Eliminate These 5 Words to Improve Your Writing Today
What is the one change I can make to improve my writing?
I hear this question at least once a week, typically many, many more times. My first answer relates to using the comma correctly because the message becomes clearer, engaging your readers.
My second answer advises clients to eliminate weak words and replace them with impactful ones. Easier said than done, I know, but once you recognize the trigger words, you elevate your writing by providing your audience with a more vivid mental picture. As you know, these are written words, not visuals on a screen. You, the author, set the scene for the reader with your descriptive words. They create the image, but you present the information.
For the good of humanity, please remove these 5 words from your writing!
Everyone has pet peeves, right? Well, the word ‘got’ tops my list! What does the word mean? Thesauraus.com provides 220 words as possible substitutions in addition to phrases such as “come into possession of,” “fall victim to,” and “have an effect on.” With all the alternative words, why use “got”? By the way, ‘got’ is past tense of ‘get,’ so yes, ‘get’ is on my taboo list as well.
After Karl got back to his friends, Dana explained to Finnius that when the volcano erupts, the lava will get into the pond, killing him.
Example 1 – rephrased
After Karl returned to his friends, Dana explained to Finnius that when the volcano erupts, the lava will flow into the pond, killing him.
Finnius got scared and started jumping in and out of the water.
Example 2 – rephrased
Scared, Finnius started jumping in and out of the water.
Worried that Finnius might get hurt, Squiggy got down on the ground near the water and calmly explained that they will find a solution.
Example 3 – rephrased
Worried that Finnius might hurt himself, Squiggy knelt to the ground near the water and calmly explained that they will find a solution.
Do you see how replacing the weak words provides a more accurate picture of what is going on? These changes provide a more vivid image of the scene. In Example 3, you do not know how Squiggy got down on the ground. In the rephrased version, you clearly see Squiggy kneeling.
These examples merely touch the tip of the iceberg. Do me a favor, will you? The next time you write an email, post, or book, please search for ‘got’ and ‘get,’ replacing as many as you can with stronger words.
Replace ‘be’ and all its conjugations and forms – am, are, is, being, and there are. As it happens, ‘there are’ appears second on my writing pet peeve list. The thesaurus has 30 alternatives for the various forms of ‘be.’
Squiggy replied, “I am afraid.”
Example 4 – rephrased
Squiggly replied, “If the lava enters the water, my life is over.”
Yes, sometimes it takes more than replacing a word. In your mind, which is more impactful?
I am afraid.
If the lava enters the water, my life is over.
“There are solutions, Finnius. We are going to save you,” Karl said in a calm voice.
Example 5 – rephrased
“We must discover a solution, Finnius. You will survive,” Karl said in a calm voice.
“I am not sure how you are going to do that since I cannot survive outside of the water,” Finnius said and then swam in circles again.
Example 6 – rephrased
“Do you realize that I cannot survive outside of water?” Finnius asked and then swam in circles again.
Although ‘have’ is a legitimate word and necessary in certain cases, many people use it as a crutch. ‘Will’ and ‘can’ follow this same pattern. ‘Will’ provides a way to represent the future. In this sense, use it without concern. However, I see these words used unnecessarily. If the sentence makes sense without the word, then remove it.
“We have been talking about possible solutions, but we haven’t come up with anything yet,” Squiggy says.
Example 7 – rephrased
“We continuously talked about possible solutions over the past few days. Unfortunately, nothing seems foolproof,” Squiggy said.
The rephrased sentences produce a more accurate representation of what occurred. The word ‘continuously’ provides a better description than “have been talking.”
“Don’t worry, Finnius,” Karl said. “We have to come up with a way to get you out of here.”
Example 8 – rephrased
“Don’t worry, Finnius,” Karl said. “We must find a way to save you.”
“I know!” exclaimed Squiggy. “What about Uber? Do you have a way to get in touch with her?”
Example 9 – rephrased
“I know!” exclaimed Squiggy. “What about Uber? Do you know how to contact her?”
‘Help’ sounds like a useful word, doesn’t it? From a young age, we learn that by helping others, we become better people. In life, I agree. In writing, I completely disagree. Removing this word makes statements more powerful. As with the other forbidden words, use ‘help’ when necessary, but ensure that a more powerful word does not exist.
