Cut the Clutter: Really Kind of a Pretty Good Idea


Cut the clutter.

Gertrude Stein said “A Rose is a Rose is a rose,” and since that’s the only piece of writing most of us are ever going to read of hers, let’s consider it. I learned somewhere that she was putting down superfluous adjectives and espousing getting to the point.

I really think that’s a very good idea. Actually, that’s not what I think. That’s how I’ve couched my words so they have no impact. No one needs me or anyone to say “I think.” I’m writing this article; of course that’s what I think. If there’s somehow confusion as to the opinions I’m putting down and someone else’s, it’s time to go read another article. You should also know that I “really” think it, and even if I really don’t, I shouldn’t be tipping my hand.

The word “really” doesn’t really mean anything. Does it mean “very much” or “kind of”? It’s kind of hard to tell these days. It’s very ambiguous. It really is. Getrude Stein wants less superfluous adjectives. That’s a good idea. We also need to stop talking like teenagers (if you are a teenager you should be reading about some band I don’t know the name of. I have no idea who The Consumers* are. Go check them out!) and get to the point.

Last year I read an article by Christy Wampole about “living ironically,” which stayed with me, even though I didn’t find it convincing. I don’t think people live ironically, and the article read like an argument against wit. Wampole tried to stretch some verbal ticks into a lifestyle, embodying novelty gifts and wardrobe. I do hate novelty gifts (bottle of wine, please) but I don’t care about your trucker hats. Still, she rightfully skewers the attitude of detached wryness about everything.

We might not live ironically, but we do speak ironically. Thus, “very” and “a little” mean the same thing, i.e., nothing. They no longer clarify meaning but distance us from meaning. They add a squeak to the sneering way we say something is, you know, kind of sucky. Everything drawls together in a whine of dismissal. Nothing is ever horrible, it’s kind of horrible, even if it really is horrible! We fight wars with a volunteer army most of us never see, and we condemn our leaders’ murderous policies with words we don’t mean. Nothing has an impact, and nothing gets done. Everything gets dismissed, but nothing gets condemned, and nothing gets stopped.

It’s more ambivalence than irony, though there is that “I’m saying something true in such a low-key way it sounds like I don’t mean it” ironic quality about it. The truth is that direct, earnest people can be bores. We’ve all grown up in an age when the true believers get people killed; we don’t want to be those guys. In not being those guys, however, we’ve stopped being anybody. We’re just kind of very sort of people. It’s time to spit the mush out of our mouths and say what’s on our minds.

Excise the unnecessary words, and suddenly that fact that no one knows who the president is ordering drone strikes on stops being kind of scary, stops being really scary, and actually becomes scary. “Actually” is my new way of saying really. It can be a crutch too, but it’s a hair more precise, and you’re going to need some fallback words when you get rid of “really,” “very,” “kind of” and “a little.” Also recommended for disposal: “I think,” “it seems,” “almost” and “as if.” Lose them.

It’s difficult. Your speech is robotic at first, but it’s clean. I find that without all those distancing couch-words my opinions ring harshly, but they ring true. I’ve had to stop and not type a “really” or “kind of” a few times in this paragraph alone. They’re insidious. Once you determine not to use these words, it’s astounding how often they creep up. I recommend losing them in even casual speech and text. It slows you down at first, but stick with it. Choosing your words and speaking slowly beats maintaining a meaningless flow.

Train your vocabulary this way and your mind will follow. Your opinions will be actual opinions. I felt pompous at first, without all the padding, but then I realized: I’m writing opinion pieces. I want to be pompous. I want to be clear. I want to be the voice of God handing down iron-clad truths. Even if you’re not writing opinion pieces, it’s right to own your opinions, and to mean what you say, and say it well. The other side already does. They may not be right, but they have clarity. The world’s not kind of a little bit very much in trouble. It’s in trouble. It’s getting hotter. It needs our help, so let’s be clear. Let’s say what we mean and follow up what we say with action.

4 replies
  1. Karen L
    Karen L says:

    I love this! (really, not just a little bit, but very much…) As a line-editor/proofreader for some self-published writers, I find myself deleting many of the above-mentioned phrases. I’d like to add the average reader doesn’t care if the curtains are soft, pristine white with billowy Chantilly lace fluttering as the early morning ocean breeze swirls throughout the spacious feminine bedroom, either! We get that the window is open and there is a breeze. Thanks for great words!

  2. Mike Bove
    Mike Bove says:

    Mark Twain said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and your writing will be just as it should be.”
    I agree wholeheartedly with cutting the unnecessary words in speech and some (most) writing.
    I verily will continue to use stupid modifiers in dialog because that is how people speak.
    Thanks very damn much, Dan.


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