Sunday, July 7, 2013

Take these words, please!

“Sometimes your eraser produces better prose than your pen.”

One of the most difficult aspects of writing and editing is deciding what to take out. St. Louis writer and teacher Catherine Rankovic mentioned in her interview a few weeks ago the value of studying journalism because it teaches writers how to edit. I couldn't agree more.  

In my book, Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing, I list common words that can be removed without changing the meaning of a sentence. I’ve chosen several to highlight here along with explanations and illustrations using many of the same weak words, which was surprisingly easy.

Remove these weak words from your writing:

Just – My favorite, I just can’t help using it in just about everything I write.

Completely – Completely unnecessary.

Really – Really? Is it really that hard to eliminate that word? (See also “That.”)

That – That is a word that is generally overused. (See also “Really.” "Generally," and “Actually.”)

Then – If you remove this word, then your writing will improve. (See also “Actually.”)

“To be” verbs – When you have a choice of using “to be” verbs, or not “to be,” verbs, go with “not” (I'm channeling Shakespeare). These are state-of-being verbs, and include: “is,” “am,” “are,” “was,” “were,” “be”, “being,” “been.”

Particular – This particular word is generally unnecessary. (See also “Generally.”)

Generally – I generally avoid this particular word. (See also “Particular.”)

Actually – I almost used this one in my opening paragraph, well, actually, I did, but then deleted it. (See also “Then,” and “Almost.”) You probably noticed the word “actually” in the previous sentence, and “probably” in this one, and can see that they are unnecessary. (See also “That.”)

Definitely – You definitely don’t need to use this word.

Almost – I used this in my explanation of “actually,” which probably weakens it and makes me a bad writer. (Note to self: I should probably add “probably” to this list.)

Basically – It's basically the same as definitely. (See also “Something” and “Got.”)

Things – Use something more descriptive. (See also “Something.”)

Something – If you’ve got something that is basically unnecessary, why keep it? (See also “Basically,” and “Got.”)

Got – If you’ve got it, flaunt it. (This use might be acceptable had we not been told to avoid clichés like the plague – lol, old joke, I know.)

Probably – You probably don’t use this as much as I do. (See also “Almost.”)

Very – Mark Twain said: “Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

Old jokes – (See also “Got.”)

Which words do you automatically delete?

Write soon,



  1. Mary--What a great list. I think I actually need to have my computer do a search for some of those words in my writing, because generally, I use some of those particular words very often...and then, my writing will definitely improve. ;)

  2. Tee-hee! Love your list. I'm guilty of using "that" way too much. Apparently it's a go-to word for me. I'm always shocked by how many "thats" must be deleted in editing.

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