This one time I was struggling to write. I found myself so distracted, so annoyed for some reason. I couldn’t pinpoint what was annoying me.
What the heck?!?
Then, as I look around at my writing environment, a mental light bulb turned on in my head: it was all the clutter on my desk. You see, I share my home office with my wife, but my 4-year-old son also uses it to watch YouTube videos. Stuff piles up over time papers, bowls, candy wrappers, crumbs and pieces of food laying around, office supplies not put back in the drawers, craft supplies. All kinds of stuff.
I can’t concentrate like this.
So, I did something about it: I decluttered my desk. Then, I decluttered my writing.
I grabbed a trash bag and went through every sheet of paper to make sure it wasn’t important. If it was, I filed them onto a tray or folder. If not, it was dumped in the trash.
I grabbed a rag and wiped off all the food crumbs, wrappers, and dust laying around.
I put all dirty dishes into the dishwasher.
I neatly packed away any office supplies
Before I knew it, my desk became minimalistic and decluttered—as it should be. As a result, I felt less distracted, less stressed, and more focused. It was just me, my lamp, my phone, and my water bottle.
Ah. Now, I can write.
It’s funny how removing clutter, both physically and mentally, can be so relieving. So refreshing.
How Derek Sivers declutters his life
If there’s any man who hates clutter, it’s writer and entrepreneur Derek Sivers. I first learned about him through an episode on Tim Feriss’ podcast. In one of Sivers’ blog posts, he says: “I live in a pre-furnished apartment with no stuff, and I love it this way. I have no books, knicknacks, decorations, and really, no personal items at all. Just some minimal clothing, my laptop, headphones, and not much else.”
Every year, he erases his computer’s hard drive and re-installs his computer’s hard drive from scratch. He also erases his phone log of texts and calls. “I just love that uncluttered feeling.”
I do, too, Derek. I wouldn’t go to the extreme that Derek went through to remove clutter, but I can understand his frustration with it.
Clutter. It can take over if you let it. Don’t let it.
As with my desk, writing can be cluttered as well. In my own experience, I’ve written blogs and articles where I can’t seem to get the point, or even forget what the point is. Or, it’s badly structured, with the most important points buried within the article instead of at the top.
As I re-read drafts to myself, or have others read them, I think to myself: If I can’t make sense of this, neither will anyone who reads it.
So, how can you declutter your writing and make it focused? Follow these simple steps.
- Write an outline: An outline can clearly define what you’re writing about. Stick to it throughout your blog post, article, book, or whatever project you’re working on. Once you’ve written your piece, review and compare your outline to your post to make sure they match. Adjust as necessary.
- Focused headline: The headline is the first thing readers see. An article on Copyblogger says that on average, 4 out 8 people will read your headline, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest. How do you make it magnetic? Copyblogger says, “Make sure it’s useful, urgent, unique, and ultra-specific.” In addition, ask yourself: does the headline summarize what your blog post is about?
- Opening: Once you have your magnetic headline, make sure your opening is magnetic as well to keep them interested. This is where your storytelling skills can come in. Put a face to your article, or start with a scenario to set your post up. Also, ask yourself: Does your opening paragraph set the stage for the rest of the article?
- Body: Keep the flow of the headline and opening paragraph going throughout your post. Ask yourself: Do my supporting points all draw back to my main point? Are my examples clear?
Closing: As you know, the closing ties the whole post all together. Re-emphasize your main point. Ask yourself: does my closing paragraph “bring it (my main message) home”?
Once you write your post, go back and edit it. Look for:
- Passive sentences: Go sentence by sentence to ensure you’re speaking in active voice, not passive voice. The latter is much wordier. The longer you take to get to your point, the more clutter you create.
- Long phrases: Check to see if there are shorter ways you can say what you want to say. Break up long sentences into two sentences, or use a semicolon.
- Scannability: Blogs are meant to be read quickly, so make sure your post is scannable. Break up lists into bullet points to make it more scannable. Use subheadlines to break up your different ideas.
- Redundancies: Did you unintentionally repeat your main point a little too much?
- Tangents: Did you go on a tangent? Can you cut out anything that’s not relevant, or that you can use for a separate blog post?
- Grammar: These are easy to miss. Your post may sound perfect in your head as you read it to yourself, and you can subconsciously add in missing words that aren’t actually there. Print it out, read it aloud to be sure your post is error-free. If it helps, walk away from it, and come back to it after a few hours and re-read it with fresh eyes.
Once you’ve done these writing and editing steps, you’ll see a big difference in your writing.
Your turn: What do you do?
Now, I’d like to hear from you guys: How do you declutter in your writing? Post your advice in the comments below.