“Finnius, where is she? You can help by telling me where she is,” Karl demanded as he paced the shoreline.
Example 10 – rephrased
“Finnius, where is she? Tell me where she is so that we can save you,” Karl demanded as he paced the shoreline.
Again, certain words make me cringe, and ‘do’ completes my list.
“Do tell us, Finnius. The faster we can find her, the better chance we have,” Squiggy pleaded.
Example 11 – rephrased
“Tell us, Finnius! The faster we find her, the better chance of your survival,” Squiggy pleaded.
“I do want to know what you are thinking, but I also do know that time is of the essence. She is always at the lake on the other side of the forest in the afternoon,” Finnius said from the water’s edge.
Example 12 – rephrased
“I want to know your plan, but I also know that little time remains. She always visits the lake on the other side of the forest in the afternoon,” Finnius said from the water’s edge.
How to correct the situation
These words compile the top offenders in my book. Removing them elevates your writing to a higher level, which is more easily understood by your readers. Now that you know these words, I hope you notice them when you see them. However, tools exist to make them easier to spot.
Most editors use tools to augment their manual reviews, merely as a second set of eyes. Bad editors use them as the only review. Avoid those editors!
Use these four tools when editing:
When baffled and looking for a replacement word, whom do I turn to? My thesaurus and writing best friend! Seriously, while I do not always find the exact word I need, this site provides a new direction for me to think about. Duplicate words make text boring to read. Spice up your vocabulary and make reading more enjoyable for your audience.
Most people use an online dictionary, but I receive immense pleasure from turning the pages of my Webster’s dictionary from the year 1942. Being two steps from my desk makes it within easy reach and a comforting sight.
“Do not use computerized tools. All edits must be done by a human.” I read this frequently in job descriptions for editors. What rubbish! Would the same person also request, “Write an app but do not test it with online scripts.” Or, “Build me a car, but do not use any computer equipment to test it.”
I understand the principle of what they want, or at least I think I do. These clients only want humans to edit because computer editors only go so far. And, I agree. However, Grammarly, even the free version, provides a second set of unobjective eyes. I, as the human, must accept or reject the suggested changes – a subjective decision based on the context, tone, and voice.
Now, this somewhat unusual tool supplies much feedback for writers and editors. This website includes information such as word and character count, average sentence length, paragraphs, estimated reading time, and reading level. For this post, I only focus on the keyword density feature.
This tool makes identifying duplicate words a piece of cake. Not only does it list repeated single words but also two and three-word combinations. When used over time, you may notice patterns for your word choices. For example, if ‘about’ appears in the list every time, then you probably overuse that word. Use this site to increase your awareness of your writing.
Hint: Bookmark these sites for easy access. For serious writers or editors, use these tools as part of your arsenal but never rely on them. In my opinion, read all text out loud before sending it. Yes, this includes emails and texts!
Note: I use an ad blocker. If you do not, then irritating ads may appear. Some of my clients complain about this.
You are the final judge
Sometimes, these words must remain in the sentence because no easy rewording exists. I merely ask you to search your text and remove as many as possible. Apologies in advance if these words trigger a response when you read other books, posts, and newspapers. However, this knowledge provides you with an opportunity to judge their usage for yourself. Maybe, ‘help’ remains in your writing vocabulary. Fine, but judge the appropriateness in each situation.
Technical writing and novel writing present unique challenges and require different choices. For example, SEO requires some repetition of words. Do not use that strategy to the detriment of your writing or conveying your message. What good is driving traffic to your site only to be turned off by the repetitive wording?
For novels, you want more colorful and descriptive prose. Imagine reading “There was a car. It was red. It got towed.” No, just no. Know your audience and write in a style that engages them.
Yes, eliminating these words makes writing slower and harder, but the words convey a stronger, more concise message. Do not make the reader work so hard by needing them to parse out unnecessary words. They will appreciate your efforts, and you will grow as a writer. Trust me. I know how hard this is! Writing this post was the most difficult job for me to date because I needed to follow every rule I put in place. Again, none of these words entirely disappear from writing but eliminate as many as possible.
Interested in adding words to this list? If so, leave a comment below.
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For the complete story of Finnius, Squiggy, Dana, and Karl, read more.