Cutting Clutter

 

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I once received a notification in a social media app that said, “We’re reducing clutter by showing you fewer notifications from some groups.” I chuckled that they had sent me a notification about sending fewer notifications.

Decluttering is all the rage these days. We live in a cultural moment when many of us feel overwhelmed, whether by too much stuff cluttering our homes or too many tweets and pictures cluttering our news feeds. It’s not surprising that decluttering has become a movement, with books like Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up helping people clean out their closets. Her main principle is that if an item does not spark joy in you, you can probably get rid of it. It may have already served its purpose. So she gives people permission to let things go.

The power of decluttering also applies to writing, speaking, and communication in many forms. Our audiences are wading through worlds filled with noise, and it can be an act of service to them to streamline our communication to be more simple and straightforward. Whether we’re writing sermons or newsletters, articles or blog posts, in many cases, less is more.

Strunk and White’s maxim in The Elements of Style declares, “Omit needless words.” The opening chapters of William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well model cutting clutter in a way that let you see his own process. For example, he writes,

Thinking clearly is a conscious act that writers must force on themselves, as if they were working on any other project that requires logic: making a shopping list or doing an algebra problem. Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people seem to think it does.

Then he reveals how the passage was decluttered:

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Zinsser’s example reminds me that much of my writing is padding and unnecessary. As writers, we must be willing to “kill our darlings” (as William Faulkner allegedly said) and let go of our words.

When I was in graduate school, the professor of a writing course had us write a 1500-word article. That was the easy part. Then he had us cut it down to 1200 words. That wasn’t too bad. A lot of the wordiness could be trimmed out.

Then we had to cut it down to 1000 words. That was more painful. And then 800 words. That felt like cutting into bone.

But we did it, and we were shocked at the result. Word choices were more precise because every word mattered. The final article was concise and crisp. It accomplished its purposes far better, at about half the length of the original draft. Zinsser says, “Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.”

There’s also a spiritual dynamic to decluttering. Kondo describes a woman who purged her bookshelves of books she no longer needed. To her surprise, what remained were books on topics of social concern that she was passionate about but had neglected. She realized that these remaining books represented what she truly felt called to pursue, and consequently she soon changed careers. Decluttering is a spiritual discipline that strips away the false self and helps the true self emerge.

At a recent writing workshop, I worked with participants on decluttering their writing. One participant had an A-ha moment: “It’s not just my writing. My mind is swirling around so many things. I’ve got to declutter my life.” Simplicity gives focus to both our writing and our spiritual lives. When we are more centered, our communication has greater clarity.

So if your sermon text is five pages long, see if you can cut it down to four. If your article is 750 words long, try to get it down to 600 or 500. And instead of having three points, maybe just make one. You might be surprised at the difference.

Contributor: Al Hsu

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Continuing Education, Princeton Theological Seminary, April 12, 2018

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