The Word-Changing Magic of Tidying Up Your Writing

A few months ago, I purchased and read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing after hearing the book and its techniques mentioned on several occasions. Since I tend to be kind of a neatnik myself, I thought the title might offer me new tricks for handling the clutter that is my 21st Century North American life with a husband and three teenagers. (Can you say 10 pairs of shoes at the door even now?)

After reading the book, however, I was not quite convinced. The KonMari method, coined after the author’s name, Marie Kondo, consists of one marathon tidying spree over a period of about six months with the guarantee that my “life will change dramatically,” I’ll feel “my whole world brighten,” and I will “never again … revert to clutter.”

Really?

Tidying-up-your-writing-dog-in-wicker-basket

Not one to ditch a book, or a new idea, too quickly, when I stumbled on a recent New York Timesarticle about Kondo’s book and method, I decided to give KonMari another try. Maybe reading someone else’s perspective would help me see what I had missed and allow me to put my house in order the KonMari way, afterall? The article, which included scathing indictments of the method by professional organizers from the United States, served only to confirm that I would not become a “Konvert.” At least not when it came to organizing my home.

When I read the Times article, though, I did see how some of the KonMari principles might work when revising or self-editing a piece of writing. If there’s one thing I do more than any other as an editor and writing coach, it’s dealing with the clutter of words on the page. For some writers, it’s using too many words to say something simple. Others string words together in the wrong order. Still others hang on to words that sound good at the time they were written but don’t fit in the latest draft.

By adapting four principles of KonMari, we can bring a little word-changing magic to our upcoming writing projects by discarding first, keeping only what brings us joy, thanking the words we decide to cut, and addressing problems by category. Ready?

1. Discarding First

One of the basic principles of KonMari is this: “Tidy in the right order.” That means begin with discarding, which happens to be great advice for revising your writing, too.

“Omit needless words,” advise Strunk and White in The Elements of Style. And their point is simple: when you cut first, your writing is better. No more wasting time to ensure all your commas are in the right place when some of those sentences won’t even be in the final draft. Also, when you cut first, you aren’t tempted to hold on to needless words simply because you’ve filled your word count quota. Don’t let an assigned word count alone determine whether your writing is precise and succinct.

Discard first. Tighten up descriptions. Remove unnecessary turns of phrase. Choose active verbs. Make precise word choices so you can say more with less.

2. Sparking Joy

If Kondo were your editor, she might tweak Strunk and White’s “needless words” advice to “Omit joyless words.” Afterall, holding each one of your possessions in your hands and asking, “Does this spark joy?” is the KonMari way of discarding. Why not ask the same thing of each word, sentence, and paragraph?

I’ll admit, I giggle at the image of writers everywhere cutting apart their printed essays and stories and holding tiny strips of paper in their hands, one sentence at a time, and asking, “Does this bring me joy?”

But humor aside, shouldn’t your writing at least bring you satisfaction? Shouldn’t a well-crafted sentence or a beautifully-constructed metaphor or a masterfully-penned turn of phrase put a little smile on our faces? Even if “joy” isn’t quite what we’re after, shouldn’t we want to discard anything in our writing that doesn’t sing?

Then there’s the issue of whether the words all work together, whether that excellent bit of dialogue you dropped into an earlier draft still fits now. “Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote in How to Use the Power of the Printed Word. “Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”

Take what you’ve written. Read it aloud paragraph by paragraph. Listen to your words and take note of how you feel. If something isn’t working, discard it. Or at least consider rewriting it.

3. Thanking Our Words

I confess this was one of the hardest parts of KonMari for me to swallow. Kondo suggests that once you’ve decided to discard an item that no longer brings you joy, you say to it, “Thank you for your hard work” or, “Thank you for bringing me joy when I first bought you.”

That’s right. Kondo suggests talking to your possessions. But kookiness aside, there’s something important at the heart of this KonMari principle that might help us as writers.

One of the reasons it’s hard to trim down our writing is that our words are so personal. They represent who we are. Simply highlighting our words and hitting the delete key seems so abrupt. Will I ever be able to write those words that way again?

Perhaps the KonMari prescription for “acknowledging their contribution and letting them go with gratitude” is the kind of honor we need to give the words we decide not to keep. For without those early words, we probably never would have gotten to our final draft. As Susan Sontag said, “I don’t write easily or rapidly. My first draft usually has only a few elements worth keeping. I have to find what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn’t work, or what simply is not alive.”

So as you are cutting, pause occasionally. Look closely at the words you have highlighted. Before you hit delete, recognize that even these words on the chopping block are an important part of your work. And if you are alone, maybe even whisper a quick, “Thank you.”

4. Addressing Problems by Category

Another key to the KonMari method is tidying by category, not just by room. This way, for example, you reunite all the clothing that is strewn about your home on the backs of chairs, in the guest closet, in the laundry basket, and under the bed. Then, Kondo says, we avoid “repeating the same work in many locations and become locked into a vicious circle of tidying.”

When it comes to your writing, this same principle applies. After you’ve discarded or tightened your writing, consider the structure of your entire piece. Are chapters in the right order? Paragraphs? Sentences? Next, analyze the length and structure of your sentences. How can you add more variety to spice up your writing?

Now what? Consider your word choices throughout the entirety. Is there a better, more descriptive word you could choose? Could you trim down your piece even further by choosing one precise word to replace several others attempting to communicate the same idea? Next, look at your grammar and punctuation. Have you stuck to the style guide? Have you been consistent? Finally, look out for your own common mistakes or pet words, punctuation, and style. Have you overused the word “that”? Did you mistake “there” and “their” like you usually do?

I’m not so bold as KonMari to say that “your real life [or writing] begins after putting your house [or essay, short story, or memoir] in order.” But I will guarantee that your writing will benefit from any attention — and gratitude — you bring to it. That’s what I call the SingCraChar promise. 😉

Really.

Photo by Dimitar Atanasov, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Originally published at Tweetspeak Poetry on August 4, 2016.

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Charity Singleton Craig

Charity Singleton Craig is a writer, author, and speaker, helping readers grow in their faith and experience true hope in the middle of life’s joys and sorrows. She is the author of My Year in Words: what I learned from choosing one word a week for one year and coauthor of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts.