Tighten Up Your Copy: Words and Phrases to Consider Removing

Ever get the feeling that your writing is too much? Not in the sense of “oh wow, that was amazing!” but more along the lines of “wow, this really hurts to read.” Chances are, it’s because you’ve got a few too many of these words and phrases floating around in your work. Don’t worry! There are ways to identify and tighten up your writing so it reads smoothly.



The Problem with Adverbs…


If you’ve been out of school for a while, you might not remember exactly what an adverb is. Or, maybe you just need a refreshing reminder of the specifics. An adverb is a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, clause, or even another adverb. Adverbs express a relation of time, place, circumstance, degree, etc. Most adverbs end in “-ly,” so think “kindly,” “roughly,” and “quietly.” But, adverbs can also tell the location of an action (here, there), when an action occurred (now, later), or the extent of something that was done (too, very).


Most teachers and professors will be adamant when they tell you that it’s not correct to use adverbs. But do you know why? After all, they’re descriptors, right? They modify the words and phrases that follow by lending more information or context. It’s not that you shouldn’t ever use adverbs. They have their place in writing and speech or they wouldn’t exist! But don’t overuse them. Don’t flood your writing with them. If you do, when you turn around to revise and edit, you’re going to be trying to read through and get snagged on clunky, out-of-place words that don’t belong or aren’t needed.


What’s That, Then?


“That” and “then” are a couple more words to use as sparingly as possible, and are words often overused when writing or speaking.


“Then” is vague. All it does is point to an existing element in your writing and, essentially, says “this happened after that last thing I just talked about.” As long as what you’re saying now is subsequent, or a sentence part implies as much already, you should omit “then” from the sentence entirely. “Then” should be used as a clarifying agent to show two seemingly concurrent actions are happening in sequence of one another. You can use “then” as a logical operator in a sentence, rather than as an adverb. For example, “if this is true, then…” rather than “then, this must be true”.


“That” can be a useful word for adding clarity to something, but oftentimes it’s out of place, like confetti at a funeral. If you’re using it to describe something, chances are you can rearrange the sentence to put the description before the use of “that.” The sentence will flow better. You need to avoid what’s called an indefinite pronoun reference, which means you need to be sure “that” refers to the exact words you’ve written before in your piece. If you’re describing something, use “that” if there’s no comma, and if there is a comma, use “which” instead; try never to let a “that” touch a comma, and it’ll help you trim the word out of your writing where it’s not needed.



Don’t, Like, Overuse “Like”


Alright, let’s be honest: we’ve all heard the stereotypical “valley girl” who uses the word like in, like, every sentence like fifty times too many. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes we say it repeatedly in our everyday speech.


Overusing the word “like” conveys uncertainty about what you’re talking, or writing, about. Which statement conveys the color better? “It’s like a dark blue-green color” or “It’s the color of the sea in a storm.” There are times when using “like” is necessary and welcome, but don’t overdo it. Learn to limit your use of “like” or “as” for comparisons, avoid similes. Metaphors that don’t use “like” or “as’ are more subtle. They can be more effective in bringing attention to two similar, but different, things.


Speaking in Absolutes


Are you the absolute, uncontested authority on something? If not, you don’t want to use the words “always,” “every,” or “never,” or phrases such as “none of” or “all of.” Speaking in absolutes  gives off a sense of conceit or arrogance, and can lock you into a particular position about the subject matter. Using those words and phrases can also make you look incredibly ignorant or lazy, because more often than not there are exceptions to your “always” and “never.” Avoid absolutes, unless you have the facts, data, and sources to back them up.


Very, Very Redundant


“I never give advice,” said William Allen White, “but there is one thing I wish you would do when you sit down to write news stories, and that is: Never use the word, ‘very.’ It is the weakest word in the English language; doesn’t mean anything. If you feel the urge of ‘very’ coming on, just write the word, ‘damn,’ in the place of ‘very.’ The editor will strike out the word, ‘damn,’ and you will have a good sentence.”


The words “very,” “really,” “quite,” and “basically” don’t add anything useful to a sentence. They’re adverbs, and are intended to magnify whatever follows them, but they lack the precision you need to convey to your audience. “Really” and “very” work like crutches in your writing, and when used excessively will have the unintended consequence of making your writing appear vague.


Modifiers like these don’t offer any additional substance to your writing, and they can be omitted without taking away from the core meaning; their removal will improve the quality of your writing. If you need to substitute the word “very” in your writing, there are plenty of ways to do so! Here’s a nifty little chart with examples from Writers Write.



We’re Almost, Nearly, About There


“Almost,” “nearly,” “about,” are more vague terms to be avoided. Approximations like these leave an element of doubt or uncertainty for your readers. An awesome alternative to approximations and uncertainty is to provide your readers with specific information, data, or sources. You don’t want your writing to come off as watery by throwing around indecisive words.


Often and Frequently Unnecessary


Everyone has different perspectives of different things: times, heights, weights, distance, anything. When you use words like “frequently” or “often,” you’re writing from the perspective of what you constitute is frequent or often. Your audience might view those words as meaning something entirely different. Without specifying exactly how often or frequently something happens, there’s no way to clearly convey what you mean.


The problem isn’t that these words are horrible, and can substitute other words. “Often” or “usually” can be used to instead of “always.” The problem is, sometimes people use these words too often, or without any knowledge of whether something actually does happen often or frequently. Just like using “always” or “never,” this can make you look uninformed about what you’re writing about.



Changes You Should Make


How do you fix your writing style to be more fluid and concise? There are a couple of different ways to clean up your writing. The first is to give the Hemingway App a test run. The app is great for helping you trim down sentences, cut out extra adverbs, and tighten up your prose. The app will tell you simpler alternatives to weak or overly-complex words, and will highlight instances of passive voice. It will even give you a grade score of the readability of your text.


If you’re not a fan of being graded by a program, you could follow some simple tips and tricks to start naturally training your brain to trim off the fat in your writing:


  • Ask yourself what you want to say in your writing. A clear mind and precise thoughts are a huge part of achieving clarity with your writing.
  • Use words, rather than phrases, where possible.
  • Use the “CTRL+F” key combination on your keyboard to find instances of words and phrases from this article, and use your best judgement in cleaning up your writing.
  • Remove unnecessary repetition.
  • Read your writing out loud to yourself and see how easy it is to get through your piece; if you’re stumbling over words or knitting your eyebrows at something, it’s time to edit
  • Write as if you’re explaining your subject matter to a friend. Keep the overall tone of the rest of your work or website, but make sure it’s simple enough to be understood easily.


Keep these things in mind while you’re writing, and you’ll find yourself improving soon enough!

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