Please summarize "Clutter," by William Zinsser.

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Clutter" is chapter three of William Zinsser's highly influential book On Writing Well, in which Zinsser explains some principles of clear and effective writing and illustrates his advice with many examples.

In "Clutter," Zinsser urges readers to avoid unneccessary words. He urges them to write prose that is crisp, clear, and clean. He asserts that cluttered writing is both a symptom and a cause of many problems in contemporary American society.

Zinsser notes that often we add unnecessay prepositions to verbs, as in "head up," "face up to, "free up," and other such phrases, in which the verb alone is sufficient and more effective.

He notes that we also often add unnecessary adjectives to our writing, as in such phrases as "personal physician" or "personal friend," in which the noun alone is sufficient and more effective.

Zinsser also criticizes over-use of the word "experiencing," as in the question "Are you experiencing pain?" rather than the simpler, clearer, "Does it hurt?"

He also attacks "ponderous euphemisms," and he suggests that corporations, the government, and the military, in particular, find it useful to employ cluttered language.

Professional jargon is also censured by Zinsser, as are long words when shorter words would suffice.  Likewise, he advises against using faddish words. He concludes the main part of his essay with a striking summary of all the bad word choices he has criticized:

They are all weeds that will smother what you write. Nor are all the weeds so obvious.

He advises writers to do as he did when he taught at Yale: when reading writing, bracket any unnecessay words. Eventually, doing so will become a habit, and writers will mentally bracket unneeded words when they go back to revise their writing.

A reader with an ironic eye might suggest that Zinsser himself sometimes violates his own advice (a charge he would probaby admit, since no writer is perfect). For example, he uses the word "locutions" when a simpler term might do. He also urges writers to avoid phrases such as "I might add," but Zinsser himself began the previous paragraph with the phrase "I could go on . . . ."  Finally, in his next-to-last paragraph he once again gives advice he has already offered throughout the essay, this time using eight sentences (including highly similar questions) when perhaps four might have done the job.

Ultimately, though, few could argue with Zinsser's final bit of advice: "Simplify, simplify." (Note, however, that the same word is repeated when it might have been enough to say simply: "Simplify."

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Zinsser uses Thoreau's command, "simplify, simplify" as the capstone of the chapter—and would probably justify his repetition of the word as necessary because the concept is so important.

Zinsser notes in this chapter how easy it is for unneeded words to enter into our writing, as weeds do into a garden, and notes that we must prune them ruthlessly. Our task as writers is to make life as easy as possible for our readers. Otherwise, they will not keep reading. We make life easier for them by not forcing them to wade through mountains of confusing prose. 

Zinsser advises his writers to be grateful for every word they can get rid of. He warns against jargon and euphemism, advocating instead that writers get rid of clutter by writing as plainly as possible. 

Despite the recurrent "updates"—I am looking at the 30th anniversary edition—the book suffers from not being revised sufficiently. For instance, it still uses examples of bureaucratic language from the Vietnam era. Nevertheless, the advice Zinsser offers in this chapter remains direct and relevant.