Alt+f, Delete: The Top Words and Phrases to Remove from your Writing

In a world of one minute ads, one letter texts, and 140 character comments on life, it’s hard to keep your reader’s attention for longer than it takes for their next youtube video to buffer, and these words aren’t helping. Removing them won’t just make you sound more professional and make your writing more clear, it could be the difference between turning an idle reader into a lifelong fan and losing them before they can even reach the second paragraph.

  1. That

    There are two kinds of that. There is the one you need, and the one you don’t. It’s important to be able to recognize the difference. Unless it’s used for clarification, you probably don’t need it. Search for the word in your document and wherever you find it, read the sentence without it. If it makes sense without the that, remove it, every time. Here is a passage pre-editing:

    These things that you call attacks, they aren’t. They are criticisms at worst, critiques that are meant to help you become a better person, someone that people can feel comfortable around. Someone that they can trust. You want that, don’t you? To be trusted? I like to think that that is something that everyone wants.

    And here we have it post-edits:

    These things you call attacks, they aren’t. They are criticisms at worst, critiques meant to help you become a better person, someone people can feel comfortable around. Someone they can trust. You want that, don’t you? To be trusted? I like to think that is something everyone wants.

    The change seems subtle, but it makes a big difference. Of course, there are a few things to point out here. Notice that not every that has been removed. To say “you want, don’t you?” doesn’t sound right. Neither does “I like to think is something everyone wants”. So to go through your work and delete every that on sight will do more harm than it will help. As well, sometimes a word or two before or after will have to be removed along with the that in order to make the sentence remain clear. In the second sentence, I had to remove the phrase that are rather than just the word that; otherwise, the sentence would have become “critiques are meant to help…”, which, while grammatically correct, has a different meaning than “critiques meant to help”. When it doubt, read it aloud.

  2. Very

    Very is a word that is used to give empty emphasis to anything that comes after it. It is a way to try and make a description appear to be deeper without actually putting any effort into making it mean more than the descriptor would alone. A room is not very dark, it’s pitch black. A dog is not very cute, it’s adorable.

  3. A Lot / Many

    A lot and many, much like very, are empty descriptors. Their meaning is entirely vague; a lot can mean twenty, or it could mean five hundred, and we have no way of knowing. Saying that there were a lot of people at the party could mean that twenty people showed up when they were only expecting ten, or it could mean that the entire school showed up. Be specific.

  4. Literally

    I’m sure you’ve heard it before. Literally is misused all the time. I recently had a friend write to me that, upon being surprised, they “literally jumped twenty feet in the air.” Given that they are neither related to Superman nor to a kangaroo, I highly doubt this is true. However, this isn’t the only reason that literally should be removed from all writing. To say once that something in your story literally happened makes it seem like perhaps everything else that happened was in fact a lie, and wasn’t actually supposed to be taken literally at all. Unless that’s the point of your story, it’s never a good idea to make your reader doubt your writing.

  5. Completely

    Another empty word. Much like very, to say completely is to give emphasis without effort. The tree was not completely covered in flames, it was engulfed. As well, when it is not used to emphasize, then it is redundant. You don’t have to tell me that the pool was completely filled with chocolate syrup, just saying it was filled is enough, because that’s what filled means.

  6. Basically

    Basically is one of those words that takes all the oomph right out of your sentence. It is what I like to call a timid phrase; it’s the sort of word that makes it sound like the writer is backing off, as though they aren’t quite sure that this is what they want to say and don’t want to commit to their description. The same rule goes for words such as nearly, pretty much, or seems. A bowl doesn’t basically shatter, it either does, or it doesn’t.

  7. Not

    Unless used to emphasize the lack of something, there’s a better word to use nine times out of ten. Instead of saying “he did not remember”, say “he forgot”. Don’t say “he was not kind”, say “he was cruel”. Avoid the negative construction. Reader’s don’t care what something or someone is not, they want to know what it is.

  8. Adverbs

    Almost every word that ends in ly can be replaced to make the sentence stronger. Screamed instead of said loudly, raced instead of ran quickly,


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