Beginner's Guide to Decluttering Sentences


3/31/20241 min read

You've been told your prose needs some "tightening up" or "condensing." But what does that even mean? Where do you start?

Think necessity and role.

Is every word really necessary to convey your intended meaning? What role is a word playing—does it genuinely add meaning, or is it just "fluff" (or purple for its own sake)?

To help you get the idea, I'm compiling a list words and phrases that are often, but not always, guilty of cluttering up your sentences without contributing much.

And Then

And then probably slips in from the way we often tell stories verbally, almost like a cognitive interjection like um. "And then... we did this. And then... this happened. And then..."

Use and then too many times, and you'll start to sound like you're coming up with the story on the fly.

Most of the time, it's not really necessary in order for readers to understand the sequence of events.

  • Jack slammed the door behind us. I repressed the urge to vomit as I caught my breath. And then we started walking down the hall.

It can still be useful, though, so (as with most "rules" like this) don't just go deleting every instance blindly.

  • Jack slammed the door behind us. I repressed the urge to vomit as I caught my breath. And then we heard it.

Though, looking at it, just then would still probably work better.


Suddenly can add some suspense, but it's often used when suspense isn't all that necessary, and it just takes readers longer to get to the thing that's happening.

For instance:

  • I closed my eyes and took a breath, and everything suddenly ceased.

The ceasing actually feels more sudden to me by not taking the time to say how sudden it is. The "suddenly" is implied.

As If __

This one gets into the difference between showing and telling. You're probably aware that showing is generally a more engaging way to convey details. But you get into even less engaging territory if you're doing both.

  • Jamie looked at her mother as if confused and furrowed her brow.

Blanketed/Covered The Entire...

Unfettered redundancy is always a quick way to annoy readers. Blanket and cover are apparently irresistible for the tautological writer.

  • The fresh snow blanketed across the land.

  • Lacerations covered his entire body.