On Writing Well – Clarity and Clutter Part 2  Clutter with Guest Catherine E. McLean

Please welcome my guest, fabulous author Catherine E. McLean. Catherine is the author of Revision is a Process and she has returned to share part two of her series with us on improving writing and taking the frustration out of self-editing. Today her focus will be on clutter.

Today she discusses how to improve upon clutter. You can refer to her previous post on clarity here.

“Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”William Zinsser/ ON WRITING WELL

On Writing Well – Clarity and Clutter
Part 2 – Clutter

The trouble with writing genre fiction and storytelling is that no rule of style, device, or technique can be followed 100%. Why? Because writing is an “art” not a science. That’s why the “rules” periodically get bent, twisted, or ignored for the sake of what will work for the story or the narration. Yet one thing holds true—and that is to get the clutter out of the writing and storytelling.

So, what is clutter?

Clutter can be many things from purple prose to jargon. A blog post can’t cover them all. However, let’s look at one of the most important clutterers—words ending in “ly.”

Most writers don’t realize how frequently they use ly-ending adjectives and adverbs or that such words amount to telling instead of showing. For example, look at ‘an exceedingly small mouse.’ Remove ‘exceedingly’ and you get a small mouse. Trouble is, a reader cannot see in their mind’s eye how small that mouse is. So, for clarity, it’s advisable to revise to show with ‘a gray mouse the size of a matchbox.’ (Note that now the mouse is gray not brown or nondescript.)

In other words, search for and look at all “ly” ending words. Evaluate each for clarity of imagery as well as to strengthen sentences so they are not passive. Keep in mind that is okay to use metaphors, similes, and comparisons to achieve a correct image and thus clarity.

Another place you’ll find ly-ending words is with speech tags. For example—

    “You idiot.” Marsha said angrily.

Telling the reader she is angry is not as vivid as showing like—

    “You idiot!” Marsha slammed her fist down on the table, the force rattling the dinnerware.

Now look at the following cluttered phrases that are attached to a verb and what happens when a precise verb is used—

    John impulsively picked up the wand off the mantel.
    John snatched the wand from the mantle.
    Marsha forcefully closed the door.
    Marsha slammed the door.
    John quickly pulled the ripcord.
    John jerked the ripcord.

So, how do you know if your writing is in need of AAR (Adjective-Adverb Rehabilitation)?  Here’s a simple exercise to uncover your use of ly-ending words.


Take one short story or one chapter from your novel.
1) Use your word processing feature to get the TOTAL WORD COUNT for the piece and write that number down because you’ll need it later.

2) Use your word processor’s search feature and type in the find box: ly space. You need to put a space after the “ly” to prevent the computer from highlighting words like lying. Look at the highlighted results. Do you have pages peppered with ly-ending words? Do you have clusters of them? If so, why so many?

3) Now, count only the “ly” adjectives and adverbs (which means you can skip words like holy and holly, etc. from the count).

4) Divide the number of adjectives-adverbs into the number of words in the piece. What you get is the ratio of X number of times in X number of words that “ly” is used. For example, a 6,083 word sample might have 49 “ly’s,” which equals one “ly” every 125 words. It would be better if the “ly” ratio was one in several or many hundreds.

Two factors which necessitate leaving some “ly” words on the page are: a) to maintain the narrative voice, and b) because those ly-words are part of a specific character’s dialogue (otherwise the character’s diction-syntax-vocabulary won’t ring true).

However, low ratios indicate repetitions. Readers hate repetitions without purpose.

I am collecting statistics on repetitions of “ly” and invite you to test your work and leave a comment about what was revealed and your conclusions.

Author Bio

Catherine E. McLeanCatherine E. McLean’s short stories have appeared in hard cover and online anthologies and magazines. Her books include JEWELS OF THE SKY, KARMA & MAYHEM, HEARTS AKILTER, and ADRADA TO ZOOL (a short story anthology). She lives on a farm nestled in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania. In the quiet of the countryside, she writes lighthearted tales of phantasy realms and stardust worlds (fantasy, futuristic, and paranormal) with romance and adventure. She is also a writing instructor and workshop speaker. Her nonfiction book for writers is REVISION IS A PROCESS – HOW TO TAKE THE FRUSTRATION OUT OF SELF-EDITING.

