Cut the Clutter: Watch Out for Boxcars!

Sometimes, when I stop for a passing train, I’m reminded of prepositional phrases. For me, boxcars are a metaphor for them. As the cars rattle past, I imagine a long sentence coupled together with one prepositional phrase after another. Of course, we need to use them, but if we have too many strung together like boxcars our prose suffers. It sounds choppy, even mechanical and forced, and makes for uninteresting reading.

What is a prepositional phrase? It’s a phrase that begins with a preposition (a word that shows movement or direction) and ends with a noun or pronoun.

A few examples: on, in, into, onto, of, at, etc. More can be found online or in a good grammar book.

Let’s look at a sentence to see what I mean.

Julie sat at her desk beside a window and looked out it to see a swallow flapping in a nest in a tree beside a brook. (6 prepositional phrases/26 words)

  1. at her desk
  2. beside a window
  3. out it
  4. in a nest
  5. in a tree
  6. beside a brook

Revision:

Julie sat at her desk and looked out her window to see a swallow enjoying her treetop nest beside a brook. (3 prepositional phrases/21 words)

In this revision, after a little thought, I was able to reduce my prepositional phrases from six to three as well as make the sentence more concise by cutting out five words.

When to Keep Prepositional Phrases in Our Sentences

  1. When they’re necessary for sentence clarity.
  2. When we want to slow down our story’s pace

Rule of Thumb: Whenever we can revise to delete them, do so. Use them, but try to keep them to a minimum. Too many prepositional phrases strung together like boxcars on a train clutter our prose.

Try This Exercise

The sentence below has five prepositional phrases in italics. How many can you revise?  I’d love to see your revisions in the comments.

Doris knocked on the door before she stepped into the house with a basket full of flowers to give to her grandmother.

SEE ALSO: Edit Strings of Prepositional Phrases – Writing Commons

Cut the Clutter: Nouns and Verbs

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I own hundreds of draft horses. I keep them in my stables. They’re so strong they can do the work of two, three, or even more…adjectives and adverbs. See, my draft horses are concrete nouns and dynamic action verbs, and my stables are my dictionary and thesaurus. They come whenever I ask them to, and they make my sentences stronger, more visual, and more concise. If I choose them wisely, they’ll always pull their weight.

Let’s look at some examples.

SENTENCE: The little dog ran very fast across the street.

First Revision: The Chihuahua ran very fast across the street.

Things to Notice

  • I capitalized Chihuahua. Why? Because Chihuahua is a geographical region in Mexico.  When dog breeds have a geographical region as part of their breed designation, the breed is capitalized. On the other hand, a breed without a geographical region as part of their designation is not capitalized. An example of this would be border collie.
  • The world is full of little dogs, so the adjective little weakens the sentence. I solved thisissue by using a “drafthorse” noun—the concrete noun Chihuahua. Being this specific creates an image in readers’ minds and cuts the sentence down by one word.
  • Chihuahua, then, pulls the adjective’s weight.
Photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com

Second Revision: The Chihuahua sprinted across the street.

Things to Notice

  • In the example sentence I used an adverb, very, to modify a general verb, ran.
  • To solve this issue and get rid of that tired old, overused and often unnecessary adverb, I used a strong, dynamic “draft horse” verb—sprinted.

By using strong concrete nouns and dynamic action verbs, then, we can cut the clutter of adjectives and adverbs. But are there times when we need to use these modifiers? Of course, though some writers may disagree. If they can help readers visualize the noun or verb, use them. Just be sure to get rid of those that aren’t needed.  

When to Use Adjectives and Adverbs

A Few Examples

While I drove to Dallas, two black crows flew past my car.

  Here, the adjective isn’t needed because all crows in the United States are black.

  • The black standard poodle darted across the street.

 This adjective is fine because not all standard poodles are black. The adjective helps create a clear image in readers’ minds.

  • She whispered softly to me…

 The adverb softly isn’t needed because all whispers are typically soft.

  • She whispered loudly to me.

 The adverb loudly as used here is fine because whispers are, by definition, soft. So loud isn’t a way people typically whisper. Sometimes, though, people do whisper louder than usual. Thus, the adverb enhances the sound. However, there are also possible synonyms, such as stage whisper or audible whisper. Either of these synonyms would work as well.

When reviewing a manuscript, pay close attention to the adjectives and adverbs. Can they be deleted through the use of stronger nouns and verbs? If you cannot find stronger nouns and verbs to replace them, keep the modifiers. If you can find stronger nouns and verbs to replace them, get rid of the modifiers.  

Cut the Clutter: Introduction

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I’m a surgeon. Not a medical surgeon, but a verbal surgeon. All serious writers should have verbal surgeon beside their names, for just as medical surgeons cut into patients’ bodies, so verbal surgeons dig deep into sentences, cutting out words, adding words, and many other things to make their writing strong and healthy.

One of the cardinal rules of clear, clean writing is “cut the clutter.” This means taking out unnecessary words, redundancies, and similar things that clutter our prose. Once they’re trashed, sentences become clear and easier to read. They’ll be more concise. This is the mark of a professional, after all. A professional writer’s prose isn’t cluttered.

Cluttered writing can be irritating. Many years ago, when I was a young, budding writer taking college-level English classes, one of my professors gave us students handouts to take home. He’d written about authors and literature he wouldn’t have time to cover in class. I’d learned how important it was to write concisely, without clutter, so when I saw his work…Ugh! An English professor, of all people! Oh, I tried reading what he’d written, but I grew so frustrated wading through his verbosity that I tossed his handouts in a waste basket.

So, if we don’t want a frustrated reader to toss our work away…write concisely! Concise writing doesn’t mean lots of short sentences, though many beginning writers have a mistaken notion that it is. Concise writing means making every word count toward clarity. Effective, clear writing is concise and uses various sentence structures and lengths.

More on “cutting the clutter” in the next post.