

Isolate the essential

In his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser suggests that most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information.

Clutter in writing can take multiple forms: “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’).”

Zinsser recommends asking the following questions to help identify superfluous words in your writing:

Is each word doing new work?

Can any thought be expressed more simply?

Are you hanging on to something that isn’t doing new work just because you like the way it sounds?

One way to test whether a word is clutter is to put a pair of brackets around it, and then reread the sentence as if it weren’t there.

If you’re still able to get your point across without it, then it’s clutter and can be removed.

My reactions:

The brackets idea is one of the most helpful writing tips I’ve come across, and I’ve made using it a habit.

There are a few reasons it’s so effective:

• It’s easy to use, and as an editing tool it doesn’t get in the way of the writing process — the bracketed word acts as a placeholder and you can come back to it to see if it works.

• It goes well with another one of Zinsser’s tips: reading aloud what you’ve written to decide what sounds best.

Using brackets isn’t limited to individual words — you can also apply the idea to phrases or entire sentences.

Here are two quotes from Zinsser’s book On Writing Well that I really like and wanted to include in the above summary, but left out because they seemed clunky and redundant:

• “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.”

• “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”

. . .

Thanks for reading!

My name is Cheo (CHAY-oh) and I believe ideas can change the world.

If you like this post, you might also enjoy my Weekly 3 newsletter: each Sunday, I combine three ideas on one topic to help you think differently and be more creative. You can sign up here.


This was originally published at


Medium member since Oct 2018

I like to review individual ideas the way others review whole books.

40 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All