Website: http://www.CatherineEmclean.com
Website for Writers: http://www.WritersCheatSheets.com
Blog: https://writerscheatsheets.blogspot.com
Email: catherine@CatherineEmclean.com

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/catherine.e.mclean.5
Twitter:  https://twitter.com/#!/CatherineMcLea7


Amazon.com   –  https://www.amazon.com/dp/0988587440

Barnes & Noble – http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/revision-is-a-process-catherine-e-mclean/1126295618

19 thoughts on “On Writing Well – Clarity and Clutter Part 2  Clutter with Guest Catherine E. McLean”

  1. Anni FifeAnni Fife

    Very helpful! But my new book releases on Dec 8 and now I’m too nervous to go check the ‘ly’ count. Eek! I think I’ll have to put my faith in my editor. 🙂

    November 28, 2017
    • Catherine E. McLeanCatherine E. McLean

      It may be too late now to do such a check, and remember, editors are only human and can miss things too. Why not take another piece of writing and do the LY check and see what happens?

      November 28, 2017
  2. Kathy OttenKathy Otten

    I recently read a manuscript for someone and though I can’t give you a ratio, there were so many it was making even me crazy and I tend to use ly adj’s in early drafts. Almost every speech tag and every bit of description in this mss. had an ly word. One of the examples that jumps to mind was the mention of someone who died instantaneously.

    November 28, 2017
    • Catherine E. McLeanCatherine E. McLean

      I love the “died instantaneously” – which is blatantly telling. And thank you Kathy for sharing!

      November 28, 2017
  3. Linda Carroll-BraddLinda Carroll-Bradd

    Using your instructions, I learned about the Reading Highlight feature of the Find operation and I thank you. Being an editor, I am aware of overuse of -ly and found only 2 within 3,118 words of my chapter. This is a great tip.

    November 28, 2017
    • Catherine E. McLeanCatherine E. McLean

      1 in 1,559 words – that’s an all-time record for my statistics collection! Thank you so much for taking the time to do the search and double thanks for reporting your findings!

      November 28, 2017
  4. Alicia DeanAlicia Dean

    Excellent post. Great tips, thank you so much!

    November 28, 2017
  5. Alina K. FieldAlina K. Field

    This is great. I’m always looking for ways to make my work stronger.

    November 28, 2017
  6. Catherine E. McLeanCatherine E. McLean

    If you liked this little test, you might also find the tips, tricks, and practical advice in REVISION IS A PROCESS helpful. Thank you for stopping by, and I wish you all the best with your writing.

    November 28, 2017
  7. Catherine E. McLeanCatherine E. McLean

    The day is ending and I just wanted to thank Maureen for having me as a guest today. I also thank all who stopped by today. Always strive to learn and grow as a writer. Good night, everyone.

    November 28, 2017
  8. Janet WellsJanet Wells

    Your clear, uncluttered post helped me, Catherine.
    Performing your test brought surprises. I found “slowly” and “quietly” in the first. Now I can revise and make the phrases stronger. I had 2 in 887 words for 443.5 in the first story, and 6 in 1,288 words for 214.6 in the second story. I used “only” twice in the longer story. What would you suggest to replace “only,” or is that an “ly” word that doesn’t clutter?

    November 29, 2017
    • Catherine E. McLeanCatherine E. McLean

      Hi, Janet,

      “Only” is on my master list of 62 Red Flag Words. “Only” is there because it’s often overused. Consider keeping “only” in the story because of clarity. After all, ‘clarity trumps all rules.’ Thanks for stopping by, for doing the exercise, and for reporting your findings. Have a great Holiday Season.

      November 29, 2017

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