When I’m sleep deprived, I spew out random things, and sometimes, just sometimes, they stick. In this case, a friend, while talking about reaching the end of her series, noted how sad she’d be to let go of those characters and their world. My response (knowing she’d also read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up) was to say that she needed to KonMari her characters. Namely, thank them for the time they’d spent together and the joy they’d sparked inside of her, and then let them go, making room for new stories and characters that will bring her just as much joy.
When I transitioned from my long-time fantasy series to my sci-fi series, I experienced the same feeling. Oh my, these new characters are strangers to me, and I could not for the life of me get a feel for them. To make it worse, I was not only leaving behind long-time friends aka characters, but I was also leaving behind my familiar genre for unknown territory. Given time, however, these new characters became “old friends” as well.
Letting go of old characters and stories is just one thing writers can learn from the KonMari Method — or Elsa from Frozen for that matter. Not only do we often hold on to the past, we also hold onto sentences, chapters, sections, etc. that do little but clutter up our novels. Like in the KonMari Method, we should be holding up our stories’ components and ask ourselves a modified version of “Does this spark joy” during the editing process: “Does this benefit the story?” If the answer is no, it either must be removed à la the KonMari tiding method or be modified to spark joy for you the writer and the reader further down the line.
Removing Clutter From Your Pieces
The act of throwing out “untidy words” from a sentence is another beneficial practice that can be gleaned from the KonMari method, especially during the editing process. For this, really examine a sentence. First look for “filter” words (e.g., looked, felt, heard, realized, etc.). These are the first words that you want to toss out. Trust me, your sentences will be stronger without them. Please note that sometimes it is OK to keep “filter” words; however, if sentence after sentence is using them, the bulk of them need to go.
Next, look for words that aren’t pulling their weight, as it were. “Just” is a major word that adds nothing yet many writers love to use it a lot. Remove as many instances of “just” as you can. In fact, the only real place for “just” is often in dialogue. Adjectives and adverbs can also be “sentence clutter” if they are used too often. Try to think of ways to remove them using stronger verbs or stronger descriptions.
Sometimes clutter can come from using too many words when a few will do. Roane State Community College has a list of examples to check out. Meanwhile, Purdue’s OWL, or Online Writing Lab, also has exercises to train yourself to combat wordiness.
From Purdue OWL’s exercise No. 3:
“A large number of people enjoy reading murder mysteries regularly. As a rule, these people are not themselves murderers, nor would these people really ever enjoy seeing someone commit an actual murder, nor would most of them actually enjoy trying to solve an actual murder. They probably enjoy reading murder mysteries because of this reason: they have found a way to escape from the monotonous, boring routine of dull everyday existence.”
[Practice with this paragraph. How would you remove its clutter? You can leave your answers in the comment section below.]
Know Your Weaknesses
Another thing to look out for is “crutch words.” These take time and understanding to recognize. Because let’s face it, sometimes we can’t see our own shortcomings even if they are staring us right in the face. Crutch words are those we overuse.
One writer that I edit for at work loves to use “helped to” a lot. It has become her crutch that she has used in one sentence after another. Since it is a technical writing situation, the bulk of the sentences would be stronger if the phrase “helped to” were omitted.
Crutch words vary from writer to writer. As such, we need to pore over our stories and really look at word choices. If a word or phrase is constantly cropping, odds are it might be a word that you are using as a crutch. Think of new approaches that eliminate these crutches. It can be challenging, but in the end, it will be worth it! If you struggle with this, don’t be afraid to reach out for help either from beta readers or a professional editor.
Happy story tidying!