Among the more specific writing suggestions that exist,[*] writers often are advised to avoid certain words and phrases to improve their work’s readability. However talented we are as wordsmiths, I suspect most of us find ourselves deleting questionable phrasing from our early drafts—myself included. Part of becoming a better writer involves learning how to self-edit one’s verbal excesses. I’ve identified categories of weak wording, strategies for dealing with them, and a few reasons why we might use them anyway.
Most words and phrases that people recommend avoiding earn this distinction because they bloat word counts and (possibly) make editors despair. I call them fillers because they add text without value. For example, “a variety of reasons” could instead be “various reasons” or “assorted reasons”. Other offenders include redundancies such as “joint consensus” when “consensus” suffices. At fault here is wordiness. Why do style manuals hate wordiness? Because it makes reading dull. Reading pages of “in order to”, “at this point”, “very”, and their boring brethren makes it difficult to stay focused on the topic. Style manuals recommend concise writing for a reason.[†]
Overused and Imprecise Wording
Some words and phrases don’t bear repeating because their overuse dilutes their impact. Clichés typically belong in this category, as does the word “awesome”.[‡] Other words lack precision. “If someone is “very” smart, do we mean they are intelligent or a genius? How much is “a lot”? Be specific (eg, seven) or generalize concisely (eg, numerous). Likewise, words like “stuff” and “things” are vague; they can be replaced with “belongings” or a description of said things (clothes, cars, bottle cap collections…).
Adjectives, Adverbs, and the Passive Voice
Adjectives, adverbs, and the passive voice constitute an interesting group because they permit wordiness (and perhaps imprecision) yet remain vital in other contexts (more on that later). Because they are useful, we sometimes overuse them. Some sentences become more concise and/or gain immediacy when we replace an adverbial or adjectival phrase (eg, “public disgrace”) with a more descriptive verb or noun (“scandal”), respectively. “She stomped” has greater impact than “She walked loudly and angrily” because we switched from telling to showing. Sentences written in the passive voice (“I was running”) similarly benefit when revised to an active verb (“I ran”). We also need to consider whether some adjectives or adverbs can be dispensed with altogether. If the character’s quietness in “She walks quietly down the hall” isn’t being described for a reason (ie, to show that she’s being considerate of others who are asleep), this adverb should be removed.
Objections: Appropriate Uses and Other Reasons
Before I discuss strategies for clearing verbal clutter away, I want to address why we still use items from these categories. As soon as a person lists phrases or words that should be avoided, someone will cite cases where the word or phrase is permissible—even desirable!—to use. I find articles that suggest we delete all instances of certain words (like adverbs) too prescriptive. My goal is to make it easier to revise occurrences of weak wording, not ban writing that works. If you find a way to make a cliché or the passive voice read well, use it. Here is an incomplete list of some reasons we use “avoidable” wording:
- Dialogue. We use weak wording to simulate or report dialogue. [**]
- Creative license. Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” and its musing about neighborliness wouldn’t exist without a cliché . This poem reminds us that creative people know how to make trite phrases interesting again.
- When fillers aren’t fillers. Sometimes “a lot” is an actual lot (as in realty). And we leave “in order to” alone when “order” means “sequence” because “Place the objects to collect a prize” is not equivalent to “Place the objects in order to collect a prize”.[††]
- Using parts of speech when needed. It’s impractical to always avoid adjectives, adverbs, and the passive voice. We cannot replace every adjective and adverb with a more descriptive noun or verb. Also, the passive voice has clear usage cases (eg, general truths such as “Rules were made to be broken”), which you can read about here and here.
- Repetition. Were I writing about a “scandal”, I may switch to “public disgrace” if I’ve used the word “scandal” so often it’s become boring!
Tactics to Minimize the Extraneous
Moving from understanding why weak wording makes writing less interesting to detecting its presence in our own work is difficult, something that requires practice. Some approaches and tactics help us find weak wording faster and edit thoughtfully. The following are my recommendations for self-editing:
- Familiarity. Become familiar with words and phrases people suggest avoiding. Learn the specific reasons why a word or phrase should be revised and when it can be kept. Keep notes on items you want to avoid or review carefully when you write and revise. To get you started, I’ve listed several articles that discuss words to avoid at the end of the article (see “Read More”).
- Identify problem areas. Check through your work (or ask someone else to do so) for weak wording, particularly repeat occurrences (“in order to” is one of mine). Keep your list of weak wording near where you write as a reminder.
- Utilize software. Diana Urban advocates using the word processing “find” feature to locate and highlight weak wording, making it easier to revise as needed. Building on her idea, I suggest using the same approach to check adverbs (most end in -ly) and adjectives (many use -ous, -ed or -ing suffixes); MS Word will let you search by suffixes. Built-in grammar software also highlights some egregious examples of weak wording.
- Other resources. Use dictionaries (software, online or even manual) to confirm when phrase are redundant. “Public opprobrium” is redundant by definition. Internet searches and other resources (Cliché Net) provide swift results about whether a questionable phrasing is cliché.
As a group defined by our words, we need to choose them with greater care. Self-editing, backed by research and technology, is one way we can improve what we write. If you’ve know of any strategies I haven’t mentioned, I’d love to learn about them. Feel free to share in the comment box below!
[†] To clarify, concise writing refers to removing excess words; it is not a dictate to write shorter sentences. Both terse and lengthy sentences read better when every word in them matters.
[‡] I blame the 1980s.
[**] When using filler words or clichés in fictional dialogue, aim to give readers reality without the tedium. Writers usually condense reality: we don’t report every conversation verbatim. Even nonfiction writers insert ellipses when statements meander.
[††] Sure, you could say “Sequence the objects to win a prize” but you sound stuffy doing so.